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Nebbiolo

nebbiolo grapesThe Nebbiolo grape variety can be likened to Burgundy's Pinot Noir in terms of its personality and character traits. It has the potential to make wonderfully scented, lightly-coloured, complex and subtle wines but it is a somewhat difficult, early flowering, late ripening, nervous grape variety that reacts to every slight variation in terroir and climate and, geographically speaking, Nebbiolo is an even less amenable traveller than the Pinot Noir grape. Its natural home is near the town of Alba in the Piedmont (Piemonte) region of north west Italy where the wines produced from it reach their apogee in the best examples of the D.O.C.G. wines of Barolo, to the south-west of Alba, and Barbaresco to the north-east of the town. Viticulturalists here are all too aware that it is only planting Nebbiolo on south and south-west facing slopes at an altitude of between 250 and 450 meters that yields the best results as it needs a long growing season with maximum exposure to the sun and very good drainage. Nebbiolo is a very vigorous grape variety and requires much hands-on work in the vineyard to ensure that the vine's energy is directed towards the production of grapes rather than growing a dense canopy of leaves. Heavily tannic in their youth with high levels of acidity, the red wines of these two small areas in the Langhe hills are commonly portrayed as bearing aromas of tar and roses but the best examples offer far more than this in the way of subtlety and complexity after their careful maturation in both cask and bottle. All the potential difficulties are worthwhile, however, as Nebbiolo wines are extremely food-friendly and are a good match for a wide range of meat dishes, mushrooms and mature, hard cheeses.

History of the Nebbiolo Grape

Research conducted by the oenologists at the University of California, Davis, has shown that another Piemontese grape called Freisa is one of Nebbiolo's parents and that a cousin is the revered, highly aromatic northern Rhône variety Viognier. The documented history of Nebbiolo can be traced back to the 14th. century in the alpine foothills of Lombardy, in the east-west lying valley of Valtellina north of Lake Como, since when it has also been grown in the Langhe hills around Alba. It has even been suggested that a reference by Pliny the Elder in the 1st. century A.D. to the exceptional quality of wine produced in Pollenzo, north-west of what is now the Barolo DOCG, was in fact made from Nebbiolo grapes although he made no mention of the grape variety by name. Unfortunately Nebbiolo displayed little resistance to Phylloxera when it ravaged the Piedmontese vineyards back in the late 19th. century and when they were replanted it was Barbera that was to become the predominant variety thanks to it being altogether more forgiving of conditions making it easier to grow with more predictable resuts. Today Nebbiolo accounts for a mere 3% of wines produced in Piedmont.

Nebbiolo, like Pinot Noir, has a marked propensity to mutate and there are numerous genetic variations of it four of which have traditionally been grown to produce Barolo and Barbaresco. Today, however, only three sub-varieties are still cultivated in any volume; Michet has the best reputation for both the concentration of its juice and for its flavour profile, Lampia is the most widely planted due to its reliability and relative ease to tend in the vineyard and the Rosé clone which is becoming increasingly rare on account of its lack of colour for what is already a pale variety. Bolla, the fourth sub-variety of Nebbiolo formerly grown in the Langhe, has been largely abandoned because it was too productive and yielded grapes which lacked both colour and concentration. Three explanations have been postulated regarding the origins of its name. The first two are related to the Italian word for fog "nebbia" which could either be a reference to the pronounced bloom on the ripening grapes' skins or to the fogs which descend the hillsides in the autumn while the grapes are still on the vine. Alternatively it could merely be a corruption of the Italian word for noble - "nobile" - as Nebbiolo is one of the noblest of grape varieties.

Nebbiolo Wines

Mention has already been made of the demanding nature of Nebbiolo for the production of fine wines. Its thin skins are responsible for the light colour of its juice, even after a fairly lengthy pre-fermentation cold soak or maceration. The initial colouring is quite fast to fade especially given a relatively long period of ageing in wood that the best examples undergo. This is reflected in the early appearance of a brick-orange rim when the wine is poured into a glass. Unlike most red wines this is not necessarily a sign of advanced maturity but rather of a natural lack of deep colour. Fortunately the skins do provide some resistance to mould and rot except in the wettest autumns. The flavour profile of Nebbiolo offers up blackberry, raspberry and cherry fruit with secondary flavours of licorice and meaty, savoury notes. Perfume is this variety's trump card. In addition to the oft-quoted "tar and roses" Nebbiolo wines can also exude floral scents such as violets along with earthy truffle, "sous-bois", woodsmoke, anise, vanilla from the oak, leather and cedar-wood. These heady perfumes have encouraged wine-makers internationally to experiment with Nebbiolo with mixed results at best. A really suitable home has yet to be found for it outside of Piedmont.

Barolo

Barolo is generally recognised as being the ultimate Nebbiolo wine. As with its near neighbour Barbaresco the best plots are planted on calcareous marl which produces the most aromatic and silky-textured wines. Harvesting is late, at the end of October, and traditionally the grapes would soak for a long time before fermentation started resulting in maximum extraction of phenolic compounds and tannins. The wines were then matured in large barrels for anything up to five years to soften these tannins. A more modern, technological approach has employed a much shorter period of maceration and temperature-controlled fermentation with faster ageing in smaller "barriques" giving wines that are more aromatic and soft and are therefore suitable to be drunk earlier. Today the majority of producers use a mixture of the two methods but the biggest of these wines can still age gracefully for three or four decades.

