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The Nebbiolo Grape

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About Nebbiolo

(Synonyms: Barbesino, Brunenta, Femmina, Lampia, Marchesana, Martesana Melasca, Melaschetto, Melascone, Michet, Monferrina, Morsano di Caraglio, Nebbieul grosso, Nebbieul Maschio, Nebbiolin, Nebbiolin Canavesano, Nebbiolin lungo, Nebbiolin nero, Nebieu, Nebieul, Nebieul fumela, Nebiolo, Nebiolo du Piedmont, Nibieul burghin, Nibio, Nibiol, Nubiola, Pantin, Picot, Picotendre, Picote, Picotenero, Picoultener, Picoutendro Maschio, Počte, Prugnet, Prunent, Prunenta, Pugnet, Rosetta, Spagna, Span, Spana commune, Spana grossa, Uva Spanna)


Nebbiolo grapes Map showing the Piedmont region

Nebbiolo is a red-wine grape originating in the Piedmont region of Italy. It is the informing grape of such renowned wine types as Barolo, Barbaresco, Gattinara, and Ghemme, and is generally considered one of the dozen and a half or so of world-class red-wine grapes (those in boldface in the varietals list to the left of the page).

Wines from the Nebbiolo grape are typically of a relatively light color, with aromas described as "tar" and rose. Nebbiolos famously take—and arguably require to reach decent drinkability, owing to their very high tannin content in youth—considerable aging, during which they improve immensely to make some of the finest reds in the world. As they age, the wine color shifts to a tint often described as brick-red, and a host of complex flavors develop; flaovor sensations often mentioned include violets, tar, wild herbs, cherries, raspberries, truffles, tobacco, and prunes; and the texture shifts from tannic to "velvety".

In its native environs, Nebbiolo is (as with, for example, Cabernet Sauvignon in Bordeaux) was not commonly issued as a monovarietal bottling, but was blended with modest amounts of other regional grapes to make regionally named wines. Those were usually oaked, as they still are; but the modern trend is to lesser exposure times using smaller barrels than traditional, with those smaller barrels of new oak (to more quickly soften the tannins and acids). Plus new oak adds some vanilla overtones to the already complex mix of Nebbiolo sensations.

Times have, however, changed. Today, wines labelled as Barolo or Barbaresco must by Italian wine law be 100% monovarietal Nebbiolo. (There is some conjecture that many winemakers are sneaking small amounts of other grapes into their supposedly 100% Nebbiolo wines to make them more accessible when young, but that is, of course, unconfirmed.) Other regional wines based on Nebbiolo allow small admixtures of other grapes, though not all makers do blends.

Even though the above-named wine types are all from the same grape grown in the same general region, there are perceptible difference in the wines and their stylings. Barolos, for instance, are generally held to be big and "brawny" wines, while Barbarescos are held to be more "elegant" (and approachable when still young). And even within those denominations, many claim to perceive sub-regional distinctions.

Nebbiolo wines tend to be very expensive, not only owing to their perceived high quality, but also owing to the fact that the grapes are difficult to grow well. One respected New World grower of the type famously says that "Nebbiolo is a grape for winemakers who have mastered pinot noir, and are looking for a greater challenge" (Pinot Noir is famous—or infamous— for being a profoundly tricky grape to reliably grow well; Jancis Robinson has written that "If Pinot Noir is the world's most tantalising grape, Nebbiolo runs it a close second - for very similar reasons."). Nebbiolo grapes are very late-ripening, though early-flowering (spring frosts are the kiss of death to it) and need lots of sun (among the many things they need, such as just the right soils to grow in.) Further, the vines are naturally vigorous growers, and need careful and strict pruning to produce the wanted flavors in the grapes themselves.

Nebbiolo wines being so expensive, it behooves the everyday wine drinker to seek out less-costly sources. By avoiding the prime regions, one can often get much more reasonably priced wines from grapes of nearly comparable quality. Wines likely to yield such bargains are Nebbiolo d'Alba, Langhe Nebbiolo, and Roero Nebbiolo.

