Washington Nebbiolo has been a hidden gem for almost 40 years since restaurateur and Cavatappi winemaker, Peter Dow, convinced Red Willow vineyard owner, Mike Sauer, to plant one acre as an experiment for a house wine Peter wanted to make for his restaurant. Fast forward to 2022, Sasquatch might be easier to locate than finding Washington vineyards that grow Nebbiolo and wineries that craft it into wine.
The history of Nebbiolo dates to the 13th century in the Piedmont region of northwest Italy. Barolo and Barbaresco are the most well-known wines made from the grape. Barolo is often referred to as the “king of wines” because of its fuller body and structure. Barbaresco is known as the “queen of wines” because of its brightness and elegant approachability. Nebbiolo is considered Italy’s greatest grape due to its aging potential.
Despite the popularity of Italian Nebbiolo, there are a few reasons less than 30 acres are planted in Washington and less than 25 wineries in the state produce Nebbiolo wines. Compared to the grape varieties associated with the Bordeaux and Rhone regions of France, there is relatively little awareness of Nebbiolo among wine drinkers.
For growers, Nebbiolo is the obstinate child of the grape world, with a reputation as a challenging grape to grow. Who would want to devote large amounts of acreage to a grape winegrowers call difficult, finicky, fussy, problematic and mercurial? As one vineyard owner put it, “Nebbiolo is incredibly sensitive. It’s like Goldilocks and doesn’t like it too hot or too cold”.
Besides temperature sensitivity, it is susceptible to sunburn, requiring special canopy management. The first two buds on each cane are sterile, requiring labor-intensive pruning. If that isn’t enough to make a vineyard manager pull their hair out, Nebbiolo buds early and is the last grape to ripen, making it more susceptible to frost in the Spring and Fall.
Despite these challenges, a handful of vineyards followed Red Willow’s lead and planted modest amounts. In some cases, the decision was based on a love for Nebbiolo and other Italian varietals. In other cases, it was a curiosity about what else could do well in their vineyards or a desire to take on new challenges.
Richard Holmes, winegrower at Ciel du Cheval vineyard says, “Nebbiolo has a poor reputation among wine growers. Yes, Nebbiolo is difficult to grow but the results make [producing] these wines worth the effort.”
Red Willow VP, Jonathan Sauer, echoed these sentiments. “It’s a lot easier to grow other varieties but there’s more passion behind Nebbiolo than just about any other variety,” he says. “Most people don’t know about it, but those who do just absolutely love it and are almost religious about it.”
Winemakers producing Nebbiolo face a different conundrum. The wine presents paradoxes like “delicate yet structured,” or “approachable but complex” and the cliché, “a steel fist in a velvet glove,” which might confuse consumers. Paul Beveridge, vintner at Wilridge sums it up nicely, “Nebbiolo reminds me of James Bond. It can be very elegant and walk around the casino in a tux but then go outside in the alley and beat you up.”
In addition, the color and aroma of the wine are deceiving. The ruby color projects subtlety. The floral aroma is enticing. Then one is greeted with a powerful explosion of fruit, acid and tannins in the mouth. Rich Funk, owner/winemaker at Saviah Cellars says, “Do not let the light, translucent color in the glass fool you. This wine has everything necessary to please your palate.”
Today, Nebbiolo is a niche varietal. It might be destined to always be the bridesmaid, or perhaps it’s time for a “Judgement of Piedmont” style wine competition so Washington Nebbiolo growers and winemakers can receive the accolades they deserve. If nothing else, Nebbiolo should be part of every wine lover’s journey.
The Wine List
These wines vary in terroir characteristics and winemaking style. People need to try Nebbiolo to truly appreciate its uniqueness and how delicious it can be. Nebbiolo benefits from decanting a few hours in advance. Keep in mind, it is a tannic wine — it likes time in the bottle. While all these wines are meant to be approachable, they will be happy to be laid down for a few additional years.
2016 Cavatappi Maddalena Nebbiolo | Red Willow Vineyard | Yakima Valley AVA
While Peter Dow is no longer at the helm of Cavatappi, his vision to replicate the delicious house wines of trattorias and restaurants in Italy continues. According to Dow, “A lot of people think of a Nebbiolo as a big, gutsy Barolo type wine which isn’t necessarily the case. Our wines have a lighter color with a great mouthfeel.” Enjoy this wine with hearty food. This wine is an excellent value and can be purchased on OkSomm as a 3-bottle 2015–2017 vertical.
