Australian Nebbiolo has come a long way. First planted in the 1980s in diverse regions, including the Hunter and King valleys, it’s a variety that has taken a while to catch on, despite its hallowed status in northern Italy. You get the distinct impression that in the early days, it was simply too hard and the thirst for Italian grape varieties was not strong enough to warrant the time and effort.
Nebbiolo is the heartbreak grape, eclipsing even pinot noir in being hard to grow. The vine can be prolific, so it needs plenty of attention in the vineyard to bring yields down for quality wine production. Brown Brothers were the first to bottle nebbiolo in 1990, with Gary Crittenden taking the early role as its leading local champion, bottling wines made from fruit grown by the Pizzini family.
For many years the King Valley was the principal region for nebbiolo, led by the Pizzini and Dal Zotto families. But today much has changed and the grape can be found from the Granite Belt in Queensland across to Margaret River and down to Tasmania.
The bug has bitten local winegrowers hard, and they are crafting utterly unique wines with delicate and haunting aromas of raspberry, tar, truffle, rose, tea and potpourri. These aromatics are also underpinned by rustic, energetic palates that are tannic and bright thanks to their high acid backbones, providing long ageing potential.
Sourcing the best nebbiolo clones has proved difficult, with their Italian masters guarding them jealously. Finding sites that best-match the Piedmontese climate is also a challenge. The Langhe region has a high day-night and seasonal range, thanks to its position surrounded by mountains on three sides. The numerous rivers in the region also provide plenty of humidity.
To put it simply, Piedmont is completely unique and unlike any region in Australia, so winemakers here have had to adapt their own winemaking style to deal with the local conditions and get to grips with how to make the wine in both warmer and cooler climates.
It has taken time to gain vine age with the better clones and also to find the secrets to creating great Australian nebbiolo. What stood out for me in a recent tasting was the variety of regions now creating impressive examples with strong varietal characters.
While the Yarra has proven to be a happy home for nebbiolo, as has the Adelaide Hills, it is the inland areas of Victoria where the greatest consistency can be found.
The continental climates in Beechworth, the Alpine and King valleys – with their cooling influence from the Australian Alps – through Central Victoria regions, such as the Pyrenees and Heathcote, are all now producing some of the most exciting, modern Australian interpretations of nebbiolo.
What is most obvious in this new wave of wines compared with wines from the past is that winemakers are becoming better at crafting the local style. This is typically characterised by more reserved tannins and acidity than their Italian counterparts but still with nebbiolo’s brooding and savoury characters.
Unusually, a high proportion of the top wines are also coming from a new order of younger winemakers and small wineries that are specialising in nebbiolo, making for a rapid evolution in style and quality. It means Australian nebbiolo has never been better, with all the signs pointing to a bright future ahead.
2017 Company Wine Nebbiolo, Beechworth, A$60
A very fine and detailed nebbiolo in a pretty style. Pure red cherry and cranberry fruits are supported by granite, five spice and floral aromas. That pretty fruit is replaced by a brooding, tannic palate driven by juicy acidity with exceptional concentration and length.
2019 Timo Mayer Nebbiolo, Yarra Valley, A$60
An alternate style of Australian nebbiolo thanks to the cool Upper Yarra vineyard location and 100% whole bunch fruit. Perfumed, pretty and fragrant aromas with herbal, raspberry and five-spice scented fruits. It is dry, mid-weight and sinewy on the palate. Tannins are well integrated into a lingering finish.
2018 Latta Headwaters Nebbiolo, Pyrenees, A$40
Made with fruit from the well-regarded Malakoff Vineyard, this is a wine that needs a little air to show its best. It has aromas of autumn – leaf litter, spice and baked earth – with a touch of meat and reserved oak overlayed by sweet dried strawberry fruits. The palate is juicy with excellent balance of moderate acid and tannins that drive a long, savoury finish.
2016 Born & Raised Nebbiolo, Heathcote, A$50
A generous, full-flavoured style showing ripe cranberry and cherry fruits, with dried herb, tea and potpourri complexity. Dry and full-bodied with moderate acidity on a savoury palate. Good tannin integration.