For those of you not familiar with Piedmont wines, I thought I'd fill you in on some background. Piedmont is a wine growing area in northwest Italy, north of Milan and Turin, that produces some of the greatest wines of the world, at least comparable in quality to those of Bordeaux and Burgundy. There are also many similarities to the Southern Rhone both in the style and variety of wines.
Barolo and Barbaresco are the king and queen of Piedmont. Barbaresco is generally a bit lighter than Barolo, and its appellation requirements a bit less strict (minimum alcohol content of 12.5% versus 13.0% for Barolo). Nebbiolo produced in the village of Gattinara is a less renowned and less expensive version--holding a rank somewhat comparable to Vacqueyras in the Southern Rhone. Wines from Ghemme and Spanna are even less expensive. In the early 1980s, Barolo and Barbaresco sold for $12 to $18 a bottle, Gattinara for $8 to $12 and Spanna $5 or less. In fact, I loaded up on several cases of 1982 and 1983 Dessilani Spanna for $4.99 a magnum! That was cheaper even than Gallo Hearty Burgundy or Paesano, and it was real wine. Unlike the jug wines, these magnums were still drinking beautifully and improving in the late 1990s. I wish I still had a few.
Nebbiolo is a very tannic grape but one that has an amazing aroma/flavor profile--roses, violets, cherries, tar, anise. Because of the high tannins, traditional winemakers kept their wines in large barrels for extended periods--as in Chateauneuf du Pape. And that practice had risks as well as benefits. Some of those great Spanna magnums, for example, had off odors that sometimes required an hour or two of airing to get rid of. What was underneath, however, was well worth the wait. With modern equipment, winemakers are now able to avoid these problems. Some, but not all, winemakers also use new oak barriques, which traditionalists scorn because they say that vanilla of the new oak tends to cover up the lovely scent of roses that is natural to Nebbiolo. I side with the traditionalists while admitting that control of temperature and bacteria in the cellar is important.
Where have all the Gattinaras gone? I quit buying most of these wines in the mid-1980s when the prices started escalating. Why pay $50 for a Barolo or $35 for a Gattinara when you could get a Chateauneuf du Pape for $10 to $15? Probably for the same reason, importers started bringing in fewer Gattinaras and Spannas, at least into my market. In some parts of the country, you can still buy Dessilani Gattinara for about $35 and Spanna for about $20, and in today's market those are probably pretty decent prices. Although they may be more ageworthy than a Gigondas or Vacqueyras, I would probably still choose the Southern Rhone wines for the same price.
I have been scouring the market over the past few years, however, for a decent $10 to $15 Nebbiolo. You can occasionally find Nebbiolo d'Alba or Langhe Nebbiolo in that price range, but I've found that most of them are pretty uninteresting, without the Nebbiolo fireworks. The one exception that I've found is an even better value--the Nerello di Bastardo sold recently at Trader Joe's for $5.99. I bought a case of the 1999 and still have some in the cellar. Then I added the 2000 and 2002 when they came on the market. I like the way these wines are maturing, and I don't detect any off odors or flavors. If you see any at Trader Joe's (I haven't recently), I highly recommend it. And if you have other inexpensive Nebbiolos to recommend, please let me know.