Postcards from Italy
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Out of the Fog: Nebbiolo

Nebbiolo is one of the most beguiling grapes in Italy, not least because unlike other blockbuster reds like Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon, this picky varietal doesn't like to travel. Aside from its flagship DOCG Barbaresco and Barolo, most wines from made from Nebbiolo grapes—notably Roero, Gattinara, and Ghemme—are hard to find in Italy far from their happy corner of Piedmont and virtually impossible to sample beyond the border. Even its name, inspired by the heavy fog (nebbia) that blankets the hills where these vineyards thrive during the late fall harvest, hints at its reticence at being transplanted to alternative microclimates.

barolo-wall(Photo by CIU Travel via Flickr)

So, what to do if you want to taste these enticing wines for yourself? You may just have to take a jaunt through Piedmont's incredibly picturesque Langhe, Roero, and Monferrato wine countries, but it will be worth the effort. Here's why:

The Grape


Nebbiolo is a famously finicky grape, even in its home region, and flourishes best on carefully selected southern-facing hillsides surrounding the town of Barolo. The grapes require sufficient sun in the first weeks of fall, when they develop a dusty white patina that indicates ripeness (and may be an alternative origin to their name). Not only late to ripen, this high-maintenance grape is also early to flower, so must be planted at a relatively moderate altitude of no more than 1,500 feet to guard against damaging spring frosts.

barbaresco-vineyards(Photo by CIU Travel via Flickr)

In addition, Nebbiolo vines are extremely soil-sensitive. The most prestigious Nebbiolo wines come from the calcareous Barolo and Barbaresco hills around Alba. Nebbiolo grown on the Langhe hills on the right bank of the Tanaro River produce Langhe Nebbiolo, and those planted in the sandier soils of Roero on the opposite bank produce Roero or Nebbiolo d'Alba.

Put together, these precise requisites mean that Nebbiolo is difficult if not impossible to transplant to other regions and climates, making the vineyards of the Langhe a must for curious oenophiles.

The Wine


According to historical documents, Nebbiolo has been grown in the Langhe hills since at least the 13th century, though Pliny the Elder described a wine from the area that bears remarkable similarities to today's Nebbiolo in the 1st century AD. Four subvarieties have developed over the centuries: Lampia, the most popular; Michet, valued for its quality and the concentration of the wine produced; Bolla, abandoned over the last few decades; and Rosé, grown sparingly because of the pale wine it produces.

ghemme-bottle(Photo by CIU Travel via Flickr)

One of the few wines that can sometimes be identified simply by color, Nebbiolo often has a terracotta-hued tinge at the edges of its deep ruby center, a unique characteristic that varies based on its subvariety and age. The grape is also unique for its perfume, intensely aromatic and often including complex notes of rose and violets, forest undergrowth and woodsmoke, and even tar.

Wines made from Nebbiolo are known as being high in acidity and tannins, generally requiring years of aging in the bottle; the finest Barolos are among the slowest-maturing wines in the world, and can easily age for decades. Nebbiolo wines can be aged in French oak barriques or Slovenian oak casks, and most producers use both for ageing, depending on the vintage and vineyard. Historically, Nebbiolo grapes were also often blended with other varietals to lower the acidity and soften the tannins; today Barolo and most other flagship Nebbiolo wines are made exclusively with this challenging grape.

enoteca-regionale-barbaresco(Photo by CIU Travel via Flickr)

The Land


The UNESCO-listed Le Langhe-Roero and Monferrato are among the most sublime landscapes in Italy, blanketed with rolling vineyards and dotted with historic castles and hilltowns. In addition to visiting the area's tiny wineries to sample the local Nebbiolo wines, you can stroll through the streets of Serralunga, Nieve, Barolo, and Bra; join a truffle hunt; browse the cashmere outlets in Ghemme (notably Loro Piana and Colombo); and sit down to memorable meals of local Fassona Piemontese beef, fresh tajarin and agnolotti dal plin pastas, artisan cheeses, and savory bagna cauda dip.

plin(Photo by CIU Travel via Flickr)

If you want to sample the rare Nebbiolo wine outside the tiny corner of Piemonte, head to the Valtellina in the far north of Lombardy where vineyards line the south-facing wall of the valley and the area turns out Sforzato, Valtellina Superiore, Grumello, Inferno, Sassella and Valgella—all Nebbiolo-based but with a distinct alpine character that influences both the young and aged wines.

Related posts:
On the Plate and In the Glass in Piedmont's Langhe, Roero, and Monferrato
Four Foodie Fall Trips in Italy
Glass Half Full: Drinking Wine in Italy