The Nebbiolo Grape

Nebbiolo is a red grape that is used for wine production. It is generally associated with the Italian wine region of Piedmont. Nebbiolo is believed to have derived its name for nebbia, which is the Italian word for "fog". This could be because the Langhe subregion of the Piedmont usually experiences a deep, thick fog every October, which is when the Nebbiolo is harvested. It has also been guessed that the grape got its name due to the milk white fog-looking appearance that the grapes get as they mature. Nebbiolo produces wines that are usually tannic with hints of tar and roses. When they age, they turn from light red to brick-orange and usually contain hints of cherries, violets, raspberries, tobacco, tar, prunes and herbs.

HISTORY

Nebbiolo was once thought to have originated in the Piedmont region, but DNA evidence shows that it is indigenous to the Lombardy region. Pliny the Elder praised the quality of wines in the Pollenzo region in the 1st century and his descriptions lead historians to believe that he was talking about wines derived from Nebbiolo. The first confirmed mention of Nebbiolo was in 1268, when a writer discussed a grape called "Nibiol" in Rivoli. A wine producer in 1303 wrote that he had a barrel of "nebiolo" in his possession, and a 1304 jurist described a "nubiola" wine as being high quality. As time passed, more of these accounts began to pop up.

Nebbiolo captured international attention in the 1700s when the British established trade in the region due to their conflict with the French, who were at one time their primary producer. Transportation between England and the Piedmont was difficult, though, so the business relationship was not as strong as the one between England and France. Despite this setback, Nebbiolo vines continued to thrive until the infamous phylloxera infestation made its way to the Piedmont and began to ravish Nebbiolo vines. The Barbera grape began to be more widely planted, and the effects are still felt today. Nebbiolo currently covers less than 6% of the Piedmonts vineyards.

In 2004, UC Davis and Istituto Agrario di San Michele all'Adige did DNA testing on Nebbiolo and found that it was a close relative of both the Freisa and Viogner grapes.

GROWING THE GRAPE

Nebbiolo is the first grape to bud and the last to ripen out of all the varieties in the Piedmont. Throughout many years, wineries had been able to both harvest, ferment and package plantings of Barbera and Dolcetto before Nebbiolo was even picked. Wineries prefer quality Nebbiolo grapes, though, and so they are given the best area in the vineyards. Many Nebbiolo vines are planted on south facing slopes so that they receive more sunlight. The ideal elevation for Nebbiolo is between 500 and 1,000 feet though it is important for the grape to be sheltered from the wind. Rain is beneficial to the grape in moderate amounts, and too much rain after the veraison period can be devastating on the grape.

The most sought after Nebbiolo vintages are from growing seasons with dry weather in September and October. The grape requires plenty of warmth to balance its acidity and tannins with sugar and fruit flavors. Because of this, Nebbiolo grapes in the Carema, Vatellina and Donnaz regions can be detrimentally affected by the subalpine climate if they have a cool vintage. Nebbiolo is not versatile in the soil category, either. They prefer a high volume of calcareous marl in their soil, which is found on the Tanaro River. The soil around the river is also rather sandy, which proves to be good for the grape, though grapes grown in sandier soils lack the signature tar aroma of most Nebbiolo wines.

There are close to 40 different clones of Nebbiolo that have been identified as of 2001. The most significant ones are Lampia, Michet and Rose Nebbiolo. Lampia adapts well to various soils, but it is also exceptionally prone to viruses. Michet adapts poorly to various soil types, but it produces fuller-bodied wines. Rose Nebbiolo is not very popular due to its light color.

MAKING THE WINE

There are two different approaches to making Nebbiolo wine- traditional and modernist. Both can be traced back to early winemaking strategies. Before refrigeration, wines would be made to ferment during the cooler winter months. The cold temperature delayed fermentation for a few days allowing for a longer maceration time and better extraction of tannins. However, when fermentation did start, temperatures would rise to almost 100 degrees Fahrenheit. This would kill flavors and aromas, forcing winemakers to age the wine for no less than five years to soften them up.

