Nebbiolo: The Superstar Grape
Nebbiolo is a bit of a diva. It makes the finest wines and acts like a superstar too. If you don’t cater to Nebbiolo’s wants and needs it will not show up for the job. Its fragile nature is worth the trouble though, as anyone who has enjoyed a glass of Barolo will agree.
It is a finicky grape, early budding and late ripening, so requires the longest growing season of Piedmont varieties. Due to how particular the grape is and its preference for calcareous marls, winegrowers devote the best hillsides in the Piedmont to it, reserving the tops and bottoms of hills for less capricious varieties. The vines require constant care to maintain the canopy, as Nebbiolo is a vigorous variety. It’s pretty much the equivalent of the star who wants only green M&Ms in their dressing room.
The most common belief is that Nebbiolo’s name came from “nebbia”, or “little fog”, as the grape berries have a thick bloom coating them, like a fog. Other people would argue that the term comes from the fog that covers the hills of Piedmont when Nebbiolo is harvested. Either one helps you imagine the grapes on the vine.
In the glass, Nebbiolo is a grape of extremes—high in acid, alcohol and most of all, a tannic grip which juxtaposes its appearance. Nebbiolo tends to be fairly translucent and a shade garnet even in its youth. The classic tasting note one hears about Nebbiolo is “tar and roses”, but it has an outstanding ability to reveal layer after layer of flavor in the glass including cherry, violet, licorice and red plum.
Depending on the winemaking, there may be flavors imparted by new oak such as vanilla or allspice. For a long time, the tradition was to allow the wine to macerate on its skins for months at a time then to age it in large botti. However, in the late 1970s, led by Elio Altare and Angelo Gaja, modern-minded winemakers took to new oak. Now, you will find traditional producers whose wines require longer aging and will show no oak, as well as the new school producers and ones whose wines toe the line between the two.
Nebbiolo is grown in much of the Piedmont, particularly the Langhe, where some of the most sought-after wines come from Barolo, which is heralded as the “the wine of kings, the king of wines”. Barolo is typically the most structured and tannic, requiring the longest aging. The queen to Barolo’s king is the neighboring Barbaresco region, which will be similar to Barolo but with a softer and riper fruit profile.
Elsewhere in Italy, Nebbiolo can be found in Lombardy, particularly in Valtellina, where it is called chiavennasca. The wines will be lighter in nature than those of the Piedmont, but producers such as Ar Pe Pe are particularly successful.
Elsewhere in the world, Nebbiolo has resisted putting down roots. In the United States there are small amounts in California and Washington. Interestingly, Mexican producer has L.A. Cetto has been successful with the grape. Australia has also had a growing interest in the grape, where it is showing best in cooler growing regions.
Nebbiolo has been compared to Pinot Noir, as a grape showing nuances of its terroir. Line up a few different ones and taste the difference for yourself.
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