Factoid: Nebbiolo has the big reputation, but it is only a tiny fraction of Piedmont grape growth: Barbera, for example, produces 15 times as much regional wine (and is reputed to be what the locals mostly drink).

Some Descriptions of Nebbiolo Wines

  • Wikipedia

    "Wines made from Nebbiolo are characterized by their ample amounts of acidity and tannin. Most examples are wines built for aging and some of the highest quality vintages need significant age (at least a decade or more) before they are palatable to many wine drinkers and can continue to improve in the bottle for upward of 30 years. As Nebbiolo ages, the bouquet becomes more complex and appealing with aromas of tar and roses being the two most common notes. Other aromas associated with Nebbiolo include dried fruit, damsons, leather, licorice, mulberries, spice as well dried and fresh herbs. While Barolo & Barbaresco tend to be the heaviest and most in need of aging, wines made in the modernist style are becoming more approachable at a young age. Lighter styles from Carema, Langhe and Gattinara tend to be ready drink within a few years of vintage. Nebbiolo from California and Australia will vary from producer and quality of vineyard."

  • Jancis Robinson

    "So what does Nebbiolo at its best taste like? It's one of the few grapes you can sometimes identify simply by its colour alone, for it tends to take on a brick-orange tinge at the rim of its blackish ruby relatively early in its often-long life. Perhaps the most wonderful thing about Nebbiolo is its perfume. The wine is typically intensely aromatic, developing the most extraordinarily haunting bouquet in which, variously, roses, autumn undergrowth, woodsmoke, violets and tar can often be found - together with a greater variety of other ingredients than most other grapes. On the palate, the wine is typically high in acidity and, until after many years in bottle, tannins. In fact, top-quality Barolo made in the most traditional way is one of the slowest-maturing wines in the world, easily withstanding four decades in bottle. Small French oak barriques have been rapidly replacing large Slovenian oak casks, or botti, resulting in smoother, faster-maturing, if slightly less distinctive wines. Although in the 1980s botti versus barriques took on the dimensions of a holy war, most producers today use a mixture of these two sorts of container for aging, depending on the particular vintage and individual vineyard (often called a cru or sori here)."

  • Professional Friends of Wine

    "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. . . Wines made from nebbiolo are typically tart, tannic and alcoholic. 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."

  • Food & Wine

    "Certainly Nebbiolo is formidable, with fierce tannins and acidity, but it is also gloriously scented—"tar and roses" is the classic description—and has a supple, evocative flavor that lingers on the tongue. Those flavors are more substantial and emphatic in Barolos and more delicate and filigreed in Barbarescos, the two primary wines from Piedmont."

  • TotalWine

    "Nebbiolo (nay-bee-OH-loh), produced at its best, is capable of producing the biggest, most full-bodied wines in the world with intense concentration and firm tannins. The flavor and aroma profiles include dark fruit, primarily blackberry with loads of complex flavors including smoke, tar, licorice and rustic notes. The prominent wines of northern Italy, Barolo and Barbaresco are produced from this renowned red-wine grape. Nebbiolo also contains wonderful acidity."

  • Snooth

    "Characteristics of the grape: dark berries, dark cherries, black plums, anise, tobacco, cedar, smoke, tar, violets, truffles, black licorice, moss, earth, leather, dried fruits, rosemary, thyme. . . .The Piedmontese versions are predominately dry, elegant red wines that benefit from long bottle aging. To be consumed young, there are more accessible varietal releases, such as Nebbiolo d’Alba, that don’t require as much aging. Warmer, New World climates produce more fruity versions."

  • About.com

    "The Nebbiolo grape is typically characterized by the flavors of sweet fruits like blackberry, currant, plum and cherry, with high acidity levels and tough tannins. "

  • "Food", The Washington Post

    "As a Barolo ages, the color turns brick orange, and its silky tannins, complex aromas of dried rose and violet, of leather and truffle and tar, deep cherry and plum flavors emerge. The finish lasts forever. It’s a wine to meditate, brood and ponder over."

Some Nebbiolos to Try

(About this list.)

