Once the Fog Clears, Few Grapes Are Better Than Nebbiolo
Nebbiolo is one of the world’s highest quality red varieties, responsible for making some of Italy’s finest and long-lived wines, namely Barolo and Barbaresco, in its native Piemonte. There is mention of the high quality of Nebbiolo going all the way back to Pliny the Elder. By the 15th century it became illegal to cut down Nebbiolo vines, an offence punishable by losing your hands or even, for repeat offenders, your head.
The name of the grape has a few stories, but the most likely is that it comes from the word “nebbia”, which is Italian for fog, which descends on the vineyards of Piemonte in October and November, when Nebbiolo is traditionally harvested.
Nebbiolo is famous for its brick orange tinge at the rim around a blackish ruby colour.Primary fruit flavours of red cherry and rose petal, are topped by star anise in the best wines.
Its perfume is intensely aromatic, and with careful oak and bottle ageing can develop notes of autumn undergrowth, wood smoke, violets and sometimes tar.
Nebbiolo is so highly prized as a red table wine, that it is rare to find it used in any other way.
It is sometimes blended with other varieties to add colour or to soften the otherwise harsh tannins that can make Nebbiolo tough to drink in its early years.In Piemonte, in particular, that means Barbera, or sometimes even the white grape Arneis.
Nebbiolo is a fickle creature. It buds early and so its flowers can be susceptible to spring frosts.It’s also the last to ripen in the vineyard, usually a good week or two after Barbera. It demands calcareous marl soils, which it luckily finds in abundance on the right bank of the Tannaro river (Barbaresco) and south of Alba (Barolo).This is where the high-acid and tannic wines reach their full aromatic complexity and produce exceptional and age worthy wines.
Of the four recognised clones, it’s Nebbiolo Michet that offers the smaller bunches, smaller yields and more intense aromas.
high tannin and relatively high acidity make it a perfect match for rich, fatty protein based stews, such as the Piemontese specialty of wild boar ragú. Can’t find wild boar? Why not try it with beef or kidney beans instead?
ITALY – PIEMONTE
To protect its iconic status, Piemonte has done what many Italian wine regions could not, when presented with a wine in demand.They restricted the plantings of Nebbiolo to just 3% of total vineyard area.(Could you imagine the average quality of Prosecco had the Venetians done the same?).
The DOCGs of Barolo and Barbaresco are of course the most famous and important in Piemonte, but Roero Riserva DOC is beginning to make great value wines for those on a budget, from slightly sandier soils on the other side of the Tannaro.
The altitude of the Barolo vineyards of 250-450m above sea level and a sun facing exposure really help the grapes to reach their full potential ripeness.
Nebbiolo D’Alba DOC is effectively a satellite appellation of Barolo. It can produce top wines in good years, although again on sandier soils.
ITALY – ELSEWHERE
Nebbiolo is also grown in the sub alpine regions to the north of Piemonte in a more medium bodied style. In the Valle D’Aosta it’s known as Pictutener, and in Lombardia as Chiavennasca.
REST OF THE WORLD
Lots of experimentation has been done although so far no region can match the quality potential of Nebbiolo demonstrated in Piemonte.
It travelled with Italian immigrants to North and South America, although Sangiovese is more successful in California, and Malbec is the main consideration in Mendoza.
There are now some really interesting wines coming out of Oregon and Washington States in the USA. In Victoria in Australia as the Australians explore more Italian varieties than ever before.
Wanderlust’s Nebbiolo selection
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If you love Nebbiolo you should also explore….
This is a very hard one as Nebbiolo is such an iconic wine. But maybe if you’re looking for a structured Italian red capable of maturing into a long lasting complex wine, seek out some of the better Sangiovese wines on the market.