Nebbiolo is a red wine grape from the Piedmont region of Italy. It is used to make Barolo, widely considered to be one of the best wines in the world. It’s a cool climate varietal, believed to have originated from Piedmont, though some evidence suggests it may have come from Lombardy. It is also known by the names Spanna and Chiavennasca.
Real written evidence of the cultivation of Nebbiolo is scarce, but the 1st-century Roman author Pliny the Elder makes reference to high-quality wines being grown in a region just north of Barolo. It’s possible that these were made from Nebbiolo grapes.
On the vine, Nebbiolo appears to be quite modest. It grows in long bunches, with medium-sized purple berries. As it approaches ripeness, its skin develops a cloudy appearance, as if covered in condensation.
Nebbiolo is rarely grown outside of Italy, and its most famous expressions are all from Piedmont. There are some dedicated growers in Australia and the United States, but the ideal New World terroir for growing Nebbiolo is yet to be found. It enjoys calcareous and sandy soils, like those found on the banks of the Alba and Tanaro rivers in Piedmont.
Nebbiolo Tasting Notes
Nebbiolo produces bone-dry, intensely tannic wines, with a full body and high levels of acidity. Its first impression can be deceiving, as it often shows relatively light and floral aromas. These are often described as “tar and roses”. It can also appear light in color. Nebbiolo begins life deep red but after a few years of cellaring (which is recommended), it becomes a light brick-red color, with orange hues. It typically contains between 13.5 – 15% ABV.
Nebbiolo shows complex flavors, including red and black fruits, flora, herbs and intense savory notes. The most striking thing about Nebbiolo wine is its extreme mouth-drying tannins, which get slightly more approachable with age. Once you get through the tannins, look out for the flavors of cherry, raspberry, rose petals, star anise, tobacco, leather and red clay.
With the exception of the fortified Sforzata, Nebbiolo is almost always made in a dry style. Though there are some subtle differences between regions, it is largely due to terroir rather than wine-making style.
Nebbiolo bearing the regional name Barbaresco is slightly more aromatic and elegant than its highly esteemed neighbor, Barolo. Further north of them both, you will find another, lesser-known neighbor, Roero. Roero versions of Nebbiolo are slightly less tannic and more approachable than Barolo and Barbaresco.
In the regions of Ghemme and Gattinara, Nebbiolo is known by the name Spanna. They are closer to the Alps than Barolo and Barbaresco and produce much lighter Nebbiolo, with more prominent elements of herbs and earth.
Just across the regional border in Valtellina, Lombardy, wine-makers produce Nebbiolo that is even more pale, aromatic and elegant. Lombardy is also the origin of Sforzata, a version of Nebbiolo that uses overripe, botrytized grapes, made in the same style as Amarone.
Blends Made From Nebbiolo
You can find Nebbiolo blended with Barbera and Bordeaux varietals, which are used to balance the extreme tannins slightly. In the past, Barbera was added in order to add some deeper colors but people have learned to embrace Nebbiolo’s oddly pale hue. For the most part, the best wines in Piedmont are all made from 100% Nebbiolo.
In Piedmont, Nebbiolo dominates the top-tier of Italian wine, accounting for 5 DOCG wines: Barolo, Barbaresco, Ghemme, Gattinara and Roero. It is also the basis for several DOC wines and is used in some IGT-level Piedmont blends.
When To Drink Nebbiolo
Nebbiolo is usually worth saving for a serious gastronomic evening, or a night with some other wine lovers. It is a good match for several types of meat, such as steak, roast turkey, or duck. It will stand up to dishes with complex flavors, and if you’re vegetarian, it would be fantastic with olives, squash, or some rich Italian dishes such as pizza or tomato pasta.
As it is extremely tannic, Nebbiolo will likely have to be decanted before serving, for up to 2 hours. The ideal serving temperature is around 60-65 ºF (15-18 ºC).
Best Years To Drink Nebbiolo
Nebbiolo is famously long-lasting. It arguably has the best aging potential of any red wine in the world, and prime examples can be kept for 40 years or more.
It also develops in some fascinating ways when aged in the bottle. The most obvious is it’s color, which turns a light brick red after just a few years of cellaring. It will become slightly more approachable with age, and develop some extra aromas, including notes of licorice, dried fruit and mulberry. Some Nebbiolo is produced in a modernist style, in smaller oak barriques, which makes them more accessible at a younger age.
When it comes to Barolo and Barbaresco, there are a couple of windows for drinking. If paired with the right food, you can enjoy a Barolo or Barbaresco quite soon after release, between 4 to 7 years. After the opening window, many Barolo and Barbaresco wines need time to develop, and should be left alone until they are 15-20 years old. Opening a bottle in between, you might find that many of the flavors and aromas are slightly stunted. Barolo has been known to age for 50 or 60 years, so if you get a quality bottle, don’t be afraid to just leave it alone.
Nebbiolo Average Prices
More than any other grape, there can be a great disparity in Nebbiolo prices. Barolo and Barbaresco are usually at least $50 or so, but prices can be so high that naming an upper limit is trivial. The most expensive Barolo on the market at the moment is Giacomo Conterno Monfortino Riserva, which goes for around $1300.
However, you can also taste Nebbiolo for much cheaper by keeping an eye out for a Langhe Nebbiolo wine, made outside of the premium DOCG zones. You can find a good quality version for $15-30.
Nebbiolo Nutrition Facts
A glass of single-varietal Nebbiolo will contain approximately:
- 130 calories
- 4 grams of carbohydrates
- 0.1 grams of protein
Fun Facts About Nebbiolo
The name “Nebbiolo” comes from the Italian “nebbia”, meaning fog.
Nebbiolo is the parent of the Italian grapes Freisa, Vespolina and Bubbierasco.
Nebbiolo is famously difficult to grow – it enjoys very specific soils and it’s a late ripener, which in turn makes it susceptible to mildew and disease.
Barbaresco must be aged for 2 years before going on sale, while Barolo must be aged a minimum of 3.