Any of the "B/B" wines—Barolo and Barbaresco—are outside our price range. But, as noted up-page, one can get pretty decent specimens of Nebbiolo wines at plausible prices from nearby if technically "lesser" regional denominations. We have given a range of those, plus a couple of New World renditions of the grape.

The quotations below are excerpts; we strenuously urge you to click on the green diamond symbol by each quoted review to see the full article.
  • Pertinace Langhe Nebbiolo, $12 - $15. (This is the commune's basic Nebbiolo, not to be confused with the "Nervo" or "Marcarini" bottlings.)

    Some quotations and facts:

    Ripe, leathery edge to dark red fruit for several unfolding layers of aroma and flavor; super price.

    [A] nice mix of perfumy nebbiolo aromas and fruity depth.

    ♣ Wine Spectator (December 2009) 87 points

  • Antonio Vallana e Figlio Spanna Colline Novaresi, $15 - $25. (This is a revival of an old classic; it is not this maker's only Nebbiolo.)

    Some quotations and facts:

    Half the bottle was reserved to a 375 ml after decanting, pumped and refrigerated to try again in a day or two. Day 3- Removed from the refrigerator 4 hours before and reopened just before serving. At first, this seemed to have lost something and came off a little diffuse. However, by the end, it seemed to have recovered and come together again. . . .[I]t has the structure and stuffing to evolve into a very special wine. 90 points on day one and 89 on day 3. Exceptional value at around $14.

    This is excellent. Shows classic Nebbiolo character, in a medium-bodied, soft, and ready-to-drink style. I'm glad to see this old-line producer (whose Spannas from the 60s and 70s are legendary) is back on line. Medium ruby-garnet. Fragrant nose, with textbook winey cherry/dried cherry fruit together with a nice mildly mushroomy, earthy underbrush component. Focused, vibrant, earthy-cherry fruit in a bone dry, medium-bodied format, with excellent, zingy acids and just a barely discernible bit of tannin becoming noticeable in the finish. B+. . . [I]t seems to be selling in the $14 - $18 range from various retailers I've seen on the Internet, which would make it a very good value.

    This version, with its easygoing ripe tannins, provides a gentle introduction to Nebbiolo, but still has some of the grape’s hallmark hint of tar, along with cherries and chocolate on its rich, plush palate.

    [N]ot having previously tasted the more recent vintages, I came away really impressed: the "new" wines have tons of character and depth.

    The Novaresi is KILLER for the money.

    I tried a 2008 Spanna Novaresi the other night and it doesn't seem that far off from these [great classic] wines - at least from memory. It is, I think, way too young and simple at this point, but the complexity seems to [lie] just below the surface.

    Made from high-altitude vines planted in the 1960′s, it is a sensational value that combines earth, crisp red fruit notes, tar and spice with great concentration and length. Perfect with any roast meats and hearty cheeses. Fans of old school Nebbiolo will love this!

    Medium-light style; dry, rich taste with a delicate, rich aftertaste.

  • Produttori del Barbaresco Nebbiolo Langhe, $16 - $28. (The Produttori make several Nebbiolo-based wines, of which this is the basic "Nebbiolo Langhe"; if you happen to find a close-to-$20 bottle of their Barbaresco bottling, grab it instead.)

    Some quotations and facts:

    Light, clear ruby color. Interesting nose of dried cherries, cinnamon, toasted bread, and rose petals. Very intense on the palate, medium bodied with good balancing acidity, a touch of earth, dried cherries and cranberries, a spritzy/citric quality. Finish is moderately long with mostly tart cherries and balancing acidity. Really nice, light, complex and lively wine. Seems ready to drink [2009 bottling in 2011] 89 points

    [A] great, balanced, harmonious and juicy wine with a refreshing acidity. . . .The result is an extraordinarily balanced, concentrated, juicy and harmonious wine with refreshing acidity that carries the fruit through the finish and adds brightness to the wine. The nose boasts intense wild berries and red cherry aromas with earthy, floral and mineral notes. The youthful palate is fresh, dense yet medium bodied and juicy. It combines, here again, earthy, floral and mineral notes intermingled with red and dark berries, liquorice and slightly yet integrated oaky flavors lingering for a while in the silky finish. Very approachable now, this wine may benefit from 2-4 years cellaring.