$50 3-Pack | 14.9% ABV
2016 Wilridge Estate Vineyard Nebbiolo | Naches Heights AVA
After sourcing Nebbiolo from Klipsun vineyard in the Red Mountain AVA for years, owner Paul Beveridge wanted more control over his grapes, so he decided to plant Nebbiolo at his estate vineyard in 2007. “The cooler days and long growing season of the Naches Heights AVA allow us to get it [Nebbiolo] right,” Beveridge says. “Wilridge produces a balanced wine with a pure expression of the varietal character that is most closely associated with the Barbaresco from Piedmont.” Beveridge recommends pairing this wine with fresh pasta with truffles, olive oil and a quality parmesan cheese. (465 cases)
$35 | 13.9% ABV
2018 Saviah Nebbiolo | Dugger Creek Vineyard | Walla Walla AVA
Owner/winemaker, Rich Funk, takes an old-world approach to his Nebbiolo, aging the wine in neutral 500-liter puncheons for 22 months. “Barolos can be so tannic that you don’t want to pull the cork for 10 years. There is something about the Dugger Creek silt-based soil that makes the wine’s tannins very soft, supple and easy on the palate.” For Funk, Nebbiolo begs to be paired with food. “Nothing compares to something that has been in the oven all day. Braised meats are my all-time favorite. You get this gelatinous yumminess. That’s the ticket for Nebbiolo.” The 2018 is just hitting its stride but can easily be aged for at least an additional five years. (149 cases)
$38 | 14.4% ABV
2018 Benson Estate Vineyard Nebbiolo | Lake Chelan AVA
In 2006, owner Scott Benson was looking for another Italian varietal to complement the Sangiovese planted in his estate vineyard. He landed on Nebbiolo. “We were intrigued by the possibility of blending it with a small amount of Sangiovese. The wine is delicate and approachable. The terroir brings great structure and makes it a really good food wine.” Benson recommends pairing with a simple Margherita pizza. (25 cases)
$38 | 13.7% ABV
2018 Adrice Wines La Montagna Nebbiolo | Andrews Family Vineyard | Horse Heaven Hills AVA
Pam Adkins, co-owner/winemaker at Adrice, became smitten with Nebbiolo after a random encounter with a 2002 Travaglini Gattinara Riserva in Breckenridge, Colo. Pam describes the personality of La Montagna as “She represents both the strength of the Italian Nebbiolo grape as well as what it takes to be a female winemaker in a male-dominated industry.” She adds, “The wine is light and enjoyable with or without food. We call it our pizza wine. It delivers big floral and cranberry aromas on the nose. The plum flavors and acid marinate in your mouth, and the tannins don’t overwhelm.” Adrice also makes a Nebbiolo Rosé. (125 cases)
$38 | 14.5% ABV
2016 Kitzke Cellars Nebbiolo | Andrews Family Vineyards | Horse Heaven Hills AVA
The 2016 vintage is Seth Kitzke’s maiden voyage as winemaker of this approachable wine. The 1,000-foot elevation of the Kitzke block delivers cool nights that contribute to a light ruby color and pie fruit flavors along with a hint of pepper. Thirty months in neutral oaks softens the tannins. Kitzke said, “Our Nebbiolo is balanced, acid driven, and complements most Italian dishes well.” Kitzke suggests pairing this wine with chicken parmigiana. Kitzke also produces a Nebbiolo Rosé. (98 cases)
$40 | 13.5% ABV
2018 Cascade Cliffs Reserve Nebbiolo | McKinley Springs & Estate Vineyard | Columbia Valley AVA
This wine is a 70/30 blend of clones from McKinley Springs and Estate vineyard fruit. According to owner/winemaker Bob Lorkowski, the lighter, brighter and tarter grapes from the estate vineyard are blended with the McKinley Springs grapes, which are darker and richer. The Reserve is aged 20 months American Oak. Lorkowski describes the personality of this wine as “A tall, lanky and worldly ambassador. A bit abrasive but interesting. You’re not reading the comics; you’re reading a novel. It has a lot of depth to it.” Lorkowski suggests pairing with pasta Bolognese or braised lamb shanks. Cascade Cliffs also produce a 100% Estate Nebbiolo Rosé. (312 cases)
$75 | 15.8% ABV
2013 Cotes de Ciel Estate Nebbiolo | Ciel du Cheval Vineyard | Red Mountain AVA
In 2001, Jim Holmes, owner of Ciel du Cheval, was looking for something new to try. His son, winegrower Richard, reminisced, “My father loves Nebbiolo. He did some research, talked with a few people familiar with Italian varietals, and decided to roll the dice and plant a little. He was told he was crazy to try it, but it has worked.” In 2012, Ciel du Cheval decided to make small quantities of their own wines to experiment and better understand the true potential of their grapes. The cherry aromas linger on the nose and the wine delivers prominent tannins counter-balanced by juicy acids. The wine opens with each sip. (97 cases)
$50 | 14.83% ABV
2019 Watermill Winery Estate Nebbiolo | Dugger Creek Vineyard | Walla Walla AVA
A passion for Italian varietals stimulated vineyard manager, Leonard Brown, to plant Nebbiolo in 2009 along with Sangiovese and Barbera. Watermill founder Andrew Browne said, “I wanted to try more varietals and make wines that are different than what’s out there.” Winemaker Brian Roy adds, “We’ve been making this style which is approachable and meant to be drunk young. It is elegant and has a beautiful backbone.” Available the first week in April, the 2019 is a blend of two Nebbiolo clones with one clone contributing bright fruit notes and the other providing firm tannins. (61 cases)
$40 | 13.5% ABV
But Wait There’s More…
In addition to the wines highlighted above, other Washington producers of Nebbiolo include: Aniche (Blend) Bethany, Cooper, Beaumont Cellars, Dolio, Martedi, Sage Rat (Pet-Nat), Waving Tree and Wind Rose Cellars.