It’s a particularly ugly day in Boston from a weather standpoint. It’s been raining and snowing at the same time, a fact that meteorologist describe as “wintry mix” which sounds like a cereal brand or a granola bar. Rain, snow and fog don’t make for a great early Spring. Actually, fog might help. If you translate fog into Italian, you get Nebbiolo which is way more fun to be around than fog.
So, Nebbiolo is an Italian red grape variety from the Piedmont region (Northwest Italy, capital Turin).
It is considered the noble grape of the region, which I guess makes Barbera the bourgeois grape and Dolcetto the peasant grape. That’s actually a pretty accurate comparison because Nebbiolo is a really fussy and temperamental grape. Seriously, it makes Pinot Noir look easy to grow in comparison. Nebbiolo is extremely fragile, needs constant care and takes forever to ripen. It is also very particular about the type of soils and climate it needs to grow properly and thus, can only be cultivated on the very best tracts of land. All those factors contribute to its rarity and its “nobility” status.
Why do people bother growing it then? Well, it produces spending wines. That might have helped. Wines made from Nebbiolo have extremely high acidity and tannins level. Often they are way to tart to be drunk early. Most high quality Nebbiolo requires oak aging and then a few years in the bottle to reach its potential and be enjoyable. A peak Nebbiolo makes me think about a tighter, denser Pinot Noir where the gamey, Fall-like notes of Burgundy would be replaced by more peppery, spicy notes. That’s my own experience however, generally accepted descriptions of Nebbiolo insist on aromas like roses, liquorice, mulberries or even tar.
The most famous appellations for Nebbiolo are the Barolo and Barbaresco DOCGs in Piedmont with high reputation and price both. Other DOCGs for Nebbiolo include Gattinara and Ghemme. There is also a DOC, Nebbiolo d’Alba. Outside of Piedmont the grape is not widely planted even so there are Nebbiolo wines from California and Australia.
I’ve been drinking a few Nebbiolos recently and I was I could drink some more because it is usually great stuff. But the relative rarity, high reputation and necessary ageing makes it an expensive passion, especially for Barolos and Barbarescos. Other DOCGs and DOCs are more affordable and they tend to be easier to drink young. It’s usually a good bet if you can find one of these at your local wine shop.