Varietal Focus: Nebbiolo
The Nebbiolo Grape
Close your eyes and imagine it is evening in the dark foothills of the Alps: Snow falls gently, a bright fire crackles in the hearth of a stone farmhouse; game is being slowly roasted in a hot oven. Wine introduced in this setting becomes more than a beverage. It is truly solace.
The Piedmont (“foot of the mountain”) region bordering on France and Switzerland, is located in the extreme northwest corner of the Italian peninsula lying in a remote white amphitheater created by the Alps. It is Italy’s preeminent wine region. The noble wines Barolo and Barbaresco, both named after villages in Piedmont and both made with the Nebbiolo grape, are born here and represent two of the country’s most majestic and legendary red wines.
The geography of Piedmont is primarily mountainous combined with extensive areas of hills and plains which plays a key role in the quality of the wines. Almost all of the top producing Piedmont vineyards are planted at altitudes between 490-1,150 feet. The soil primarily consists of quaternary alluvia; composed of silt, clay and sand allowing wine to be produced with more concentrated flavors as well as glacial fluvial deposits composed of sand and gravel. Piedmont’s climate is less of the Mediterranean-influenced heat of the rest of the peninsula than it is temperate/oceanic with mean annual air temperatures ranging between 52-56 degrees.
Nebbiolo (derived from “nebbia” or “fog” which often settles over Piedmont in late October during harvest) is thought to have originated in Piedmont in the 7th Century and represents its star grape. Nebbiolo’s reputation is also noble, having been richly enjoyed and jealously guarded by nobility and high ranking bishops of the Roman Catholic Church. The penalty for Nebbiolo theft was the loss of a hand followed by hanging should the crime be repeated.
Nebbiolo is a highly site specific variety known for it’s forceful, brooding tannin, acidity, power and structure. Similar to great red Bordeaux, Nebbiolo is commonly aged well over a decade before being drunk. Although it is one of the world’s greatest red varieties, it has barely migrated beyond Piedmont due to its extremely demanding and finicky nature. The vine buds early, ripens late and is susceptible to coulure – failure of the flowers to develop into berries.
Nebbiolo’s classic varietal character offers very specific aromas and flavors often described as subdued blackberry, wild cherry fruit, red licorice and emerging with complex notes of violets, rose petals, white truffles, chocolate, figs, tar and leather earning it the name “The Wine of Tar and Roses.”
Nebbiolo pairs exceptionally well with slow roasted game meats, rabbit stew, baked salmon, savory vegetables sautéed in olive oil and Double Gloucester cheeses. It is, of course simply delightful on its own.
Next week, we continue our discussion of Nebbiolo with complete coverage of Suveg Cellars bottling of its 2014 Nebbiolo. Until then…