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Nebbiolo – lifting the fog

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Why Nebbiolo? I asked this question of Karen Coats and Dr Prue Keith, owners of Virago Estate in Beechworth, Victoria. They both replied that the serendipitous exposure to this red grape variety left an alluring wine experience, something akin to the sirens of Homer’s Odyssey.

Why Nebbiolo? It’s such a finicky, lesser-known red grape that is tricky to grow, with early bud burst and late ripening often requiring soils dominated by calcerous marls. It requires meticulous hands-on effort. 

Perhaps Karen, an ex-tax accountant, Dr Prue, a practicing orthopedic surgeon and winemaker Ric Kinzbrunner (owner of Giaconda), a retired Engineer, had between them enough OCD to tackle these vagaries.

Nebiollo is an ancient grape first mentioned in the 13th century. The Italian word for fog is “nebbia”. This probably refers to the fog-like cover of the skins of the dark gray Nebbiolo grape. It has been suggested that the reference is to the valley in Piedmont as the fog rolls in in late autumn.  

The Piedmont region in north-western Italy sits at the foot of the Alps and is home to sumptuous foods, including truffles. Barolo and Barbaresco are the most lauded of Nebbiolo “Cru” regions. It is Burgundian-like in its classification restrictions, and in the way it marries traditional food and wine. There is a comparison with Pinot Noir, which is another finicky grape that rewards its grower with tantalizing bouquets and multi-layered structural elements.

Why Nebbiolo? It seems fitting that an ancient grape variety is finding its place in the ancient soils of Beechworth. This pocket of paradise must surely be tied in a kindred spirit to Burgundy and Piedmont. Beechworth exudes its own array of amazing local produce and wine producers, including some of the country’s best vignerons, such as Savaterre, Castanga and Giaconda. Just like Piedmont, the fog forms in the valleys of Beechworth after picking season.

Karen and Dr Prue are the type of wine growers who keep passionate authors writing about wine. There is the enthusiasm and pride of newly expectant parents. There is the sense of focus and determination. There is the sense of artistry in producing Nebbiolo. In 2007, 2100 vines were hand planted and organic principals are called upon – but not as a definitive process. It’s what Karen and Dr Prue believe is best for the vines and, hence, the wine.

I firmly believe that Nebbiolo is the next journey of discovery in wine in Australia. Merlot had a run but pulled up lame. Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon are still powerful in their own right. Wines like Nebbiolo, Pinot Noir and Riesling are renowned for expressing their terroir. To me, this means that these wines are guided by the winemaker and, when drunk, transport you to the birthplace of the vine.

Wines Tasted

2011 Virago Nebbiolo Beechworth – Light garnet, with tinges of brown in couloir. The initial bouquet includes rose petals, sundried fruits and herbs. A complex vanillin aroma hides in the background. An hour after opening, the bouquet developed into dusty glazed cherries, rose petals and some earthy funk characteristics. An amazing transformation. The palate dances and flitters on the taste buds. It surfs easily over the palate, with supporting tannins and acidity.  Will cellar for a decade. Have with thyme-roasted Pousson.

2012 Virago Nebbiolo Beechworth – Brighter garnet in color, exuding youth. Brighter red fruits, with essence of smoky notes. As the wine opened up, candied fruits with herbal notes, more delicate than a Grenache, were released. This is quite a youthful, camouflaged beast of a wine. The wine stands up boldly in the anterior palate then pauses slightly, enough to give space for the structured tannins to shine. Cellar 15 years or more. Have with wild duck pie.