There are only about 20 acres of nebbiolo grapes planted in Santa Barbara County, but if Thanksgiving and Steve Clifton have anything to do with it, there could be a whole lot more in years to come. Clifton, as you may know, is the proprietor of the Italian varietal-focused Palmina Winery (as well as co-founder of the pinot noir/chardonnay house Brewer-Clifton), and Thanksgiving, as you no doubt know, is this week’s American holiday where we pile tons of rich, distinctly flavored foods onto the same plate and gobble it all down in honor of the pilgrims’ first potluck with the natives. What works to tie them together is the hard-to-grow, refreshingly acidic, and powerfully tannic nebbiolo, a centerpiece of Italian superstars like Barolo and Barbaresco but still relatively undiscovered in California winemaking. (And given that both Hanukkah, which starts this week, and Christmas also involve smorgasbords of foodstuffs served simultaneously, nebbiolo would be a good go-to grape as well.)
“Nebbiolo is famous for having flavors from tar to roses and everything in between,” said Clifton, explaining that the heavy tannins help cut through the fat and make you want another bite. “There is some part of nebbiolo that fits with every part of that mélange that is always Thanksgiving dinner.”
Unlike other high-tannin wines such as cabernet sauvignon that can overwhelm subtle dishes, nebbiolo is a medium-bodied pour like pinot noir, and that’s not the only characteristic it shares with the latter grape: Each varietal is notoriously finicky both on the vine and in the barrel, though Clifton, who’s been working with nebbiolo since 1997 and pinot even longer, finds the Italian grape more challenging. “Pinot noir is a walk in the park compared to nebbiolo,” he said. “It’s by far the most difficult thing I’ve ever dealt with. It has to be planted differently. It has to be grown differently. Every aspect in the cellar has to be handled differently.”
For instance, while “great lengths” are taken to ensure pinot is protected from oxygen, Clifton has found that nebbiolo constantly needs more air, so much that he won’t protect it with sulfur dioxide for three or more years. “I’d never do that with pinot noir — it would turn into brown mud,” he said, noting that he had to “unlearn” a lot to tackle nebbiolo, but also pick up plenty of patience as the wine can seem pretty undrinkable at early stages in the process. “The hardest part is to not give in to the urge to try and fix it,” said Clifton, who is still studying the grape’s “evolutionary curve,” which includes a lot of bottle ageing. “I learned a lot about raising children by starting with nebbiolo.”
Clifton divulged that his 2003s might be in their prime right now — “it’s typical of nebbiolo to come into its own on its 10th birthday,” he said — but believes his current release of 2007s makes for pretty good drinking right now, too. To best explore the range of flavors, he recommends opening a younger bottle at the beginning of the meal and then moving to an older vintage toward the end. “But one great bottle of nebbiolo can have all of that in it, from deep, earthy mushroom aromas and flavors to bright cranberry and cherry,” he said. “It can handle fatty to sweet and everything in between. The acidity is the conduit that makes it work with foods, and it’s got that in spades.”
Palmina Winery’s nebbiolos are available in Santa Barbara at The Winehound, Lazy Acres, and Whole Foods, or visit the tasting room in the Lompoc Wine Ghetto. Call (805) 735-2030 or see palminawines.com. Palmina will also be part of the Lompoc Wine Ghetto’s Winter Wine Experience on Saturday, November 30, noon-5 p.m., to coincide with the national Small Business Saturday event, offering special deals and treats with 11 other wineries.