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Nebbiolo: A Unique Red Grape Variety
By Ed McCarthy
Oct 3, 2017
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Many red grape varieties, especially the important ones such as Cabernet Sauvignon, thrive in wine regions throughout the world.  Even Pinot Noir, admittedly a difficult variety to handle that excels in its home region, Burgundy, has produced quality wines in other regions, such as the Sonoma Coast.

But Nebbiolo, the variety that makes Piedmont’s superb Barolo and Barbaresco wines, stubbornly resists attempts to perform well outside of its home, Piedmont.  Yes, a lighter version does exist in the Valltellina, a cool district of Italy’s Lombardy region on the slopes of the Alps just below Switzerland.  The Nebbiolo wines produced there, such as Sassella, are decent and quaffable shortly after they are made, but nobody would call them great wines.

I have searched up and down California and other regions that have attempted to make wines from Nebbiolo, and I have always been disappointed in the wines.  The closest I came to success occurred in a small winery near Paso Robles that practically no one has ever heard of, called Caparone.  Dave Caparone specializes in Italian varietal wines; I was very excited when I tasted his Sangiovese and Aglianico, Italy’s two other great red varieties. Both were the best examples I have tasted outside of Italy, with a strong resemblance to the original Italian wines bearing these names.  Then I tasted Caparone’s Nebbiolo; it was a good wine, a fine attempt, but not very close to a Piedmont Nebbiolo, except for its light, orangey-red color.

A whopping 80 percent of the world’s Nebbiolo grapes are planted in Piedmont, mainly south and north of the town of Alba.  For a major grape variety with a reputation for producing great wines, the fact that only 20 percent is planted throughout the rest of the world is an amazing statistic, proving that Nebbiolo only excels in its place of origin, Piedmont.  The Piedmont region, in northwest Italy, borders France in the west, and Switzerland to the north.  The word “Piedmont” itself means foot of the mountains, and indeed much of Piedmont lies in the foothills of the mighty Alps.

By now you might have guessed that I love Piedmontese Nebbiolo wines.  Nebbiolo is my favorite wine grape variety--of any color.  Pinot Noir happens to ne my second-favorite.  Quite a few wine writers have mentioned that there is a resemblance in these two varieties, but I think this is only partially true.  Both are medium-bodied, at best, and are usually transparent in color--except when too much oak has been used or the winemaker has deliberately over-extracted from the grapes.  Both Nebbiolo and Pinot Noir are noted for their exquisite aromas, but here the similarities end.  The two wines have completely different aromas and flavors.  Nebbiolo typically has lots of tannin and acidity; Pinot Noir usually contains much lighter tannins and lower acidity.

Nebbiolo is clearly one of Italy’s oldest grape varieties, with a history going back at least to the 1200s.  It is believed to be an indigenous variety.  The most popular theory about the origin of its name relates to the Italian word, nebbia, which means ”fog.”  Nebbiolo is one of the longest-ripening grape varieties in the world; it buds early, but often ripens in late October.  In the cooler vintages of the past, Nebbiolo sometimes didn’t ripen until November (in 1978, November 15th!).   Also, Nebbiolo is extremely particular about its growing conditions.  It grows best only in southern exposures to the sun, on hillsides with an altitude range between 820 to 1475 feet.  In lower altitudes, it must deal with spring frost; in higher altitudes, it often doesn’t ripen.

The Langhe Valley of Piedmont, where most Nebbiolo  grows, typically has a long, mild autumn, with lots of fog (making it almost impossible for Piedmont outsiders to drive there at night).  The lengthy, mild, foggy autumn is one of the secrets of Nebbiolo’s success in this region, considering its very late ripening time.  But a warmer climate which first appeared in Piedmont in 1982, and showed up in earnest with the 2003 vintage (torrid) has made it possible for Nebbiolo to ripen sooner in some vintages--not always a good thing.  Of course, some Piedmontese winemakers don’t mind the extra warmth because it has basically eliminated the cold, wet vintages in which very little good wine was made.

The intense aromas and flavors of Nebbiolo-based wines vary, depending upon the location of the vineyard site, the particular sub-variety of Nebbiolo used (Lampia or Michet, or various blends of both), the climate of the vintage, and the age of the wines.  These aromas and flavors, in some cases unique to this variety, range from fruity (strawberries and/or wild cherries) to herbal (mint, camphor, and/or anise) to earthy (mushrooms, forest floor, white truffles and/or tar), to leather, and to floral aromas (rose petals).  Of course, you will not find all of these aromas together in one wine.  My personal take is that I tend to find strawberries, mint or camphor, and forest floor in younger Nebbiolo wines, and tar, leather, plus (sometimes) white truffles in older Nebbiolo wines.  Piedmont is also the most renowned area in the world for its white truffles, and so this possibly accounts for the white truffle aromas.

In the Langhe District in southwestern Piedmont, five wines are made from Nebbiolo:  Barolo, Barbaresco, Langhe Nebbiolo,  Nebbiolo d’Alba, and Roero Rosso.

