Nebbiolo might be the toughest European vinifera grape for New World winemakers to craft. Attempts to make compelling expressions of the grape seldom result in wines with any resemblance to the Piedmontese greats.
This didn’t stop Tom Stolpman from trying: Back in 1995, Dad took a stab at crafting a New World Barolo when he ambitiously (crazily) planted 10 acres of Nebbiolo.
For the next decade, the Nebbiolo block produced intense, tannic wines that demanded at least three years in barrel. Those patient enough, including Dad, left the wine cellaring for at least a few more years until the bottles would finally blossom into rose petal perfume and finesse.
As the vines matured, we realized our root stock and clonal selection weren’t ideal for the high peak heat, blustery afternoon winds, and frigid night-time lows of Ballard Canyon. The vines weakened, and ripening became difficult. In 2008 we grafted five of the Nebbiolo acres over – at that point we had long stopped making a Stolpman Vineyards Nebbiolo. We continued to sell the remaining five acres to Adam Lee for his Novy Family Label and to Steve Clifton of Palmina Winery.
Tragedy struck April 27, 2011, when the early budding Nebbiolo was annihilated by frost. Because we wouldn’t get any crop that vintage, we decided to take the opportunity to graft the last of the Nebbiolo.
And Dad has demanded to replant Nebbiolo ever since.
In the meantime, we partnered with Rajat Parr to launch our Combe label. Combe started with one acre of Trousseau, then another 1.3 acres of Trousseau, than .5 acres of Gamay, and last year we added 1.5 acres of Chenin Blanc. While dad thoroughly enjoys all of these wines, he has become impatient that I haven’t honored his requests – or rather – demands – to replant Nebbiolo. This came to a head when I listed off the new clonal material we started propagating this year: Savagnin, Poulsard, Mondeuse, and Sereine. From dad’s point of view, Rajat and I are going on a weirdness bonanza while ignoring the Don. Something had to be done or Dad might forcefully put down our mutiny.
Avoiding Tom’s Wrath
So, timed to coincide with Dad’s 68th birthday celebration in early June, Ruben and La Cuadrilla planted 500 Nebbiolo vines. These vines will produce around 100 cases of wine, enough to keep Dad happy and perhaps have a bit left over for the long-time wine club members still fondly reminiscing about Stolpman Nebbiolo.
The main reason I stalled so long in replanting Nebbiolo has nothing to do with taking joy in irritating the Old Man. Instead, I was seeking to hold off on what promises to be a challenging exercise.
Ballard Canyon terroir automatically impedes any chance of making a delicious, approachable Nebbiolo. Our intense sunshine, high peak heat, and frigid night-time temperatures cause the vine to create thicker protective grape-skins versus the grape’s moderate, sheltered, meditteranean home in Piedmonte. Nebbiolo is already a tannic grape in Italy, so the tannins are even more extreme here in Ballard Canyon.
A Potential Solution: A Lighter Red Hue
Luckily, both the winery crew and our customers are much more comfortable drinking lighter colored wines than they were 18 years ago when we started making Nebbiolo. Not only did we try to extract dark color from the skins back then, we would even bleed off juice for rose in an effort to make the red wine more concentrated. This time around, we will gently circulate the juice and skins and not worry about the color. We hope this will lead to a prettier, more delicate expression of the grape, albeit with an appearance a lighter shade of red.
Genetics – A New Advantage
We are also now planting with highly regarded “VCR” clones, short for vivai cooperativi rauscedo. These clones are known to be the best Nebbiolo vines available in the US and were carefully pure-bred without virus. They should be stronger than the material available back in the early 1990s and therefore better suited to stand up to the rigors of Ballard Canyon survival.
For the Time Being
This summer we gave Dad the last bottles of Nebbiolo from the winery cold room. Hopefully these few cases will help hold him over for the next 4-20 years, or whenever he decides the wine from the new block is ready to drink. Happy Birthday, Dad!