It’s time we learn about Nebbiolo, the most important red variety in Italy, even though it is not the most planted one, that honor belongs to another red grape: Sangiovese.
Because we are dealing with the Old World, with a few exceptions (like in the case of Nebbiolo d’ Alba) you won’t see the name of this grape on the label, you will probably see the appellation. Besides this, Nebbiolo changes names quite often, it’s known as Spanna in DOCG Gattinara or as Chiavennasca in DOCG Valtellina Superiore. But its two most known locations in the world are the very famous DOCGs: Barolo and Barbaresco, where some of the best expressions of Nebbiolo are produced.
Nebbiolo comes originally from the Piedmont region. Piedmont means foot of the mountains, and indeed the most important vineyards are all located at the foothills of two important chains, the Alps and the Apennines. Nebbiolo’s name comes from the word “nebbia” which means fog in Italian, referring to the fog that is common in the hills of Langhe, during the months of September and October. It’s this fog or nebbia that will help early budding but late ripening Nebbiolo to obtain perfect maturity.
Though Barolo and Barbaresco are only 10 miles apart, and therefore share similar climates and soils, there are some differences. Barbaresco is usually lighter, more elegant, less austere than Barolo and it can also be drunk sooner. Barolo usually needs aging to soften its strong tannins, at least a minimum of 10 years from vintage before the wine is drinkable. Nebbiolo requires dry weather conditions, it is perfectly suited for the continental climate of the Piedmont, characterized by hot summers and cold winters. The best soils for Nebbiolo are clay and limestone (like in Albanese) or sandy (like in Roero), in the Valtellina DOCG, soils are mostly schisty and granitic. Best locations to grow Nebbiolo will be usually facing SW and at altitudes between 150-300 m, go higher up and Nebbiolo will have issues to ripen.
Stylistically, Nebbiolo produces wines that are in the Powerbomb category, meaning a wine that is highly tannic with high acidity, tons of fruit, with a full body and alcohol levels between 13 and 14,5%. Surprisingly Nebbiolo’s color is light for a red of its statue, showing pale garnet and brickish tones.But don’t let their color fool you! Nebbiolo has plenty of personality.
There are two different styles of Barolo: Traditional or Modernist. Traditional Barolo will feature Nebbiolo macerations for a long time to extract color and tannins (about 30-50 days) and then agings for a long time in neutral Slovakian oak, yielding a very austere and tannic wine that requires long wine cellar aging. Modernist Barolo is produced differently, with shorter Nebbiolo macerations (7-10 days), and aging in new French barriques, this will yield a wine that is fruitier, softer and that requires less time to be drunk. There are also differences by location, Barolo as in Burgundy has many crus, these will be the source of some of the most expensive/best wines. Yet in general, Barolos of the town from Serralunga are the most tannic and austere, while Barolos from the town of La Morra tend to be more approachable (the other extreme), in between there are other towns that produce both styles.
By law, Barolos are usually age for 3 years (18 months minimum in barrel), while riservas are aged for a minimum of 5 years. Barbarescos are aged for less time, 2 years with at least 9 months in barrel and Riservas 4 years.
Nebbiolo is usually not blended, both Barolo and Barbaresco must be 100% Nebbiolo wines, but in Gattinara and Ghemme a tiny amount of Bonarda, Croatina or Vespolina grapes are allowed to the blend.
Nebbiolo’s flavor profile will feature aromas of tar, roses, blackberry, black chocolate, prunes, cherries, leather and dry spices. With ageing, Nebbiolo will show game, truffles and mushrooms notes.
Though Barolo and Barbaresco are the best known appellations, there are other Nebbiolos produced in appellations, such as: Gattinara, Nebbiolo D’Alba and Valtellina Superiore. All of these are still big red wines,yet less tannic and sooner drinkable than Barolo and Barbaresco. These wines are usually cheaper since Barolo and Barbaresco usually will cost you at least $40 a bottle to start.
Top Barolo wines can age for a very long time, at least for 20-30 + years. Barbarescos gets their peek sooner at 10-15 years. Lighter versions of Nebbiolo, such as Nebbiolo d’ Alba, Gattinara, Ghemme can be drunk earlier between 5-8 years from vintage. As with everything in life, patience is key here, so don’t open that bottle before its time!
Recommended Nebbiolo Producers: note that some producers make both Barolo and Barbaresco, so I added the brands in both groups.
Barolo: Coterno (Giacomo and Aldo), Bruno Giacosa, Ceretto, Gaja, Vietti, Rinaldi, Pio Cesare, Marziano Abbona, Vajra, Damilano, Renato Ratti, Ca’ Viola.
Barbaresco: Produttori de Barbaresco, Cortese, Nada Fiorenzo,Marco & Vittorio Adriano, Gaja,Ceretto, Castello di Neive,Prunotto, Bruno Giacosa, Cascina Luisin, Pelissero, Sottimano, Fontanafredda.
Wines I have tasted lately that I recommend you to try. (I had the pleasure of attending several Italian events this year so I divided the wines in two groups (value Nebbiolo) and (expensive but so worthwhile Nebbiolo).
Value Nebbiolos: includes Valtellina Superiore and Nebbiolo d’ Alba
Nino Negri Quadrio 2016, $20
Nino Negri Inferno 2017, $29
Voerzio Martini Ciabot della Luna Langhe Nebbiolo 2017, $29
Marziano Abbona Bricco Barone 2017, $25
Expensive Nebbiolos: includes Barolo and Barbaresco
Renato Ratti Barolo Marcenasco 2015,$55
Pio Cesare Barolo 2015, $85
Marziano Abbona Barolo Terlo Ravera 2015, $55
Damilano Barolo Cannubi 2015, $72
Vietti Barolo Riserva Villero 2012, $433
Gaja Barolo Sperss 2015, $283
Gaja Barbaresco 2016, $250
Cortese Barbaresco Rabaja Riserva 2011, $93
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Thank you to all the importers and wineries that provided samples for me to taste.