Wine Review: 2007 Luciano Sandrone Nebbiolo d’Alba Valmaggiore

24 01 2013
Some of my favourite labels of all time.  Classic.

Some of my favourite labels of all time. Classic.

If there’s anything better than a good bottle of wine, it’s a good bottle of wine that you got on sale.  While this particular bottle usually retails for around $50, I was lucky enough to grab it on special for a shade under $30, which made me ultra-excited to open it and greatly reduced my chances of being disappointed with what was inside.  Not that there was much of a chance of that, given who made it.

Luciano Sandrone is a Barolo legend.  If you were going to make an All-Star team of producers from the Piedmont region in northwest Italy, Sandrone would definitely be in the starting lineup. Ever since his first vintage in 1978, he has wowed the wine world with a slate of bottlings that are crafted in a more open, approachable manner than those made by the staunch traditionalists in the area but yet that remain elegant, complex and capable of aging and improving for a long time.  Most famous for his Barolos (Barolo is a subregion of Piedmont whose wines are made from the Nebbiolo grape), Sandrone also makes a Barbera (which is fantastic), a Dolcetto, a red blend and this Nebbiolo d’Alba.  Here’s a good rule of thumb for reading Italian wine labels:  if you see a label stating “_______ di _______” or “_______ d’_______”, odds are that the first word in the sequence will be the name of the grape and the last word will be the area where it’s from.  “Nebbiolo d’Alba” means “Nebbiolo from Alba”, which is the name of a Nebbiolo-growing region in Piedmont immediately adjacent to the great Barolo and the equally great Barbaresco appellations.  Since the soil and climate conditions in Nebbiolo d’Alba are similar to those in Barolo/Barbaresco, and since the same varietal is used to make the wine, Nebbiolo d’Alba can be a source of wines that give you a good sense of what Barolos and Barbarescos are all about but at a fraction of the price.

At the risk of alienating all readers by introducing even more geographical references into this review, the word “Valmaggiore” on this bottle’s label is the name of a vineyard in Vezza d’Alba, a sub-zone in the heart of Nebbiolo d’Alba, where the grapes are grown at high densities on south-facing slopes so steep that they make machine harvesting impossible.  If you’re keeping track at home, that would make Valmaggiore a sub-sub-sub-region of Piedmont (Piedmont — Nebbiolo d’Alba — Vezza d’Alba — Valmaggiore).  Who said wine was hard?

Cork Rating:  2/10 (Much less classic.  More modern and less tradition needed here.)

Cork Rating: 2/10 (Much less classic. More modern and less tradition needed here.)

Despite being a relatively uncommon grape (you don’t find it grown much outside of northern Italy), Nebbiolo can be one of the easier varietals to pick out of a tasting lineup due to certain very distinct features that it possesses which few other grapes share.  First, it tends to have sort of an orangey colour, even when quite young, a stark contrast to the deep purples and bright rubys of most other younger reds.  Second, although it is not full-bodied and generally feels fairly delicate on the palate, it usually has significant levels of tannin that pack a huge punch.  That combination of light, airy body and dominant tannin is rarely seen.  Finally, if you look in any wine book under “Nebbiolo”, you will likely find the flavour descriptors “tar and roses”…in my experience the tar has been hit or miss, but almost every Nebbiolo I’ve tried has had a clear floral component to its flavour profile.  Put all of these indicators together and you have a tasting roadmap that is truly unique, part of what makes this grape so alluring to so many.

The Valmaggiore followed this guide almost to the letter.  It was a medium garnet colour, partly translucent and heavily tinged orange/brick at the rim.  There was a slightly oxidized, Port-like quality to the nose to go along with the telltale floral note and other swirling aromas of dates, rust/iron, dark chocolate and chlorine, a taut, earthy mix that seemed like a nod to the region’s traditional roots.  The wine started out light and almost papery in the mouth, then slowly expanded, delicately filling the palate with dusty cherry, strawberry, black pepper, scorched earth and green olive flavours.  A heartbeat after the Nebbiolo hit my tongue, waves of massive yet deft tannin enveloped it, cut only by the wine’s surprisingly mouthwatering acidity, which steered it into a clean, tangy finish.  This would be a tremendous bottle to have with food (I’m thinking it would be fun with game meats especially), but to Sandrone’s credit, despite being a fairly young Nebbiolo, it’s still quite enjoyable on its own, a characteristic that many wines from this region would definitely not share.

This is an excellent introduction to the Nebbiolo grape and the Piedmont area from a master of the region, and though it’s far from cheap, it’s still a non-wallet-crushing way to see if this is a style of wine that speaks to you before you launch into your Barolo-buying career.  While I’m not sure if I’m a full-fledged Nebbiolo disciple, this one carefully succeeds at the difficult task of putting a modern face on a traditional soul without ruining both; you can see that high-wire act with every sip, which alone justifies the purchase of the bottle.

88 points

$45 to $50 CDN

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