Nebbiolo is considered one of the great grape varietals of the world and outside of its 14th century birthplace in Italy's Piedmont region it has made quite a home for itself in Santa Barbara. At its best, Nebbiolo produces strong, long-aging wines with depth and character.

In Northwest Italy, Nebbiolo grapes grow in the dense limestone soils of the Langhe Hills of southern Piedmont, where the Alps protect the vines from cold air currents and precipitation. However, the Nebbiolo grape tends not to be adversely affected by rainfall, due in part to its waxy covering that makes the grape look “foggy.” The Italian word for “fog” is nebbia, and hence the name “Nebbiolo.”

The Nebbiolo grape in Italy is used to make young and fruity wines or to make great red wines, Barbaresco and Barolo, for cellar aging. Barbaresco is usually lighter than Barolo and, at its best, is regarded as more elegant and refined. The Barolos are considered more robust, longer-lived, dry, tart red wines. Bigger and richer than Barbaresco, Barolos are usually longer-lived, often pricier.

In Italy, some traditional Barolo winemakers continue to age the wine in large wooden casks that allow little contact with oxygen, producing higher tannin wines for long cellar aging. However, over the past few years, some producers have vastly altered their winemaking techniques in an effort to reduce some of the harsher tannins by using smaller wooden barrels called barriques. In barriques more oxygen penetrates the wood and oxidizes a greater amount of the tannins, so only moderate aging is required for the wines to reach their smooth and balanced flavor peak.

Because of their sensitivity to soil, climate, and geography, Nebbiolo grapes are not easy to grow, but Bien Nacido Vineyards has grown Nebbiolo grapes quite successfully since 1992. Stolpman Vineyards has been another leading provider of quality Nebbiolo grapes to Santa Barbara’s winemakers since 1994, thanks in part to the expertise of Italian enological consultant Alberto Antonini. Winemakers Sashi Moorman and Peter Hunken craft Stolpman Nebbiolo and blend these grapes in two “Super-Tuscan” style wines – L’Angeli and La Croce.

“Nebbiolo seems to gain more popularity each year,” says winemaker Tom Stolpman. “The wine’s framework is built on full-bodied tannins and pitch-perfect acidity; yet, this solid structure doesn’t obscure the aromas and flavors of the wine.”

Bruno D’Alfonso’s parents were born in Italy, but he is a California-born and UC Davis-trained winemaker who brings his heritage and knowledge together in his “D’Bruno” Italian varietal wines, including Nebbiolo, Sangiovese and Pinot Grigio.

D’Alfonso began working with the unique 10-acre Nebbiolo planting that Jeff Newton directed at Stolpman Vineyards. He says he finds the Nebbiolo grapes from Stolpman Vineyard so huge and powerful that he blends them into his Sangiovese.

“Working with Nebbiolo is quirky and more challenging than Pinot Noir,” says D’Alfonso. “It is light in color but weightier in the mouth.”

Steve Clifton, owner and winemaker of Palmina Wines and partner in Brewer-Clifton Wines, pays careful attention to nature, saying that, “it is within the rows of a vineyard that wine is made. People expect California wines to taste their best the day they are bottled. They will be patient with French or Italian wines and not expect them to be at their best for five years. In California, our challenge is to make these Italian varietals approachable and drinkable upon release to suit the consumer.”

Clifton says the Santa Barbara region has Brunello potential once vines are older and are more established. Clifton’s first vintage for Nebbiolo was 1997, from grapes grown at Stolpman Vineyards; he planted additional vines at Sisquoc Vineyard.

While Italian Nebbiolo garners the greatest fans, local varietals such as the Palmina Nebbiolo are gaining a following. “Granted, I'm biased because Steve is my best friend, but it’s pretty hard to beat Palmina Nebbiolo – even for some Italians,” says Seth Kunin, of Kunin and Westerly Wines. “To grow Nebbiolo here successfully, you must take advantage of the marine influence and moderate conditions that predominate in certain spots in Santa Barbara County. Then, once you've managed to grow the stuff, you're left with a very pale, super tannic red that needs quite a bit of TLC during its elevage (selective grape vine breeding) to really become something special.”

Benjamin Silver (Silver Wines) worked with Nebbiolo through 2001, and says he looks forward to continuing with it soon when he puts some into a vineyard that he can control. In preparation, Silver, who is fluent in Italian, attended the first two Nebbiolo conferences in Italy – Valtellina in January 2004, and Alba in March of this year.

During his studies, he discovered that areas of the county, such as the Los Alamos Valley, are favorable sites for yielding Nebbiolo – not too hot, and not too cold.

“Nebbiolo really requires a cooler site with fog per the origin of the name ‘Nebbiolo,’” Silver explains. “One Italian producer in Alba mentioned to me the grape's desire to ripen very late season in nasty, foul, misty, foggy overcast weather. Its thick skins can take some rain, but not much. Warmer sunnier sites tend to lose true varietal finesse, but still can make very nice wines.”

Sip Tip

My recent bang-for-the-buck wine discoveries come from Owl Ridge where winemaker Joseph Otos uses minimal intervention to bring out the varietal’s essence. The Owl Ridge 2003 Brigden Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon ($50) is a bright, balanced, food-friendly cab with soft, well-developed tannins. The Owl Ridge 2003 Sweeney Vineyard Chardonnay (28) from a dry-farmed, low-yielding vineyard south of the Russian River Valley, has intense guava and citrus balanced by creamy oak.