    This wine is such a trip! Light in color, the unsuspecting taster might presume it to be "thin" (the ultimate put-down for light bodied reds). Instead, delicious aromas of rose petal and damp earth great the nose. On the palate, great acidity precedes vigorous but interesting and manageable tannins. A great entry-level nebbiolo, a grape that can often escalate in price quickly.

    Quite plummy with some ripe strawberry and a touch of raspberry. Very fruit forward, some heat with med tannins. Not bad but pretty boring. Never would have guessed nebbiolo.

    Slightly volatile nose, but the palate is bright and fresh. Notes of dried roses and cherries with a tarry finish. Ripe, supple. 89 points.

    [O]ffers bright cherry, some floral notes, hints of licorice, cedar and spearmint and firm tannins.

    Light ruby color. Scents of flowers, roses, red fruits and spices. The flavor is intense, but well-balanced. B+

    It's really a fascinating wine with a little more muscle than I remembered, but the texture and structure just set it apart from the wines I'm familiar with. This is probably obvious for lovers of Nebbiolo but it's very interesting to me. Really fine nose as well. This is a lot of character for under $20.

    The aromas were really pleasant – cherry cola, rosey soap and hibiscus tea – and somewhat typical of the Nebbiolo grape. On the palate, flavors of cherries, strawberries and a bit of leather rounded out the wine. Although there were some drying tannins, they weren't overpowering and I thought this was a good Italian wine.

  • Sottimano delle Langhe Nebbiolo, $16 - $26.
         ($18.74 at Saratoga Wine Exchange).

    Some quotations and facts:

    This is a really excellent wine. . . [T]he wine could legally be labeled Barbaresco (from the "cru" area of Basarin, in fact), but has been downclassified by the winery to Langhe Nebbiolo because the vines are youngish (13-14 years old at the time of the 2009 vintage), and "cannot yet express the richness of polyphenols or all the aromas and the 'nuances' that an important cru like this could have." That right there tells you something about the values and aims of this winery: many US wineries would have no problem considering vines that old more than ready for their higher-priced bottlings. When tasted just after opening, this wine seems a bit on the light and tight side, with fine but slightly aggressive tannins, but still quite flavorful and balanced, with much more of a nose (still red berries but also typical Nebbiolo floral elements) than [another Nebbiolo]. It rapidly opens up to become a bit more velvety and smooth on the palate than the [other], the tannins starting to carry the flavor around the mouth and make it stick, the flavors developing to include more definite notes of caramel and hints of minerality. Good length of finish, maybe less dark and mineral than the [other]'s, but still complex. I got the feeling from this wine's opening up to be fairly complex, but grapey and natural, and intense on the palate, that it was likely unfiltered. Sure enough, looking at it in the glass (the color is relatively toward the violet rather than red end of the red-wine spectrum) one can see a slight cloudiness of grapey particulate matter, and the Sottimano website confirms that it's neither filtered nor fined. A very good sign. . . The Langhe Nebbiolo is good now, will likely benefit substantially from about 3-5 years of aging, but is not going to need (or perhaps, handle) the aging that the Barolos and Barbarescos do. Still, a very serious wine from what is clearly a very serious estate, a real taste of what serious winemaking with a light touch can do to grapes from an area with real terroir, and another excellent bargain even though not cheap.

    The Sottimano 2009 Langhe Nebbiolo is a great example of how some things just get better with age. This wine is sure to be fantastic after a little more time in the bottle. If you can’t wait to taste it though, just give it some good time in the decanter and the flavors will balance and breathe for pleasant drinkability now. . . The Sottimano family is known for producing high quality wines. This Langhe Nebbiolo is no exception.

    ♣ Wine Advocate (2009), 90 points

    The 2009 Langhe Nebbiolo is a serious wine, which is not surprising as the fruit comes from Basarin, a vineyard several producers use for their Barbaresco.

    ♣ International Wine Cellar (2009), 89 points.

