Cracking the Nebbiolo Code – Six Wines of Luke Lambert

Wines Of Now
10 May 2024. Words by Tom Kline.

Luke Lambert is Australia’s most devoted disciple of the nebbiolo grape. His fervent passion led him to travel across Europe, exploring food and wine before returning home to refine his craft with a singular ambition: to create the best nebbiolo in Australia. Not that this modest winemaker would state things in such terms. Starting in Heathcote and later moving to the Yarra Valley, Lambert has in recent years planted his own vineyard in Yea, just north of the Yarra Valley. We delved into his experience with nebbiolo and explored a vertical tasting of his vintages from the Denton View Hill vineyard, gaining insights into the complexities of this variety that loves cooler climates. We discover that with bottle age, counterintuitively, the warmer Yarra Valley vintages from the Denton site are perhaps looking the best of a very exciting lineup of wines.

The quality of Australian nebbiolo has seen a positive trajectory over its time, despite a good dose of scrutiny and cynicism along the way. The arguably unfair comparison to the wines of Itay’s powerhouse Barolo and Barbaresco regions has brought into question the grape’s potential for reaching great heights here. Over the past decade or so, however, it’s fair to say that a growing subset of Australian producers have answered that question with aplomb; the doubt quietened on account of incontrovertible quality.

The first plantings date back to the mid-1980s in New South Wales’ Mudgee region, where Carlo Corino put it in the ground for release under his Montrose Wine label. However, over time it became apparent that the area was too warm for the production of high quality nebbiolo. Since then, plantings have spread throughout various regions. Like Mudgee, however, many Australian regions have proven too hot, resulting in wines of overt ripeness and clunkiness, devoid of the precious and synonymous aromatic detail and nervy acidity that’s made nebbiolo famous. It’s a fickle grape, often one of the first to flower in spring, and one of the last to ripen in early-to-mid autumn. This makes it laborious and difficult to manage, but also demanding of specific climatic conditions. The Adelaide Hills has seen considerable success with nebbiolo, but the state of Victoria is where the grape has flourished. King Valley, Alpine Valley, Yarra Valley, Beechworth, Pyrenees, and Heathcote have all been responsible for high-quality expressions.

When it comes to the aforementioned trajectory of nebbiolo in Australia, Luke Lambert is considered as having led the charge in terms of consistent quality, varietal definition, and site expression. After a few trial vintages, Lambert released his first wines in 2005.

“I was hooked on nebbiolo from the first glass. Just seemed to be such a different and complex and most food perfect wine variety I’d ever come across,” tells Lambert of his love and almost singular winemaking pursuit with this variety. “The opposite of so many Australian wines at the time. Loved the perfume, high acid, structure and flavour spectrum that was so different to anything I’d had before. The more I learnt and drank, the more interesting the variety seemed. So reflective of site. So diverse in style. From the light high toned, red fruited, high-acid styles, to the dark and brooding, highly structured versions, I enjoyed them all – more than any other variety and regions. Seemed to me like all wine should taste like that and it was the perfect match for the food I’ve always liked to cook and eat. For me, the nebbiolo wines of Barolo, Gattinara and Valtellina made the best wines in the world. Daylight second.”

“I was hooked on nebbiolo from the first glass. Just seemed to be such a different and complex and most food perfect wine variety I’d ever come across.”
Above: Luke Lambert and his partner, Rosalind. In 2017 they purchased land in Yea, just north of the Yarra Valley, which they have planted with multiple clones of nebbiolo and named the vineyard, Sparkletown. 2025 is looking to be the first vintage from the Sparkletown vineyard. [Photos: Mike Emmett]

After a time of sourcing fruit from Heathcote, Luke made a change to Yarra Valley fruit from the 2011 vintage, beginning what would turn out to be a long and successful relationship with John and Simon Denton and their ‘View Hill’ vineyard – an isolated hill in the middle of the valley and north of the Yarra river. The site was formed 370 million years ago in the late Devonian age with a volcano having left behind a granite plug. This rocky terroir is marked by granitic sandy soils over a bedrock of large boulders, making it unique within the Yarra Valley.

