Only Love Can Break Your Heart: Steve Clifton and the Madness of Nebbiolo

June 30, 2014

photo (82)As wine lovers, we hear stories again and again of Pinot Noir’s difficulties in the vineyard and the cellar.  Often described as “the heartbreak grape,” it has perplexed and exasperated many a vigneron across centuries.  But talk to Nebbiolo producers in California and you soon find out that the “heartbreak” of Pinot is the stuff of puppy love compared to the torrid, depression-inducing love affair that is Nebbiolo.  I spoke this week with Steve Clifton, a man who has devoted himself to crafting great Nebbiolo from Santa Barbara County, about his long relationship with this maddening grape variety.

“If a producer is not willing to invest in the time and anguish necessary to produce Nebbiolo and be proud of it, don’t bother,” states Clifton.  “Ours is at least a 5 year project. I wish I could afford to hold on to it longer. My accountant wishes he had never heard of Nebbiolo.”  Steve Clifton’s passion for Nebbiolo is palpable.  Taste his various expressions of the grape, from 5 different vineyards in Santa Barbara County, and you can see the meticulous care given to let the site character of each express itself.  His passion has even inspired our owner here at the café, Sam Marmorstein, to plant a bit of Nebbiolo for his Bernat project.  Marmorstein also is quick to note the obsessiveness required of the grape.  “It’s the first to bud and last to harvest in November,” he says.  “It’s definitely a labor of love.  I don’t think many wine makers will attempt it.”

Of the winemakers I’ve spoken to in the past about Nebbiolo, from the Sierra Foothills and Santa Cruz Mountains to Paso Robles and Santa Maria Valley, one complaint has constantly arisen: the challenge of getting pH to rise.  For most, it is not uncommon to pick with pH between 3.0 and 3.2.  To provide context, those pH levels are more like what one might see with a very high acid white, or even some sparkling wines; to experience those numbers in a red wine is almost unheard-of.  Through his years of farming adjustments, and assistance from the masters of Piemonte, Clifton has been one of the lucky few to get this issue under control.  “Those numbers were definitely the case in the early days before we asked for help with farming,” Clifton says.  “In 2000, Maurizio Gily, Luciano Sandrone and others gave time to come and help us with farming and changed all of that. We harvest Nebbiolo between 3.4 -3.6 pH and around 23.5 brix now.”

This may be one of the great keys to his success with the grape: the wines have a beautiful balance between generosity of fruit, textural presence, and acid, allowing them to handle long times in barrel and bottle without losing freshness.  Clifton attributes this success to forgoing the idea that grapevines have to struggle.  “When I was finally taught to farm for health, strength and virility for Nebbiolo, everything changed. I have applied that philosophy to all of our farming and am very happy with the results.”  Clonal material has played a major role in Nebbiolo’s New World success (or failure) as well, with the availability of better clonal material in the early 2000s marking a huge shift in quality.  “Before 1997 we were working almost exclusively with Lampia and Rosé clones,” states Clifton.  “In 1998 we made Michet available. To me 2002 and the first Michet harvests were a major turning point.”

The debate over modern vs. traditional has been a fierce one for decades in Piemonte, much as it has taken hold in Californian wine culture over the last few years.  The traditionalists embrace lengthy fermentations with long extended macerations, large neutral casks for aging, and longer stays in barrel and bottle before release.  The modernists employ shorter fermentations and may utilize small barrique, sometimes new, for aging, striving for riper and/or fruitier, more generous characteristics in their wines.  Clifton proudly falls into the traditionalist camp, deeply inspired by one of my personal idols in Barolo, Giacomo Conterno.  “I love that you make reference to Giacomo Conterno,” smiles Clifton.  “He is by far the most enduring influence on our Nebbiolo style (not to mention Barbera as well).  The highest compliment I have ever received was to be mentioned in Piemonte as a part of the ‘traditional’ group of producers, even though we are New World.”  Clifton is also quick to point out that both sides in the modernist/traditionalist debate in Piemonte are moving a bit more toward the middle.  “I think the modernist-vs -traditionalist fight has lost its punch recently as most producers have reverted to a more restrained and traditional style over the last 8 vintages.”

Even Clifton’s style has grown and changed a great deal as he has had more experience with the grape.  “In the earliest years, I treated Nebbiolo like Pinot Noir because that is what I knew and because I thought the two grapes share a lot of similarities. I was dead wrong. If I ever treated Pinot Noir the way that I treat Nebbiolo now, it would look like apple butter.”  Despite the success he had achieved with Brewer-Clifton, he was willing to abandon what was comfortable and start anew in the name of expressing the truth of Nebbiolo.  “I had to start at the beginning and learn from scratch. I had to be willing to say ‘I don’t know’. It was very hard. I made many attempts early on with whole cluster Nebbiolo. I don’t show those off.”  Clifton has also settled on a relatively stable regime of extended maceration, though even here he still lets the vintage and intuition dictate his decisions.  “Extended maceration is typically 32 -46 days. Again, it is all about lengthening the tannin chains. The only determining factor is taste.”

While clearly a lover of great Piemonte Nebbiolo, Clifton is not trying to produce Barolo in California.  Like all great New World winemakers, his desire is to capture a singular take on the grape with the unique voice of his own surroundings.  “I strive to make translations, not replications,” Clifton emphasizes. “The most profound statement Nebbiolo can make is to reference where it is grown. I feel that it is necessary both that our Nebbiolo is varietally correct and identifiable, but also that it tastes of Santa Barbara and the vineyards that it is from. If it doesn’t, then I have missed the mark. Every great Nebbiolo exclaims where it is from.”

Much like Barolo, where one finds very different wines from the calcareous marl of the west (La Morra, Barolo) and the sandstone of the east (Castiglione Falletto, Serralunga d’Alba, Monforte d’Alba), Clifton finds the soil-driven differences to be very apparent in his Nebbiolo from Santa Barbara County.  “We have Nebbiolo on both limestone and clay based soils,” says Clifton.  “The difference is demonstrably obvious. The limestone base always delivers a lighter, more fragrant wine; the clay a more muscular, hearty wine.”  While he currently works with 5 very different vineyards, he still would like to explore additional terroirs within the County.  “I want to plant Nebbiolo in the Santa Rita Hills. I think that with proper, extreme farming… It could be amazing…”

Clifton is still exploring and tinkering, always with the end goal of creating his Nebbiolo masterpiece.  While many would argue he’s already crafted several, there is a continual push to be greater, to tame this mysterious mistress.  “If you fall under the spell of Nebbiolo, your choices are taken away.  It’s an obsession.  The closer you get to her, the more obsessed you become.  Any fleeting brush makes you try harder.  I have 20 or 30 years left, maybe, but I will always make Nebbiolo.”

BUY:
– Palmina 2008 Nebbiolo, Santa Barbara County

– Bernat 2009 Nebbiolo, ‘Daze’, Estate, Santa Ynez Valley

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