Nebbiolo Prima


This weekend, the first ever “Marathon of Barolo and the Castles of the Langhe” took place: 42 kilometers divided between two days, up and down hills, through vineyards in 9 of the 11 towns which comprise the Barolo wine zone. Today’s race started at Barolo, circled the big castle of the village of Castiglione Falletto, down a narrow stairway right by the town’s Cantina Comunale (which I manage) before descending through the steep Scarrone vineyard to Serralunga d’Alba and the finish line at Monforte. After the race, runners replenished themselves with a plate of tajarin and, perhaps, a glass or two of wine. Unwilling to wait until the finish, some made a mid-race pit stop at the Cantina door to gulp a half-glass of Barolo instead of water. As one said, “Well, it’s the Barolo marathon, no?”

Tomorrow, Monday, a different kind of marathon begins, encompassing Barbaresco and Roero as well as Barolo. It’s called Nebbiolo Prima, a five-day, comprehensive tasting of the new releases of the three principal nebbiolo-based DOCG’s of Piedmont’s Langhe and Roero zones: Roero 2010 and Roero Riserva 2009, Barbaresco 2010 and Barbaresco Riserva 2008, and Barolo 2009 and Barolo Riserva 2007. 

Like any other marathon, Nebbiolo Prima requires training and stamina: 60 wines (give or take) each morning, beginning with Roero on Monday and finishing with Barolo on Friday. In the end, we will taste more than 300 hundred wines ‘blind’ (we get a list of the producers after). Most of the wines are big, brawny, tannic and extremely young. Tasting them is like taking a kicking, screaming newborn in your arms and trying to figure out what it’s going to be like when it grows up—and then another and another. Some kick and scream more than others. All come from the same ‘family’ [nebbiolo] and were born in the same region, yet each has something different about it. What will it be like when it reaches its prime and how long might it last once it does? When (if ever) will it become fully formed, a wine you’d want to sit down and have dinner with?

There are many different ways to approach this marathon. Some tasters give numerical ratings to the wines and the vintages. While I admire their gumption, I prefer to use this opportunity to taste a broad selection of wines to make some early observations about the new vintages and formulate some general, if tentative, conclusions.

This is the fourth edition of Nebbiolo Prima, though its precursor, known as the Alba Wine Exhibition, has taken place since 1996. The event is organized by Albeisa, a group created by Renato Ratti in 1976 to promote the wines of the Langhe-Roero, most visibly though the use of a particular bottle thought to have been used in this area as far back as the 18th century. [It resembles a Burgundy bottle but with a lower shoulder and the raised letters “ALBEISA” on the side.]  Most (though not all) of the 230 members of Albeisa participate in Nebbiolo Prima; non-member producers can participate too for a fee, and many do.

Up until last year, there was a separate, parallel tasting for wine-buyers, but this year Nebbiolo Prima is for journalists only—70 of them from 24 different countries. (I’m kind of a cheap date since I live here and make the 10-minute drive from Castiglione Falletto to Alba in my Fiat Panda.) Besides the morning tastings, there are visits to wineries and vineyards and opportunities to taste older vintages, as well as dinners with producers in some of the area’s restaurants where participants get the chance to taste wine with food and actually swallow it…

I’ll be sharing my observations about the wines and the vintages in posts throughout the week.

Things kick-off Sunday evening with an inaugural press conference headed-up by Albeisa president Alberto Cordero di Montezemolo and Pietro Ratti, president of the Consorzio Barolo, Barbaresco, Alba, Langhe, Roero (and son of Renato). Tomorrow, we plunge into the depths of tannic red wines. Let the games begin!

This is a W&S web exclusive feature.