Editor’s Note: Many industry experts argue Nebbiolo to be Italy’s premier grape variety, and given the gorgeous wines with extensive aging potential these grapes tend to produce, it wouldn’t be a stretch to agree with them. In our guide, you’ll delve into Nebbiolo and discover what it tastes like, what makes it so special and what sorts of food pair well with Nebbiolo wines.
Nebbiolo Wine Guide
What is Nebbiolo?
Nebbiolo is a black skinned grape variety that produces red wines which are typically full-bodied with elevated acidity and tannic content. That in and of itself makes Nebbiolo-based wines ideal for aging, and it’s recommended that these wines spend some time in the bottle prior to consumption. Aging greatly helps to balance out the acid and tannin while bringing forward some of the more delectable complexities that reside in the depths of these wines.
Nebbiolo has risen to prominence in large part due to it being the grape variety used to produce some of Italy’s finest red wines. These include the wines of Barolo DOCG, Barbaresco and Roero, among others. In order for a Nebbiolo based wine to be labeled as a Barolo, for instance, it must be produced with 100% Nebbiolo grapes and aged for a certain amount of time in oak and within the bottle prior to release (other quality control guidelines also exist). Barbaresco wines are also required to be 100% Nebbiolo per the conditions of the regulatory body, DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita).
Adding a unique twist to the name of the grape, it has been rumored that Nebbiolo was named as such thanks to the signature fog which appears around harvest in the famous Barolo growing region of Langhe in Piedmont, Italy. The Italian word for fog is Nebbia.
Growing Nebbiolo Isn’t Easy
Nebbiolo is a native variety to the Northern areas of Italy, and virtually no other regions in the world have been able to cultivate and vinify this wine quite like the Italians. Not only is its aging potential relatively unique, it’s also a notoriously difficult grape to grow. This inherently drives up the cost of Nebbiolo wine. These grape vines have the nasty habit of wanting to spend their time reaching for the sun, by growing their leaves large and fast.
As a plant that just wants to eat the sun and poops out oxygen and grapes, I can’t say we blame it. Unfortunately, if the leaves are allowed to grow as vigorously as the vine would like, this would result in smaller, more poorly concentrated grapes. As such, Nebbiolo grape vines must be tended to almost around the clock in order to control their vegetative growth.
But the difficulty in growing Nebbiolo doesn’t stop there. Grapes are also known to bud early yet ripen late in the growing season, especially if poorly positioned plantings aid them in doing so. As such, the finest Nebbiolo wine makers will position their vines at decent elevation (often up to 1,000ft) along the Southern-facing sloping hills of the Langhe. This allows the vines to receive consistent sunlight and moderate heat, which quickens ripening while also helping to dodge the morning fog that tends to encompass the entirety of the Langhe region. Fog, rain and wind in excess can damage an entire vintage of Nebbiolo, as it can cause the vines to flower without ever fully giving up their fruit.
These same producers not only position Nebbiolo vines to get optimal sunlight, but they also grow them on hillsides loaded with calcareous (think Limestone) type soil compositions. This allows for water to drain more efficiently, with the soil itself being relatively poor in nutrients. Poor nutrients in the wine making world doesn’t necessarily mean bad wine. Quite the opposite actually. Instead, it makes the vines work harder, which ultimately ends up concentrating the flavors and refining the final Nebbiolo wine product.
Crafting Nebbiolo Wine
Vinification varies by individual producer, but for the most part many premium producers, especially those that produce Barolo DOCG Nebbiolo wines will ferment their wines up to 30 days in large oak vats. Other producers will use smaller, new oak barrels to contribute additional oak type flavors (such as toffee, vanilla and butter cream) for much shorter periods. These same producers, in an effort to soften the tannins and acid that has yet to mellow out, will begin to warm these smaller barrels in sealed rooms to enact malolactic fermentation following primary fermentation. This process, which converts the L-malic acid naturally occurring in grape must to L-lactic acid, helps to soften the astringency and acid in the final wine product.
What does Nebbiolo Wine Taste Like?
Common Flavors and Aromas
- Fruit: Red & Black (Red Currant, Cassis, Black Cherry, Raspberry, Strawberry, Cranberry)
- Earth & Mineral Notes: Dry forest floor, Horseshoe, Limestone, Cracked Spice
- Additional Complexities: Carnation, Violet, Tar, Balsamic, Mushroom, Tobacco, Truffle, Tulip
- Body: Full
- Sugar: Dry
- Tannins: High
- Acid: High
- Alcohol: High (12.5% – 15.0% ABV)
- Finish: Medium – Long
- Soil: Limestone, Shcist, Granite, Sand Stone, Crushed Rock
- Climate: Moderate
- Notable Regions: Langhe Hills, Italy | Barolo, Italy | Piedmont, Italy | Roero, Italy | Aosta, Italy | Novara, Italy | Ghemme, Italy | Gattinar, Italy
Pairing Nebbiolo Wines with Food
Nebbiolo wines make for fun and relatively easy pairing partners alongside a variety of foods. High tannins, acids and loads of complexity mean that you can chef up or order out something that’s equally as rich and decadent.
Consider big-flavored meats and poultry, roasted veggies and game. Try out this Porcini Crusted Beef Tenderloin with Truffle Butter Sauce. Equally as tasty and perhaps a great side dish is this Risotto with Garlic and Parmesean. Or, spice it up a notch with this Jalapeño Poppers and Chimichurri Skirt Steak recipe.
For appetizers, look at sharp cheeses and slabs of Parmesan, or these delicious Ground Black Pepper & Butter Steak Bites. If you’re more in the mood for shellfish or something lighter, try these Blue Crab and Corn Fritters with Chipotle Aioli.