First of two parts
ALBA, Italy — I came back here to Alba to attend my 4th Nebbiolo Prima in the last six years. Organized by the Union of Alba Wine Producers or Albeisa, Nebbiolo Prima is an annual event purely created for wine journalists and influencers to preview newly released vintages of wines from the DOCG regions of Barolo, Barbaresco, and Roero — all made from Piedmont’s proudest indigenous Nebbiolo grapes.
In Nebbiolo Prima, wines are presented in flights grouped by DOCG, and by communes within the same DOCG. All wines are tasted blind, five glasses at a time, with the wine labels revealed only after the conclusion of each tasting day.
This year marked the 24th edition of Nebbiolo Prima. Like previous year, we had four intense days of tasting wines held conveniently at the I Castelli restaurant, not far from the hotel we were billeted in. This year we covered 303 wines from the following: Barolo DOCG 2016, Barolo Riserva 2014, Barbaresco DOCG 2017, Barbaresco Riserva 2015, Roero DOCG 2017, and Roero Riserva 2016. I was among the 49 wine journalists who attended this year’s Nebbiolo Prima. Thirty-seven came from the international markets, and 12 were from Italy.
For those who are curious about what participants do during these four days, I chronicled my activities below:
9-10 a.m.: Introduction to this year’s Nebbiolo Prima. Present to do their welcome speeches and introductory messages were Marina Marcarino, President of Albeisa; Francesco Monchiero, President of Consorzio del Roero; and Emanuele Coraglia, Technical Director of the Consorzio di Tutela Barolo Barbaresco Alba Langhe e Dogliani.
Aside from the usual pleasantries, there was a very nice Powerpoint presentation by Mr. Coraglia about the production of the new vintages we are all previewing. Barolo, as always, has the highest volume with over 14 million bottles produced in the 2016 vintage, followed by Barbaresco 2017 vintage with 4.2 million bottles, and Roero 2017 with around 482,000 bottles. What is interesting is that out of the 351 wineries producing Barolos, 164 or 46.7% (almost half) produce less than 10,000 bottles a year. Barbaresco is even more glaring, as out of 204 wineries, a staggering 123 or 62.4% produce less than 10,000 bottles a year. The 14 million bottles of Barolo is really not much given that St. Emilion AOC and Margaux AOC, both Bordeaux sub-regions, produce 24 million and 9 million bottles respectively. Barbaresco DOCG is to me quite similar in size to Pomerol AOC, as production of Barbaresco is 4.2 million, while Pomerol, which has slightly more vineyards of 800 hectares (against 750 of Barbaresco) produces around 4.5 million bottles a year.
10 a.m. — 2 p.m.: Blind Tasting. Seventy-three wines total: 14 wines from Roero 2017 and 59 wines from Barbaresco 2017
With one sommelier assigned for a table of eight journalists, I finished the 73 wines in one hour and 55 minutes, with no bathroom break. This is an average of 95 seconds per wine previewed. My only accompaniments were bread sticks and sparkling water. I finished probably 10 sticks and 1.5 liters of water during the whole tasting session.
Everyone who knows me, friends and wine industry people alike, know me as one guy who does not spit during wine tasting and appraisal. The reason is not just because I hate the idea of spitting, but also because I want to taste the wine in its entirety, from looking, to nosing, to tasting, to swallowing. I just feel that I am not good enough in determining a wine’s finish if I do not actually swallow the wine and experience the actual aftermath in my mouth.
While obviously, the more wines I imbibe, the more I get inebriated, I pace myself with a lot of breadsticks and water to keep my concentration and consistency in rating the wines. Seventy-three is actually not so bad for one-sitting of tasting, I have had 120 wines before.
