Nebbiolo: The next big thing in California wine?

Is Nebbiolo the next Pinot Noir?

Winemakers in California have been fiddling with Nebbiolo for almost three decades, and yet no one has found the key.

In Piedmont, this is the grape that makes fabled Barbaresco and Barolo. Its potential is huge, but it's notoriously difficult to work with. Sound familiar? That's what everybody used to say about Pinot Noir.

Au Bon Climat's Jim Clendenen, who helped pioneer Pinot Noir on the Central Coast, is one of the winemakers who has worked with Nebbiolo longest. "If you think Pinot Noir is challenging, then I can assure you that Nebbiolo is 10 times harder," he says.

Palmina's Steve Clifton, who helps make the cult Brewer-Clifton Pinot Noirs, agrees. "Pinot Noir is a walk in the park compared to Nebbiolo. It's the most frustrating and scary thing that I've ever worked with. It comes in like a really acidic, really tannic rosé and over a 41/2-year cycle keeps evolving and changing. There are times [during that period] when it's undrinkable."

But it has taught him patience. "My accountant thinks I'm crazy. We bottled 2008 in June but won't release it until next year. And I have 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012 in barrel, and I just finished harvesting the 2013."

As yet, California winemakers haven't made a Nebbiolo to challenge the Piedmontese. But as more vintners plant the grape and in different terroirs and climates, it could happen.

An indefatigable champion of Italian varietals, Bill Sanger is convinced Nebbiolo will be the next Pinot. "The Santa Ynez Valley has the perfect conditions to grow Nebbiolo," he says. "It needs only a critical mass of producers growing and experimenting with the grape. It happened with Pinot Noir. It could happen with Nebbiolo."

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