One of Italy’s great glories, the Nebbiolo variety has been around since Roman days – Pliny may even have invented the name, which most people say comes from “nebbia”, the Italian word for “fog”. Nebbiolo ripens late and Italy’s north-western corner (Nebbiolo’s heartland) lies just south of the Alps, so fog is common during harvest. Others will tell you that the name comes from the amount of “bloom” on the grape skins, which looks as though the vines are bathed in fog.
The variety has been documented since the twelfth century, and I love the factoid that the first person to describe the foggy grape’s many sub-types was a gentleman by the name of Count Nuvolone, which means “big cloud”!
Most old varieties, not just in Italy, have lots of sub-types – Pinot Noir is notorious for them, for example. So it’s no surprise that Nebbiolo has plenty, and plenty of different names for them, too. Probably its best-known pseudonym is Spanna, but it’s called Picotener in Valle d’Aosta and Chiavennasca in Lombardy.
The main names you’ll see used for Nebbiolo, though, are those of its production zones, with Barolo and Barbaresco in Piedmont being the most famous. You can also look out for Gattinara, Ghemme, Roero and Carema, which carry a slightly lower price-tag than the two great regions. Sometimes, you’ll even find a wine labelled just “Nebbiolo”, like the Roncati one we sell!
What’s so great about Nebbiolo? The classic answer is its perfume of roses that shades into truffles and tar as the wines age (which they need to do). These are not big, dark wines, but the nose makes up for the lack of colour. So does the structure: Nebbiolos are famous for their tannin, which softens as the wines age and makes them great accompaniments to food – like so many Italian wines, they’re not designed for drinking on their own.
Nebbiolo is not always made as a varietal. Wines for earlier drinking tend to have “softer” varieties blended in, like the Fara and Sizzano we stock from Roncati, both of which are blends of Nebbiolo, Vespolina and Uva Rara. Sometimes a great wine is just too … well … great, and it’s good to have something a little lighter.
Whether you’re drinking top-of-the-range aged Barolo or a younger, softer (and cheaper) Nebbiolo wine, do give it a good swirl and sniff before you think of tasting it; the nose is fabulous and could delay that first sip for some time. Pure hedonism!