An Introduction to Virginia’s Nebbiolo

Few grapes are as synonymous with the region they come from as nebbiolo. Indigenous to the Piedmont region of northwest Italy, it’s the source of two of the world’s most famous (and expensive) wines; Barolo and Barbaresco. Powerfully tannic yet possessing delicate aromas and expressive fruit, wine critic Madeline Puckette famously quipped drinking nebbiolo was like “Getting kicked in the face by a ballerina”.

Nebbiolo’s relationship with the mountainous Piedmont isn’t coincidental; even the name is a reference to its home. Many believe the word Nebbiolo comes from the Latin Nebula, which means ‘fog’ or ‘mist’. This fog inundates the region during harvest, helping regulate the temperature of the grapes.

Such conditions contribute to nebbiolo’s reputation as a finicky, terroir-driven wine. Early budding yet late ripening, few places outside Piedmont are thought to have the near-goldilocks conditions to allow nebbiolo to mature to full ripeness. Given Virginia’s erratic weather, this requirement for an especially long growing season gives many winegrowers pause when considering it for their vineyard.

So it’s somewhat surprising that nebbiolo is nevertheless gaining traction in Virginia. According to 2022 data shared by the Virginia Wine Marking Board, 50 acres of nebbiolo is commercially grown in the state. While that’s nowhere near the acreage of cabernet franc or chardonnay, neither is it an outlier found in only a handful of locations.

A growing number of winegrowers seem to think nebbiolo is worth the investment. But why?

Luca Paschina: The OG (Original Grower) of Virginia’s Nebbiolo

Luca Paschina of Barboursville Vineyards is probably the person most responsible for the grape’s introduction into Virginia. His love of nebbiolo is understandable. Not only is Luca a native of Piedmont, nebbiolo is the first wine he’s ever made.

When asked how the difference in growing conditions between Virginia and Piedmont impacts locally-grown nebbiolo, Luca pointed out that elevation is only one part of the equation; Virginia’s weather is hotter and soils are clay-based.

“We planted it in 1995 and originally started with ½ an acre. Our first vintage was 1998, a very good growing season. In 1999 we planted an additional 4 acres and another 4.5 in 2013.

I knew nebbiolo had the potential to age, but I didn’t know whether it could do the same here. But revisiting the 1998 vintage, I can see it ages well.

Our approach is to make it into a single varietal; I never blend it. Others do that to darken the color, but we don’t. I don’t make this wine to drink on the porch. It’s a food wine.

Some are turned off because it’s astringent and assertive than comparable Bordeaux varietals. Its tannins may be astringent but never bitter.

The main threat is it does bud break early so it’s more exposed to frost risk. But nebbiolo is fairly healthy and easy to grow. We drop a lot of fruit, but it’s a good thing since you get to choose how much you want to harvest.

When it comes to disease resistance it has problems with downy mildew but overall isn’t much different than other varieties in Virginia. If it rains towards the end of harvest nebbiolo holds very well. It’s very resilient.”

A Tradeoff of Risk vs Reward

While nebbiolo’s early-budding yet late-ripening nature makes it a risky investment, its reputation is a strong motivator for winemakers to take that chance. Preston Thomas of Stone Tower Winery explained, “It’s a quality wine, and adds diversity to our portfolio. We’ve been able to make a beautiful rosé while still having enough fruit to make a quality red wine.”

When Bill Gadino of Gadino Cellars was deciding what red grapes to plant, he turned to Luca for advice. While Luca pointed out nebbiolo’s challenges, he phrased it like this; “If you’re going to pick one, go for the gold and grow nebbiolo.”

While Luca may have meant this figuratively, the impact for several Virginia wineries has been literal. Since 2014 over a dozen Virginia wines made with nebbiolo have earned Gold at the Virginia’s Governor’s Cup wine competition. Barboursville’s 2010 Nebbiolo and a 2016 bottle from Breaux Vineyards went on to place amongst the top-12 wines in the 2014 and 2021 competitions, respectively.

However, even supporters admit it’s not a perfect fit for Virginia. Multiple winegrowers voice concern over nebbiolo’s risk to frost. Several also pointed out its inconsistent yields, ranging from 1.5 to 4 tons an acre, depending on who and when you ask.

Despite this, a growing number of winegrowers are confident its problems can be addressed.

“Is it worth the trouble? I’d say, yes.” wrote Robert Muse of Muse Vineyards. “Each year when we get it to fully ripen, it gets better. I would say nebbiolo is finicky to the point almost of eccentricity. But we’re glad to have it, and I believe we’re more than halfway to understanding the variety and teasing out its best expressions.”

It’s familiarity to consumers also helps. In discussing Italian reds in Virginia, Josh Gerard of Breaux Vineyards added, “We grow both barbera and nebbiolo. Increased plantings of these two may be due in part to their recognition and familiarity in the marketplace.”

