THE WONDERS OF NEBBIOLO
One of my all time favorite grape varieties would have to be Nebbiolo. This small, fickle red grape is predominantly grown in the Piemonte region in Northwest Italy and is thought to have derived its name from the Italian word nebbia meaning "fog." During harvest, which generally takes place late in October, a deep, intense fog sets into the Langhe region where many Nebbiolo vineyards are located.
The grape really doesn't like to be taken out of its homeland. Even in its region of origin, Nebbiolo is exceptionally finicky about where it will happily grow and ripen.
Compared to the annual growth cycle of other Piedmontese grape varieties, Nebbiolo is one of the first varieties to bud and last variety to ripen, leaving a very big window of opportunity for mother nature to ruin everything – high winds, wet weather, hail and frosts plus this precious little grape needs a lot sunshine to fully ripen.
If everything goes your way, however, you'll be rewarded with one of the most tantalizing wines in the world. Elegant, sophisticated, complex and at its best will rival the very best from Burgundy.
I find that there are so many similarities between Nebbiolo and Pinot Noir. If Pinot Noir is the most alluring grape in the world, then Nebbiolo is a very close second. Personally, I'd take Barolo over Burgundy any day of the week!
Just like Pinot Noir, Nebbiolo is genetically unstable so there are many sub-varieties and clones. They both produce lightly coloured wines which are intensely aromatic. Both are high in acidity but the wine-making techniques make Nebbiolo a more full-bodied, tannic wine.
What makes Nebbiolo so enticing is its perfume. I don't think I've ever found more flavours, aromas and scents in any other wine. Violets, tar, roses, wild herbs, cherries, raspberries, truffles, tobacco, prunes, autumn undergrowth, woodsmoke, dried fruits, baking spice, damson, mushrooms, earth, oak. These are wines that you don't really even need to drink. You could happily nose it all night long.
The two most famous areas in Piedmont are Barolo and Barbaresco and they produce the best wines in the area.
Barbaresco is considered the lighter and more feminine of the two and although they share a lot similarities, there are also some distinct differences.
Despite being made from the same grape and the villages being only 10 miles from each other, the difference in climate allows the grapes to ripen earlier in Babaresco and fermentation and maceration times are shorter, meaning the young tannins in Barbaresco are less harsh than Barolo. The laws governing aging are therefore shorter in Barbaresco too. Wines must be aged 2 years before they can be released form the cellars and 4 years for riserva wines.
Barolo must be aged 3 years and 5 years for riserva wines.
The most pronounced difference between the two wines is that the tannins of Barbaresco tend to soften quicker, which can make the wines more approachable to drink at an earlier age but won't allow it to age for as long as a traditionally made Barolo could and the longevity of these wines are remarkable! At least 15-20 for Barbaresco and 30 plus years for Barolo. To drink one of these great wines at its peak of maturity is mind-blowing!
For me, I prefer the more masculine, tannic style of Barolo over the more feminine Barbaresco, but I am more than happy with both.
Now these don't come cheap! For a good bottle of either you'll need to be paying at least $80 and if you like, upwards of $300, depending on vintage and producer.
My Favourite is Aldo Conterno. His wines are always top notch and his IL FAVOT NEBBIOLO is stunning and better than some people's Barolo!
Another one to look out for is Vietti. Very well priced and a fantastic introduction to Nebbiolo – look out for his Nebbiolo Perbacco
Angelo Gaja is the king of Barbaresco and his wines are some of the best I've ever tasted – big price tag too but worth it every penny.
As with any quality wine, vintage plays a big part. Thankfully there has been a run of great vintages in Piedmont so you can't go too far wrong. 1995 until now has been pretty spot on. The only two I would avoid are 2002 and 2003.
Now when pairing these wines, a big, powerful Barolo needs to be matched with foods of similar weight. In Piedmont, the wines are often paired with meat dishes, heavy pastas and rich risottos; the tannins bind to the food proteins and come across softer.