Culinary Arts

Learn About Nebbiolo Wine: History, Characteristics, and Pairings

Written by MasterClass

Jun 24, 2019 • 6 min read

Nebbiolo is a study in contrasts: it smells of ethereal rose petals, but also of earthy tar. Its delicate color belies its powerful structure. It takes longer to ripen than any Italian grape, and even longer to age and mellow. For nebbiolo devotees, this wait is worthwhile as no other grape compares with nebbiolo’s complexity and longevity.

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What Is Nebbiolo?

Nebbiolo is a red wine grape that produces iconic, highly regarded wines in Italy and grows almost nowhere else. Nebbiolo has thin skins that pack a punch, with high tannins and high acidity to match. Unlike the more common sangiovese, only relatively small quantities of this high-quality wine are produced by old winemaking families, which helps maintain nebbiolo’s elite reputation.

What Is the History of Nebbiolo?

Nebbiolo is native to the Piedmont region of northwest Italy, where the most famous nebbiolo wines are still made. Wines have been made in Piedmont since at least the first century, and those have been called “nebbiolo” since the 1200s. The name nebbiolo probably comes from the Italian word for fog, nebbia, which is common during the fall when the nebbiolo grape is harvested.

Nebbiolo has been known as one of the most high-quality and significant wines of Italy for decades if not centuries, especially the wines made in the small neighboring regions of Barolo and Barbaresco. That status was made official in 1980 when the Barolo DOCG was approved, one of the first appellations in Italy to receive this designation. Barbaresco DOCG followed later in the same year. The Italian government offers no higher quality classification, but Barolo winemakers have made their own, drawing borders for certain high-quality subregions known as MEGAs.

What Are the Characteristics of the Nebbiolo Grape?

The nebbiolo grape is challenging to grow and can require long cellaring to tame the grape’s tannins, but nebbiolo can in turn be very rewarding to the patient grower and drinker. Nebbiolo is:

  • Delicate in color but bold in flavor. The grapes make wines that are light ruby when they are young, which fades to a pale garnet or brick orange as they get older. Make no mistake—nebbiolo’s pale color does not mean the wines are watery. Nebbiolo wines have concentrated flavor and high acidity, as well as high tannins which can take years to mellow. This strong structure also means that the wines can age for decades.
  • Late-ripening. The nebbiolo vine buds earlier than other grapes grown in Piedmont, like dolcetto and barbera, and nebbiolo is harvested last. This means that growers must be patient and hope for good weather throughout the growing season. Sunlight is especially important for this grape to achieve full ripeness, so the best vineyard sites are on hillsides that expose the nebbiolo vines to lots of sunlight.
  • Specific about soil. Nebbiolo thrives on calcareous marl, a lime-rich mudstone that is found on the right bank of the Tanaro River, home to the famous appellations Barolo and Barbaresco. Nebbiolo grapes grown on other soil types tend to make wines that are not as aromatic and elegant.

What Climate Is Best for Nebbiolo?

Nebbiolo grows best in warm climates that have ample sunlight throughout the growing season to help the grapes achieve ripeness. Nebbiolo grapes won’t grow after flowering if there is too much rain or frost in the spring, so a dry climate suits it best. The best vineyard sites in Piedmont, nebbiolo’s home, are in the Langhe, an area of rolling hills near the town of Alba.

Unlike cabernet sauvignon, a versatile grape which leapt previously only grown in Bordeaux but now grown worldwide, nebbiolo has not thrived when planted in wine regions outside of northern Italy. Nebbiolo is more like the finicky pinot noir: difficult to grow and highly reflective of terroir.

Despite the challenges, some growers in the New World are trying nebbiolo, most notably in Victoria and South Australia, where young producers are making wines that are fruitier and less tannic than their Italian counterparts. California, Chile, and South Africa also have small plantings of nebbiolo.

What Kinds of Wines are Made with Nebbiolo?

Because they are difficult to grow, nebbiolo grapes from the most famous areas are often made into dry, single varietal wines that showcase the grapes’ aroma and power. In some less-desirable areas, sweet, sparkling rosé, or blended wines are made from nebbiolo, but these receive less acclaim than the varietal wines from the best DOCGs.

  • Barolo DOCG is home to the “king of italian wines.” Barolo wine is muscular, with intense tannins and acidity that can be eye watering if drunk too young. The DOCG laws require 38 months of aging before release, but in practice many producers hold their wines back for many years before release. Barolo Chinato, a fortified, aromatized wine made from nebbiolo grapes, is produced in the same area.
  • Barbaresco DOCG wine is slightly softer than Barolo but no less noble. Until the turn of the twentieth century, most grapes grown in Barbaresco were sold to Barolo producers. A collective called Produttori del Barbaresco formed in the 1950s to make Barbaresco a household name in its own right. Their wines are widely available, and are a good buy.
  • Gattinara DOCG is for red wines from nebbiolo (called spanna in the local dialect) that comes from the hills of Novara in Piedmont. Some examples can be as long-lasting as Barolo.
  • Langhe Nebbiolo DOC, wines from the larger Langhe area surrounding the DOCGs, are expressive without the price tag or same need for long aging as Barolo.
  • Nebbiolo d’Alba DOC is a 100% nebbiolo wine made from the area surrounding the town of Alba on the northern side of the Roero hills. The aging requirement is only one year for these wines, which tend to be good values for the region. Sweet (dolce) and sparkling (spumante) versions exist.
  • Valle d’Aosta DOC is made in a tiny alpine wine region on Italy’s border with France and Switzerland where nebbiolo is called picotener. The wines are delicate and perfumed, and more acidic than tannic.
  • Valtellina Superiore DOCG is a wine made in Lombardy from chiavennasca, as nebbiolo is called here. Like Valle d’Aosta, Valtellina is an alpine region that makes very small quantities of wine from vineyards that have an average vine age of 50 years. Sforzato di Valtellina DOCG is another specialty of the region, a wine similar to Amarone from raisined grapes.

Is Nebbiolo Aged?

Varietal nebbiolo wine is aged in one of two ways, depending on the producer’s house style. For the modern, early-drinking international style, the wine is aged in small, new, oak barrels, like in Bordeaux. Traditional style nebbiolo is aged in large, neutral wood barrels with a long maceration time, which produces wines that are hugely tannic and need decades of cellaring before they are ready to drink.

What Does Nebbiolo Wine Taste Like?

Whether it’s powerful Barolo, graceful Barbaresco, or relatively easy-going Nebbiolo d’Alba, nebbiolo has a few distinct aromatic notes:

  • Rose
  • Tar
  • Red cherry
  • Clove
  • Anise
  • Dried fruit
  • Leather

Nebbiolo wines are usually dry, high in tannin and acidity, and moderate-to-high in alcohol.

What Is the Difference Between Nebbiolo and Barolo?

All Barolos are made from nebbiolo, but not all nebbiolos can be Barolo. Barolo is the name of the most famous Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG) for wines made from the nebbiolo grape. Barolo tends to be the most expensive and long-lasting wine made from nebbiolo, and one of the most prized red wines of the world.

How to Pair Nebbiolo Wines

Italy’s Piedmont region is well known not just for its wines, but also for its cuisine. Food pairings according to the principle of “what grows together, goes together” should be successful. Classic cheese- and meat-heavy northern Italian dishes like venison stew, vitello tonnato, osso buco, risotto al Barolo, and fonduta would all be delicious with nebbiolo wines. Nebbiolo’s high tannins and acidity can cut through creamy, fatty foods with ease, and those same rich flavors tame the wine’s intensity.

Learn more about wine tasting in James Suckling’s MasterClass.