Uncorked: An inside look at nebbiolo with Paolo Damilano

Authored By Michelle Richards

As the weather outside becomes colder, there is nothing better than cozying up to a fireplace with a glass of wine. If I had to pick one wine to have by the fire, it would be nebbiolo. Nebbiolo is a very finicky grape, as well as one of the most noble varieties grown in the world. It is a very difficult grape to grow and demands extremely late ripening. Producers have to wait until late October and November to harvest the grapes. Also, nebbiolo drinkers and producers have to be patient because it takes almost a decade or two before these wines are ready to drink. Not all nebbiolo wines require this aging process, but the majority do because of its tannic and acidic nature. I highly recommend it with any roast or rack of lamb.  

This majestic red grape is grown in the mountains of the northern region of Piedmont, Italy, and its name is derived from the word “nebbia,” meaning fog. This refers to the fog that retreats from the mountains (Apennines and Alps) into the Langhe, cooling down the vineyards. The distinctive fog, unique to this region, helps the grapes develop more complexity in the wine. The region is most famous for its Barbaresco and Barolo wines, which can run easily into hundreds of dollars per bottle. This fiercely tannic, complex and highly sought after wine takes a very experienced winemaker to produce.

I had the pleasure of interviewing an important Barolo producer, Paolo Damilano. Damilano, who owns the company with his brother and cousin, provided insight behind nebbiolo and this magnificent region. 

Your family has been making wine since 1890. What was it like growing up in the wine industry?

It has been a great opportunity to learn about an extraordinary industry with great potential, and it’s given us the ability to tell the story of our family and territory through our wine.

What makes Piedmont’s climate and terroir so prime for growing the nebbiolo grape?

Nebbiolo is definitely the most important grape of Piedmont-but it’s a very demanding vine that’s difficult to grow. It has a slow maturation that lasts until November, and often the harvest takes place during the autumn fog. It requires excellent soils and exposures in order to deliver high-level products.

When does harvest start in Piedmont and your vineyards?

The harvest is strictly a manual procedure. It is carried out between September and October using predominantly 44-pound boxes, and the grapes are loaded in the vineyard and transported to the winery. The harvest of each lot is decided after repeated inspections in the vineyard and several samples to test different parameters: sugar, acidity, pH, polyphenol and anthocyanin.

What is your favorite cru vineyard site for nebbiolo, and why?

We have the privilege to lead four important crus of Barolo: Cannubi and Liste, located in the town of Barolo, and Brunate and Cerequio in the municipality of La Morra.

I can definitely say that, for us, Cannubi is the most definitive and important cru. We have a historical presence with 5 acres, with an 19 additional acres recently leased. The prominence of Cannubi is due both to its historical heritage-Cannubi predated the invention of the Barolo category-and to the characteristics of the wine itself. This wine is unique for its style and elegance. It is mentioned in documents dating back to the 18th century; the oldest bottle is dated 1752.

Cannubi is a unique wine that has the extraordinary ability to conquer the most demanding palates while also intriguing those who taste Barolo for the first time.

How will the 2014 vintage nebbiolo be different from 2013’s?

Despite a difficult harvest in terms of vineyard management, 2014 turned out to be a pleasant surprise, delivering high-quality grapes, mostly because the weather turned favorable toward the end of the season. In general, we can say that the best results were found in the vineyards that were better maintained and managed in line with the climate, protected with correct treatment and mostly sun-exposed. In terms of the nebbiolo grapes used for the Barolo, we expect medium-strength alcohol wines that are elegant and balanced with good acidity, yielding long-living wines with great aromas of rich mineral notes.

The 2013 harvest will be remembered as “vintage,” as the operations of the grape harvest began 15 days later [than] the previous year’s and ended in early November. Nebbiolo is the grape that took the highest advantage in the final part of the season, profiting by the high temperatures recorded in September and October. Those kinds of temperatures are ideal in order to reach the perfect phenolic content that distinguishes this wine and to obtain wines suitable for aging.

For each vine, 2013 was also a difficult year, given the production load, but choosing the right time of intervention-depending on the grape variety and climatic conditions-certainly made a difference, enough to mark the wine produced in 2013 as long-living, well-structured and of excellent vintage.

What was your favorite vintage for Barolo in the past 10 years, and why?

With no doubt the Barolo 2004. 2004 was a stunning year because we managed to blend the highest level of quality with an abundance of supply. The nebbiolo found its best expression that year, pulling out all its nobility.

Would you consider your style of winemaking as traditionalist or modernist?

Barolo is a unique wine with a powerful structure-it’s fresh and alcoholic, and it will impress with its complex aromas conferred by the patient work of time. In the wine cellar, the wine undergoes 25-day-long maceration and ages in the traditional barrels from 25 hectoliters to 100 hectoliters.

When you are not drinking Barolo or Barbaresco, what wine do you drink with a great steak?

A Barbera d’Asti: A pleasant wine with intense color [and] clean scents of red fruit, flowers and just enough spice to make it intriguing. It should have tannins but should never be too aggressive.

Michelle Richards is a certified sommelier through the Court of Master Sommeliers. Along with hosting wine tastings for local organizations, she serves up wine goodness at St. John’s Restaurant. You can contact her by email. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.