©2018 Rhoda Stewart
The highly esteemed Nebbiolo grape is grown in just two places in the world as a significant wine grape variety: the Piedmont region of Italy; and Baja California, Mexico. In Baja, its history dates only to the mid-1940s; in Piedmont, it history dates back hundreds of years. In both regions, Nebbiolo is a challenging grape to work with. It produces lightly-colored red wines that can be tannic in youth, and can take years of aging to balance the tannins with other characteristics.
Neviolo (Nebbiolo) vineyard, LLano Colorado, Baja
My first encounter with Nebbiolo was during a visit to Baja California in April 2011, at the invitation of Camillo Magoni, winemaker and vineyard manager for Vinos L.A. Cetto in Valle de Guadalupe from 1965 to 2013. Camillo had asked me to come down to see what was happening in the Valle since my visit there in 1996 as part of my Zinfandel research. Among the first vineyards he showed me was the Nebbiolo. “Nebbiolo,” he declared, “makes one of the greatest wines in the world.”
But it is a wine you have to wait for, he said, which means you have to wait for your money. “You have to wait for Nebbiolo. It is late maturing in the bottle, so we have to leave the money for five years, occasionally longer. One year, the wine needed an extra six months in bottle, so we waited, even though we were sold out of the last vintage. Again, it cost us some money, but we maintained our prestige and reputation, which was important to us. For this reason, and because as a grower you have to understand its composition, Nebbiolo is not known world-wide like Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir or Syrah. Even though it makes, I think, one of the greatest wines in the world, not too many producers like to wait five years for the money.”
Nebbiolo arrived in Valley de Guadalupe of Baja in 1946, brought from Italy by Esteban Ferro, winemaker from 1932 – 1954 for Bodegas Santo Tomás. This original planting, a 50-acre dry-farmed block, was subsequently acquired by L.A. Cetto. It was later converted to trellis, and drip irrigation was added.
1946 Nebbiolo vine – Valle de Guadalupe, Baja, Mexico (Rhoda Stewart photo)
Magoni, who had left his home in Milano to become Cetto’s winemaker and vineyard manager, believed that Nebbiolo was well-suited to Baja’s red clay soil and climate. And so between 1971 and 2006, he established an additional 270 acres of Nebbiolo in Cetto’s Llano Colorado and adjoining San Vincente Valleys vineyards, some 85 kilometers south of Ensenada. By 2011, Vinos L.A. Cetto had 330 acres of Nebbiolo, which is the largest planting of Nebbiolo outside the Piedmont region of Italy.
Nebbiolo Vineyard, Llano Colorado, Baja (Rhoda Stewart Photo)
One of the best wine tasting experiences I’ve ever had was of 15 Nebbiolo wines Magoni made between 1991 and 2007 for Vinos L.A. Cetto.
15 Nebbiolos, Vinos L.A. Cetto, Tijuana (Rhoda Stewart Photo)
We had spent the July 2011 afternoon in Cetto’s Llano Colorado Nebbiolo vineyards, and later, back in Cetto’s Tijuana offices, he invited me to a vertical tasting of all his Nebbiolos. The wines were all sound—balanced, complex, with good fruit and integrated tannins, and a long, lingering finish. And there wasn’t the slightest hint of new oak to interfere with the wines’ elegance and complexity.
Camillo Magoni presiding over vertical tasting of 15 Nebbiolos (Rhoda Stewart photo)
Compared to the farmers of Barolo, Camillo Magoni was fortunate in that there was no established tradition of winemaking in Baja, and no elder family members to offend, such as the Barolo boys had to contend with, when he arrived in Valle de Guadalupe in 1965 to become L.A. Cetto’s winemaker. By the time the Barolo Boys had achieved their revolution in the Langhe Hills, Magoni had been making world-class Nebbiolo wines—Barolos—for decades. Pretty much given sole authority on winemaking and viticulture practices in la Valle de Guadalupe, he felt no need to journey to the hills of Burgundy to discover winemaking secrets!
And he always knew not to smother his wines in oak. His ageing protocol for his Baja “barolos” was American oak, just 30% new, and for 12 – 15 months. “Wine comes from grapes, not from wood,” he once told me, when discussing his use of oak for his wines, including for Nebbiolo.
15 Nebbiolos by Camillo Magoni for L.A. Cetto – Tijuana, Baja Mexico (Rhoda Stewart Photo)
Although he never did receive the fame, fortune, and the heady brush with glamour the Barolo Boys won with their blockbuster “smothered-in-oak” Barolos, his Nebbiolos, his “Baja Barolos,” have nonetheless won much local and international acclaim. And by providing his Nebbiolos with ample opportunity to express the distinctive character and flavor of the Baja terroir, he has succeeded in attracting aspiring Mexican chefs back to the region to continue their careers making Mexican food grown in the soil of Baja, perfect to accompany Camillo’s wonderful Baja wines—top red varieties produced by Vinos L.A. Cetto being Nebbiolo, Sangiovese and Zinfandel,
In Wine Valleys – A Journey through Wineries and Other Points of Interest in Baja California (Puente, Esperanza Bustillo. Mexico: Ambardiseño, S.C., 2009), Hugo D’Acosta, Oenologist for Casa de Piedra, Valle de Guadalupe, and others, write,
“Mexican wine is representative of our cultural mosaic. . . . the presence of a national wine in the culinary culture, which finds itself enriched by its native products . . .is a component that refreshes and solidifies our culinary patrimony.” (22)
Jesús Diez, Oenologist, Viticultura – Espacio del Vino, writes that he returned “to Mexico this century with the firm idea that national wine should be recognized by Mexicans. . . I know that the very nature of wine and its soils, sooner or later, makes our relationship with the terroir and our taste for the homegrown to be reborn. . . .Wine is a dynamic part of the new and changing Mexico. (Wine Valleys, 24, 25)
Chilean-born José Durand, Oenologist, Sinergi (Valle de Guadalupe), finds in Mexican wines an “intensity, as well as the fact they are joyful, aromatic, full of shadings and subtleties, and with a solid structure and at the same time smooth. As happens with food, people slowly have opened up towards their wines and, as a result, my expectations of growth of a year ago have been surpassed in terms of consumption, since Mexicans have made them a part of their lives and this is incredible.” (Wine Valleys, 27)
Guillermo Gonzáles Beristáin, Chef, Pangea Group, writes, “ . . .the development of gastronomy goes hand-in-hand with that of winegrowers. . . . To be able to count with one’s own wines provides Mexican gastronomy with the possibility of being fuller and that a dynamics is created, as in a majority of other countries, where regional cooking is accompanied by the wines produced in their own regions. We cannot forget that eating Mexican food requires Mexican wines.” (Wine Valleys, 29)
In the fog-shrouded hills of Langhe, second generation Barolo Boys (and Girls), have found their famous fathers difficult to work with. Yet one thing remains true, writes Silvia Marchetti in her Guardian report, “The Langhe, Piedmont . . . ”: “When a farmer offers you a glass of Barolo that he has made, he is offering you a piece of his soul.” (www.theGuardian.com)
When Camillo Magoni offers you a tasting of his Nebbiolos made from grapes grown in the red soil of Baja California, sun-drenched and caressed by the sea breezes off the deep blue Pacific, he is offering you, if not a piece of his soul, then a ruby-stained window into his soul. That, too, is a memorable experience!