Nebbiolo: The Definitive Guide
“Capable of expressing the purest essence of site, vintage and producer style, Nebbiolo is without question one of the world’s elite red grapes. Skyrocketing prices and soaring demand make it increasingly difficult for consumers to find the best Barolos and Barbarescos. But the glories of Nebbiolo stretch far beyond those prestigious appellations.”
- Antonio Gallioni, Vinous. June 22, 2018
Nebbiolo, perhaps named for the fog (‘nebbia’) that typically shrouds vineyards in Piedmont in Autumn, is Italy’s finest red grape variety. Or is it a reference to the white dusting found on the grapes skin? Either way, its juice has the power to vividly transmit place, season and those involved in its production via wonderfully long lived wines. The finest examples are characterised by beguiling aromas, whispering complexity and a structure built on linear acidity and grippy, assertive tannin. As a finicky, late ripening variety, it commands positioning on prime south facing slopes and, due to its vigour, requires strict management in the vineyard. It also buds early putting itself at risk of exposure to Spring frosts.
There is documented evidence that Nebbiolo has been grown and valued around Piedmont since the 1500s. Unlike another premier grape, Pinot Noir, there is scant evidence that Nebbiolo performs outside its native zones of Piedmont and Lombardy which further adds to its scarcity and mystique.
Piedmont & Valle d’Aosta:
Nebbiolo is most famously known in the forms of Barolo and Barbaresco, regions in the south of Piedmont. These tend to be the fuller bodied, most powerful renditions of the grape, demanding extended ageing to allow their bold tannin profiles to soften. The highest quality wines, made in the traditional manner of long maceration and elaboration in large Slavonian oak, can be some of the longest lived red wines in the World. Though, as with fine wine anywhere, this is producer specific. Many ‘modern’ makers employ barrique and micro oxygenation techniques to deliver ‘international’ looking, plush and polished wines that do not live as long and are more generic.
Beyond the Langhe, and Barolo/Barbaresco, there are many more terroirs to explore. Nebbiolo’s traditional heartland, while almost invisible these days, is found throughout the sub-alpine northern reaches of Piedmont. Planted to an astounding 40,000 hectares in the 1800’s, ‘Alto Piemonte’ or Upper Piedmont, has until quite recently been on the verge of extinction. It has a fascinating range of terroirs with zones like Boca, Bramaterra, Gattinara, Ghemme and Lessona offering very different presentations of Nebbiolo the grape. Here you will find many traditional producers blending in amounts of Vespolina, Croatina and Uva Rara as they always have. Wines from these alpine appellations tend to be red fruit driven with pristine acidity and less overwhelming muscle than their southern cousins. They drink extremely well young but also, due to their acidic backbone, age brilliantly (note the rare 1980s and 1990s Castello Conti Boca DOC offerings on hand).
A special form of Nebbiolo, ‘Picotener’, is found in the town of Carema just before entering Valle d’Aosta. Here the grape can be wrought in its most ethereal, mineral form - it's just a shame that there are only 3 producers and many historically important cru vineyards are now abandoned. Two minutes drive on and inside Valle d’Aosta, Donnas DOC offers some lovely Nebbiolo wines but in minuscule quantities.
Northern Piedmont & the Italian Alps
Just 150 kilometres to the North of the Langhe (Barolo/Barbaresco etc) is a little known source of vibrant, mineral-laden and especially age-worthy Nebbiolo based wine. Rather than a single wine denomination, ‘Alto Piemonte’ is a collection of ten little appellations clustered in the Northern, pre-Alpine tip of Piedmont. There are two DOCG areas; Gattinara DOCG and Ghemme DOCG, as well as eight DOCs; Lessona DOC, Boca DOC, Bramaterra DOC, Fara DOC, Sizzano DOC, Coste delle Sesia DOC, Colline Novaresi DOC and Valli Ossolane DOC. For the sake of simplicity I will also include the almost mystical Carema DOC, which sits right on the border of Piedmont and Valle D’Aosta.
For lovers of terroir driven wines, these zones are grouped to correspond to different soil types, aspects and micro-climates. In contrast to the high pH (basic) clay-limestone soils of Barolo/Barbaresco, the soils through Alto Piemonte are extremely high in acidity (low pH) and range from compact granite in Valli Ossolane, to the volcanic origins of Gattinara and Boca, and Lessona’s ancient sandy-marine basis.
Another key difference to the Langhe area is the range of grape varieties permitted in the DOC/DOCGs. Croatina and Vespolina are commonly found blended with Nebbiolo, albeit in small amounts (useful for colour and character when Nebbiolo struggles to ripen fully in cold vintages). The finest wines from these communes are stunning, perfectly balanced and extremely long-lived, with notable acid backbone and freshness. Generally lighter in look and feel, as well as being more approachable young, these wines have a haunting beauty that should lure in any serious wine lover. We have decided to champion these wines, working with the specialist importers behind some of the finest grower/producers of these pre-Alpine delights.
In general, these zones experience cold, dry winters; mild, rainy springs; and hot summers. Their location in the foothills of the Alps places them at the intersection of the temperate climate of continental Europe and the Mediterranean climate to the south. The presence of Monte Rosa and the Alps provide protection from the cold north winds and neighbouring Lakes Maggiore and Orta also provide a moderating influence on climate. High diurnal temperature variation between mid-August and mid-October is a key contributor to the acid retention that is a hallmark of the wines of the region.
A growing perception of these heritage Nebbiolo zones is that their wines deliver more freshness, aromatic lift and mountain elegance than Barolo or Barbaresco due to the cooler climate, high acidity, and lower alcohol. These are food-friendly, age-worthy wines of great complexity that represent excellent value to fine wine lovers.
Map of the Appellations of Alto Piedmont
Piedmont’s neighbour Lombardy hosts Valtellina, Nebbiolo’s other kingdom where the grape is known as Chiavennasca. Valtellina is an uncommon east-west valley where vineyards are carved out of the south face of the Alps below Switzerland. 95% of vineyards in this small Alpine region are given to the Nebbiolo, where plantings are found ranging from 200m to 600m+. Typically the results are red fruited and pretty with very elegant tannin profiles, although Riserva wines offer incredible value for lovers of Barolo. Sneak a pure, traditionally produced Valtellina Superiore into your tasting group and see what happens...
Aerial View of Vineyards in Valtellina
Keen to learn more?
Explore the Appellations of Alto Piedmont, Valle d'Aosta & Lombardy: