I’ve been lucky enough to know Alfredo ‘Fred’ Pizzini for quite a while and I’ve never seen him quite like this. He’s clearly rattled and seems a bit uneasy. ‘I can’t find my bloody ’91!’ he eventually confesses, as we head out of Wangaratta towards their headquarters in Whitfield where a complete tasting of every vintage of Pizzini Nebbiolo awaits us. Except, it seems, the elusive 1991, the first tiny vintage Fred ever made.
You see, if it was the ’91 shiraz or the ’91 cabernet I doubt it would’ve even rated a mention, in fact, we actually wouldn’t have had the conversation at all. Heck, I’m no Linda Evangelista, but I certainly don’t get out of bed at 5am to take a 7am train to Wangaratta to drive 45 minutes to taste just any old wine. But nebbiolo will get me just about anywhere, anytime. It’s a wine that’ll get me up early and keep me up late.
Nebbiolo, though much less widely planted, is much like pinot noir in that it really gets under people’s skin and drives them to obsession. It’s also a bit of an oddball in that it is virtually the polar opposite of the average Australian’s ideal of what constitutes a great red wine.
For while most Aussie wine drinkers will go for deeply coloured reds with often generous oak, sweet fruit flavours, low acid and soft tannins as their preferred choice in red, nebbiolo is pale in the glass and brickishly orange-tinged at times, is so beautifully fragrant that it needs little in the way of obvious oak, has quite savoury flavours, high acidity and is famous for its intense, drying tannins.
What then drives a man like Fred Pizzini to want to grow and make – and conquer – nebbiolo? Well, the same thing that has seen many a mere mortal take on a crazy and challenging project: a few good meals, a few good mates, your family and a few good bottles of wine. Those bottles just happened to be some of the best bottles of nebbiolo available, made by the crème of the crop of experienced winemakers in Piedmont, the grape’s spiritual home in northwest Italy.
‘I got into nebbiolo in the mid-’80s buying and drinking wine with Mark Walpole, who was working at Brown Brothers back then,’ Pizzini explains, ‘We bought (Bartolo) Mascarello from John Portelli at Enoteca Sileno in Lygon Street, and Gaja Barbaresco; Katrina would cook. We were just good mates with a shared passion.’
The Pizzini family was busily growing grapes for Brown Brothers who (presumably at the behest of Walpole) then asked if they’d grow some nebbiolo for them. ‘I found three vines in a back paddock in Robinvale and got a few buds to clone and graft in 1990,’ Fred recalls. The first tiny crop of nebbiolo picked in 1991 was fermented in-house and amounted to only two-thirds of a barrique that was retained for observation.
‘We left it in that barrel until bottling, just before the 1992 harvest. Somehow it held together and didn’t oxidize and I’m buggered if I know why,’ Fred muses. Nebbiolo is a resilient and, at times, elusive beast and a final search for the two remaining bottles of 1991 is fruitless. They live to be drunk another day.
It’s a bold and courageous thing for a winemaker to offer up their entire collection of a wine that spans across three decades but both Fred and his son Joel (now in charge of winemaking) are themselves deeply interested in the early, oldest wines.
Each bottle carries a story with it, each vintage adds another ring to the tree of experience and these are wines that collectively tell a beautiful narrative. They are coloured by the tone of the vintage, be it cooler, warmer, drought-dry, wet or just plain good.
‘It’s a different variety,’ says Fred with half a smile, ‘It’s not hard to grow but it is hard to find the right site.’ It’s a commonly stated thing around the world of wine that great wine is made in the vineyard and this is certainly true for nebbiolo. The strapping and sturdy tannins that give nebbiolo its formidable reputation for ultra-long ageing will only ripen fully in very select locations. If you don’t get them right on the vine, you can’t fix them in the winery.
To this end, the Pizzini journey has been one of constant refinement in the vineyard. Joel tells me: ‘We relocated nebbiolo along ridge lines where it ripens best and we applied new pruning and trellis designs based on what we’d seen when we visited Piedmont.’ In fact, almost every aspect of the vineyard has been refined, including a move to work with the latest and best available clonal material.
A second planting of nebbiolo has come into production and a third area planted at the top of the estate vineyard will produce its first grapes in 2017. Looking to the future, Joel hints at a scenario whereby Pizzini could bottle three single-site nebbiolo wines, something he clearly has his eye on achieving.
There are now two nebbiolos in the Pizzini range: the traditional bottling and a reserve bottling of sorts. The traditional label nebbiolo is a blend of parcels that is very much shaped by the vintage. The cooler years take on an earthy character; warmer vintages are more tarry and redder fruited.
I like the milder and warmer vintages best and so do Joel and Fred. The 2005 and 2008 vintages, from warmer seasons, are happily embracing complexity and maturity, while the frisky 2013 is a showy and impressive youngster. With bottled evidence on the table, the Pizzinis have been wise with their strategic relocation of nebbiolo to the best-ripening sites on the property. This move, combined with the way they’ve set up newer plantings, is squarely aimed at delivering the most consistently high quality nebbiolo they can grow.
The pinnacle of Pizzini’s nebbiolo production, only made in selected years, is called Coronamento. It’s a wine that is all about exploring the boundaries of maturation, a unique and thoughtful take on the concept of curating a special wine. Released as a much older wine (the current release is 2005) it combines the propensity for complexity and profoundness that is written into Nebbiolo’s DNA, with the personal journey and fascination of two generations of dedicated winemaking.
There’s a third nebbiolo wine in the wings, one that will focus more on expressing the perfumed side of the variety with lighter tannins – presumably a home for the precocious fruit of the younger vines coming into production. The first release of this wine, from the 2014 vintage, is scheduled to hit the shelves around June 2016.
Asked about his approach to winemaking, Joel points out that growing up surrounded by Italian varieties has proved to be a huge advantage. ‘I didn’t have the experience of shiraz and cabernet that most other winemakers of my generation had so it wasn’t hard to get my head around a grape like nebbiolo … because I really didn’t know any different,’ he says.
It’s a beautifully simple picture that builds as we taste 22 vintages of nebbiolo. These wines were born out of curiosity, inspired by a broader Italian heritage and cultural circumstance. Today they are shaped by 25 years of first-hand experience, of dedication to the land from which they grow and genuine love of what it produces. It’s no wonder these wines are so distinctively satisfying.