Wines by Grape
Nebbiolo is the grape variety behind the top-quality red wines of Piedmont, northwestern Italy, the most notable of which are Barolo and Barbaresco. Nebbiolo wines are distinguished by their strong tannins, high acidity and distinctive scent – often described as “tar and roses”. A less obvious characteristic, visible only over time, is their tendency to lose colour. Within just a few years of vintage, most Nebbiolo wines begin fading from deep, violet-tinged ruby to a beautiful brick orange.
Nebbiolo is the quintessential Piedmontese wine grape – the dominant variety in five of the region’s DOCGs and numerous DOCs (see Italian Wine Labels). Even its name evokes the region’s foothills on cool autumn mornings, when the valleys and vineyards lie hidden under a ghostly blanket of nebbia (fog). The name is very apt for this late-ripening variety, which is harvested later in the year than Piedmont’s other key varieties (Barbera and particularly Dolcetto), in foggy, wintry weather conditions.
Powerful, intense Barolo is the most famous and prestigious Nebbiolo-based wine, but it is increasingly rivalled by the slightly more elegant and perfumed wines from Barbaresco to the northeast, which rose to prominence in the late 20th Century.
Wines from just outside the borders of Barolo and Barbaresco may be classified as Langhe Nebbiolo, as may wines from young vines or less favored plots within these two famous appellations. The high-quality red wines of Roero, just across the Tanaro river from Barolo, are further affordable alternatives to Barolo and Barbaresco. Here, Nebbiolo’s austerity and tannins was often softened with a splash of Barolo Bianco – a local nickname for white Arneis – though the practice, while still legal, is rare nowadays. Historically many vineyards here contained a mix of both varieties. Nebbiolo d’Alba is a third option for value; the zone covers much of the territory of Roero but extends across the Tanaro south of Alba to Diana d’Alba.
While the majority of the most prestigious wines across these parts of Piedmont are made entirely from Nebbiolo, some blends do exist at various price levels, but mainly classified as IGT Piemonte. Likely partners include Barbera – like La Spinetta’s Pin Monferrato Rosso – and the Bordeaux varieties.
Sixty miles (100km) northeast of Roero, Nebbiolo is the dominant variety in the wines of Ghemme and Gattinara, and a cluster of nearby villages along the regional border with Lombardy. The variety has even spread across this border and up into the dramatic Alpine scenery of the Valtellina. Here it goes by the name Chiavennasca, and is used to produce both dry red wines (lighter than those from Piedmont but just as alluringly perfumed) and the powerful, Amarone-like Sforzato di Valtellina.
Sensitivity to terroir is one of Nebbiolo’s trump cards, but also its downfall. While Riesling and Pinot Noir are grown in respectable volumes in many wine regions around the world, Nebbiolo is not. It is famously picky about where it grows, requiring good drainage and a long, bright growing season. In Piedmont, it is one of the first varieties to flower and the last to ripen, making it very susceptible to poor weather conditions in spring and autumn.
Fortunately, given the foggy conditions in which it ripens, most strains of Nebbiolo demonstrate a good resistance to rot and mildew. Unfortunately, the vine showed little resistance to the root-destroying phylloxera mite when it arrived in Europe from the Americas in the 1860s. When it came to replanting Piedmontese vineyards, the higher-yielding Barbera became the region’s preferred variety.
Despite its fussiness in the vineyard, Nebbiolo’s irresistible allure has led it to become a niche variety in pretty much every one of the “New World” wine nations. It is now grown in small quantities by just a few wineries in the United States, Mexico, Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.