Burgundy makes the best white wine on the planet, Bordeaux makes the most incredibly age-worthy wines and the Loire will always have a special place in my heart since it was here where I first discovered my love for wine.
However despite my appreciation and affection for all these places my true love lies elsewhere: Piedmont.
Not that it was love at first sight – it took me years to understand and to enjoy Nebbiolo. But to me it’s now the most exciting grape variety in the world.
Most of my peers, mentors and wine connoisseur friends tease me for not loving Pinot Noir that much and for not being a red Burgundy fanatic.
In fact, I get annoyed when Pinot Noir from Burgundy is compared with Nebbiolo from Piedmont.Clement Robert MS
Despite having a similar genetic origin, I find the wines very different and the comparison is often to the detriment of Nebbiolo. ‘This Barbaresco is so elegant and complex it reminds of a great Burgundy’ is a comment I have heard too many times.
I think that it is time for Nebbiolo to be considered one of the best grapes in the world. No ifs, no buts – and no more being compared with other supposedly greater examples.
Not love at first sight
When I was first exposed to Nebbiolo, 14 years ago, it was a Barolo and I found it sour, over alcoholic, too tannic and lacking fruit. I do not recall the producer or the vintage, but I have to admit that the years that followed, and the Barolos and Barbarescos I was tasting, did nothing to change my opinion about the grape or the region.
Gaja was the producer I was exposed the most often, and whilst I loved the wines I often found them quite Bordeaux-like in style and very different from other Nebbiolos.
Over the years, though, I have been tasting more great Nebbiolos and I was fortunate enough to taste the likes Monfortino by Giacomo Conterno, Giuseppe Rinaldi’s Cannubi San Lorenzo and the legendary Bruno Giacosa’s Rocche del Falletto. And it was when tasting wines like these that I realized the amazing power of concentration combined with finesse and precision that great Nebbiolo can demonstrate.
That said, inconsistency remained a big problem. Much as I loved the top wines and best producers, I was often disappointed when tasting many of the others, and shocked by the number of faults I could spot in even quite well-known producers from the Langhe.
2010 the game-changer
My perception of Barolo and Barbaresco really changed a few months after the release of the 2010 vintage. I remember tasting Luciano Sandrone, Luca Roagna, Bruno Rocca and the delicious and very approachable Vajra.
Those wines, whilst different in style and appellation, were all showing an incredible floral bouquet, sweet spices, sour cherries and leather aromas. They were ripe on the palate yet showed great acidity and grippy tannins. The more producers I tried from the 2010 vintage the more I grew to love Nebbiolo.
My burgeoning affection for and appreciation of the region coincided with a 2014 trip to Piedmont organised by the UK Sommelier of the Year Competition. It was my first visit to the region. Again, many delicious 2010 wines were tasted and it’s no exaggeration to say that it was around now that I fell in love with the Langhe.
It’s an incredible, hilly landscape with fantastic gastronomic culture and warm, welcoming, down to earth inhabitants. It’s also home to some world class wine makers.
The same year I was introduced to one of Piedmont’s greatest advocates: Ian d’Agata. It’s no exaggeration to describe him as a regional guru, and I was delighted when he invited me the following year to join him at the Collisioni Wine Festival in Alba which celebrates wines from all over Italy but with a focus on Piedmont.
It was five days of meeting and visiting producers from the regions, and the hundreds of Nebbiolos that I tasted during that week helped me to really start to get a handle on this fascinating grape variety.
2010 is one of the stand-out vintage of the past 30 years, demonstrating amazing complexity, great acidity and superb aromatics.
But through visiting the region regularly in quick succession and talking with producers and local experts, it also became clear to me that the Langhe area was in transition, having finally come to terms with the Barolo/Barbaresco wars of the 1980’s.
The at times bitter conflict between traditionalists and modernists (captured in the film Barolo Boys) had faded: hygiene had improved, viticultural techniques had become modernised, and large old Slavonian oak vats and French oak barriques mingled happily in most wineries.
These changes, led by a new generation of producers who integrated tradition and the philosophy of previous generations with a more modern approach to wine making were producing the best results ever.
It also highlighted the fact that modern techniques used to improve quality had been implemented only very recently in lot of Langhe’s wineries and that 2010 was becoming a defining year for the region: a celebration of dramatic improvement in quality led by innovation from previous years highlighted by perfect weather conditions.
Since then I have become addicted to the region, visiting it at least twice a year.
The buzz in the region is absolutely incredible nowadays and the hunger and modesty from most producers is inspirational.
At times visiting Piedmont feels a bit like travelling to a New World producing country, because the producers are so open and so keen to get feedback on the various innovations they are playing around with.
A week before Italy went into lock-down, I was fortunate enough to visit Luca Roagna. He recently developed a nursery using vines grown from pips and we were tasting his white wine blend made of Chardonnay and Nebbiolo called Soleo.
Luca is the fifth generation of the Roagna Family and the wines he makes are simply spectacular. But perhaps the most eloquent support for my love of the rise and rise in quality of these wonderful wines comes from another fifth-generation winemaker.
Gaia Gaja is a pioneer of the modern style of Nebbiolo. And after her father, Angelo, declassified their wines in 1996, she has just decided to re-enter the appellation.
For me, it’s the ultimate proof that Barolo and Barbaresco are back where they should be: some of the best wines in the world.