Winemakers today mix this approach with modern machinery, getting the best of both worlds out of their produced wine. Traditionalists typically allow the wine to go through maceration periods of 20 to 30 days before aging in big barrels, while modernists only allow maceration for 7-10 days before allowing fermentation in a cooler environment.

Nebbiolo is popular for blending, with the goal being to calm down the harsh tannins of the grape. Croatina, Barbera, and Bonarda Piemontese are typically used for blending with reds, while Favorita and Arneis are used for blending with whites. Barolo is a popular varietal of Nebbiolo, though a popular blend of Nebbiolo and Arneis called Barolo Bianco used to be produced throughout the region. Some wine critics argue that Barbera, Syrah or Cabernet Sauvignon could be used to change Barolo's color, though there is no legitimate proof for these claims.

WINE REGIONS PRODUCING NEBBIOLO

As previously mentioned, Nebbiolo is most commonly associated with the Piedmont region of Italy. Despite it being one of the regions most hailed grapes, Nebbiolo is produced 15 times less than Barbera. The grape is also found in the nearby wine regions of Val d'Aosta, Valtellina and Franciacorta. The grape is also planted in the US, Mexico, Australia, and Argentina.

Barolo & Barbaresco both feature a continental climate and a unique terroir that are perfect for growing Nebbiolo. Both of these Piedmont subregions are well known for Nebbiolo production. Barbaresco wine is the lighter of the two and is only required to age for 21 months. Barolo, on the other hand, is required to age for a minimum of four years.

Barolo is three times the size of Barbaresco and features a number of distinct wine producing communes. Castiglione Falletto wines are powerful and concentrated, while Monforte d'Alba wines are highly tannic and age well. Serralunga produces the fullest body wines of the Piedmont region and has the latest harvest. All three regions feature sandy, limestone soils. La Morra and Barolo, however, have soils that contain more chalk and marl. Their wines are more aromatic and silky.

Nebbiolo is also known as Spanna and is found in the Novara and Vercelli hills to the north of the Piedmont wine region. Producers here are allowed a little more freedom with their blends, though they tend to stick with a strong Nebbiolo-based wine. The Carema DOC produces highly aromatic Nebbiolo wines, but certain vintages are not as good as others. The Roero district produces lighter wines compared to the Alba district, whose Nebbiolo's are a bit more complex. The grape is also produced in Lombardy, though it is locally known as Chiavennasca.

The 19th century immigration of many Italians to the state of California introduced Nebbiolo to America. As the years went on, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot began to increase in popularity while demand for Nebbiolo went down. However, there are still scattered plantings of the grape throughout the state, mostly in the Central Valley. California wineries have been struggling with Nebbiolo lately, as the conditions aren't necessarily well-suited for a high quality grape. Washington and Oregon wineries are struggling with the same problem and are currently searching for the best land on which to plant Nebbiolo vines.

The Mornington Peninsula in Victoria, Australia has been found to possess similar conditions to the Piedmont region in Italy, and Nebbiola production is steadily increasing. Baja, Mexico has also found favorable planting conditions, while Chilean and Argentinian winemakers struggle with the same issues as the American wineries who are trying to increase production. Since Nebbiolo is such a picky grape, it's not easy to be successful at planting it.

BUY YOUR OWN NEBBIOLO

The popular Barolo wine may not be found at your corner liquor store. It is a fine wine that must be made with the utmost care and expertise, and the best way to ensure quality is to order straight from the winery. You can do this by going online to Classwines who can deliver the wine straight to your doorstep. There are many websites on which you can buy wine, but you want to make sure that the one you choose is both professional and knowledgeable of the different wine regions where Nebbiolo is produced. You can find Nebbiolo wine at Classewines. You will be glad that you did.