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Making Wine and History Together : Martin Brothers May Widen the Appeal of Nebbiolo

January 08, 1987|NATHAN CHROMAN

It is rare when young California vintners make wine and history at the same time. Tom and Dominic Martin, the brothers of the Martin Brothers Winery, established as recently as 1981, are producing Nebbiolo.

Nebbiolo is a fascinating red of Italian origin as a California varietal that has not been commercially available for at least two decades and only in such limited quantities as to be virtually non-existent.

The Martin Brothers, Nebbiolo, 1984, is their third release of the varietal and an attempt to make an appealing, lean, light, soft, luscious Beaujolais Nouveau-styled wine to attract a broad audience, including neophyte red wine lovers. This is a delightful ready-to-drink red, with a jamlike nose and elegant taste exhibiting sufficient tannin for aging and enough flavor to mask its high 13.7% alcohol. For light luncheon, drinking the wine is delightful, but it may not do well at dinner with robust roasts and steaks.

The jammy, lean style seems to be characteristic of the brothers' intention to make wines that do not overpower nor require long-term cellaring. Nicely balanced, the Nebbiolo was improved by six months in Taransaud Troncais barrels after four months in French oak uprights. Priced at $7.50, the wine will be enjoyed by seasoned wine lovers too and indeed would make a handy addition to restaurant wine lists, which need a nicely done, earlier-to-drink red wine.

Additional Bottle Aging

Recently, I tasted the 1982, which has benefited by the several years of additional bottle aging. The '84 should last nicely for the next three to five years and may encourage other California vintners to try their luck with the variety that is to produce a quick-to-mature, pleasingly tart wine of easy access. Surely, the brothers are on to something exciting.

In its home Italy, the Nebbiolo is a superior grape that has been around since 1300 in northern wine-making regions, producing a long list of unique reds so as to qualify for all-purpose varietal status. Not only responsible for two of the country's most important reds, Barolo and Bararesco, Nebbiolo is used for Gattinara, Ghemme, Carema, a host of Spumante, Rosato (rose) and even several whites. In Lombardy, the variety is known as the Chiavennasca, while in the Valle D'Aosta it is called the Picotener.

Dominic, the winery's Davis-trained wine maker, is chiefly responsible for the Nebbiolo project. What he is looking for is a lighter-styled Barolo, no doubt due to his having inherited a special feeling for Italian wine and culture after a year of serious college study in Florence.

The easy access taste of Nebbiolo, Dominic also lavished on his Zinfandel, Paso Robles, 1984. Similarly, in a light, luncheon-like popular, lean style, the wine reflects a subdued aroma, with fine flavors reflecting light spice and pepper. There is considerable fruit here in a not big-bodied mode with a hint of cranberries. At $6 the wine represents common-sense value for an early-to-drink style that is fast gaining wide popularity.

"When we started our winery we decided upon a house style," said Dominic, "to make wines of great freshness and drinkability yet with subtle flavors, lower alcohol and tannin and above all verve." Tom, the winery's marketer, explained verve.

Prefer Greater Fruitiness

"Both Dominic and I have a preference for greater fruitiness which can be brought to the bottle while at the same time trying to avoid the pruney, high-alcohol syndrome so common with reds, especially Zinfandels. We look for full but slightly crisp flavors in our grapes when we pick because we tend to harvest somewhat earlier, and the aging ability of our wine is enhanced due to the slightly higher natural acids."

Martin Brothers reds are even more stylized than the whites. Dominic claims this is because of fermentation that benefits from an initial overnight chilling to encourage greater fruitiness and a pseudo-carbonic effect in the wine resulting in a Beaujolais Nouveau-like style. After the chilling, a special yeast, Pris de Mousse, is added in addition to short periods of aging.

Dry Chenin Blanc, Paso Robles, 1985, at $5.50 makes for a white that, while billed as dry, comes across as ever-so-slightly sweet in a rich, elegant for the variety style. Round and clean there is 5% Chardonnay in the blend supported by an intense, big, floral Chenin Blanc aroma suggesting scents of a variety of melon.

The production here is low but from two important Paso Robles vineyards, Smoot (71%) and the Perata. As Chenin Blancs go, this wine is drier (at .06%) than most; indeed, there are very few dry-styled Chenins Blancs these days, with the most prominent being Chappellet. This is slightly sweeter and perhaps richer, but like Chappellet, it has spent three months in French Limousin, while 50% has spent a like period in French uprights.

Low-Alcohol, Fruity Style

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