ALBA, ITALY — I am back in historic Alba, Piedmont to attend the 23rd edition of the Nebbiolo Prima, an annual event that previews newly released vintages of DOCG regions of Barolo, Barbaresco, and Roero, and is organized by the Union of Alba Wine Producers or Albeisa for short. Albeisa is a non-profit organization founded in 1973 by Renato Ratti with the noble purpose of promoting the great Alba wines. Albeisa also manages the use of the unique-shaped Alba bottles with the embossed Albeisa brand that are already identified as the trademark container of the best wines of Langhe.
This year, the organizers opted to move this annual event three months earlier, to late January. Despite the extremely cold and snowy weather with temperature reaching as low as -12°C, I had no problem being in Alba. Alba is the home of the prestigious UNESCO World Heritage Site in Langhe, overseeing beautiful vineyard landscapes, castles, towers, and breathtaking panoramas, which is now, in this season, even more charming with the added element of snow. Being a self-confessed Nebbioloholic, the very cold weather also allows me to imbibe more alcohol, here being mostly Barolos (… not to be emulated please).
There are changes in the Nebbiolo Prima from my last attendance in 2016. First, the organizers dropped the previous agency, Gheusis, a local Italian communications agency based in Veneto, and went with internationally renowned wine promoter Sopexa, headquartered in Paris, France.
The second more obvious change, as mentioned earlier, is that the event is now in January, winter time, and not in April or May, the more inviting spring period.
But, as the organizers mentioned in their invitation feelers, the goal of the earlier staging of the event is to provide a true and official premiere, and of giving the real preview (first to taste) of the upcoming vintages. Also as a consequence of this earlier date, the Nebbiolo Prima became the first major Italian wine event of the year — held a few weeks ahead of regional competitor Tuscany’s own Anteprime di Toscana, scheduled in February, and of the country’s largest wine event, VinItaly, which will be on April.
This year saw a change of venue as well. In the past, the venue of the tasting was the much bigger Palazzo Mostre e Congressi di Alba or Palace of Exhibitions and Congresses of Alba. This year it has moved to the more modest, but certainly more comfortable, I Castelli restaurant, which is conveniently located on the 4th floor (top floor) of the same hotel where all the journalists are billeted. Given how cold the weather is, this was a smart conscious effort by the organizers.
The I Castelli restaurant has a nice panoramic view of central Alba, and offers a more conducive tasting site than the stiffer closed quarters of the Palazzo Mostre e Congressi.
Finally, this year the Nebbiolo Prima was also timed to exactly precede the Grandi Langhe — a major bi-annual event dedicated to wine professionals, organized by the Consorzio di Tutela Barolo Barbaresco Alba Langhe and Dogliani. This allows foreign journalists such as myself to partake in the Grandi Langhe event while already in town. For Nebbiolo Prima 2019, I am part of a smaller group of around 50 wine journalists from 25 countries, representing Europe, North America, South America, and Asia. I am the lone thirsty wolf from Southeast Asia.
LESS BLIND TASTING, MORE EDUCATIONAL SEMINARS
In my two previous experiences at Nebbiolo Prima in 2015 and 2016, I completed blind tastings of over 1,000 wines. I basically averaged a staggering 100 wines in less than half day (four hours after breakfast in fact) for five straight days each on those years. This year, the number of tasting days were not only reduced from five to four days, but the number of wines blind tasted per day was also cut by 25-30%. There was also a change in schedule as blind tastings were now done after an hour of morning seminars — tastings therefore started 10 a.m., not as early as 8 a.m. as previously practiced.
The seminars were also very enlightening. Some were admittedly a bit more technical and more “viticulturist-friendly” than for press people to share with regular readers. Learning about Nebbiolo’s genetic variability from cross pollination to somatic mutations seemed too profound to really write about, especially for young wine drinking cultures like the Philippines. But generally the information imparted was very cool for a hardcore wine guy like myself.
This year, the previewed vintages were Barolo 2015, Borolo Riserva 2013, Barbaresco 2016, Barbaresco Riserva 2014, Roero 2016, and Roero Riserva 2015, with a total of 285 wines produced by 201 wineries from every denomination and sub-zone of these three DOCG wine regions.
NO MORE WINERY TOURS
Another change is that there are no more winery tours, something that I actually miss since in the past, journalists were taken in small groups of three to eight (depending on the size of the winery), by wine producers to visit their wineries in the afternoons after each blind tasting session. The wineries that volunteered to host the journalists were presumably members of Albeisa and/or the Consorzio di Tutela Barolo Barbaresco Alba Langhe and Dogliani. I remembered many of my visits which included amazing experiences tasting different vintages of wines from hosting producers such as Fontanafredda, Palladino, Cordero di Montezemolo, Mario Giribaldi, Dante Rivetti among others. This year, these small group winery visits were totally removed.
Instead, every journalist got to experience the same afternoon programs. In one afternoon, we had an on-field wine pruning lesson right in the snowy vineyards with Professor Enrico Orlando showing us how pruning is done correctly. Pruning vines needs to be done to allow adequate vegetative growth for grape growing the following season. Another afternoon, we had a tour, complete with a very articulate guide, of the 14th century castle and military fortress Castello di Serralunga.
But the afternoon event that I thought every wine journalist most likely appreciated (and I sure did) was when 38 old vintages of Barolo, Barbaresco, and Roero, ranging from 2003 to 2006, aged between 13- to 16-years-old, were open-tasted (as against blind tasting) for all of us. This was a great exercise to showcase the age-ability of the Nebbiolo grapes. While some of these over-a-decade-old wines actually failed the test, the majority were still showing very well, and a dozen of them were even quite outstanding.
More on my blind tasting results, my personal humble assessment of the previewed Nebbiolo DOCG wines, the general vintage outlook, and my top picks from this year’s Nebbiolo Prima in my upcoming columns. Ciao!
The author has been a member of the Federation Internationale des Journalists et Ecrivains du Vin et des Spiritueux or FIJEV since 2010. For comments, inquiries, wine event coverage, and other wine-related concerns, e-mail the author at firstname.lastname@example.org. He is also on Twitter at twitter.com/sherwinlao.