Martin & Weyrich, Paso Robles (California) Nebbiolo Reserve "Il Vecchio" 2003 ($22): Italy's Nebbiolo grape--the grape behind Piedmont's glorious Barolo and Barbaresco wines--is notorious for its inability to perform well outside its home region. But every rule has its exception, and what's more, patience pays off. After decades of commitment to Nebbiolo and other Italian grape varieties, California winery Martin & Weyrich is producing Nebbiolos that are better than any I have tasted outside of Italy.
Martin & Weyrich makes two Nebbiolo wines, a basic Paso Robles Nebbiolo ($18), currently available in the 2004 vintage, and this Reserve Nebbiolo called 'Il Vecchio' ('the old one') because the wine undergoes longer aging. Both wines have real varietal character (something one cannot take for granted in Nebbiolo outside of Italy), are well-priced, and are a pleasure for this Nebbiolo fan to drink.
Il Vecchio represents the winery's finest lots of Nebbiolo, and those lots usually come from the Weyrich Family Ranch vineyards, which winemaker Craig Reed planted in 1996. The vineyard is a steep southwesterly-facing slope with calcareous soils, compared to the winery's Estate vineyard, which has 28-year-old vines in sandy loam soils and is usually the basis for the regular Nebbiolo. Grapes from both vineyards undergo a similar fermentation regime before being sent to oak barrels for aging. The final cut for Il Vecchio comes at the blending of the regular Nebbiolo, when the barrels of Il Vecchio remain behind for longer aging.
Il Vecchio ages in new French oak for 24 months. The other Nebbiolo ages for 15 months in French oak barrels that are only 20 percent new. I'm not a huge fan of barrique aging for Nebbiolo in Italy, and therefore I expected to enjoy Il Vecchio less than its counterpart. Instead, I prefer it slightly, although I would happily drink either wine. On the nose of Il Vecchio, the oak is detectable only by the slightest whiff of smoky character; the concentrated berry fruit, the tar and the floral nuance are all Nebbiolo. On the palate, the oak aging seems to have helped flesh out the texture and soften the tannins, while contributing a firm backbone of its own. The wine's rich fruit character suggests a slightly higher degree of ripeness in the grapes compared to that of the basic Nebbiolo.
Like Piedmont's Nebbiolo wines, this wine is full-bodied and gutsy -- high in alcohol, high in tannin, and high in acid, an unholy trinity for most wines! -- and it has complex aromas and flavors. Here, however, I find none of the high-toned herbal notes of Barolo wines, such as eucalyptus, menthol or camphor. Instead, California wine that it is, the wine has heightened fruitiness in its aromas and flavors of bright, fresh red and black berries. But the fruitiness does not overwhelm Nebbiolo's indomitable structure; it merely balances that unholy trinity. And the wine's concentration of fruit character is considerable. In contrast, the 2004 Nebbiolo is fresher, livelier and leaner, thinner of texture but still powerful in its structure.
Il Vecchio is a keeper, but also very drinkable now. Use a large Burgundy-style glass such as the Riedel vinum-series Burgundy glass, which smoothes out the wine's texture more than a Bordeaux-type glass does.