Terroir – Rhoda Stewart's Journal on Wine

Posts tagged ‘Nebbiolo’

Barolo–In Baja?

©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.

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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.


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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.

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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.

IMG00046-20110715-1117 - 15 Nebbiolo - LA Cetto, Tijuana

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.

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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.

IMG00050-20110715-1317 15 vintages of 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 ValleysA 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!

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A Walk through the Vineyards with Camillo Magoni, Baja California, Mexico

Farm Artifacts - Vinos L.A. Cetto Winery

Farm Artifacts – Vinos L.A. Cetto Winery


A couple of wine writers from Europe have suggested that because of his achievements in transforming Valle de Guadalupe, Baja California, Mexico, into the world class wine grape valley that it is today, and in winning international acclaim for Vinos L.A. Cetto wines from these vineyards in the last decade and a half, Camillo Magoni should be recognized globally as perhaps the most significant winemaker living today.

I could not demur.

It was June 1996 when I found myself in Cucamonga Valley, which lies about 60 miles east of Los Angeles, as part of my search for historic Zinfandel vines. I thought I was about as far afield as I could get from the more famous North Coast Zinfandel regions of Napa, Sonoma, and Mendocino counties, and the Sierra foothills. Then I met Don Galleano (story to come), owner of the historic Galleano Winery, Mira Loma (now listed on the California and National Register of Historic Places). Galleano recommended that since I was this far south, I should cross the border into Baja, since he knew of a big planting of old Zin vines hidden away in a little valley somewhere between Tecate and Tijuana, owned by the Cetto family in Valle de Guadalupe.

I did just that.

With the help of a guide from Vinos L.A. Cetto, I found the lovely old Zinfandel vineyard, and so much more: I found Camillo Magoni, winemaker since 1965 for the Cetto family. From my first and subsequent meetings with Magoni that summer of 1996, he impressed me both as a winemaker and a person. It was, however, during my return visits to Valle de Guadalupe in spring and summer of 2011 that I experienced first-hand the full range of Magoni’s accomplishments—unparalleled at least in my experience.

Camillo Magoni showing Zinfandel clusters, Rancho Escondido July 2011

Camillo Magoni showing Zinfandel clusters, Rancho Escondido July 2011

I had gone down in early April at Magoni’s invitation to see what they “had been up to” since my last visit about 10 years earlier. It was a beautiful day, with the sun breaking through some early morning fog that had drifted into the Valle overnight from Ensenada. The vines were just leafing out. After meeting Camillo at the winery for a vertical tasting of six vintages of Zinfandel, it was time for lunch with Mr. Cetto and his guests (of which I was privileged to be one).
Vinos L.A. Cetto Zinfandel, 6-vintage vertical tasting - April 2011

Vinos L.A. Cetto Zinfandel, 6-vintage vertical tasting – April 2011


Following lunch, it was on to a tour with Mr. Cetto of the upper end of Valle de Guadalupe, near the headwaters of the River Guadalupe. The late afternoon light coming through the misty hills was so beautiful that I suggested to Camillo that we walk back to the winery. I wanted to try for some photos. So we exited the vehicle, and in the exquisite quiet of that secluded little vine-filled valley, we walked, I made photos, and Camillo talked—about the vines, the valley, and his philosophy of winemaking. The region enjoys a Mediterranean climate of sunny days cooled by breezes flowing inland from the nearby Pacific Ocean, fog-shrouded nights, and mineral-rich soils of varying compositions—all the components necessary for producing superb wines year after year.
Cetto Vineyards, Valle de Guadalupe, April 2011

Cetto Vineyards, Valle de Guadalupe, April 2011


In such an environment, Magoni’s philosophy of winemaking comes down to one phrase: understanding grapes.
“To make wine from the region, you have to understand the composition of the grape for each variety: the sugar, acid, and flavors. You have to understand how the composition of the grape changes with each vintage, how the vintage changes the composition in each lot of the same variety. Only then can you consider process of winemaking—the technology.”

When Magoni arrived in Valle de Guadalupe in the mid-1960s, the roads into the Valle were dirt, and only three varieties of grapes were planted, he said. Today, there is a paved motorway (Hwy 3) leading up from Ensenada, and the Cetto vineyards consist of 30 varieties of top European varieties covering over 1,200 hectares.

Among the most prestigious for Vinos L.A. Cetto are Zinfandel, Sangiovese, and Nebbiolo (Cetto Vineyards boasts the largest planting of Nebbiolo—134 hectares–outside the Barolo region of Italy). Each of these varieties presents special challenges and requires particular understanding in order to produce the world class wines deserving of the Vinos L.A. Cetto label.

The great charm and appeal of Zinfandel, said Camillo, is its fruit, and so he vinifies Zinfandel with just neutral casks, for the micro-oxygenation. “For me, because of its intense flavors and fruity character, Zinfandel is a unique variety. If you add wood character, you lose some of the fruit character. And if you lose the fruit character of Zinfandel,” he once famously said, “it is like a man without a last name.”

