I AM OFTEN asked what my favorite grape varietal is, and while cabernet sauvignon is indeed one of my true loves, I however like cabernet sauvignon more in the context of medoc — so it is more as a dominant varietal in a Bordeaux blend, rather than a single varietal, so my answer is nebbiolo.
Little is probably known of nebbiolo other than the fact that it is the only varietal allowed and used in the surreal wines of Barolo and Barbaresco. And this is understandably so — the nebbiolo varietal is not even among the top 10 most planted grape varietals in Italy and has less than 7,000 hectares of vineyards located mostly in the Piedmont area. In contrast, sangiovese, the other dynamic red varietal of Italy (making amazing Brunello di Montalcino, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, and Chianti Classico & Riserva) has over ten times the space planted to nebbiolo, with 72,000+ hectares of vineyards. Surprisingly too that even popular foreign varietals like merlot and chardonnay have more plantings than nebbiolo in Italy.
Nebbiolo is the oldest known indigenous grape varietal of Piedmont. The name was derived from the Italian word “nebbia,” which means “fog.” Locals believe that this was the given name of the grape because of the late-ripening nature of the varietal that is often harvested during early autumn fogs.
Outside of the Piedmont region, nebbiolo is also planted in Lombardy, in the Valtellina denomination where it is known under another name — chiavennasca.
Outside of Italy, both the US and Australia have small plantings of nebbiolo grape that yield moderately good wines at its best. So, when it comes to Nebbiolo wines, no substitute for so called “home cooking” — stick with Piedmont.
TOUGH GROWING CONDITION
Nebbiolo is a fickle and difficult varietal to grow and often compared to burgundy’s pinot noir. Nebbiolo is a very demanding varietal that requires several conditions to be met before yielding good results. These include the right soil structure (has to be calcareous, like limestone), right direction (south facing hillsides), right elevation (200 to 450 meters above sea level), and right temperature (no spring frosts), plus the usual elaborate vineyard care.
Because of Piedmont’s location, the region is also quite susceptible to frost and hail crossing through spring. Hail in particular can be very damaging to this varietal, because the nebbiolo’s secondary buds can’t produce any fruit in this situation. This is unlike Piedmont’s other red varietals, dolcetto or barbera that can still develop new fruit clusters from the second buds, which can be salvageable during the ensuing growing season.
But amidst the difficulty, once the nebbiolo is harvested correctly, the resulting wine can be hard to match in terms of its flavor, depth, longevity, and overall wine enjoyment. Nebbiolo’s color will, sadly, never be as dark as the Bordeaux wines, or other varietals like malbec, shiraz and even sangiovese. Color has always been the only limitation of the nebbiolo varietal. The best Nebbiolo wines, exemplified by the Barolos rank among the best wines ever made in the planet!
PARTICIPATION IN NEBBIOLO PRIMA 2019
I just received my press invitation to return to Alba early next year for the Nebbiolo Prima 2019, an annual wine preview of new vintages of Piedmont’s prized wine denominations (DOCG) made from the region’s crown jewel, the nebbiolo grape. Organized by Albeisa, the Union of Wine Producers from Alba, the 2019 version will take place late January this time around — way earlier (and colder) than its usual May schedule.
The Nebbiolo Prima 2019 edition will feature the Barolo 2015, Barbaresco 2016, and Roero 2016. This will be my third participation in the Nebbiolo Prima, and my fourth visit to Alba. There will be over 500 wines to be tasted blind for four straight days, including that weekend. If there is one reason for me to be working (it is still work) on a weekend, it probably has to involve some very good wines, and the Nebbiolo wines pass this criterion of mine.
OAK AGING REQUIREMENTS OF BAROLOS
Just like the Spanish oak aging laws, these Piedmont wines have their minimum cellar and oak aging laws too. And Barolos have the longest aging period required prior to commercial release, among all nebbiolo-made wines. A Barolo can only be released after 38 months in cellar aging, of which 18 months should be in oak barrels. The Barolo Riserva, on the other hand, requires a longer cellaring period of up to 62 months before commercial release, of which the same 18 months should be in oak barrels. However, Barolo makers often extend their cellaring/aging rules beyond those required by the Barolo Conzortio (the consortium in charge of the wine region). A Barolo Classico is normally oak aged for 24 months — six months beyond the required minimum, while the Barolo Riserva is aged up to 36 months in barrel.
While these may sound extremely extensive, especially the oak influence, almost all Barolo producers age part of their oak requirements in large Slavonian oaks known as “botti” (vessels that can take in as much as 600+ liters), and the other oak part with small, normally French Bordeaux size barriques of more or less 225 liters. The huge Slavonian oaks add the delicate elements to the normally more powerful smaller barriques, and Barolo wine makers get to choose the ratio of aging between these two types of oak vessels based on their stylistic approach to each vintage. Barolo’s slew of flavors range from juicy red berries, violets, herbaceousness, hazelnuts, leather to more complex oak-influenced vanilla, cinnamon, tobacco, and white chocolate.
When it comes to price, nebbiolo wines are on the pricey side. Easily a Barolo will be in P3,000/bottle range and, unfortunately, constantly on the rise too, with Barbaresco being slightly lower, and Roero (not much seen in our country) even lower than Barbaresco. However, there are decent Nebbiolo wines available under the more modest Nebbiolo Langhe or Nebbiolo d’Alba wines… these wines are easily half the price of the Barolos.
If you are a wine lover, and you have not tried a nebbiolo wine, you are missing a lot. I consider myself a genuine nebbiolo-holic, and I am sure a good Barolo will convert any wine savvy person to gravitate towards this grape varietal too.
The author has been a member of the Federation Internationale des Journalists et Ecrivains du Vin et des Spiritueux or FIJEV since 2010. For comments, inquiries, wine event coverage, and other wine-related concerns, e-mail the author at email@example.com. He is also on Twitter at twitter.com/sherwinlao.