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“This Is Delicious, Life-Changing Wine”

April 14, 2020

Story: Leslie Pariseau

art: Ellie Skrzat

The wine Justin Vann can’t stop thinking about is a rare example of nebbiolo’s success beyond Northern Italy.

Last year, when Houston sommelier and wine buyer Justin Vann visited the Yarra Valley at Australia’s southern tip, he was stunned by his encounters with the region’s nebbiolo. “This was not some fun experiment,” says Vann, of the Yarra Valley’s dedication to growing Piemonte’s notoriously sensitive grape, which blooms early, ripens late and prefers sandy, calcareous soils. Although it is occasionally planted outside of Italy, it hasn’t exactly traveled well.

“It is truly sui generis,” write Rajat Parr and Jordan Mackay in The Sommelier’s Atlas of Taste when explaining the rare quality of the grape being inextricable from its point of origin in Barolo and Barbaresco, with the exception of a few other growing regions in Alto Piemonte and, of course, its alpine home in Lombardia’s Valtellina valley. But it hasn’t stopped winegrowers from South Africa to California (see the “Cal-Ital” movement of the 1980s and ’90s) from trying. Vann says that while he’s enjoyed some examples from the West Coast, nebbiolo beyond its home in Northern Italy just hasn’t moved him in the same way.

Yarra Valley allowed him to shift his stance. “I would argue this will be the second place it could be considered a classic wine,” he says. In the cool-climate region just east of Melbourne, Vann visited winemakers like Mac Forbes, known for his vineyard restoration efforts and EB (Experimental Batch) labels, and Luke Lambert, a self-proclaimed minimalist, both of whom focus on Piemonte’s touchstone grape. Vann also encountered Timo Mayer, a Germany native from a winemaking family who, after time at other Yarra houses—including De Bortoli (a large family-run company) and Gembrook (a small vigneron-led outfit)—now farms mostly pinot noir and chardonnay on a 2.4-hectare site he designated Bloody Hill. He’s been making low-intervention wines under his own label since 2000.

“Timo Mayer looks and sounds like a crazy person,” says Vann of the idiosyncratic producer. He points out Mayer’s playful nature, made manifest in labels that slide Burgundy producer Armand Rousseau’s frilly 18th-century iconography through a filter of flamboyance; the Mayer label’s central crest is dedicated to a quadrant of whole clusters hanging from vines, flanked by winged lions. It’s a move that seems to be chiding Burgundy’s seriousness, while also paying homage. Many of his methods, like whole-bunch fermentation, are rooted in Burgundian tradition—and vogue—after all. “We want to make wines with a point of difference,” says Mayer. “We love stalky shit. We want to show people what wines looked like before we had de-stemmers.”

Mayer’s nebbiolo, which comes from vines planted in 2005 in De Bortoli’s Dixons Creek plot, is that point of difference, according to Vann. “There’s something unique about [Mayer’s nebbiolo], some expression of regional identity I haven’t tasted anywhere else,” says Vann. “[The Yarra Valley] is the first place I’ve ever tasted nebbiolo outside of Italy and thought, ‘This is delicious, life-changing wine.’”

Mayer Nebbiolo 2018

Made by: Timo Mayer

Region: Yarra Valley, Australia

What it tastes like: “It’s ethereal, pretty, light on its feet, fruit-forward, but with incredible balance. I don’t think we buy enough of it, and I think about it all the time,” says Vann.

Why it matters: It’s the rare success story of nebbiolo being grown outside its stomping ground in Northern Italy.

Where to buy: “This wine is hard to find, but it has natural distribution in America,” says Vann, noting that if he could get it in Houston, it’s certainly worth requesting elsewhere through Winebow.

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