Nebbiolo is the superstar grape variety behind the top-quality red wines Italy northwestern Piedmont, and in particular, the heady, powerful reds of Barolo and Barbaresco. Nebbiolo wines are often distinctively perfumed with an aroma described as "tar and roses"; along with a moderate body; strong, tannic backbone; and high, fresh acidity. Top examples are much-coveted and can command high prices.
The most searched-for Nebbiolo wine on our database is currently Giacomo Conterno Monfortino Barolo Riserva.
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What Nebbiolo tastes like
While youthful examples of Nebbiolo, as found under the likes of the Langhe Nebbiolo label, can show deep red, almost purple hues, most Nebbiolo is well-known for its relatively rapid transition (within just a few years of vintage), from from a deep, violet-tinged ruby and purple color to brick-red and brick-orange hues in the glass. This is due to the low pigment concentration in Nebbiolo's skins.
Nebbiolo's aromas are also a prominent feature of this variety and its wines, particularly in classic examples of Barolo and Barbaresco. These can produce wonderfully perfumed notes, classically described as "tar and roses".
Other descriptors include floral notes (rose petal), cherries, plums, violets, graphite, smoke, tar/bitumen, mineral oil, leather. Some producers may use toasty French oak which can accentuate – even compliment – Nebbiolo's tar-like perfume, although the use of anything other than large-format Slavonian oak casks (called "botti") has been a contentious issue.
On the palate, Nebbiolo is medium-bodied but rich, with relatively high alcohol levels. Alongside its trademark color and aroma, Nebbiolo's final, signature element is its high and drying tannin profile, coupled with its high levels of freshening acidity.
This "structure" means well-made Nebbiolo wines can age for decades (sometimes being almost unnapproachable in youth).
Nebbiolo in Piedmont
Powerful, intense Barolo is the most famous and prestigious Nebbiolo-based wine, but it is increasingly rivaled 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.
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.
Nebbiolo in the vineyard
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.
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 thrives, 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.
Nebbiolo in the winery
Much is made of the ideological split in Barolo producers that occurred in the late 20th Century, when so-called modernists began aging Barolo in standard French oak barriques (225 liters) as opposed to traditional, large-format "botti" of several thousand liters. Although oak format choice became emblematic of the schism between tradiationalists and modernists, much more was occurring in cellars at the time.
Much of the debate has gone off the boil, however, and Nebbiolo winemaking in some estates combines both practices.
Effectively, ferment times and temperatures – and the concurrent maceration times of Nebbiolo's notoriously color-light but tannin-rich skins – are hugely important in the volume of tannin and color in the final wine.
More tannins are extracted in the presence of alcohol, thus early-drinking Nebbiolo can be pressed off its skins prior to ferment finishing (reducing maceration times) in order to reduce tannin pick-up. Converserly, cold-soaking (macerating fruit) after harvest and destemming but prior to fermenting (a tried and tested technique in Pinot Noir production from Burgundy to Bendigo) can be used to add more interest to the wine without alcoholic extraction.
Oak origin and format (vessel size) is very much producer-specific and can vary. Other, more early-release and early-drinking wines may be aged only in stainless steel prior to bottling.
Nebbiolo's origins and progeny
Nebbiolo is an old cultivar, with historic mentions of the variety going back to the second half of the 13th Century (for comparison, the first mentions of Pinot Noir come a century later). Its parent varieties are unknown, likely ancient.
As a parent, Nebbiolo counts Freisa and Vespolina as offspring, as well as the rare red Piedmontese grape Bubbierasco. Recent DNA analysis also places Arneis as a grandchild of Nebbiolo (via an unknown cultivar).
Spanna, Picoutener, Chiavennasca.
Food pairings for Nebbiolo
- Herb-crusted roast lamb rack
- Smoked duck with wild mushrooms
- Fresh spinach linguine with white truffle shavings