Piedmont is definitely the Italian region most prized by wine collectors as overall quality and consistency is very high. While the stratospheric prices of world-class Barolo and Barbaresco wines might keep them out of reach, there are many nebbiolo bargains to be had, particularly outside of the core Langhe zone in below-the-radar denominations north of the Po river. So dive in and enjoy exploring wines based on this quintessential grape variety.
General characteristics of the nebbiolo grape
Nebbiolo produces the most sophisticated red wines in Italy. The light-colored wines are characterized by large amounts of acidity and tannin, which typically require many years of bottle aging to balance and integrate. Despite their power, nebbiolo-based wines are never dense, jammy or distinctly fruity. Showcasing powerful aromas redolent of red cherries, roses and truffles, they also have notes of eucalyptus, violets, pine needle, herbs, mushrooms and cinnamon spice. As the wines age, they take on darker notes of tar, tobacco, leather and earth.
What’s in a name?
The name nebbiolo is derived from the Italian word for fog, nebbia. The grape’s fog association could be derived from one of two possibilities: the fog that typically settles over the area of the Langhe in October or the characteristic white-colored coating that appears on the skin of the grape late in the growing season. The grape is also known by the following names: chiavennasca (Lombardy’s Valtellina), picotendro (Valle d’Aosta) and spanna (northern Piedmont).
Nebbiolo in Piedmont
Thin skinned and very late ripening, the grape achieves its best results on vineyards facing south-southwest, as these aspects assure optimal sunshine. It further prefers the limestone-rich clay soils around Alba, on the right bank of the Tanaro river. Extremely expressive of terroir, nebbiolo is a favorite of connoisseurs that can distinguish slight differences from vineyard to vineyard; in this respect, it is most similar to pinot noir in France’s Burgundy.
Here are the top nebbiolo-based denominations in Piedmont:
Piedmont’s Barolo DOCG zone is located southwest of the town of Alba, east of the Tanaro river. Wines are derived exclusively from nebbiolo, and are typically more richly textured, fuller bodied and longer lived.
The Barbaresco DOCG zone is located east-northeast of the town of Alba on similar limestone-rich clay soils. Overall, as compared to nebbiolo-based wines from Barolo, Barbaresco wines are typically more elegant and less tannic.
While Piedmont’s most famous nebbiolos are produced in the Langhe — the tongue-shaped piece of land wedged between the banks of the Tanaro and Bormido di Spigno rivers (in the north, east and west) and the Apennine mountains (in the south), which includes such famous towns as Asti, Alba, Barbaresco and Barolo — there is a collection of denominations located north of the Po river: Boca, Bramaterra, Carema, Canavese, Colline Novarese, Costa della Sesia, Fara, Gattinara, Ghemme, Lessona and Sizzano.
Overall, they yield delicate, more perfumed and higher acidity versions of nebbiolo that are more accessible when young. This stylistic bent is attributable to the lighter, poorer quality of the soils and the cooler temperatures (derived from the closer proximity to the Alps), both of which make bringing the late-maturing nebbiolo to peak ripeness more challenging. To soften the higher acidity and tannins that nebbiolo takes on in cooler northern vineyards, wines are not pure varietals, but rather blends with bonarda and vespolina, grapes that add fruit and body.
These slightly lower on the radar nebbiolo-focused denominations are worth seeking out as sources of good value.
In these denominations, there are two basic styles:
- Traditional style. The traditional style favors non-temperature-controlled fermentation in large wooden casks, long maceration on the skins (to extract as much color and tannins as possible) and aging in wooden casks (that allows for modest oxidation of the wines).
- Modernist style. By contrast, the modernist style practices temperature-controlled fermentation in stainless steel, short maceration (to bring out pure fruit flavors) and aging in small wooden barrels (that introduces more noticeable wood-derived flavors such as vanilla, toast and oak).
Nebbiolo in other parts of Italy
The nebbiolo grape is known locally as chiavennasca. While they do not quite rival those from Piedmont, nebbiolo-based wines from Lombardy are impressive and worth trying. They favor a more aromatic and earthy style.
Picotendro is the local name for nebbiolo in Valle d’Aosta. While most closely associated with Piedmont, the grape performs well in the region’s high elevation vineyards. As compared to those from Piedmont, Valle d’Aosta’s nebbiolos lack the same intensity of dark fruits due to the cooler temperatures that make it challenging for this very late-maturing variety to reach optimal ripeness. As in Lombardy’s Valtellina, however, what they lack in power and balance, they make up for in finesse. Wines have brisk acidity and expressive aromas. Look for it in blends from the sub-areas closest to Piedmont, Arnad-Montjovet (70% nebbiolo) and Donnas (85% nebbiolo).
More wines from Piedmont
We encourage you explore the complete landscape of red wines in Piemonte where there are many exciting options: the light freisa, the food-friendly barbera and the fruit-forward dolcetto.
Additionally, although vastly unappreciated, Piedmont is also home to impressive white wines that hit attractive price points. Look to arneis, erbaluce, nascetta and timorasso for something new.
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