4 — 6 p.m.: Open Tasting (with brands revealed) of 10 years. Retrospective of Barolo, Barbaresco & Roero (back vintages). Fourty-seven wines total: 20 wines from Barolo 2006, seven wines from Barolo Riserva 2004, 13 from Barbaresco 2007, two from Barbaresco Riserva 2005, one from Roero 2007, and four from Roero Riserva 2006
The pace on this one was slower as this was an open tasting of older vintages with limited supply (two bottles each to be shared by 49 journalists), and the sommeliers were pouring everyone the same flight of five wines at the same intervals to ensure all the wines were equally divided and enough for the whole group. We all basically finished the tasting just before 6 p.m.
7:30 — 10:30 p.m.: Dinner and Meet & Greet with Wine Producers at Ristorante Luna.
The main course was the Bollito Misto Alla Piemontese, literally translated as Boiled Mixed Piedmontese. This is the second time I have had this. And the first time was also at the Nebbiolo Prima last year. This time, the restaurant was different. Bollita Misto is a classic northern Italian meal in which various kinds of meats are boiled including beef brisket, veal tongue, cotechino pork sausage, stuffed pork trotter, chicken, oxtail, etc. to get a very tasty broth. It is a bit like our own nilaga except all sorts of meats are mixed into the broth and not just beef. In the Luna restaurant, the meats were removed from the hot broth to be served moist in individual plates. This Bollita Misto came with three sauces to choose from: horseradish, an onion and tomato sauce, and a typical Italian salsa verde (made with olive oil, parsley, mint, lemon and others). We had various wines hand-carried to the restaurants by the different wine producers. All wines we were drinking were from the Langhe region, ranging from Roero Arneis, Alta Langa (method champenoise sparkling wines), to other red varietals like Freisa, Dolcetto, Barbera, to, of course, more Nebbiolo wines from Barolo to Barbaresco.
9 — 10 a.m.: Technical Seminar on the Nebbiolo Grape
This is one of the best technical seminars on wines I have ever attended. Our expert speaker, Dr. Anna Schneider, is the head researcher at the National Research Council of Italy, Institute for Sustainable Plant Protection in Turin, Italy. She was also our speaker last year with pretty much the same materials, but because I had attended it last year, her talk this year was a lot more meaningful and, to a certain degree, less technical and intimidating. Dr. Schneider discussed the ancient history of the Nebbiolo grapes dating back to the 13th century, including discovery of ancient writings about a black grape called Nubiolum, the etymology of present day Nebbiolo. Very interesting to note that she spoke of plant morphology and genetic mutations within Nebbiolo, something that is similar to the creation of new related varietals like in the case Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc coming from Pinot Noir.
10 a.m. — 2 p.m.: Blind Tasting. Seventy-eight wines total: 18 wines from Roero Riserva 2016, 15 wines from Barbaresco Riserva 2015, five wines from Barolo Riserva 2014, and 40 wines from Barolo 2016
With a good breakfast, and jetlag almost gone, I was more prepared for Day 2 of the tasting. I finished the 78 wines in one hour and 50 minutes, slightly faster, averaging 87 seconds per wine this time around.
4 — 6 p.m.: Pruning Lesson. We were provided with boots and taken to a nearby vineyard to witness how actual pruning is done. This educational exercise was conducted by Professor Edoardo Monticelli. Pruning is a horticultural activity involving the selective removal of certain parts of a plant, such as branches, shoots, buds, or roots. In the case of vineyards, the concept is to ensure the development of foliage (to allow the grape to grow physiologically) by reducing number of shoots and branches. We were taught the Guyot vine training system, and how important pruning is even during the vine’s winter dormancy.
7:30 — 10:30 p.m.: Dinner and Meet & Greet with Wine Producers at Ristorante Museum
A cozier restaurant with a smaller capacity — the 49 journalists were split into two groups, and my group went to Ristorante Museum. Great food and equally enjoyable company of more producers to meet and chat with. I had the best gnocchi I have ever tasted, the Gnocchetti di Patate Fatti in Casa Al Castelmagno. The cheese used with the gnocchi, which is a local cheese called castelmagno, was simply delicious.
(To be continued.)
The author is a member of the UK-based Circle of Wine Writers (CWW). For comments, inquiries, wine event coverage, wine consultancy and other wine related concerns, e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.