Nebbiolo Grape Characteristics & Wine Profile
Last Updated on April 3, 2023.
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 tannins, 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 the 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.
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Nebbiolo produces surprisingly complex red wines with seemingly disparate notes that come together to form a beautiful whole. Fruit notes include red currant, cassis, black cherry, raspberry, strawberry, and cranberry – in other words, brighter, more high-toned berry notes. Those are balanced out by secondary notes of forest floor, limestone, cracked spice, violet, rose, tar, balsamic, and truffle.
Nebbiolo wines make for fun and relatively easy pairing partners alongside a variety of foods. High tannins, acids, and loads of complexity mean that these wines pair well with dishes that are 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 a risotto with garlic and Parmesan. Or, spice it up a notch with jalapeño poppers and chimichurri skirt steak.
Look for sharp cheeses and slabs of Parmesan with ground black pepper & butter steak bites.
For those in the mood for shellfish or something lighter, blue crab and corn fritters with chipotle aioli are a match made in heaven.
For vegetarian dishes, focus on the mushroomy notes and pair Nebbiolo with rich, creamy mushroom-based dishes.
Barolo & Barbaresco: King & Queen of Nebbiolo
The King and Queen of Nebbiolo are located in the Langhe region in Piedmont. 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 we believe there to be a place in the market for both.
Other Nebbiolo Growing Regions
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 the communes of 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. Its 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 we find these to be the most important ones to focus on, for the moment.
Due to the high acid and tannins, Nebbiolo can age for decades. In fact, these wines are notoriously unapproachable when young because the acids and tannins have not yet settled in. Because of Nebbiolo’s unique flavor profile, oak treatments are usually neutral as to not impart any toasty notes.
As Nebbiolo wines age, the color can fade to a tawny orange and the leather-licorice notes become more pronounced. It’s definitely one of the more fascinating grapes to age because Nebbiolo constantly evolves over time.
- Paolo Scavino, ‘Rocche dell’Annunziata Riserva,’ Barolo, Piedmont, Italy
- Produttori del Barbaresco, Barbaresco, Piedmont, Italy
- Bruno Giacosa, ‘Valmaggiore,’ Alba, Piedmont, Italy
- Gironata, Luna Matta Vineyard, Paso Robles, Central Coast, California
- Bodega Pablo Fallabrino, ‘Notos,’ Uruguay
- Las Nubes, Gran Riserva, Valle de Guadalupe, Mexico
Learn About These Other Wine Grape Varieties
Written By Jared Gelband
An expert in all things wine and cocktails, Jared Gelband is the Wine and Beverage Director for Italian Village Restaurants, overseeing the award-winning wine cellar with over 20,000 bottles. After working as a server at Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse, Jared quickly discovered his passion for wine and went on to pursue his Level 1 Certification with the Court Of Master Sommeliers. He spent nearly two years as a Sommelier at Eno Wine Bar before joining Italian Village Restaurants in 2016. In addition to handling wine purchases for all three restaurants, creating and crafting new cocktails, and teaching weekly wine classes for employees, Jared also focuses on developing specials and programs including a newly launched Coravin program, summer Rosé program, and more. At Italian Village, his philosophy revolves around variety, integrity and staying ahead of current trends across the U.S. and Italy. When he’s not drinking or working with wine, Jared enjoys snowboarding, golfing, traveling and exploring Chicago’s culinary scene.
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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 buttercream) for much shorter periods. These same producers, in an effort to soften the tannins and acid that have 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.