Nebbiolo is one of the great wine grapes of Italy. Thick skinned, late ripening and capable of creating wines that age gracefully for many years, Nebbiolo’s cult status has grown into full blown global appreciation for its distinctive aromas and structural profile. It is best known for its role in Barolo where it gives wines that are famously tannic in youth but often, over the course of decades, develop to reveal a seductively ethereal character.
In the neighbouring growing area of Barbaresco it is gives a slightly fleshier, softer version, but again, its inherent rustic austerity ensures wines with plenty of body and tannin. Regardless, these villages have slowly won over wine lovers across the world and have acquired the prices to match the hype. The interest around in these wines and the Nebbiolo grape in general has led to a culture amongst producers of making single vineyard wines. Such an approach has inspired a detailed mapping of both Barolo and Barbaresco which in turn has lead to the introduction an official cru system in both denominations.
Needless to say the study continues to fuel interest and intrigue in the multitude of hillsides and soil types which characterise these low production wines. In addition, the study has contributed to a greater understanding of how Nebbiolo performs in different terroirs. The unanimous conclusion is that grape, when made with low intervention in the cellar, is one of the great interpreters of its vineyard, and as such, one of the great wine grapes of the world.
Nebbiolo takes its name from the Italian word for fog, La Nebbia, which descends on the rolling hills of the Langhe most mornings from November through to spring. The scene of hilltop villages and occasional patches of vineyard emerging from the mist provides one of the wine world’s most iconic images. Such an autumnal scene undoubtedly contributes to the sense that Nebbiolo (grown in Piedmont) is one of the brooding winter wines best served with hearty cuisine by a roaring fire.
Its colour in the glass is also a factor. Nebbiolo based wines are known for their light, even faded colour. Authentic Barolo should be brick bred with garnet reflections. The older it gets, the lighter and browner it will appear. The main reason for such a characteristic is the grape’s inherently high levels of Cyonin and Peonin compounds, which typically oxidise quickly, fading in colour as they do so. At certain times in history, growers have felt this to be a defect and have tried to bolster the wines with darker grapes from elsewhere. Fortunately this practice is mostly a thing of the past.
The success of Nebbiolo is undoubtedly tied to Barolo and Barbaresco, its two principle adverts. Like most of rural Piedmont, these villages were poor and agriculturally dominated. They were not the scene of an elite international wine culture that dominates today. Traditionally, Nebbiolo grapes were planted alongside a variety of other crops such as hazelnut trees but given how steeply the price of Nebbiolo has risen over the last fifty years it’s little wonder that recent images of the Langhe show an endless quilt of vineyards as far as the eye can see.
While its success may sometimes be to the detriment of other varieties, Dolcetto in particular, further afield from Nebbiolo’s Langhe epicentre, producers are seeking to show how it functions in alternative territories. In Ghemme, in the north of the region, it is known as Spanna, where it producers a slightly lighter and fresher wine. Here however it is frequently blended with Uva Rara and Vespolina. Production rules still require lengthy ageing and insist on twenty months in wood and nine in bottle before release. Likewise, in Gattinara, where it is known as Chiavennasca, it gives a much fresher wine than in Barolo and Barbaresco. For Nebbiolo’s most interesting expressing of cooler climate viticulture, the frighteningly steep terraced vineyards of Valtellina and Valtellina Superiore in neighbouring Lombardy present an area worthy of deep study.
While many outside of Piedmont have experimented with Nebbiolo, few have matched the results obtained in its traditional environment. In California in particular there are plenty of wineries who have assumed its long growing cycle would work in the hillier areas to the north of the region, but there are few examples of greatness.