While we like to think of ourselves as your destination for delicious and affordable everyday wines, we’re also always on the hunt for special occasion wines. Every so often, we like to expand our tightly curated “Splurge Shelf” a bit and bring in wines with age and pedigree. Even more exciting however is when one particular varietal gives us the chance to do both at once. Nebbiolo is one such grape, capable of producing brooding, textured wines that need time in your cellar, as much as delicate, aromatic options for enjoying any time. So we wanted to take this opportunity, when our days are occupied by both kinds of needs, to highlight one of our favorite varietals and encourage you to make friends, if you haven’t already.
Nebbiolo is thought to have originated in Alba, a small commune in the north-west Italian region of Piedmont (or Piemonte as Italians would say, meaning “at the foot of the mountains”). The thin-skinned grape thrives here in the rolling hillsides and river valleys, so nuanced in their aspect and altitude to have earned the region a reputation as the “Burgundy of Italy.” Piedmont is separated from France to the West by the Alps, stretches north to Switzerland across the Valle d’Aoste and Lombardy, south to the thin ribbon of Liguria along the Mediterranean coast and is segmented by many rivers, namely the Po and Tanaro. It is one of the most densely planted wine-growing areas in the whole country, with 52 DOC zones, more than any other part of Italy.
The relationship between grape and region here perfectly illustrate the old pairing adage “what grows together goes together.” Hazelnut orchards and truffles share acreage with vineyards and dominate the local cuisine. Which coincidentally loves a glass of forest and earth-scented red wine, with ample tannins and a palate of leather and fruit for balancing rich dishes. They are a match made in heaven! So intertwined are the place and the plant in fact that the particular climate of Piedmont is credited with giving Nebbiolo its name, derived from the word nebbia for fog. A picturesque blanket of clouds drapes the region every fall, allowing the late-ripening grape to hang a little longer while keeping its delicate aromatics intact. Never missing an opportunity for drama, Piemontese winemakers have also come to arm their communes with giant air cannons that blast the autumn clouds with sonic artillery when the hail in those clouds threatens to destroy the entire year’s harvest. The season has come to be marked by this orchestra of atmospheric warfare.
Nebbiolo and Piedmont are so deeply connected that we almost forget it also grows and is vinified in neighboring Lombardy and in the steep alpine terraces of the Valle d’Aoste. Up in the northern reaches of Piedmont in the Alto Piemonte area the grape is called Spanna; in Lombardy along the border with Switzerland it goes by Chiavennasca; and in the Valle d’Aoste the mountain folks refer to it as Picutener/Picotendro. The Perricone grape in Sicily is rumored to be a clone of Nebbiolo, developing its own distinct characteristics in island isolation. The tannins and aromatics of both grapes certainly speak to a kinship. The rest of the world is slowly attempting to cultivate it in other climates, but to continue the comparison to Burgundy, Nebbiolo like Pinot Noir is particularly finicky about where it will ripen. The nuances and range of the grape in its native Italy though offer us plenty to investigate, both on an everyday basis and those special occasions that warrant opening an old Barolo or Barbaresco.
Historically the wines of Piedmont were vinified to be chunky, beefy reds, made with long macerations and aged in huge old barrels. The winemaker Gaja pushed the industry to modernize and since the 80s we’ve seen much cleaner, more delicate versions, allowing the distinct aromatics and palate to emerge beyond show-stealing tannins. Additionally the efforts of winemaker Renato Ratti in the 60s to map out the vineyard-specific qualities of Barolo and Barbaresco, have made the wines more accessible to international audiences.
