Noble Nebbiolo: The Wine of Kings

Nebbiolo is one of Italy’s two greatest red grapes (the other being Sangiovese), and is the undisputed king in northwest Italy, if not the entire country. This noble grape serves as the backbone for some of the world’s most complex, age-worthy, and sought-after wines.

One grape, two styles

Nebbiolo comes in two forms, Barolo and Barbaresco. They share a lot in common. Both start with the letter B and end in O. Both must contain 100% of the grape, with no additions of other varietals. They’re both grown in Piedmont, with just about ten miles of distances separating the two.

The main difference is that Barolo spends one extra year aging.

In the glass

Visually, Nebbiolo is one of the easiest wines to identify. Even young Nebbiolo tends to be pale, with a distinct brick orange-tinged rim. Don’t let that delicate color trick you into expecting a gentle tipple. 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, and body, Nebbiolo is not often accessible in its youth. After a full day of tasting young Barolo at Vinitaly, we are left with enamel scorched teeth and rough, tannin-chafed cheeks. But that huge structure is also what makes it extremely capable of aging for many decade

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.

Terroir

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

According to DOCG regulations, the wines must be aged for at least two years in oak and one year in bottle, with five years of age (three in oak) required for Riserva labeling. Both have a minimum 13 percent alcohol content.

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. For a period of time in the 90s, there was a movement to “modernize” Barolo to appeal to a wider base of consumers who wanted approachable and easy to drink wines upon release. Some producers started fermenting in small French oak barrels instead of the traditional larger Hungarian casks. This trend brought outspoken criticism from those who felt this new approach muted the true personality of the wines. Today however it’s pretty common to see a mix of small and large barrels in the winery, and most producers find a balance between the old and new styles.

Inexpensive Barolo?
Affordable and Barolo go together like oil and water. At the very low end you can expect to pay around $30-40 and most reputable examples soar well above $80. However, you can still gain an appreciation for Nebbiolo without throwing down a benjamin. Most producers make a Nebbiolo d’Alba or Langhe Nebbiolo, affectionately referred to as “Baby Barolo”. These wines are not aged as long, and share many of the same beautiful qualities as their big siblings. Except price. They cost way less, normally from $20-30. They’re lighter, fresher, more approachable and enjoyable young. 

Regions

Considered native to northwestern Italy, Nebbiolo is named for the fog, or “nebbia,” that smothers vineyards in the Langhe heartland. The Langhe region of Piedmont, just south of the town of Alba they make Barolo and west of Alba they make Barbaresco. Both must contain 100% Nebbiolo.

Unlike many famous grapes, such as Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir, which are grown around the world by winemakers, Nebbiolo is almost exclusively contained in this tiny region of Italy. It is extremely particular, needing specific, poor soils and ample sunshine to fully form this early-flowering, late-ripening grape. Italy’s DOCg (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantitaregulations) places strict regulations on where it can grow. Outside Italy you’ll find a few adventurous growers working with the grape, hardly enough to warrant an acreage count, and the quality and style will never match that of Piedmont.

The striking Barolo landscape, with its rolling hills extending toward the swiss Alps in the north, is a sight to behold.
The striking Barolo landscape, with its rolling hills extending toward the swiss Alps in the north, is a sight to behold.

Nebbiolo also appears in a range of wine styles throughout much of northwestern Italy. 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.

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.

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

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 the 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

Possible recipes include:

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

Recommended bottles

Though most bottles of Barolo and Barbaresco won’t be cheap, Nebbiolo wines offer great opportunities to taste aged bottles. Even after 50 years or more, these wines can deliver an exceptionally mind blowing tasting experience.

  • Pe. Pe. ‘Stella Retica’ Valtellina Superiore, Lombardy, Italy
  • Manzone Barolo Gramolere
  • 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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