The Noble Nebbiolo Wines of Northern Italy

Nebbiolo is one of Italy’s two greatest red grapes (the other being Sangiovese), and it certainly reigns in northern Italy. Particularly in the famed Barolo and Barbaresco regions, Nebbiolo makes some of the world’s most complex, age-worthy, and sought-after wines. Though most won’t be cheap, Nebbiolo wines offer great opportunities to taste aged bottles. Even after 50 years or more, these wines can take you for an exceptionally mind blowing ride upon tasting.

Considered native to northwestern Italy, Nebbiolo is allegedly named for the fog, or “nebbia,” that covers vines in the grape’s Langhe heartland. The grape has a long history in this area; references to Nebbiolo trace all the way back to the 14th century. Regional synonyms abound, including Spanna in alpine Piedmont regions like Gattinara and Ghemme, and Chiavennasca in Lombardy’s Valtellina.

Style, flavors, and aromas

Easily distinguished from the average red grape even by sight, Nebbiolo loses color easily. Even young Nebbiolo tends to be pale, with a distinct orange-tinged rim. Don’t let that delicate color trick you into expecting a gentle wine, however. The first sip of Nebbiolo can be a quite smack in the face, as its powerful structure fires relentlessly on all cylinders.

Typically high in acidity, tannins, alcohol, and body, Nebbiolo is not often a friendly grape in youth. After a full day of tasting young Barolo at Vinitaly, we are left with enamel scorched teeth and rought, tannin-chafed cheeks. But all that structure makes it extremely capable of aging for many decades.

Terroir has a huge effect on Nebbiolo, and depending on the soils and climate, the wines can have softer tannins or lighter body. Some vintages yield much softer, approachable and fruity versions while other, colder, rainy, more difficult years produce much more roughshod examples.

Barolo is traditionally aged in large "botti" or Slavonian oak barrels. photo credit
Barolo is traditionally aged in large “botti” or Slavonian oak barrels. Photo via Flickr

One of the most complex and nuanced wines, Nebbiolo is classically red-fruited, with an array of floral, herbal, and earth notes. In fact, the most recognizable scent in Barolo is described as tar and roses. The aromas and flavors only evolve over time, meaning that Nebbiolo wines can smell and taste of sour cherry, roses, mint, violets, leather, tobacco, tar, iron, tea, mushroom, forest floor, and more. Depending on the style of the winery, a producer may or may not age Nebbiolo in new oak, so there could be tones of vanilla and baking spice as well.

Regions

Many famous grapes, such as Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir, are grown around the world by winemakers trying to capitalize on the variety’s popularity. Nebbiolo doesn’t quite work that way. It is extremely particular, needing specific, poor soils and ample sunshine to fully form this early-flowering, late-ripening variety.

While Nebbiolo’s most famous wines come from the Langhe area of Piedmont, the grape makes a range of wine styles throughout much of northwestern Italy. Beyond the principle areas of Barolo and Barbaresco, which make some of Nebbiolo’s most nuanced, long-lived, and expensive wines, the Roero region just across the river also produces structured reds. In this production center, Nebbiolo can also be bottled as Langhe Nebbiolo or Nebbiolo d’Alba.

Nebbiolo hanging on the vine. Photo
Nebbiolo hanging on the vine. Photo via Flickr

Head to the northern reaches of Piedmont and Nebbiolo is found in the alpine foothills of Alto Piemonte, where a combination of cooler temperatures and iron-rich soils produce lighter, more ethereal wines. Known as Spanna here, Nebbiolo produces wines with classic flavors but lighter body. Gattinara is the largest and most well-known of the Alto Piemonte regions, along with Ghemme, Boca, and Carema.

Outside of Piedmont, Nebbiolo is also found in northern Lombardy’s Valtellina area, which is actually not too far from Alto Piemonte. In this east-west oriented valley, the grape (known locally as Chiavennasca) produces lighter, acid-driven wines with fine minerality, similar to those of Alto Piemonte.

A note on vintages
Some vintages of Barolo/Barbaresco can be MUCH better than others. Since 2000 there have been quite a few outstanding years, including 2001, 2004, 2006, 2010, 2013. While they haven’t been released as of yet, both 2015 and 2016 are also shaping up to be absolutely killer vintages.

 Food pairings

The powerful structure of Nebbiolo makes it a natural pairing for rich dishes, as its tannins bind with fat and its acidity cuts through richness. Meats and thick sauces (think lots of butter and olive oil) are natural pairings with the grape. Simultaneously, the complex and enticing aromatics and flavors of Nebbiolo can play well off of an array of dishes, hence why the wine is the classic pairing for truffles

  • Creamy mushroom pasta with black truffles
  • Braised short ribs
  • Dry-aged duck breast

Recommended bottles

  • Pe. Pe. ‘Stella Retica’ Valtellina Superiore, Lombardy, Italy
  • Vallana Gattinara, Piedmont, Italy
  • Ferrando ‘Etichetta Bianca’ Carema, Piedmont, Italy
  • Paolo Scavino ‘Bric dël Fiasc’ Barolo, Pidemont, Italy
  • Castello di Neive ‘Santo Stefano’ Barbaresco Riserva, Piedmont, Italy

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