Cabernet Sauvignon is king in California’s Napa Valley, and Pinot Noir from France’s Burgundy region is the standard that the world’s winemakers aspire to.

Then, there’s Nebbiolo, the red wine grape from Italy’s Piedmont region.

Wines made from Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir are grown and produced with great success in many other regions outside of Napa and Burgundy. Producers from around the globe continue to try, but Nebbiolo seems to favor its tiny corner of the mountains in northern Italy. Even here in Piedmont, this grape is fussy about where it will grow best.

The Nebbiolo wines of Piedmont are as terroir-driven as any Cab from Napa or Pinot Noir from Burgundy. The grape is low yielding, thin-skinned and susceptible to disease, but produces wines of outstanding quality. Whether it is Barolo, Barbaresco, Nebbiolo del Lange, Gattinara or Ghemme, the wines are known for their elegance.

About Nebbiolo

Even though it accounts for less than 5% of the grape varieties under vine in Piedmont, Nebbiolo is by far the greatest grape of the region; it is also the most difficult to grow. Since Nebbiolo flowers early and ripens late, it must be planted on south or south-western facing slopes to get maximum sun exposure. Also, the vines are very vigorous, so they require strict canopy management to ensure that their energy is dedicated to ripening fruit rather than growing leaves.

During the harvest, which usually takes place late in October, an intense fog rolls into the region. That’s why it is thought that Nebbiolo got its name from the Italian word, “nebbia,” which means fog. The calcareous clay soils, the breezes from the Alps, hot spring and summer days and fall fogs all contribute to the grapes reaching the peak of ripeness, complexity and acidity.

Nebbiolo does not do well in various soil types. It prefers soils with high concentrations of calcium and limestone, such as those found in and around Alba where Barolo and Barbaresco are produced. And wines made from Nebbiolo are typically light in color, similar to Pinot Noir, but have the structure that allows them to age in the bottle for years; their very high tannin content in youth allows them to develop over time to produce some of the finest red wines in the world.

The nose is one of Nebbiolo’s most outstanding qualities, producing wines with complex aromas of roses, black fruit and licorice. The flavor profile includes cherries, raspberries, truffles, tobacco and violets with a velvety texture.

The Wines

Borolo, made from 100% Nebbiolo and considered to be one of the world’s greatest red wines, comes from its namesake town as well as the communes of Castiglione Falletto, La Morra, Monforte and Serralunga in the southeastern hills of the Langhe region of Piedmont. They are well balanced with aromas and flavors of roses, violets, spices, tobacco and white truffles.

Until recently, Barbaresco was thought to live in the shadow of its famous neighbor Barolo. Today, that is no longer true. Nebbiolo in the Barbaresco area ripens sooner and maintains more acidity than Borolo. Barbaresco is not as intense on the palate, but with its fuller body and freshness, it is one of the great wines to enjoy with food. Barbaresco, Neive and Treiso are the communes that make up the Barbaresco zone.

Nebbiolo wines that are not from Barolo or Barbaresco are classified as Nebbiolo del Langhe. Coming from an area that covers 10 communes in Langhe, the wines are medium in body, still show the best traits of their big brothers, have moderate aging potential and are great values.

Gattinara and Ghemme are the northernmost growing areas for Nebbiolo in Piedmont. The wines are lighter bodied than other Piedmont Nebbiolos, with pleasant fruit flavors and good acidity.

A Few to Try

  • 2013 Alessandro e Gian Natale Fantino, Rosso dei Dardi. 100% Nebbiolo made in steel, with carbonic maceration to minimize the tannins. Loads of black cherry and plum aromas and flavors with hints of violet, spice and mint. Great on its own and with charcuterie. Priced in the upper teens.
  • 2014 Produttori del Barbaresco, Langhe Nebbiolo. Well balanced with aromas and flavors of red fruit with notes of spice, white pepper and anise. Pairs well with pizza and sauced pasta, with meatballs and sausage. Priced in the mid-$20s.
  • 2011 Oddero, Barolo. Lush ripe cherry and strawberry aromas and flavors, with a touch of licorice and menthol; fresh with a smooth tannic structure. Good now (if you let it open up for an hour or so) and it will only get better with age. Priced in the low $60s.

Whether in the big and complex traditional style that require years of aging or in the modern style that is approachable earlier, Nebbiolo wines are not to be missed.

In addition to those mentioned above, you can also find wonderful wines from renowned producers like Gaja, Ceretto and Domenico Clerico. Their Barolos come with hefty price tags, but are well worth the investment. Cheers.

Sam Audia is a former advertising and marketing professional with more than 20 years of experience in the wine and spirits industry. He is a wine specialist at Bay Ridge Wine & Spirits, in Annapolis; holds a Certification Diploma from the Sommelier Society of America and Intermediate and Advanced Certificates from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust. He can be reached at [email protected].