Nebbiolo is considered to be one of the classic grape varieties of Italy. Nebbiolo is also the only grape grown in the great Barolo and Barbaresco DOCG’s. In my next post, I will discuss the Barolo region and the different wine styles being produced there. But for now, we’ll concentrate on the grape itself. Nebbiolo, unfortunately does not seem to travel well from its northern Italian home. There ARE small amounts planted throughout the world, but these plantings fail to live up to the standard Nebbiolo achieves in Piedmont. Another interesting fact; despite the high regard accorded Nebbiolo, it only accounts for 6% of the total vineyard area, even in its primary residency of Piedmont.
The main regions that use Nebbiolo are Barolo and Barbaresco and, even more to the north, Gattinara and Ghemme. For a softer, more approachable and less expensive interpretation, try a Langhe and Nebbiolo d’Alba Doc as an alternative to the big burly Barolos.
Nebbiolo has a very long history. It is probably the oldest vine planted in the Piedmonte. It was first mentioned in 1303 as growing in Canale d’ Alba’. It was actually known as “Nebiolo” even at that early date. In the fifteenth century, you could lose a hand if you cut down a Nebbiolo vine. If you got caught twice, you may have been hanged. They obviously thought quite highly of Nebbiolo even then. As I see it, anyone with the bad grace to cut down a Nebbiolo vine should be hung anyway.
Nebbiolo, as with most old grape varieties, is prone to mutations. There are approximately forty different clones of Nebbiolo, some much more successful than others. Of these original forty, three clones are now widely grown. These three are Lampia, Michet and Rose. Rose, however, has fallen out of fashion due to the light colour of the wines it produces. Some of the minor clones are planted elsewhere in Italy. Picoutener is preferred in the far north, while in Valtellina it its Chiavennasca.
Nebbiolo is fussy about climate and where it puts its feet. It buds early and is late ripening. This grape needs south-facing slopes to ripen properly in the continental climate of northern Italy. Nebbiolo does get the best growing areas of the Laghne, because of the
prestige it has in this region and elsewhere in the world. It is thought that Nebbiolo gets its name from ‘Nebbia’, the fog that happens in the Piedmonte in October, when the grapes are finally ripe. Unfortunately, Nebbiolo is also quite prone to Colotura, or poor fruit set. For that reason, it must be sheltered from the winds.
Nebbiolo produces huge wines with full extract and tannins and even more tannins. Did I mention that they have tannins? Surprisingly, these tannins are extracted from very thin skins. The tannins are complimented and balanced by the high acidity of this grape variety. The tannins and acids are essential and enable these wines to age for years. The classic tasting note is black cherries, tar, roses and leather. I prefer the French term goudron, a rather more elegant term than tar. These are not jammy, fruity wines. Think spicy, floral and savory. They become very complex with a little age and defy description at times. Also with age, they take on a brick red on the rim, along with notes of truffle and wild herbs, losing the rose and floral notes. Think big foods with these wines; roasts and game. Wines crafted from Nebbiolo can age for decades, and hold up well with plenty of body and taste. I have had some fantastic wines that were over forty years old. Oh, and that is going to be expanded upon in an upcoming post.