What is Nebbiolo Wine?
Jared Gelband, Wine & Beverage Director at Italian Village Restaurants notes that Nebbiolo is a thin-skinned red grape, mostly known for, but not limited to its production in Piedmont, which is in Northwestern Italy. Its name is derived from the Italian word for fog, Nebbia. Generally speaking, Nebbiolo is known for its high tannin, high acidity and its aromas of red cherries, tar and rose pedals. Like all grapes, terroir is one of the largest factors when it comes to expression of the grape along with the producer’s production style. These two elements are what make and differentiate how the Nebbiolo grape is expressed in the wine.
Nebbiolo and its Relationship to Barolo & Barbaresco
The King and Queen of Nebbiolo are located in the Langhe region in Piedmonte. Both are always 100% Nebbiolo, with the king being Barolo and the queen being Barbaresco. Just like you imagined, Barolo is the powerhouse with more tannin and structure, while Barbaresco is slightly lighter in tannin and more elegant in style.
Within these styles, there are two trains of thought when it comes to production. Some producers like to produce a more traditional style, which involves longer maceration times for more extraction from the skins and aging to take place in large Botti (large Slovenian oak barrels). These wines need much more time in the cellar before they will be ready to drink. The other style comes from the modernist producers. These wines use shorter maceration times and will incorporate the use of Barriques (small French oak barrels). The idea behind these wines is to be ready to drink at a younger age. There is an argument for both styles, and I believe there to be a place in the market for both.
Langhe Nebbiolo Wines
Also located in the Langhe, you can find a more approachable expression — Langhe Nebbiolo — meaning the grapes can come from anywhere in the Langhe region. These wines are lighter in style with brighter fruit, less tannin and are significantly less expensive. These wines are typically made from the younger Nebbiolo vines.
Moving to the North is an area that’s been gaining popularity over the years — Alto Piemonte. In this area you will find Gattinara, Lessona, Bramaterra, Ghemme, Boca, Fara and Sizzano. All produce wines typically with higher acidity that are very age worthy. These wines are typically blended with Croatina, Vespolina and Uva Rara. Nebbiolo here is known locally as Spanna. Moving even more North and West bordering Valle d’ Aosta you’ll find Carema – a light and dry Nebbiolo wine with high acidity. It’s appellation is very small, but definitely worth checking out.
Valtellina in Lombardy is another wonderful area for the production of Nebbiolo, boasting a rich and aromatic style with a nice structure and elegance. There are other areas in Italy that produce Nebbiolo but I find these to be the most important ones to focus on.
Nebbiolo Wine Profile & Food Pairings
Red Currant, Cassis, Black Cherry, Raspberry, Strawberry, Cranberry
Earth & Mineral Notes
Dry forest floor, Horseshoe, Limestone, Cracked Spice
Carnation, Violet, Tar, Balsamic, Mushroom, Tobacco, Truffle, Tulip
Vinification varies by individual producer, but for the most part many premium producers, especially those that produce Barolo DOCG Nebbiolo wines will ferment their wines up to 30 days in large oak vats. Other producers will use smaller, new oak barrels to contribute additional oak type flavors (such as toffee, vanilla and butter cream) for much shorter periods. These same producers, in an effort to soften the tannins and acid that has yet to mellow out, will begin to warm these smaller barrels in sealed rooms to enact malolactic fermentation following primary fermentation. This process, which converts the L-malic acid naturally occurring in grape must to L-lactic acid, helps to soften the astringency and acid in the final wine product.
Alcohol High (12.5% - 15.0% ABV)
Meat & Poultry
Nebbiolo wines make for fun and relatively easy pairing partners alongside a variety of foods. High tannins, acids and loads of complexity mean that you can chef up or order out something that’s equally as rich and decadent. Consider big-flavored meats and poultry, roasted veggies and game. Try out Porcini Crusted Beef Tenderloin with Truffle Butter Sauce. Equally as tasty and perhaps a great side dish is Risotto with Garlic and Parmesean. Or, spice it up a notch with Jalapeño Poppers and Chimichurri Skirt Steak.
Sharp Cheeses & Rich Appetizers
Look for sharp cheeses and slabs of Parmesan with Ground Black Pepper & Butter Steak Bites. If you’re more in the mood for shellfish or something lighter, Blue Crab and Corn Fritters with Chipotle Aioli.