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Nebbiolo - The King

Updated: Mar 23, 2018

Today I am excited, I am introducing "The Noble Grape" of Italy. Nebbiolo, from the word "Nebbia". There is so much to know about Nebbiolo and the appellations where it excels ; there are books completely dedicated to it. It is challenging to summarize it and I will try.

Apparently Pliny the Elder referred to it as nubiola, the Latin word for “fog” (nebbia), as Nebbiolo ripens late in the fall season, when fog in the vineyards of Piedmont is common.

Another theory holds that Nebbiolo’s name derives from the abundant bloom of its grapes, making them look like they’re bathed in fog.

The name nibiol first appears in the literature in the mid-thirteenth century (according to one producer, as early as 1268), after which the variety was increasingly mentioned: in 1292, “filagnos di vitibus neblorii”; in 1295, “nebiolo”; in 1340, “nebiolus”; and many more instances after that. That Nebbiolo was held in high esteem by our ancestors is well exemplified by the town of La Morra passing laws in 1402 handing out stiff penalties to all those caught damaging Nebbiolo vines.

In 1799, Count Nuvolone described and addressed the many subtypes of Nebbiolo. After this, the greatness of Nebbiolo and the excellence of its wines are lauded by all of Italy’s greatest “grape minds,” from Incisa della Rocchetta to Di Rovasenda. Already by the nineteenth century, there was no doubt that Nebbiolo was truly a Piedmontese grape asset.

Karen MacNeal introduces Nebbiolo and its wines in her "The Wine Bible" like this:

The tiny villages of Barolo and Barbaresco (from which the wines take their names) lie about a dozen miles (19 kilometers) apart on either side of Alba, which, despite being a rather humble town, holds an almost mythic place in the minds of food and wine lovers— not solely for mighty Barolo and Barbaresco, but also for the world’s most astonishing white truffles, which are unearthed here each fall. Just imagining autumn in Alba— drinking sumptuous Barolos and dining on homemade taglierini generously mounded (this is Piedmont, after all) with white truffles— is enough to send shivers up my spine.

Most of the time, people are familiar with the name Barolo and Barbaresco wines that of course are made from Nebbiolo, but the grape name is unknown to them. So it is important to know it. In wine store you can find generic bottle of wines with the Grape name especially the ones of the Langhe DOC.

Nebbiolo is early budding, very late ripening and it is considered a challenging grape to grow. It struggles to ripen (unless planted on well exposed, south facing slopes), it is very fussy about soils and it is highly site sensitive. This latter characteristic allows it to distinctly manifest the nuances of different terroir.

It is also interesting to highlight that for the above reasons Nebbiolo only represents 10% of all the planting in Piemonte.

It is grown in multiple parts of Piemonte and in some locations it also have a different name known as "Spanna" , especially in the Northern Territory around Vercelli and Novara. This plethora of synonyms reflects not only Nebbiolo’s age and intimate links to specific pockets of the Italian countryside, but also the fact that there are many Nebbiolo biotypes. Nebbiolo is marked by high intravarietal variability, and its ability to adapt to new environments by mutating its phenotype is well known to growers.

Ian D'Agata describes the Nebbiolo biotypes in this way.

"There are at the least thirty different Nebbiolo biotypes being described and grown, of which four in particular have always been considered the most important (Nebbiolo Bolla, Nebbiolo Lampia, Nebbiolo Michet, and Nebbiolo Rosé, but the latter is now known to be a distinct cultivar). As recently as the 1990s, you couldn’t find a wine producer in Piedmont who would talk about Nebbiolo without mentioning the subtype he grew. Nebbiolo Michet was reputed to be the best: wouldn’t you know it, every time I visited a wine estate in the Langhe, they always seemed to grow this biotype only. Nebbiolo Lampia was the most dependable, Nebbiolo Rosé the most perfumed but also the lightest in color and body, a virtual kiss of death in those “wine bodybuilder” fixated times. Nebbiolo Bolla was considered a high-yielding, poor-quality biotype and was eliminated. Legislation even went so far as to specify which subtype could be grown to make wines like Barolo. This was not surprising, given Nebbiolo’s unique soil and microclimate sensitivity and its ability to translate terroir into the glass."

This latter characteristic allows it to distinctly manifest the nuances of different terroir.

Furthermore, Nebbiolo needs plenty of sunlight and warmer sites to ripen fully and historically has been planted in southern-exposed sites in Italy: sorì della sera, vineyards exposed southwest (so the grapes catch the afternoon sun), and sorì del mattino (characterized by southeast exposures so grapes see more of the morning sun), as well in the bricco, the very top part of the hill, so that the exposure is 360 degrees.

Unfortunately, such is the hunger for great Barolo and Barbaresco that in the Langhe many producers have taken to planting Nebbiolo in less than ideal sites just to have more wine to sell-not exactly a stellar idea with a variety that is so site sensitive. It follows that many Barolos and Barbarescos are less than they should be, and the world is being deprived of excellent Freisa or Grignolino wines. I’m not joking: it’s time someone told Langhe producers that enough is enough and instead of another less than stellar (but always expensive) Barolo or Barbaresco, we would all be grateful for some less expensive, everyday table wine to have at lunch or dinner. Of course, nebbiolo fits that bill very nicely too.

Classic Nebbiolo based wines are pale ruby-garnet in color; they turn orange with bottle age. The nose shows intense and characteristic aromas of red cherry, rose, violet, tar, licorice and underbrush.

As they mature, the wines develop greater complexity showing refines aromas of dried red fruit, withered rose petals, sweet spices, leather and truffles.

Structurally the wines posses high level of acidity, tannins , alcohol and extract, this equates to great longevity. Because of its structure, you’ll find that Nebbiolo wines are a favorite for wine collectors who will happily set aside wines to open them decades later to reveal a delightfully soft and delicate wine. Even though Nebbiolo has a reputation for tannins and long-term aging, many of the sub-regions (Langhe, Alba, etc.) produce softer styles with a similar weight to whole-cluster Pinot Noir.

The Nebbiolo grape alone makes up 18 DOC or DOCG certified wines, and the differences between one tiny town and the next are astounding.

  • Barbaresco DOCG (100%)

  • Barolo DOCG (100%)

  • Ghemme DOCG (85% min.)

  • Gattinara DOCG (90% min.)

  • Roero DOCG (95% min.)

  • Nebbiolo d’Alba (100%)

  • Langhe Nebbiolo DOC (85% min.)

  • Albugnano DOC (85% min.)

  • Terre Alfieri DOC (85% min.)

  • Boca DOC (70–90%)

  • Bramaterra (50–80%)

  • Carema (85% min.)

  • Lessona DOC (85% min.)

  • Valli Ossolane Nebbiolo (85% min.)

  • Sizzano DOC (50–70%)

  • Fara DOC (50–70%)

  • Colline Novaresi (50% min.)

  • Piemonte Nebbiolo DOC (85% min.)

In the next few weeks we will dive into the most important DOC and DOCG for Nebbiolo based wines and also introduce other great grapes indigenous to the Region.

Stay with me



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