    This Langhe Nebbiolo is in fact made from young vines in the Basarín vineyard, a cru within the Barbaresco denomination; they are between 10-15 years old. The nose is somewhat closed at the moment, but the palate is firm and full of flavour. A classic vintage – well structured with power and richness. Top notch Langhe Nebbiolo and great value to be sure.

    A Barolo/Barbaresco from outside of their respective regions. Very young wine . . . decanted it for a couple of hours which was necessary. Still tannic but approachable. Great buy for under $20.

  • Tenute Cisa Asinari dei Marchesi di Grésy Langhe Nebbiolo Martinenga, $16 - $26. (Di Gresy also makes several more expensive Nebbiolo-based wines; this is their basic "Nebbiolo Langhe Martinenga"—there is also a pricier "Barbaresco Martinenga", so don't get confused.)

    Some quotations and facts:

    This bottle, however, was very nice, particularly for the price of just $19. It had a beautiful light color that was transparent, a brilliant garnet. The nose was very rich with cinnamon mixed in with delicate fruit. There was a slight astringent quality on the taste, but it was pleasing, and the finish was soft and subtle, very clean. It was a wine experience unlike any other I have had. While the 2009 vintage was not rated by Wine Spectator, the wine has a track record of moderately impressive scores with the magazine over the past decade, most in the mid 80s.

    [T]ar and tobacco and black cherry, with perfect acidity and tannin.

    Classic floral, tar and cherry aromas of nebbiolo, with nicely sweet red fruit, fine tannin, persistent flavors and acid savor that begs you to take another taste. For real Peidmontese nebbiolo character, you can't do much better for the money than this bottle of essentially declassified Barbaresco from the cru Martinenga vineyard. Sometimes wines in this low level classification taste overly acidic and fruitless. Not this one. . . This wine doesn't have the intensity for cellaring, but it's terrific right now and probably will last a few years.
    (alternate link)

    To me it was a very smooth drinking wine without a lot of structure. It is made in a “sexy” style and I'm sure some people will really love this. However, I like my nebbiolo a bit more structured and with tannins.

    Shows its Barbaresco heritage with its full aroma but silky texture, bright fruit and lengthy flavors.

    [F]irm tannins, dirt, earth, raspberry, currant with dry leathery tannins left on the tongue, very good.

    The 2001 Langhe Nebbiolo Martinenga does not come in contact with oak. It presents very good value . .  : a nose of strawberry and cherry, with a hint of flower; a palate of cherry and fur, balanced.

    Bright, lively and enticing, this is a screaming deal.

    [A] high five goes to 2009 Marchesi di Gresy Nebbiolo Martinenga, nice and dry, the fruit is amazing!

  • Caparone Nebbiolo, $16 from the winery (quantity discounts available).

    We do not normally list wines chiefly or solely available from the winery, but Caparone Winery has earned entries here for each of the half dozen varietals—Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zinfandel, Sangiovese, Nebbiolo, and Aglianico— that they bottle, so ordering a mixed case or half-case is both reasonable and economical. This is one of the most undeservedly little-known wineries in the country, chiefly because Dave Caparone only bottles about 3,000 cases a year and disdains advertising and competitions.

    Some quotations and facts:

    To put it simply, the Caparone 2005 Paso Robles Nebbiolo has set a new benchmark for inexpensive Nebbiolo in my book. Everything about it, from the surface, is surprising given its origin: the 13.6% ABV, the . . . price, the varietal expression, the attractive rusticity and the complexity. Having been to Caparone's winery about a year ago, though, I can say one should expect nothing less from this producer. Some wines are more rustic and funky than others, but this is old school wine making at its best. No manipulation, no extreme ripeness, no excess new oak. Just honest wine at a fair price. There's plenty to say, but the key points are as follows. This wine is wildy aromatic, practically exploding from the glass, there is a transparency to its flavors, and there is structure in its firm slightly bitter tannins and acidity. It's a complete wine brimming with character and then some.