Zinfandel, Rancho Escondido - July 2011

Zinfandel, Rancho Escondido – July 2011

Nebbiolo (known in Italy as “Barolo) is one of the great wines in the world, believes Magoni, but “it’s late maturing in the bottle, so we have to leave the money for 5 years, occasionally longer. For this reason and because as a grower you have to understand its composition, Nebbiolo is not known world-wide like Cabernet 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 5 years for the money.”

Nebbiolo vine dating to 1946 - Valle de Guadalupe - July 2011

Nebbiolo vine dating to 1946 – Valle de Guadalupe – July 2011


For Camillo Magoni and Vinos L.A. Cetto, it’s well worth the wait.
Nebbiolo, 15 vintage vertical tasting, Vinos L.A. Cetto - July 2011

Nebbiolo, 15 vintage vertical tasting, Vinos L.A. Cetto – July 2011


Sangiovese was the most difficult grape for Magoni to get a handle on.
“It takes several years to understand,” he said. “It’s a variety very easy to over crop and is difficult to regulate. Unless irrigation is strictly controlled, it is a variety that tends to make a big bunch with big berries so we have to control that. It’s taken us 10 years to understand it.”
Sangiovese clusters, Valle de Guadalupe - July 2011

Sangiovese clusters, Valle de Guadalupe – July 2011


For Camillo, there is no other way.

“It’s easy to make good wine—if you understand your grapes,” he says time and again. “That’s the key. You need to know the grapes, the varieties, like you know a person. It is imperative to know each one to assure the best quality wine as possible—and also knowing what kind of wine you want to make.”

When I asked him if he were saying that he knew the composition of all 30 varieties of grapes in Cetto’s vineyards, he replied with a little laugh that was in no way self-deprecating, “I’m saying that. It is imperative to know each one to assure the best quality wine as possible.” And if he makes a mistake in his understanding of a variety or a vintage? “Well, we just don’t bottle it,” he replied.

Price is not a Score

Nebbiolo clusters Valle de Guadalupe, Baja, CA, Mexico

Nebbiolo clusters Valle de Guadalupe, Baja, CA, Mexico

Zinfandel Clusters, Bedrock Vineyard, Sonoma Valley, California

Zinfandel Clusters, Bedrock Vineyard, Sonoma Valley, California

One thing to always remember when buying wines: Price is NOT a score! The price of a bottle of wine is never a reflection of the quality of wine inside that bottle.

Three basic factors go into the price of a bottle of wine no matter what the wine is or where it is produced. You have the cost of the grapes, the cost of equipment and labor necessary for their harvest and processing, and the cost of the bottle the wine is put into when it is finished.

These costs can vary greatly, depending on several additional factors:

• country of origin
• region where the grapes were grown (Bordeaux, Tuscany, Rioja, SW Australia, Sonoma Valley, the Okanagan Valley, etc.)
• the vintage (that is, the year)
• the varietal (CS, PN, ZIN, Nero d’Avalo, Malbec, SB, Chard, PG, etc.)
• winemaking practices, especially the barrel ageing protocol
• quantity of wine produced
• the reputation of the producer
• marketing and distribution of the finished wine (includes bottle selection and label)

The following five red wines are all from vineyards considered best suited to the variety, and all have been made in accordance with the best winemaking practices for their regions and varieties. The price per bottle, on average, varies from almost $100 US to under $10 US.

• 2009 Las Rocas Garnacha (Spain), sourced from 80-year-old vines from the DO of Calatayud, average price about $15 US,
• Ravenswood’s 2009 Bedrock Zinfandel (US), sourced from Sonoma Valley vines about the same age (80 years), priced at $35 US,
• Vinos L.A. Cetto’s 2006 Nebbiolo (Baja CA, Mexico), sourced from 60-year-old vines in Valle de Guadalupe, priced about $20 US,
• Donnafugata 2007 “Mille e una Notte” Nero d’Avalo (Sicilia), sourced from Sicily’s indigenous Nero d’Avalo grapes, recommended retail price $90 US.
• Viu Manent 2011 Gran Reserva Malbec (Chile), sourced from established vines averaging 15 years in Valle de Colchagua, priced at $8.

If you consider that each of these wines is priced exactly right in accordance with the criteria provided above, and that the prices do not reflect quality, then how would you go about making the best choice among them for your dining occasion?

Well, that’s where the fun begins: you have to taste them! If upon tasting these wines you decide that the Donnafugata “Mille e una Notte” Nero d’Avalo from Sicily is the one you like the best (it is a gorgeous wine; I’ve tasted it, and met the winemaker), then do you like it enough to pay between 3 and 11 times more than for the other selections, which are also lovely wines, understanding that probably at least $30 of that $90 bottle price of the Donnafugata goes towards winery aesthetics and marketing?

As Kermit Lynch, owner of Kermit Lynch Wine Merchants, Berkeley, CA, said to me a few years ago:

“ ‘I think a lot of people, not in France, not in Italy, but in California and maybe the rest of the U.S., think that price is a score; that a $300 bottle of wine is better than a $100 a bottle . . . .That’s completely false. Price is no reflection of quality. You can get such good wines for cheap.’” (Rhoda Stewart, “Affordable French Wines,” Napa Valley Register: 19 September 2009)

Because price is not a score! Not that scores, for that matter, are of much use, either.