Lambert describes the unique characteristics of the vineyard site, highlighting its uniqueness in soil composition, slope and exposure: “There really is no other site like the Denton vineyard and it’s turned out to be very well suited to nebbiolo. The granite gives very high perfume lift, high acid, bright red fruit as a young wine that splits into really complex secondary/savoury characters. The microclimate gives the required hang time. Very early budburst without frost risk all the way through to a long hang time and harvest in late April early May. The 2024 harvest will be 2nd May. Despite the long slow autumn hang time there’s still plenty of sunshine hitting the North West slope so there’s good fruit and seed ripeness even in the cooler years.”

Since 2013 – the first Nebbiolo release using 100% fruit from this vineyard – Lambert has consistently succeeded in capturing this terroir in the bottle. The granitic soils shine through in Lambert’s Nebbiolo wines, with a cooling mineral mouthfeel bringing lift and brightness. The long, slow growing seasons allowing for precise and detailed fruit profiles and clean, natural acid frames. Bright red fruits and aniseed are common, as are firm powdery tannins assisting the acidity in creating excellent length.

“After 20 years of working with, and thinking about the variety, I’m still trying to figure out what’s happening in the vineyard,” says Lambert. “We’ve such different conditions to Piedmont that a lot of those practices that are common place there just aren’t relevant to our big open blue sky and old acidic soils. It’s a vine-by-vine approach that really needs a lot of work on canopy and crop management. Unless those things are done correctly and at the right time, you’re stuffed. It’s maybe the least forgiving and fickle variety around. Give me another 20 years and there may be some firm answers here, but I suspect all decisions will still be made by assessing each vine as you’re standing in front of it.”

As for the future of nebbiolo from Lambert, there’s lots to look forward to. In 2017, Luke and his partner Rosalind purchased land in the Yea Valley near Murrindindi, around 25 minutes’ drive north of the Yarra Valley. It’s a north-east facing slope planted to nebbiolo, which will eventually be Lambert’s sole grape to focus in the longer-term. He and Rosalind were drawn to the site for its rocky soils, aspect, and greater diurnal shift (a greater variation of cool and warm temperatures) in comparison the Yarra Valley. The site was dubbed ‘Sparkletown’ after Luke, Rosalind and their daughter visited on a day where the sun was reflecting of the distant rocks.

Luke Lambert at his young Sparkletown vineyard. “After 20 years of working with, and thinking about the variety, I’m still trying to figure out what’s happening in the vineyard,” he says. [Photo: Mike Emmett]

The 2025 vintage is looking to be the first from Lambert’s Sparkletown vineyard. “We’re planning on at least a couple of years on foudre and a year to settle in bottle so it’ll likely be 2028 before we’re releasing the wine,” says Lambert. “I can’t wait and it’s very exciting. It’ll be the first wine that we’ve made that we selected a site, bought a property, established a vineyard and had full control the whole way through. It’s a singular, purpose built nebbiolo vineyard with one focus. It’s a big deal for me and all I’ve ever wanted to do.”

This project is a gamble given the uncharted territory viticulturally, let alone the fact that it’s dedicated to the fickle nebbiolo grape, but Luke and Rosalind need their own patch of land for full ownership of the glory and defeat in the future. Time will tell, but when it comes to nebbiolo, history suggests that Lambert makes sound decisions.

The Wines

Lambert advises the vintage weather conditions of these wines are loosely bundled into two rough groups. The cooler harvests, where summer temperatures didn’t hit high 30’s and rain was consistent throughout: 2015 and 2017. The warmer harvests of elevated temperatures and a dryer growing season that had high sunshine hours in the vineyard: 2013, 2014, 2016, 2019. No Luke Lambert Nebbiolo was made in 2020 due to Lambert’s quality control.

2013 Luke Lambert Nebbiolo, tasting note

Lovely limpid colour with crimson encircled by a brick, garnet rim. Deep wilted rose, brooding spiced cherry, terracotta, and fennel off the bat, with dried cherry, button mushroom, smoky minerality, and salted plum thereafter. The lovely lifted and savoury complexity here is seductive and morish. The palate is cooling, mineral and lithe, gliding across the mouth with morello cherry, subtle mushroom, mineral, hints of oregano, blood orange, and tar encased in fine but persistent powdery tannins and a freshening line of acid. There’s an open knit feel to this wine, reflective of a warmer year, but it’s so beautifully woven together. This shows savoury complexity, with mineral detail and freshness, excellent structure, and gentle length.

