Nebbiolo is my favorite wine grape variety. And yet it is not well-known, other than for aficionados of the Piedmont region in northwest Italy. Piedmont is renowned for making Barolo and Barbaresco, two magnificent red wines made from 100 percent Nebbiolo, and acclaimed by wine critics throughout the world.
The Nebbiolo grape will never achieve the fame of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, or Pinot Noir — for many reasons. The main problem is that Nebbiolo really only excels as a wine grape in the very specific terroir (soil, topography, and climate) of southeastern Piedmont, in an area known as the Langhe — a large zone around the town of Alba.
Nebbiolo requires a very long growing season to fully ripen, often well into October. (In 1978, the growing season extended to November 15th!) The Langhe district, in the foothills of the Alps, is known for its long, foggy, somewhat warm autumns, ideal for the slow-ripening Nebbiolo. In fact, the Italian word nebbia means “fog” in English. (If you plan a trip to Piedmont in autumn, avoid driving unless the sun is shining; only Piedmontese natives can handle driving through the hills in the fog!).
Most, in fact 80 percent of all Nebbiolo grapes that are planted grow in Italy’s Piedmont region, in a separate DOC zone. Before the Langhe Nebbiolo appellation was created in 1994, the only Italian wines named “Nebbiolo” available were Nebbiolo d’Alba wines — which still exist, in a separate DOC zone (but, unlike Nebbiolo Langhe, does not include the prime areas of Barolo and Barbaresco). Therefore, Langhe Nebbiolo has become far more popular than Nebbiolo d’Alba because winemakers now have access to a larger district (Langhe) than the Alba district.
Don’t be fooled by the color of Langhe Nebbiolo wines. They are a fairly light red, with orangey highlights, not nearly as dark a red wine as one made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, or Syrah. But tasting a Nebbiolo wine, with its abundance of tannin and acidity, insures you of its power. Another advantage of Langhe Nebbiolo wine is that you can drink it when it’s young, as soon as you buy it — unlike its famous brothers, Barolo and Barbaresco, which require 10 or more years of ageing to be at their best.
All Nebbiolo wines, including Barolo and Barbaresco, are very aromatic; typically, they have aromas of strawberries and/or fresh-picked cherries, mint, camphor, and anise, along with hints of mushrooms and/or forest floor — and sometimes even white truffles (which grow in the region). I would recommend drinking Langhe Nebbiolo wines with light meats such as poultry, broccoli rape, cheeses, and spicy foods. Nebbiolo wines are easier to drink than Barolos and Barbarescos because they are less tannic and acidic than these full-bodied wines.
And most Nebbiolo wines are reasonably priced — in the $24 to $26 retail range, compared to Barolo and Barbaresco wines, which start at $50 to $60, and go up to well over $100 for the best examples. Serve Langhe Nebbiolo wines slightly chilled; 56° to 62°. They will not age as long as Barolos and Barbarescos; I would suggest opening them when they are five years old or less. I am currently drinking Nebbiolos from the 2018 and 2019 vintages.
Look for Langhe Nebbiolos produced by recognized Barolo and Barbaresco producers. Almost all of these producers do make a Langhe Nebbiolo as well, usually from younger vineyard plots. This works out well for the producer, who now has a place to use Nebbiolo grapes from less prime vineyards. Among the Piedmontese producers I have been buying Langhe Nebbiolo wines from are Marchesi di Gresy, Elio Grasso, Vajra, and Vietti. The name of Vietti’s Langhe Nebbiolo is Perbacco. It is a particularly full-bodied wine, which can age longer than most Langhe Nebbiolos.
Langhe Nebbiolos are ideal for wine consumers who do not want to age wines, or do not have the space to age wines for long periods of time. They provide the advantages of the great Nebbiolo variety, without the need for long ageing. I for one am happy that they exist!