For this edition of “Who’s Your Daddy?”, we’ll be taking a closer look at the Italian grape, Nebbiolo.
Nebbiolo, which sometimes goes by the names Spanna, Picutener, or Chiavennsaca, is an Italian grape variety that most often comes from the Piedmont region in northwest Italy. There is a lot of speculation about where the name “nebbiolo” comes from, with three potential origins more common than others. Many believe the “nebbiolo” comes from “nebbia”, which is Italian for fog. In later autumn around harvest time, there is a fog that rolls over the nebbiolo grapes in the morning which is why some argue the grape is named as such. Another thought it that the “fog” of the name comes from the appearance of the grapes, which when ripened have a sort of “foggy” or “hazy” look to them. Finally, some believe the name comes from the Italian word “nobile”, which means “noble”. Nearly wiped out by the phylloxera crisis, other grape varieties such as Barbera and Dolcetto were replanted, since Nebbiolo is very difficult to grow. Today, Nebbiolo makes up only 6% of the region of Piedmont.
As a grape, Nebbiolo is extremely sensitive to terroir, and often exhibits extremely different flavors and other characteristics when harvested from different locations. As a result of this terroir sensitivity, the wines produced from these grapes will vary greatly in body, tannin, and acidity, as well as aroma and flavor complexity. Believed by some to be even more difficult to grow than Pinot Noir, Nebbiolo is extremely picky about where is can grow to produce quality wines. It requires good drainage, and a very long growing season, and a relatively cooler climate. In the Piedmont region of Italy, Nebbiolo is always the first to flower, and also the last to ripen. This long growing season severely limits where this grape can grow to produce quality wines. Though Nebbiolo is thin-skinned, it’s a relatively tough grape, so it is fairly resistant to mold and other pests. Nebbiolo is commonly associated with the region of Piedmont, but is also found in several other Italian regions as well (Lessona, Carema, Roero, Val d’Aosta, Valtellina, Frianciacorta, Veneto). Nebbiolo may also be found in the United States (California, Washington, and Oregon, primarily), Mexico, Argentina, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, and Brazil.
Wines made from Nebbiolo grapes are often very dark, bigger, more tannic, and more bitter than other varietals. When grown in ideal conditions, the wines produced from Nebbiolo grapes are typically very dark, tannic, tart, and alcoholic. The mouthfeel is often chewy, with a very long finish. Blackberry and cherry are the primary fruit tones of Nebbiolo wines, sometimes with floral and hints of truffle and earthiness. These wines also have characteristic spice tones, such as smoke, tar, anise, and licorice. As these wines age, more earthiness is exhibited, as well as leather and cedar tones. When grown in ideal conditions, Nebbiolo wines are fantastic for bottle ageing.
**Edit**: It has come to my attention that I made an error when describing the aroma/flavor characteristics of the Nebbiolo wine. See the comments below for excellent corrections on the subject. I apologize for the error and confusion.
So, where does Nebbiolo come from?
Some believe that in the 1st century, Pliny the Elder (the Roman author and naturalist) made reference to and gave high regard to a wine made in what is now known as the Barolo region, which shared very similar characteristics to wines made from Nebbiolo grapes. Further speculation of the origin of Nebbiolo comes from a 13th century reference to a wine called “nebili”, which was made from a grape that was growing at the time near Rivoli outside of Turin. The first written record of Nebbiolo came from the 14th and 15th centuries, of which the authors praised the wine. Nebbiolo grapes were thought of in very high regard, and in the 15th century, laws in the region now known as Barolo (formerly, La Morra) stated that cutting down a Nebbiolo vine would result in a hefty fine, with the possibility of having one’s right hand cut off, or death by hanging, for those repeat offenders.
So, who’s your daddy, Nebbiolo??
Researchers at the University of California Davis and the Istituto Agrario di San Michele all’Adige used DNA evidence to determine very close relatives of the Nebbiolo grape, one of which is likely a parent and the other which is likely a very close cousin.
Without further delay, I present to you the parent/close cousin of the Nebbiolo grape:
The Freisa grape, hailing from the Piedmont region of Italy, is the likely parent of Nebbiolo and Viognier, hailing from the Rhone Valley in France, is the likely close cousin. More research needs to be done in order to determine more specific relationships, but this is as close as science has come in the meantime!
I hope you enjoyed this short foray into history. If you have any comments, please feel free to leave them below!
I am not a health professional, nor do I pretend to be. Please consult your doctor before altering your alcohol consumption habits. Do not consume alcohol if you are under the age of 21. Do not drink and drive. Enjoy responsibly!