Nebbiolo (neb-ee-OH-low)


One of the oldest and most important varieties in Piedmont, Italy, “nibiol” was first mentioned in Piedmontese documents in the early 13th century. Its parents are presumed extinct but its origin does appear to be either Piedmont, or perhaps the Valtellina region of Lombardy next door. Massively structured and adamantly tannic when young, nebbiolo from anything less than a fantastic vineyard can simply slam your palate closed and cause your taste buds to shrink away. The finest nebbiolos, however, possess a combination of complexity and power that’s unequaled. Those wines exist only in certain spots within the province of Piedmont, in northwestern Italy. Nebbiolo, alas, is the poster child for a grape that doesn’t travel well. (Outside of Piedmont, there is only one place that’s shown even modest success with this difficult grape, and it’s a place that’s not on many peoples’ wine radar: the Guadalupe Valley of Mexico). In the minds of Italians, nebbiolo is, in status and kingly reputation, equal to the great cabernet sauvignons of France. The grape makes the exalted Piedmontese wines Barolo and Barbaresco. Of course, expensive Barolo and Barbaresco are never better than when served with Piedmont’s other jaw-droppingly expensive specialty: white truffles. The word nebbiolo derives from nebbia, “fog,” a reference to the thick whitish bloom of yeasts that form on the grapes when they are ripe (though many say the name may also refer to the wisps of fog that envelop the Piedmontese hills in the late fall when the grapes are picked). The wine has very particular flavors and aromas reminiscent of tar, violets, and often a rich, espresso-like bitterness from the wine’s pronounced tannin. Lastly, until relatively recently, it was an unwritten but adamant rule within the wine world that all great nebbiolos needed to be aged a decade or more before they could be consumed (never mind enjoyed). Modern winemaking techniques have changed that, and while the great Barolos and Barbarescos remain utterly long-lived wines, they are also, when young, more delicious than ever.

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