Barbaresco

Barbaresco is a little lighter in style than Barolo and the DOCG regulations require a shorter period of ageing and this fact, together with the more nutrient-rich soils of the area make it, if anything, even more aromatic and supple but with less emphasis on tannin. Consequently these are wines that are ready to drink earlier than those of Barolo and which have a shorter lifespan. The Barbaresco area of production was established in 1894, about fifty years after that of Barolo, but it wasn't until the 1960s that its potential began to be realised, first by Bruno Giacosa and then in the 1970s by Angelo Gaja, the area's greatest (self-) publicist.

Other Nebbiolo Wines

Outside of these two renowned "denominaziones" other wines are produced from the Nebbiolo grape. The twin DOCG wines of Ghemme and Gattinara are located in the north of Piedmont. Here the regulations allow for the blending of a small proportion of Bonarda, Croatina and Vespolina varieties with Nebbiolo, known as Spanna locally, but the resulting wines are altogether lighter and less aromatic. Opposite Barolo on the north-eastern bank of the River Tanaro lies the DOCG area of Roero. More famous for its crisp white Arneis wines this area nonetheless produces some very good reds from the Nebbiolo variety which display black fruits, juicy sour cherries and a hint of spice. They are sometimes blended with a little Arneis to improve perfume and suppleness. Good wines though they are they lack the breeding and ageability of both Barolo and Barbaresco.

Nebbiolo is still grown outside of Piedmont in Valtellina, Lombardy. Here the variety, known as Chiavennasca, produces high yields rarely reaching full ripeness in the sub-alpine climate and, as a result, the wines are quite fresh and light with a high level of acidity. Attempts to produce high quality wines from Nebbiolo grapes outside of Italy have not as yet seen results to compare with similar experiments with the Pinot Noir grape. It was introduced to California in the late 19th. century by Italian immigrants but, post-prohibition, plantings dwindled to be replaced by Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot and is therefore of minor importance today. In 1985 the variety was introduced in Washington State in the Yakima Valley but the results so far have proven inconclusive as the search continues for the best clone / site match. Similar experiments in Baja California (Mexico), Chile and Argentina have been similarly inconclusive. It is Australia that will perhaps yield better results. The cooler, more marginal climate of parts of Victoria, the Margaret River in Western Australia and the Clare Valley in South Australia hold some promise as the amount of sunshine hours, rainfall and humidity in selected sites bears a marked similarity to those of the Langhe Hills in Piedmont.

  1. Silvano Bolmida, Vigna dei Fantini, Barolo, 2007

    Silvano Bolmida, Vigna dei Fantini, Barolo, 2007

    Silvano Bolmida's Barolos are long-lived wines. Aromatic with dense fruit and refined tannins in youth it continues to evolve developing into a complex and harmonious wine with sweet spices on the beguiling finish.

    Details
    Colour Red Wine
    Grape Variety Nebbiolo
    Country Italy

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  2. Silvano Bolmida, Vigna dei Fantini, Barolo, 2008

    Silvano Bolmida, Vigna dei Fantini, Barolo, 2008

    A lighter and more fragrant Barolo than is often the case. This Barolo has truly ethereal qualities.

    Details
    Colour Red Wine
    Grape Variety Nebbiolo
    Country Italy

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  3. Angelo Veglio, Barolo, 2008

    Angelo Veglio, Barolo, 2008

    Earthiness and florality are combined in this heady, enchanting Barolo.

    Details
    Colour Red Wine
    Grape Variety Nebbiolo
    Country Italy

    Out of stock

  4. Giribaldi, Barbaresco D.O.C.G., 2006

    Giribaldi, Barbaresco D.O.C.G., 2006

    Giribaldi's Barbaresco DOCG, 2006, is a well-toned wine with a vibrant, attractive nose of cherries and plums with the characteristic undertones of tobacco, leather, cinnamon and wild roses of this wine.

    Details
    Colour Red Wine
    Grape Variety Nebbiolo
    Country Italy

    Out of stock

  5. Giribaldi, Barolo DOCG, 2009

    Giribaldi, Barolo DOCG, 2009

    Giribaldi's is one of the better Barolo wines in this hot year. The quality shown this vintage is testament to the winemaker's skills.

    Details
    Colour Red Wine
    Grape Variety Nebbiolo
    Country Italy

    Regular Price: £24.99

    Special Price:

    £21.49

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  6. Silvano Bolmida, Barolo Bussia, 2008

    Silvano Bolmida, Barolo Bussia, 2008

    This delicious Barolo Bussia exhibits a spicy, floral and perfumed nose and with notes of cherry, licorice, and tar on the palate.

    Details
    Colour Red Wine
    Grape Variety Nebbiolo
    Country Italy

    Out of stock

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