Virginia nebbiolo will never be mistaken for a bottle made in Italy, but it’s not trying to be. But if the results are good, what does it matter where the grapes came from?

Pouring a glass of his 1998 vintage, Luca discussed a blind tasting at a Texas Sommelier Conference where one of his bottles was compared to a nebbiolo from Italy. In terms of picking a favorite, the results were split.

In the end he reasoned, “Why worry about the ‘why’ when you have the proof in front of you?”

Nebbiolo is found across the state. Look for bottles from Barboursville, Breaux, Chestnut Oak, Gabriele Rausse, Gadino, Glen Manor, Greenhill, Horton, Muse, and Stone Tower Winery.

An Introduction To Virginia Wine

Virginia has the distinction of being both one of America’s oldest wine regions and an emerging one. The first wines produced in the Thirteen Colonies were grown in the late 1750s at plantations near the Chesapeake Bay. Decades later, Thomas Jefferson established himself as America’s foremost oenophile due to his love of French wine and doomed attempts to grow vines at his estate in Monticello.

Today, Virginia has over 300 wine brands and almost 4,400 acres of vines. While 82% of these vines are vinifera (mostly Bordeaux red grapes and Chardonnay), Virginia wine is increasingly looking outside Bordeaux varieties to guide the state’s future.

Virginia is also punching above its weight in terms of quality. In 2022 Wine Enthusiast announced it was dropping emerging areas around the country. Virginia made the cut (along with California, Washington, Oregon and New York) despite making less than 0.3% of the nation’s wine production.

Yet relatively few people have heard of Virginia wine, despite these laurels. That’s because of a combination of two intertwined factors; price and production.

Most Virginia wineries make under 3,500 cases/year; only a handful produce more than 40,000 cases/year. The boutique nature of the business means wineries seldom achieve the economy of scale necessary to compete in the $25 and under market. Even if they wanted to distribute, limited production means there’s little to spare.

Fortunately, the industry’s proximity to some of the nation’s wealthiest counties makes agro-tourism a strong driver for growth, which is why most Virginia wine is sold in the tasting room. Over 100 wineries are just over an hour’s drive from D.C. or Northern Virginia. More are located in the scenic Shenandoah Valley, historic Charlottesville, and beyond.

Virginia is geographically and arguably stylistically a middle-ground between California and France, but local winemakers are quick to point out the state’s unique growing conditions makes copying either of these areas nearly impossible.

Probably the most daunting challenge is the state’s hot, humid weather, abetted by copious amounts of rain. The best-performing varieties have qualities which mitigate the resulting rot and disease pressure, so grapes with thick skin and loose clusters are favored. Likewise, vineyards with excellent drainage are a must.

This has resulted in the widespread adoption of hardy grapes, with Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot the most planted reds. Ironically, Virginia’s two most popular red varieties are ones Bordeaux considers minor blending grapes.

Other popular grapes tend to be site-specific. Cabernet Sauvignon typically only achieves ripeness when planted on rocky soil, while fragile Pinot Noir is only found in a handful of ‘goldilocks’ vineyards that possess just the right conditions. Fortunately, Merlot does well in Virginia’s clay-based soil, and Chardonnay is a reliable workhorse (as long as there’s no late spring frost).

Meanwhile, many obscure warm-weather varieties are gaining prominence. Two decades ago Virginia helped lead a worldwide renaissance in Viognier, a Rhône grape once threatened with extinction. More recently it became the world’s second-largest home of Petit Manseng, a high acid grape found in southern France. Tannat is gaining recognition in national wine competitions, and sometimes added to give blends color and tannin. Even Albariño is finding a home.

Virginia isn’t tied to any particular style. If it grows well here, someone is likely making a wine out of it.

So – if you’re looking to try a Virginia wine, what should you get?

Old World style expressions of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, or Bordeaux blends can be found at Virginia’s better-known producers, such as Barbourville Vineyards, Linden Vineyards, and Michael Shaps. But people looking for something uniquely reflective of Virginia should try its single-varietal Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Petit Manseng, or Viognier, found all over the state.

That said, it’s unfair to pigeonhole Virginia into just a few categories. In the past year alone Barboursville’s Fiano won best Italian White at the 2022 San Francisco International. Muse Vineyard’s Roussanne was Best White in Show at the 2023 San Diego Wine and Spirits competition. Three of the past four years Trump Winery’s sparklings earned Best in Class wins at the San Francisco Chronical wine competition. The list goes on.

If there’s one take away for Virginia wine, it’s this is an industry that knows how to innovate. One local winery remarked how Virginia attracts ‘real’ winemakers, as they’ve learned to adapt to massive weather swings not just year-to-year but even within the same season. Virginia still considers itself a young wine region, but its producing results.