Nebbiolo: Piedmont’s Wine King
text and photos by Michel Thibault, Michel Thibault Wine LLC
When thinking about favorite parts of Italy, Americans have made an obvious choice: They like everything Tuscany. From the sights in Florence, Lucca and Siena to the hills of Greve, what is there not to like? In the world of wine, the inexpensive Chiantis and the well bred Brunellos have a place on every table, particularly if married to a Bistecca Fiorentina!
But for me, I prefer Piedmont, its landscape and its wines. Fewer tourists, gorgeous sites and an incredible selection of oustanding wines. The best known red wines of Piedmont are Barolo and Barbaresco. They are produced a few kilometers outside of Alba and they are primarily made from the Nebbiolo grape. Nebbiolo is also the main ingredient in wines made a little further away in the areas of Roero, Ghemme and Gattinara.
Nebbiolo finds its root name in ” Nebbia” or fog. It is easy to see why, as the Piemontese valleys are seemingly filled with fog , sometimes until mid afternoon. That pattern happens often, particularly during harvest season. Harvest is quite late for Nebbiolo: the varietal is usually picked in late October, sometimes even in early November. What makes this very interesting is that Nebbiolo is usually the first to bud. First to bud, last to ripen…
Unlike Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah, Nebbiolo offers a very light color and it is sometimes necessary to blend it with other grapes that are naturally richer in color. The wines it produces are generally very tannic when young and they develop aromas of tar and roses.
Nebbiolo enjoys a soil rich in lime, with a high PH. As you drive around the Barolo hills or climb up the narrow lanes to La Morra, you will notice the road being cut out of entire walls of chalk. That terrain is extremely suitable to Nebbiolo. Beyond the soil, this varietal enjoys south to southwest exposure and hillside sloping terrain. The hills around Alba are completely taken over by Nebbiolo vineyards, with villages at the bottom of the valleys and forests on the very top to protect the vineyards from wind damage. Rain is not a friend to Nebbiolo, with risk of coulure or “shatter.” At harvest season the danger becomes “millerandage” or the uneven growth of small berries in an otherwise healthy bunch.
Nebbiolo vineyards represent a very small portion of wine growing in Piedmont. When Phylloxera hit the region, farmers decided to grow more varieties of vines. The result was a large production of Barbera and Dolcetto. Plantings of Nebbiolo account today for less than 10 percent of the Piedmont viticulture area.
We know that Nebbiolo, when young, produces lightly colored and tannic wines. What then, makes Barolo and Barbaresco so special?
The answer lies in all the different elements that a glass of Nebbiolo can offer you: the wines, when aged, provide you with ample richness, amazing balance when fruit is never too much, and where purity presides. Aromas can be so complex with flowery notes, impressions of tobacco, of forest floor, of mushrooms, of plums, of fresh herbs, of saddle leather, of exotic spices. Best of all this wine, when orange-hued and mature enough, can be reminiscent of a fabulous Burgundy, with lines of elegance lacing its bold structure, making it a perfect accompaniment with so many flavorful foods. Speaking of Burgundy, (and of Rhone) it is a known fact that there is an obvious relationship between Pinot Noir, Syrah and Nebbiolo: professional tastings of mature selections of all three wines often stump the tasters, who frequently mistake one for the other…
There are two prevalent styles of winemaking in Piedmont: a traditional one and a more modern approach:
The Traditional Method uses juice raised in Botti (Slovenian oak) and producing high acid, bitter cherry flavored wine with notes of truffles and tar. Those wines are undrinkable when first bottled and require long, long aging, at least 8-10 years. Obviously, that style does not help quick sales of the wine, both from a drinking window point of view and from the fact that when the tannins become soft enough, the fruit may already be gone.
The Modern Method makes use of shorter maceration techniques, rotary fermenters and the use of smaller French barrels. These wines are juicier and softer, resembling Merlot /Cabernet from the New World. The battle rages on and hopefully there won’t be any winners so we can continue to enjoy the differences.
Top Nebbiolo Producers, not necessarily in quality order: Giacomo Conterno (Cascina Francia/Monfortino $$$$) makes huge, intense wines; Giuseppe Rinaldi (elegant wines); Bartolo Mascarello (purity is top goal); the Brovia Brothers (finesse); GB Burlotto (austere but incredibly long lasting); and Giuseppe Mascarello (Monprivato has to be on top of everyone’s list). All these producers, are examples of winemakers who, in different styles, highlight the quality and possibilites of Nebbiolo.
Barbaresco, often in the shadow of its more famous neighbor Barolo, offers the advantage of being grown in a slightly more maritime and milder environment, which means that the grapes ripen earlier than in Barolo and are slightly sweeter, more perfumed and elegant and also drinkable earlier than Barolos. Best Barbaresco producers: Bruno Giacosa, Angelo Gaja ($$$), Albino Rocca.
Be patient with both Barolos and Barbarescos. Let them fully develop and drink them if possible with one of those country stews your or my grandparents were famous for. The rewards will be all yours.