Nebbiolo Grape Variety: Guide to a Noble Piedmont Vine

Nebbiolo is one of the world’s most noble and mysterious grape varieties. It produces exceptionally complex wines that are elegant and powerful, with an excellent storage capacity. The red Nebbiolo grape is the most famous grape variety in northern Italy’s Piedmont, despite accounting for less than 4% of the vineyard area. It has been found in the Piedmont vineyards since the Middle Ages and has adapted perfectly to the climate and soils.

It only grows in ideal conditions in Piedmont, northern Italy, producing world-class wines such as Barolo and Barbaresco. Attempts to grow the vine outside of Italy have been unsuccessful. As a result, it is considered one of Italy’s indigenous grape varieties and remains a niche wine for connoisseurs.

Facts about Nebbiolo

  1. The name ‘Nebbiolo’ is derived from the Italian word nebbia, which translates to fog, so Nebbiolo means ‘little foggy one’ – a name given due to the foggy nature of the region.
  2. One of the grape’s most notable characteristics is its thick skin, which, once extracted, results in a tannic wine with incredible age potential.
  3. Nebbiolo is an early-budding, late-ripening grape that, despite its hazy name, requires a lot of sun to fully ripen – most vineyards are planted on southern-facing hillsides to maximize sun exposure.
  4. Nebbiolo is an ancient grape, with the first mention dating back to the 13th century.
  5. Although it accounts for less than 10% of all plantings in Piemonte, it is still regarded as one of Italy’s premier wines and is grown more in Piemonte than anywhere else in the world.
  6. Nebbiolo, like the ancient Pinot Noir, is considered a terroir wine, displaying noticeable differences from one vineyard site to the next, showcasing earthy qualities from the growing site and exhibiting attributes unique to the local microclimate.
  7. When aged, it develops a brick color and is well known as a lighter-colored wine (however, it is considered a full-bodied wine from the heavy tannins). Nebbiolo has ancient genes that make it a little unstable, particularly in terms of color; the water-soluble pigments in the skin are unstable, resulting in a rapidly deteriorating colored wine.

Origin and cultivation

The term “Nebbiolo” is most likely derived from “Nebbia,” which is the Italian word for “fog.” Because the vineyards of Piedmont are frequently shrouded in dense fog in autumn, and the grapes continue to ripen there, it is assumed that this is how the region got its name. Others attribute the name to the white-gray veil that envelops the berries in their final stage of ripeness.

Small stocks can be found outside Italy in France, Switzerland, Austria, Argentina, Chile, Mexico, Uruguay, the United States, Mexico, Brazil, and South Africa. The global vineyard area for Nebbiolo is approximately 6,000 hectares. Over 5,000 of them can be found in Italian vineyards. Winemakers must create favorable conditions to vinify Nebbiolo.

Because it sprouts early, the grape variety has a long ripening period and can only be harvested in mid to late October. As a result, it is more susceptible to spring and late frost than other grape varieties. Furthermore, it prefers high-altitude limestone marl soils in steep locations with a south-to-southwest orientation and sun. All of this is found in the Piedmont DOCGs Barolo and Barbaresco.

Nebbiolo plantings

The flavor of Nebbiolo.

Nebbiolo produces powerful, full-bodied wines with excellent aging potential, which rank among Italy’s best and most well-known red wines. Its complex aroma entices the senses with notes of dark fruits, roses, violets, tobacco, truffles, chocolate, and spices. In their youth, most Nebbiolo wines are acidic and tannic.

As a result, inexperienced connoisseurs who open their wine too soon risk learning about the grape variety from its closed, even scratchy side. Patience is key because most specimens are only available after a few years of maturation. At that point, they are surprisingly velvety and soft but also earthy and powerful.

Because an excellently matured Nebbiolo is very elegant despite its power, it is comparable to Pinot Noir. Furthermore, both grape varieties can produce multi-layered wines that appeal to both the head and the senses. On the other hand, Nebbiolo attracts a little more attention, so it’s no surprise that writer Norm Roby affectionately refers to the grape variety as “Pinot Noir with a bad attitude.”

The best wines come from the Langhe region, a hilly area in southwest Piedmont, specifically from the Barolo and Barbaresco growing regions. The strong Barolo has a market maturity of three years, during which time the wine matures in oak barrels for at least eighteen months.

Both styles can be stored in the bottle for an additional period. The length also depends on whether the Barolo comes from a traditional or modern working winery.

Other wines from the Nebbiolo grape variety

As a result, good Nebbiolo can also be found in the DOCGs Gattinara and Ghemme to the north. The wines are more easily and quickly available. There is also a wine made from the grape variety in neighboring Roero, which is light and fragrant. The wine of the same name is produced in the Roero region, and it is also known as Nebbiolo d’Alba or Langhe Nebbiolo. Other stocks can be found in Valle d’Aosta and Valtellina in Lombardy, both in northern Italy.

Key dates in Nebbiolo’s history:

1268: The first written mention of Nebbiolo is from 1268, when a wine called “nibiol” was described as growing in Rivoli, near Turin.

1304: The Italian jurist Pietro Crescenzi described wine made from “nubiola” as excellent in quality in his treatise Liber Ruralium Commodorum.

1700s: The grape gained popularity outside of Piedmont in the 18th century, when the British were looking for alternatives to Bordeaux due to long-running political disputes with the French.

2004: According to research conducted by the University of California-Davis and the Istituto Agrario di San Michele all’Adige in 2004, Nebbiolo is related to Piedmont through two aromatic grape varieties: Piedmont’s Freisa and the French Rhone variety Viognier.

See more Resources here

A date for the diary:

National Nebbiolo Day is March 3, 2023.

Want to know more about Italy’s wine regions? Check out these books!

Vino Italiano: The Regional Wines of Italy

Wine Map of Italy

References:

  1. Wine Grapes: A Complete Guide to 1,368 Vine Varieties, Including Their Origins and Flavours. Jancis Robinson 2012
  2. Wine. Years. People. Events. Massandra Wine Collection 2010
  3. The World Atlas of Wine: 8th Edition. Johnson, H & Robinson, J. 2019

PHOTO ATTRIBUTION:

By Agne27 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19889030

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Nebbiolo Grape Variety, Nebbiolo Grape Variety: Guide to a Noble Piedmont Vine