These two sub-regions of Piedmont, and perhaps the most synonymous with Nebbiolo, were producing much of their wine with negociants, Bordeaux-style, before Ratti came along and encouraged estates to distinguish themselves and showcase the particular terroir of their holdings. Both DOCGs fall inside the Langhe designation with soils composed of limestone marl, a cool-temperature crumbly clay that allows for slow ripening, which in turn builds acidity in the wines. Barbaresco however occupies lower elevations, so the grapes ripen earlier and don’t develop quite as much tannin. Wines grown here are said to be the “Queens” of the Nebbiolo offerings, more delicate in style, aromatic and full of tension. Barolo, producing the “Kings” as it were, covers twice the acreage, at higher elevation and a little further south from Barbaresco. The fruit hangs longer, ripens more, and has a more rustic palate. The broad-shouldered low-timbred contrast to Barbaresco’s long fingers and dainty feet. With the exception of a small corner of NW Barolo called La Morra, bordering Barbaresco and with a very similar soil composition. Barolos from this area tend to be on the more delicate side, like the popular Reverdito at our shop, a favorite for many years for its approachable tannins and versatility at the table.
Langhe wines, coming from the larger area that includes Barolo and Barbaresco, are grown on this same soil and across the same rolling hillsides, but are just not as strictly regulated as the other designations. They’ll also sometimes be slightly blended with other regional grapes like Barbera or Arneis. Meaning one can enjoy a world-class wine for a fraction of the price! Keep your eyes peeled...
Across the river to the West is Roero, known for its whites but also capable of producing a beautifully rendered Nebbiolo. Similar to the coveted Cote Roties of France (Syrah and Viognier), a Roero Nebbiolo may have up to 5% of the indigenous white grape Arneis blended in for a touch more fruit and weight. These wines can sometimes stand up to the intensity of a Barolo even, again at a fraction of the cost or cellar time.
In the northern reaches of Piedmont at the base of the Italian Alps is another notable Nebbiolo region, Alto Piedmonte. Gattinara, one of five regional designations within Alto Piemonte, is the largest and best known. It is known for intensely aromatic versions and the soil here is gritty and sparse, making the vines struggle even longer to reach ripeness. The subalpine climate here, at the foothills of the mountains, protects the acidity and delicacy of the fruit, where warmer, lower elevations produce fleshier versions. But check out some of the lesser known areas of Alto Piemonte (like Coste della Sesia) and you’ll find some charming nebbiolos and nebbiolo blends.
Across the border into a different region we find even leaner versions of the varietal, only recognizable as Nebbiolo by the distinct notes of wild rose, forest, and dried cherry that still come through. Valle d’Aoste grapes are grown on impossibly steep cliff-sides in pergola trellises that train the vine up and out off the mountain where it can collect precious exposure to the sun. These vineyards can’t be worked by machine or animal and so are only accessible for hand-cultivation. Yields are low and the work is hard, which is often reflected in the prices. But these are some of our favorite versions of the grape, capable of transporting us to the rocky slopes and steely sunshine of the Italian Alps.
The shop stocks all these versions of the noble Nebbiolo, and we’re always happy to tell you about the producers we’ve come across and what makes them special!
If you’ve made it this far, you now know we weren’t kidding about our love affair with this grape. It was hard to stop writing. Our Nebbiolo stock has been decimated during the morel and truffle seasons. Check back frequently (or ask us to contact you when certain wines come back in stock) to see which Nebbiolos are in stock or which new ones have been added.
Here’s some ideas for trying/enjoying Nebbiolo:
Your basic everyday Nebbiolo: Pace Nebbiolo Langhe 2017 $15
A great everyday light to medium bodied Nebbiolo blend:
GD Vajra Rosso Langhe 2019 $16
Taste the two regions
G.D. Vajra Nebbiolo Langhe $26
Pace Nebbiolo Roero $26 (Coming soon...is OOS at distributor)
Juicy with structure
Cave de Donnas “Classico” Picotendro Valle D’Aoste 2016 $33 (Will be in stock Friday, Jan 15)
Colombera & Garella Rosso Coste della Sesia 2019 $26 (Will be in stock Friday, Jan 15)
Approachable (and similar) Barbaresco and Barolo
La Ca Nova Barbaresco 2017 $36
From La Morra that borders Barbaresco-- Reverdito Barolo 2015 $33
For the cellar -- hold at least 5 years and more like 10 or be prepared to decant!
Ferdinando Principiano Barolo (Serralunga) 2015 (OOS at the distributor--hoping it will be back soon)