Not only do Italian grape varieties frequently make for some of the world’s tastiest wines, but they also have some of the coolest names. Sangiovese, for example, comes from the Latin words sanguis Jovis, “the blood of Jove (Zeus).” Not at all a bad name for a red grape.
The name Nebbiolo is thought to derive from the Italian word nebbia or “fog.” In the Langhe, a hilly area in Italy’s Piedmont, milk-white mists and vapors settle into the valleys during harvest time—hence, the name (made even more endearing because the diminutive suffix “-olo” makes Nebbiolo mean “little fog.”)
Not only do various clones of Nebbiolo exist (at least 40), but also do two distinct Nebbiolos: Nebbiolo di montagna (“of the mountain,” which produces, among other wines, Lombardy’s Valtellina and Piedmont’s Carema) and Nebbiolo di collina (“of the hill,” the more famous Nebbiolo and the basis of the great red Piedmontese wines Barolo and Barbaresco).
Piedmont is Nebbiolo’s most felicitous home. Yet for all of its stature there, it represents a mere 6% of plantings (Barbera and Dolcetto make far more wine). One reason is that Nebbiolo is very fickle about where it grows—which also partially explains why Nebbiolo has yet to prove itself a great grape in areas of the world outside Piedmont.
A lover of (just enough) sun
Nebbiolo turns out the best Piedmontese reds when it hogs hillsides that face southerly and that lie between 300 and 500 feet high. Any higher is too cool; any lower, too warm and moist (fogs are romantic, but they can be pests, too).
Because Nebbiolo vines are very early to flower and very late to ripen, it helps if weather is dry in both spring and autumn—something uncommon in Piedmont.
Given these strictures, why does (in fact, how does) Nebbiolo perform so well in the limited climate of Piedmont and not well in more generous places (such as Argentina, California and Australia, where it also is planted widely)?
Because it likes the stress. Too much sun or warm nights or rich, flatland soil—what one would think a vine would enjoy—don’t make for good wine out of Nebbiolo (mostly because yields get to be too high). The Little Fog makes its most subtle, nuanced and long-lived wines at the margins of weather and water.
Nebbiolo reaches its zenith in two wines, Barolo and Barbaresco, made in and around two Piedmontese towns of the same names. Other Nebbiolo wines—Spanna, Carema, Gattinara, Langhe, Nebbiolo d’Alba, to name a few—can be delicious, but none rivals the two big Bs for perfume, longevity and structure.
That said, the hugest controversy in all of winedom took place in the latter half of the last century over the making of these two wines. Like many arguments, the fight was about traditional versus contemporary values.
For decades, Barbaresco and especially Barolo had been considered extraordinarily tannic (even woody) and backward, showing well only after many years in bottle. However, these were less stylistic choices than the result of slow and long fermentations (due to Piedmont’s winter cold), years in barrel before bottling (to “soften” tannins) and even a lack of cellar hygiene.
Traditionalists still macerate and ferment for upwards of a month, and barrel age at length. But they now control temperatures and good hygiene is assumed.
Modernists aim to preserve and push forward fruit, extract less tannin and to produce Barolo or Barbaresco that is more supple and easier to consume than it had been before. Therefore, they use shorter maceration and fermentation, age in barrique (to oxidize and soften tannin gently and to add a note of “vanilla”)) and perform malolactic fermentation to achieve less belligerent acidity.
It’s long been a commonplace that Barbaresco is less aggressive than its sibling, but that distinction has blurred considerably, especially because not only do modern techniques tend to produce wines from disparate locales that nonetheless resemble each other, but also because soft, perfumed examples of Barolo clearly now exist (as do rough-and-ready Barbarescos).
Nebbiolo grows widely in Australia and Argentina, less so in South Africa and the U.S. It has never made classic wine in any of these places—yet. Hopes are high that it will some day, however, if winemakers in these countries just can find those vineyards spots that favor Nebbiolo’s fussiness.
What it’s like
Aging used to be de rigueur with much Piedmont Nebbiolo, especially Barolo. Today’s commonly more accessible versions, of course, are designed for earlier enjoyment. Nonetheless, good Barolo and Barbaresco remain famously long-lived; Carema can last eight-plus years, Gattinara even more. Roero and Langhe Nebbiolos, so named, are delicious for a mere few years, by and large.
Nebbiolo’s seductive scents and tastes of tar and roses, cherries, plums, leather, dried and fresh herbs all mature as its wines do. Nebbiolo’s stiff tannins generally mollify over time. But its native acidity remains forever—its best gift to the table.
~ Bill St John