    It was, as you would expect, fully mature, with the classic Nebbiolo pale garnet color and orange edge – but, as I didn’t entirely expect, it was still fresh and live, filled with classic, mature Nebbiolo flavors with a fascinating overlay of bittersweet dark chocolate – unmistakably Nebbiolo, even though equally unmistakably not Piedmont Nebbiolo. This is just plain classy winemaking, to produce a wine that tastes of both its variety and its terroir. Wine like this reflects a lifetime of labor devoted to what is in California an unfashionable variety: more's the pity for California. I only wish that more winemakers showed this kind of passion and dedication.

    Light ruby red color, showing bing cherry, spice, earth, tea leaf, and a touch of characteristic tar on the nose. Medium-light weight on the palate with plenty of acidity and a big, grippy tannic finish. An interesting wine that clearly needs years of bottle age.

    Tonight [2011] I opened my last bottle of the 2000 Caparone Winery Paso Robles Nebbiolo . . . The wine looks like a fine Darjeeling in my glass beside me as I write--pale, pretty, and deeply tinged with brandy-like hues. The wine, in short, is showing its age, but it remains vibrant on the palate. It still has everything I always liked it for--although it has softened and taken on a tasty liquorous quality, it remains nicely balanced with a core of fruity sweetness, delicate acidity, and fine tannins also reminiscent of a very good tea. . . Recommended. If you buy any of the Caparone Nebbiolo from more recent vintages, don't be afraid to let it age.

    Dave's wines are not the hyper-oaked, heavy, fruit bombs that typify the California style. Caparone wines are done in a more time-consuming old world style, with as little processing as possible. They are not fined or filtered. They are barrel-aged for several years and then bottle aged for more. The resulting full-bodied wines are complex, earthy, and food-friendly. The alcohol content is decidedly light for California reds, weighing in at between 13 and 13.4 percent.

    The Nebbiolo is huge. . . This is a wonderfully complex wine with superb structure. It retains a lot of fruit up front, but is what I'd call a deeper and darker wine from start to finish. When we were in Italy, we didn't eat a lot of beef, but this Nebbiolo will certainly stand up to a nice juicy steak. Something that surprised me about all of the Caparone wines were how big and fruity they are without having the monster alcohol content that I'm seeing in so many other big and fruity wines. . . I'd have guessed that most of these wines were over 14%, and a couple of them at least 15%. They all range from 13.2% to 13.6%, so you get the punchy flavor with a very moderate alcohol level. . . I'll attribute this to the solids not being filtered out, as they must add to the substantial flavor and mouth feel of these wines. . . I fell in love with their Sangiovese, Aglianico, and Nebbiolo. These wines will compel me to visit again.

    Very pale - a strong pink. Nettles on the nose. Light fruit (red current) with lots of pepper and slight tannins. Could be bitter on the finish, but isn't. Like a very light but excellent pinot noir. Very clean finish.

    "I tasted it blind", she says, "and was told it was a Barolo. It was great, with nice brick-red color, with softer mature flavors of earth and mushrooms mixed in with the fruit." Only after she'd tasted it did she find out it was a [Caparone] nebbiolo, which sells for considerably less than a Barolo.

  • Waving Tree Nebbiolo, $20 from winery. (A Washington State Nebbiolo, little-discussed but interesting-sounding.)

    Some quotations and facts:

    This may be the most shocking wine made in Washington or Oregon today. I'm a devout Italian wine geek and drink far more great Barolo that I have any business drinking and this wine is, to my palate, totally indistinguishable from a very good, well-aged Barolo. Seriously. Terrance Atkins, Waving Tree owner/winemaker, genuinely seems not to know how screamin' terrific this wine really is. Piedmontese authenticity aside, this is simply a GREAT bottle o' juice; lighter in body but crammed with Nebbiolo traits like raspberry compote, brambles, crushed stones, white pepper, cherries, red currants, and a faint, alluring grace note of something like spruce or eucalyptus(!). This wine makes me all swoony and I bet it'll do the same to you. 93 Points

For a Splurge

Virtually any real Barolo or Barbaresco will be priced at what we consider "splurge" level, so the choice is almost arbitrary. Still, you probably wouldn't go wrong with a Vietti Barolo Castiglione ($31 - $100, depending in good part on vintage).

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