Both Barolo and Barbaresco, 100 percent Nebbiolo, are world-class wines.  They need time to mature; I usually don’t drink them until they are at least 10 years old, but preferably 15 or 20 years old for the better examples.  The Barolo zone lies directly south of the town of Alba; it consists of 11 wine zones, but five produce 87 percent of the Barolo wines: La Morra, Barolo, Serralunga d’Alba, Castiglione Falletto, and Monforte d’Alba.  La Morra and Barolo are actually small towns; the other three are tiny villages.  Of the many great Barolo producers, seven truly stand out for me:  Giacomo Conterno, Giuseppe Rinaldi, Bartolo Mascarello, Giuseppe Mascarello, Bruno Giacosa, Vietti, and Aldo Conterno.

Today, there are over 500 producers of Barolo and Barbaresco; several producers make both, such as Bruno Giacosa.  Barbaresco, just northwest of Alba, is one-third the size of Barolo.  In general, Barbaresco wines are very similar to those of Barolo, but perhaps not quite so full-bodied.  If anything, Barbaresco’s consistency of quality is even higher than Barolo’s, because of its much smaller number of producers.  Barbaresco wines are usually more elegant, less austere, and slightly more accessible to drink in their youth.  Three areas produce all of the Barbaresco wines:  The small town of Barbaresco, high on a hill; Neive; and Treiso.  A number of very good producers make Barbaresco, but the three most renowned are Angelo Gaja, Bruno Giacosa and Ceretto.  Interestingly, Gaja and Bruno Giacosa make dramatically different styles of Barbaresco:  Giacosa’s wines are very traditionally made, while Angelo Gaja’s are more modern (mainly in the aging of the wines).

But both make outstanding wines.  Good Barolos start in the $45 to $50 price range and can go up to over $100.  Good Barbarescos start in the $35 to $40 range, and in the case of top producers such as Angelo Gaja and Bruno Giacosa, will also go over $100.

For more extensive information  about Barolo and Barbaesco, I recommend your reading my book,  Italian Wine For Dummies, co-authored with Mary Ewing-Mulligan MW, and Kerin O’Keefe’s fine book, Barolo and Barbaresco.

Langhe Nebbiolo and Nebbiolo d’Alba are the everyday Nebbiolo wines of the Langhe area, and the wines I probably drink the most--along with Barbera and Beaujolais.  Of the two, Langhe Nebbiolo is the newer appellation.  It was necessary to create because the Nebbiolo d’Alba appellation can only be applied to the Alba regional wines, whereas the comprehensive Langhe region extends north to Asti (including Barbaresco) to farther south of the Alba region.  Nebbiolo wines from these two appellations are typically made with grapes from younger vineyards, are ready to drink when they are released, and are considerably less expensive ($20 to $25) than Barolos and Barbarescos.  The Nebbiolo Langhe appellation is becoming the more common appellation we are seeing because it gives the wine producer more latitude in area to select Nebbiolo grapes.   The Langhe Nebbiolo DOCG can even be used for de-classified Barolo and Barbaresco grapes.  Nebbiolo d’Alba  grapes are grown in specific vineyards that did not qualify for making  Barolo or Barbaresco.  Most Barolo and Barbaresco producers make one of these wines.  Two of my favorite Nebbiolo producers are Marchesi di Gresy and Renato Ratti.

One more small area making Nebbiolo wines is Roero, an area north of Alba, across the Tanaro River from the Barolo and Barbaresco zones.  Roero Rosso is a wine made almost exclusively from Nebbiolo.  It is a lighter-bodied wine that can be consumed without extensive aging. Prices are in the $25 to $30 range.  Rosso Roero producers to look for include Matteo Correggio, Malvirà, Tenuta Carretta, and Angelo Negro.

In northern Piedmont, a cooler area than the Langhe, seven small DOC zones exists in the Alpine foothills; the wines here are seldom 100 percent  Nebbiolo.  I list them in order of importance, based on their reputation and size:  Gattinara, Ghemme, Lessona, Bramaterra, Boca, Sizzano, and Fara.  The first three are villages, and they are the wines we see more often in the U.S.  All of these wines are somewhat lighter and more accessible than Barolo or Barbaresco of the Langhe, but they are also about half the price.  I frequently buy a Gattinara or Ghemme when I see it in a store or a restaurant wine list.

In the extreme northeast Piedmont, next to the Alto Adige region and the Switzerland Alps, the town of Carema sits, with very steep vineyards on mountain slopes just outside of town. Here, amazingly, wines made from 100 percent Nebbiolo are produced.  The Carema wines are light-to medium-bodied, with very high acidity, and are surprisingly long- lived (30 years and more in good vintages).  They do not have the body and intense aromas of Barolos and Barbarescos, but are unique wines.  Sadly, the area is quite small, but Carema wines are worth seeking out.

To really know these great Nebbiolo wines, I highly recommend a trip to the beautiful Piedmont wine areas.  Great restaurants and places to stay abound in Piedmont.  It is a dream trip for wine and food lovers.  I go as often as I can….