Australia’s king of Nebbiolo

Luke Lambert is a big believer in the potential of Italian and Spanish varieties in Australia, particularly Nebbiolo. The Sommelier Collective caught up with him to find out where he’s growing it, how he’s making it and why.

You’re a huge Nebbiolo fan. Why’s that?

I think Nebbiolo makes the best wines in the world. It’s unmatched for perfume and rustic savouriness and beauty. We spent a lot of time researching the micro-climates and soil types locally to figure on finally buying a block in Glenburn [north of the Yarra Valley] and finding the right site.

This is your new farm, right? Tell us what makes it special.

It’s slightly warmer day time temps and cooler nights means we’ll get plenty of muscle and skin tannin but still hold and show the prettiness of Nebbiolo. The soil is slightly more ferric – good rock and topsoil ratio. We’re at 350m and have a really nice steep slope in an amphitheatre that mostly faces east and shies away from our strong summer sun. Rainfall is on the low end but with the right farming and soil care I’m confident it’ll work out. We’ve now got three acres of a mix of Nebbiolo clones in and the vines are happy and healthy.

Luke Lambert with his dog Smudge, at Denton Wines in the Yarra Valley

And all low intervention, presumably?

It’s an unirrigated block, managed with organics and very gentle farming. We’re hand weeding and avoiding all chemicals other than a gentle sulphur/copper spray program. The vineyard is already full of worms and good soil biology and it feels right. It’ll be quite a few years before we make wine from the site but I’m confident we’ll get the farming right and the wine will speak of the variety and the site and we’ll have something in the glass with the right amount of bass and treble.

You’ve only just planted it, correct?

Yes. It’s still very early days. Realistically we’re ten years away from finding out what we’ve got but between now and then we’ll take no shortcuts and throw everything at it. Soil health is paramount.

Broadly, which other areas of Oz are looking promising for Nebbiolo?

I think there’s a lot of Australia that’s well suited to Italian varieties, especially in Victoria. There’s still a focus on French varieties in all regions here but climatically we’re much better suited to Italian varieties and rustic, durable Italian varieties. Nothing happens or changes quickly in the world of wine but I think the next generation of grape growers and winemakers will shift focus away from French towards Italian and maybe Spanish.

Stylistically, where do you think Australia should be aiming with the grape?

I think there’s only one way to handle Italian varieties, especially Nebbiolo, and that’s to make them “traditionally’ and let the savoury/rustic thing sing. So, wild ferment wild malo, no inert gas or sulphur early, then into old large oak. No filtration, no fining.

What does that do to the wine?

It lets the perfume lift and all you see in the glass is the soil, variety and perfume. I can’t say I’ve ever had an Italian or New World wine matured in small oak or small new oak that I liked. But that’s my personal view I guess.

I think when we met you mentioned Nerello Mascalese as something you’d like to work with. Any signs of that on the horizon?

Unfortunately there’s no vine material of Nerello available in Australia at the minute. I think it’s being worked on but a bit like Nebbiolo the right clones and material took years to come into the country. It’ll happen but may be a way off yet.

Luke Lambert Nebbiolo

Luke Lambert Chardonnay
Luke Lambert Syrah

Links

Luke Lambert’s wines are imported by Indigo Wine

See Clement Robert MW’s article on why he loves Nebbiolo here

Piedmont, not Burgundy, is my wine true love

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.

Langhe Today

Beautiful as well as inspirational

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.

My ten favourite Barolo/Barbaresco estates

1. Guiseppe Rinaldi

UK importer: Raeburn Fine Wines

2. Luca Roagna

UK importer: Armit

3. Bruno Giacosa

UK importer: Armit

4. Bruno Rocca

UK importer: Liberty Wines

7. Renato Ratti

UK importer: JE Fells

9. G.D. Vajra

UK importer: Liberty

10. Luciano Sandrone

UK importer: FMV