If pressed to name just one signature red grape from northern Italy, most wine lovers would nominate Nebbiolo. Reputed for big, rich, age-worthy wines on par with other famous “B” wines like Brunello di Montalcino, Burgundy, and Bordeaux, Nebbiolo is best known for the wines of Piedmont’s Barolo. But Nebbiolo is actually more versatile than most realize. In fact, some of Italy’s most exciting Nebbiolo wines don’t taste or even sound like the grape’s stereotypical style.
A thin-skinned, late-ripening grape, Nebbiolo is believed to be named after the Italian word for fog, nebbia, which covers vines and extends ripening times in the grape’s principal region of the Langhe. Nebbiolo can be quite difficult to grow, as it’s hard to ripen and susceptible to disease, but it also gives great rewards in the form of complex, long-lived wines.
Regardless of region, some classic Nebbiolo characteristics hold true. Despite the wines’ pale color, they are notoriously high in tannin, acidity, and, most of the time, alcohol. This usually requires extended aging in order to render the wines drinkable, and to precipitate their full potential. Nebbiolo is almost always aged in either old or new oak barrels and typically has a wide range of complex aromatics such as red and black cherry, roses, violets, leather, tobacco, spice, and more.
By exploring the regions of northern Italy, you’ll find a Nebbiolo wine for every palate.
The Langhe, a hilly region around the town of Alba, is the heart of Nebbiolo country. It contains some of the grape’s most famous appellations, their vineyards often located on sun-drenched, southern slopes.
Located southwest of the town of Alba, the Barolo region is primarily comprised of five main villages and their surroundings: Barolo itself, La Morra, Castiglione Falletto, Serralunga d’Alba, and Monforte d’Alba. Though the region isn’t very large, there are differences in soil between these subregions that create subtle differentiations in the wines. La Morra and Barolo are dominated by limestone and clay-based, Tortonian calcareous marl soils, creating softer wines. Serralunga d’Alba and Monforte d’Alba are dominated by sandstone-based Helvatian soils, creating denser, bolder wines. Castiglione Falletto has a mix of both.
While styles can vary greatly depending on vineyard site, producer, vinification, and aging, Barolo wines are known for incredible layers. They are intense, particularly in youth, with acidity, alcohol, and tannins competing to be the biggest structural component. Aged for at least three years, Barolo must also always be aged in new or old oak for half of that time to gain more complexity. Aromas and flavors of fresh red fruit, violet, rose, and earth grow into flavors of dried fruit, dried flowers, tar, tobacco, cigar box, decaying soil, iron, and more.
Barolo is considered to be the more “masculine” of the Langhe’s two most famous Nebbiolo regions, with more concentration, power, and complexity, but today, individual producer styles usually dictate more of the stylistic differences.
Less than a half-hour from Barolo is its counterpart Barbaresco, located northeast of the town of Alba. The region is largely made up of the towns and vineyards of Barbaresco, Neive, and Treiso. The soil here tends to be more limestone-based, as in La Morra and Barolo, creating softer, somewhat less tannic wines. Stylistically, Barbaresco wines tend to be the softer of the two major regions, thought of as lighter and more elegant, requiring less time to mature. This is why aging requirements are shorter: just two years for the average Barbaresco, with nine months in oak. For those trying Barolo and Barbaresco for the first time, Barbaresco tends to be the more approachable of the two.
Many forget about Roero, which can get left in the shadows compared to its more famous neighbors. But lying just north of Barolo and Barbaresco, across the Tanaro River, is some excellent Nebbiolo-producing land. Similarly rolling hills dominate the landscape, where a mix of lighter sand, limestone, and clay soils create a softer, more fragrant style of Nebbiolo wine. Its medium-bodied, less aggressively structured character is not as age-worthy as the average Barolo or Barbaresco, lending Roero well to youthful drinking.
While the majority of Piedmont’s Nebbiolo vines are located south of the Po River, the northern reaches of Piedmont also produce a lesser-known style of the grape. In this part of Piedmont, loosely referred to as Alto Piemonte, altitude is key, as vineyards here are located in the foothills of the Alps. Cooler temperatures and iron-rich, acid-boosting soils create a linear freshness to Nebbiolo wines, locally called Spanna. Vineyards with good sun exposure encourage ripening, but overall, the wines from Alto Piemonte tend to be lighter in body than those from the Langhe. Whereas tannins tend to dominate the wines of Barolo and Barbaresco, acidity tends to dominate the wines of Alto Piemonte.
The region of Gattinara is the largest and best-known of the Alto Piemonte appellations. It is also the warmest of this area, so the wines tend to be relatively fuller-bodied. The wines are either entirely made from Spanna or blended with a tiny proportion of local grapes Bonarda di Gattinara and Vespolina. The blending in of these local grapes is one reason that these wines are lighter and more approachable when young.
Located just east of Gattinara, across the Po River, Ghemme produces wines that are very similar to Gattinara. The climate is a bit cooler here, as the region is more exposed to the chilly air descending from Monte Rosa, the second-highest mountain in Europe. Therefore, the wines tend to be lighter, though the tannins in the wines here are grippier than in surrounding regions. Spanna makes up at least 85 percent of the blends here, sometimes combined with Vespolina and Uva Rara.
After almost disappearing in the 1990s, this tiny region has only a few producers making wine. Boca has ancient volcanic soil, contributing a rustic, darker minerality to the wines here. Boca’s Spanna-based blends may also contain a portion of Uva Rara and Vespolina.
Flanked by Valle d’Aosta, Carema is set apart from other Alto Piemonte regions, and higher in altitude than Gattinara and Ghemme. There are more glacial deposits in the soil here, so wines tend to be very bright and acidic, yet fit for youthful drinking. Wines must be predominantly Spanna, sometimes blended with other local red grapes.
Piedmont doesn’t claim sole ownership of Nebbiolo; the large Lombardia region to its east also produces high-quality, ageable Nebbiolo as well. The grape is known as Chiavennasca in the Alpine foothills nearing the Swiss-Italian border, 60 miles north of Milan, where this mountain climate contributes high elevation, cool temperatures, and large day-night temperature swings.
Terraced Chiavennasca vineyards dominate the landscape of Valtellina’s east-west-running valley, where slopes rise above the Adda River. Abundant sunshine ripens grapes during the daytime, while cool nights allow the grapes to rest and preserve acidity. These are the northernmost Nebbiolo vineyards in Italy, where ripening can be difficult, and the wines are lighter and more angular than in Piedmont, though they share similarities with the wines of Alto Piemonte. Valtellina wines much be at least 90 percent Chiavennasca and are all about delicacy and acidity, with more finely grained tannins, high-toned ripe and underripe red fruit flavors, and youthfulness.
Sforzato di Valtellina
This uncommon style of wine similar to Veneto’s famous Amarone della Valpolicella was created because historically, the cool climate in Valtellina made it difficult to ripen Nebbiolo. In order to bolster body and flavor, winemakers would pick healthy grapes and dry them in the appasssimento method, lying on mats or hanging from rafters. Sforzato di Valtellina wines have more richness than the region’s standard Valtellina, with at least 14 percent ABV, and flavors include dried, raisin-like berry fruit, along with sweet spice and dried rose.