2014 Luke Lambert Nebbiolo, tasting note

Crimson colour with a brick rim. A restrained aromatic profile, with subtle smoke, gentle cherry, tar, salumi, brick dust, a whiff of fennel seed, and the faintest touch of roast tomato umami and pan juices. The savouriness to the nose makes for a moreish beginning. The palate has a cooling mineral mouth feel and is equally gentle in aesthetic, though with nice bursts of intensity. Red florals, cherry, terracotta, and salumi, are wrapped up in firm powdery brick-dust tannins and cherry-laced acidity to a long, savoury and slightly smoky close. A poised and quiet iteration with great complexity, structure and length.

Lambert says: “Looking back at what we’ve made off the Denton site it’s clear the wines from cool and warm years are quite different and it’s heartening to see them develop and improve over the years. Weirdly, the two wines that looked the worst early on – 2013 and 2014 – are now in my view drinking the best. This may just be a function of hitting that sweet spot in maturity and bottle evolution. I suspect more recent vintages will age even better, given viticulture and vine age/vine balance is now much improved compared to the early days.”

[Photos: Mike Emmett]

2015 Luke Lambert Nebbiolo, tasting note

Gentle aromas of blood orange, red cherry, seared meat, roast tomato, and dried cherry are sweetened by ripe red rose in a show of aromatic restraint. The palate is lifted and mineral, sitting high in the mouth without ever being weighed down. Red cherry, cranberry, and a slatey mineral note are underpinned by fennel and red rose. The tannins are chalky and integrated, working with a good wash of acid to carry the cherry and rose notes very long and detailed close. The long, cool vintage plays out here in quiet restraint, detail, and poise.

2016 Luke Lambert Nebbiolo, tasting note

Fennel seed, red liquorice and dried tomato skin make for an inviting opening, followed by red rose, cherry, red apple skin, woodsmoke, and a glimmer of au jus. The palate is compact and has a cooling lift, though not at the expense of ample texture. Cherry, aniseed, spiced plum, ripe rose, and red apple skin are wrapped up in assertive blood orange-drenched tannins bringing linearity and focus, helped along by a clean line of acid. Impressive drive and length through the palate here, with red rose permeating the mouth perfume. This wine somewhat belies it’s hot, hard and fast vintage, suggesting that the warmer years age well from this site.

2017 Luke Lambert Nebbiolo, tasting note

Charred tangerine, red brick, salumi, dried cherry, and salted plum lead a largely savoury aromatic profile, with the salted meat notes at the fore before some eventual emergence of deep red floras to pretty things up. There’s more fruit to the palate, red plum, ripe cherry, tangelo, and red rose are pulled into linear focus by firm-but-fine brick-dust tannins. Great acidity here, which freshens the palate and prompts gentle but significant length. 2017 was a cool vintage in the Yarra Valley, and it shows here in a tauter fruit profile and particularly firm acid line.

2019 Luke Lambert Nebbiolo, tasting note

Bright and sweet maraschino cherry aromas straight off, before red currant and cranberry. This is high-toned and lively. Some air and temperature bring out cherry cola and pops of kirsch. The palate is bright and lifted, with sweet red fruits aplenty. Cranberry, maraschino cherry, cola and kirsch again. Powdery tannins assert on to the fruit, constricting and drying the palate until a good wash of red-fruited acidity washes things down. This is bright, pure and primary fruit driven at this stage of its life. Time in bottle is required for this to unfurl and show its true nebbiolo colours. Another example of a compact and linear nebbiolo style belying a warm vintage, suggesting age-worthiness from such years.

Lambert circles back to the 2014 and the counterintuitive discovery from what the vintage conditions have delivered. “My preference has always been the cooler years, but with bottle maturity the warmer years really shine and lose their puppy fat and raw fruitiness to become the variety and build elegance,” Lambert says. “For example, I always thought the 2014 was the worst wine we’d made. In its first six years it looked raisoned and desiccated and not varietal at all. As a somewhat mature wine now it’s really become the variety and has quite clean and typical varietal character. The fruit sweetness has dried out and it’s drinking with quite cool elegance now. A real transformation in the bottle and again it’s a positive that as our harvests grow warmer, there’s plenty of room for nebbiolo to still ripen and hang in the cooler Autumn period of the growing season. I.e., it’s future proofed and in many ways a great fit for some sites/microclimates in some regions of Australia.

“Nebbiolo in Australia will always be fickle, and demanding, and hard work but the overall quality will only improve in time. The good news is, it’ll always reflect the site and the vintage and for me that’s the magic of the variety and the wine in the glass.”

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