Alt-Nebbiolo, Anyone?

Thomas Jefferson, Barolo and Giuseppe Vaira

Alt-Nebbiolo, Anyone?
At G.D. Vajra, Giuseppe Vaira has experimented with how Nebbiolo wines were made in the 1600s and 1700s—as light and fizzy reds. (Robert Camuto)
Feb 28, 2023

I’ve become smitten by a difficult-to-classify Nebbiolo, one produced in prime Barolo territory but with a character nothing like Barolo. It’s light in color and weight, with a hint of wild rusticity and a spritz of carbonic fizz.

It’s so easy-drinking that when you pour it for friends, especially chilled in warm weather, it tends to disappear fast.

The wine, called Claré J.C., is the creation of Giuseppe Vaira, who manages production for his family’s stellar G.D. Vajra winery in Barolo.

“The first basis of the wine is that we grew up in the ’90s without TV,” says the energetically effervescent Vaira, 37. “We had the chance to read a lot of books.”

To that end, the wine was inspired by antique works that included descriptions of Nebbiolo before its Barolo fame.

As a teenager, Vaira read some of the writings of American Founding Father and wine lover Thomas Jefferson, who on a trip to Piedmont in 1787 described then-sparkling Nebbiolo as “about as sweet as the silky Madeira, as astringent on the palate as Bordeaux, and as brisk as Champagne.”

“For me, that little quote opened a world of questions,” says Vaira.

As a young school kid in Barolo, he had learned that Nebbiolo became an exalted wine labeled as Barolo during the mid-19th century. “Before that, we learned, the wine was slightly fizzy and lesser.”

The key questions Jefferson triggered for Vaira were as follows: Were the bubbles of old Nebbiolo intentional? Or were they, as most wine professionals theorized, a defect due to a lack of understanding of fermentation?

Some years later, after forgoing medical school to study viticulture and enology in Turin, Vaira stumbled on another book that answered these questions for him. It was a reprint of the 1606 winemaking protocols of G.B. Croce, jeweler to the Turin-based Royal House of Savoy.

“It is the most detailed description I have found about how wines were made in Piedmont in the 17th century,” Vaira enthuses.

What especially excited Vaira was Croce’s instruction to hammer down the top of Nebbiolo barrels, to allow the wines to hold the naturally occurring sparkle from fermentation.

“The wines were lighter, off-dry and slightly fizzy—not because of ignorance, but as a matter of will!” Vaira concludes. “For me, this was a revolution.”

In 2013, Vaira began experimenting to try to create something like an antique Nebbiolo. In that year, he says, “We bottled six Champagne bottles of partially fermented Nebbiolo to see what it tasted like with bubbles.”

The following spring, Vaira traveled to California with a couple of bottles to taste with family friend Darrell Corti, the now-80-year-old, food-and-wine tastemaker of Corti Brothers market in Sacramento.

“He liked it. He had tasted fizzy Nebbiolo in Piedmont,” says Vaira. The following vintage, Vaira produced about 3,000 bottles labeled “Claret J.C.”—the “J” for Jefferson and the “C” dedicated to Croce and Corti.

International buyers balked at the idea of bubbly Nebbiolo (Bubbliolo, anyone?), so Vaira sold his stock to Garagiste, Jon Rimmerman’s Seattle-based, direct-to-consumer, e-mail sales giant.

The wine quickly sold out. Importers and distributors complained about Vaira’s “end run” and demanded shipments of the wine’s next vintage. “They were upset, but it was through that anger they wanted to buy it,” Vaira says with a mischievous grin.

For the next vintage, the name was changed to “Claré J.C.,” after the Vairas received a letter from the Bordeaux Wine Council (Conseil Interprofessionnel du Vin de Bordeaux) insisting they stop using the term claret, a British nickname for Bordeaux.

Today, production of the wine is a maximum of 1,000 cases. That’s a drop in the bucket of G.D. Vajra’s eclectic lineup of 16 wines, among them Barolos, Dolcettos, Barberas, a Freisa, a sparkling rosé from Nebbiolo and more. Giuseppe works without a title alongside his parents, Aldo and Milena, who founded the estate and pioneered organic methods in 1968, his sister, Francesca, and his brother, Isidoro.

“Everyone in the family is a jack-of-all-trades,” Vaira says. “We don’t like the term ‘winemaker’ or ‘enologist.’ Half the team has a degree in viticulture and enology.”

Claré J.C. is sourced from some of the Vairas’ younger Nebbiolo vineyards. After the grapes were harvested, I’d expected the production to replicate some pre-modern winemaking techniques. Perhaps foot trodding of grapes, fermentation in traditional chestnut barrels instead of oak, and maybe some old-fashioned trick to prevent bottles from exploding during transport or on store shelves.

I was disappointed in that regard: Claré J.C. is really a modern sequel rather than an exact replica of an old wine style. It’s fermented in stainless steel tanks, using native yeasts and varying percentages of whole clusters. Temperature cooling and filtering stop fermentation, and pressurized tanks known as autoclaves help the wine keep a low level of fizz.

“The big thing of Barolo has been to get into the realm of structure, complexity, depth and velvetiness,” Vaira reflects. “Here we are taking a detour from the regular road. … We are still learning.”

People Red Wines Nebbiolo Italy Piedmont

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