Who’s Your Daddy?: Nebbiolo

For this edition of “Who’s Your Daddy?”, we’ll be taking a closer look at the Italian grape, Nebbiolo.

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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.

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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?

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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:

Freisa……..

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                                               …..and……

 

                                                                                                                           ……Viognier!

 

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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!

8 comments for “Who’s Your Daddy?: Nebbiolo

  1. Kevin C.
    August 12, 2011 at 9:05 pm

    Nice post, lots of great information about Nebbiolo. True it is grown in other places outside of Piedmont but nowhere does it express itself better than in Barolo and Barbaresco. If someone wants to experience true Nebbiolo they have to taste Barolo and/or Barbaresco. Contrary to what is in your posts these wines are not typically dark but are of medium intensity garnet in color. They are high in tannin, acidity and alcohol which all contribute to their ability to age. As for aroma/flavor characteristics I would not agree with blackberry or cherry. As someone who has tasted thousands of Nebbiolo based wines they are typically lighter in fruit, say strawberry, with floral notes (rose, violet), earth (mushroom, truffle) and some spice (licorice).

  2. August 12, 2011 at 9:28 pm

    Hi Kevin,

    Thank you for reading, and thank you for your great comment (this one, and the one in the "about me" section)! I am definitely not a Nebbiolo expert, and had to rely on several sources to try and get aroma/flavor information. Apparently, I chose the wrong sources, and I'm thankful you were able to clarify things. I suppose it is possible that the sources I found tasted Nebbiolo wines that were from regions that aren't normally known for the best Nebbiolo wines? Who knows!

    In the "Who's Your Daddy" series of posts, I aim to give a general sense of both the viticulture and the enological characteristics of each grape/wine, though of course being a non-expert with some of the grapes/wines I choose for the post, I can expect I may get something wrong every now and then. Thank you for the great insight and corrections on the aroma/flavor characteristics that I presented here.

    Cheers, and thanks again for reading and commenting!

  3. August 12, 2011 at 9:58 pm

    I have usually found Nebbiolo wines to be "color poor" in the same manner as Pinot Noir, so I would take issue with the notion of these wines being characterized as "very dark" in terms of color.
    *****
    The regions of Lessona, Carema, and Roero are, by the way, located IN Piemonte. Other well-known Piemontese (Nebbiolo) appellations would include Ghemme and Gattinara.

    The Lombardia appellation of Franciacorta is now devoted exclusively to bottle-fermented sparking wine and these are made only from Pinot Nero, Chardonnay and/or Pinot Bianco. There is, however, a small percentage of Nebbiolo used for red table wines in that area.

    Sardegna, by the way, has a bit of Nebbiolo, too. Some brave (or foolish) souls have planted it in South Africa and Australia and there's a tiny patch in Baja California supposedly.
    I am unaware of any significant plantings of Nebbiolo in the Veneto.

  4. August 13, 2011 at 12:03 am

    Hi Gerald,

    Thank you for reading and giving your comments! I appreciate yours (and Kevin's) correction in regards to the color. Nebbiolo is not a grape that I am an expert in, so I thought I'd take the opportunity to learn a little bit more about it by writing this post. As a result of my naivete in regards to Nebbiolo as a wine, I had to rely on other sources to give me aroma/flavor/etc information. My sources turned out to be not as familiar with the wines as I'd thought! I apologize for the error, and am thankful you've pointed it out!

    I hope you'll continue reading, and thank you again for your insightful comments!

  5. August 13, 2011 at 8:03 pm

    Was just about the chime in but Gerald and Kevin beat me to it. Nebbiolo is very unusual in its coloration and is one of the few really tannic reds with little color. The rim is usually orange-salmon leaning. The berries themselves (there are of course many selections, mutations and clonal variations as it is quite incestuous) are almost salmon-colored with dusky blue, and having made a couple of vintages of it now its color stability is insanely bad. The Viognier makes sense because the aromatics are so high toned and floral – it smells like a white grape floating above all of the earthy, truffley goodness. From the winemaking perspective it is a total headache-producing anomaly – this is also its virtue and beauty. It wants limestone, and we in California don't have much. Great topic!

  6. August 14, 2011 at 12:31 pm

    Hi Pietro,

    Thanks for your great comments! I'm happy to have so much input from the experts! I love how Nebbiolo is clearly very difficult to grow, and therefore makes it a great quest to produce an absolutely fabulous wine from that grape!

    Thanks again for reading and leaving your great comments!

  7. Larry
    August 14, 2011 at 7:33 pm

    Great information Becca. I agree in general with everyone's comments about the appearance of Nebbiolo, however, as we all know, it is very imprudent to make definitive statements about wine. There are few if any lines in the sand in the world of wine. As an examples, Paolo Scavino's wines tend to appear much deeper and more concentrated in color, though this is perhaps a nuture issue, and wines from Nebbiolo di Dronero from Piemonte's Colline Saluzzesi (though I am confused if this truly a Nebbiolo variant) can be opaque blue/purple. In the end, the nose and mouth truly determine one's perceptions.

    I look forward to more academic information!

  8. August 15, 2011 at 11:59 am

    Hi Larry,

    Thank you for reading and commenting! I agree that things are not always set in stone when it comes to the world of wine. I suppose that's what makes it art, in addition to science.

    Thanks for adding more great information to this post and comment thread. It's been a pleasure reading everyone's thoughts on the subject, and I'm happy you'll be continuing to read my posts. There will be a new one up tomorrow (Tuesday)!

Comments are closed.