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photo of Nebbiolo by Tim Ramey.Nebbiolo is considered one of the great wine varieties, bigger, more acidic and tannic, sometimes even bitter, than most types, but consequently long-lived and prized by collectors. Jealously guarded in its native Italian home and most famous appellation of Piedmont, very few nebbiolo cuttings and clones have been exported to other countries.

The name nebbiolo has two probable origins. Ripe nebbiolo grapes have a very prominent "bloom" that gives them a "foggy" or "frosted" look, so the name could come from from "nebbia", Italian for "fog". It is an alternative possibility that the name simply comes from "nobile", Italian for "noble". Nebbiolo also goes by the names Spanna, Picutener and Chiavennasca in various Italian districts.

Cultivated since the 14th Century in Valtellina, an east-west valley in the Lombardy region at the foot of the Alps, north of Lake Como, this is the only region where nebbiolo is grown in Italy outside Piedmont.

Although there are dozens of nebbiolo clones and nebbiolo is prominent in and famous for producing wines like Barolo, Barbaresco and Gattinara, the reality is that this variety makes barely 3% of all the wines produced in Piedmont. There are twice as many acres planted with Dolcetto and ten times as many planted with Barbera.

Part of the reason for this, in spite of its reputation, is that nebbiolo is one of the more problematic grapes for both vineyardists and winemakers. Although nebbiolo vines perform much better in calcareous rather than sandy soils, they are very sensitive to both soil composition and climate and can yield wines that vary widely in body, color, tannin and acidity, as well as aroma and flavor complexity, when grown in only slightly different locales.

Nebbiolo grape skins are thin, but quite tough and fairly resistant to molds and pests. A very slow ripener, nebbiolo prefers an average seasonal temperature of between 64° and 69° F. In cooler climates, the vines need the best exposures in order to reach maturity.

Some winemakers feel that nebbiolo is even more difficult to work with than pinot noir. It can be changeable, moody and unpredictable while undergoing typical cellar and aging procedures. It is historically blended with other grapes (barbera is the conventional choice in Barolo) to soften the mouth feel and deepen the color.

Nonetheless, wherever vintners aspire to producing wine inspired by Barolo, nebbiolo is also grown, including Australia, California, New Zealand, South America and South Africa. Argentina has the largest acreage planted, but no region outside Italy has yet shown much potential for high quality wine production from this grape.

Typical Nebbiolo Smell and/or Flavor Descriptors
*Typicity depends upon individual tasting ability and experience and is also affected by terroir and seasonal conditions, as well as viticultural and enological techniques. This list therefore is merely suggestive and neither comprehensive nor exclusive.

Varietal Aromas/Flavors:

Processing Bouquets/Flavors:

Floral: rose, violet

Terroir: coffee, earth, truffle

Fruity: blackberry, cherry

Oak: oak, smoke, toast, tar, vanilla

Spicy: anise, cocoa, licorice, nutmeg, white pepper

Bottle Age: leather, cedar, cigar box

Mouth feel / Texture:
heavy, rich, tannic, chewy, alcoholic

Wines made from nebbiolo are typically tart, tannic and alcoholic and the resulting wines can require long aging to be at their best. The classic romanticized description of Barolo is "tar and roses"; the best may also smell of cherries, violets and black licorice or truffles and have rich, chewy, deep and long-lasting flavors. Good Nebbiolo can harmonize with the richest, strongest-flavored meats and stews, as well as dry, aged cheeses that may be too strong or distinctive for other wines.

by Jim LaMar

International Convention on the Nebbiolo Grape

1. Jancis Robinson, ed. The Oxford Companion to Wine, 3rd Edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006

2. Benjamin Lewin. Wine Myths and Reality, Dover: Vendange Press, 2010.

3. Erika Montovan, Piedmont Wines/Nebbiolo, I vini del Piemonte (winery consortium website) 2015

4. Julia Harding, Jancis Robinson and José Vouillamoz. Wine Grapes: A Complete Guide to 1,368 Vine Varieties, Including Their Origins and Flavours. London: Allen Lane/Penguin and New York: Ecco/Harper-Collins, 2012


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