Nebbiolo is the great grape of Piedmont, responsible for both Barolo and Barbaresco, but it has also found an important place in Australia, especially in cooler elevated vineyard sites.
Also known as
With many sub-regional synonyms in Italy, many of them in dialect, nebbiolo’s best-known aliases are spanna and chiavennasca. Spanna is used further north in some of the cooler reaches of Piedmont (above the Langhe, where Barolo and Barbaresco hail from), where sometimes it is printed on the label, while chiavennasca is the local name in Valtellina, the most important area for the grape outside of Piedmont.
What nebbiolo tastes like
One of the most distinctive grapes of them all, nebbiolo can achieve high ripeness while retaining lots of acidity. Unlike many grapes, the fruit doesn’t necessarily get sweeter and softer at higher ripeness, usually looking somewhat savoury with ample grippy tannins. Nebbiolo can vary from pretty expressions that emphasise red berries, cranberry, red currants, sour red cherries and the like and classic rose petal notes, while more serious examples will often look more savoury, with dried flowers and red fruit, and spices like star anise, as well as being very reflective of the soil, with dry-toned earthy and mineral notes.
Vineyard & winemaking
Nebbiolo is not an easy grape to grow, with it budding early and ripening very late. It is also a grape that needs to stay on the vines for tannins to ripen, so while sugars won’t elevate much, the phenolics will mature. If the climate is too warm, this becomes impossible with sugars running away, and if there is rain or disease pressure the crop can be lost or the quality severely diminished. Primarily made into red wine, nebbiolo also makes very tasty rose, with the red fruits emphasised, a racy line of acidity and the tannins mostly left out of the picture. There’s also a bit of history with nebbiolo being made as a sparkling wine, with all the wines of piedmont often carrying varying degrees of fizz centuries back. That style died out long ago, but there are makers both here and in Italy turning out impressive bottles of pale pink, dry bubbly made from nebbiolo. If making red wine, sometimes a long time on skins is favoured, with some traditional examples macerating for 90 and even 120 days before being pressed. In Barolo, short and very intense macerations were employed more recently to extract more colour (it is a low-colour variety) and then small new oak barrels were often used for ageing. Today, those processes are seen to cloak the character of grape and territory, with traditional large-format oak mainly used and extractions typically around a month.
Where is nebbiolo grown?
One of Italy’s most important grape varieties, nebbiolo is responsible for the long-lived wines of Barolo and Barbaresco from Piedmont, in Italy’s north-west. Although it makes some of Italy’s most revered and expensive wines, Nebbiolo isn’t widely planted, being somewhat dwarfed by dolcetto and even more so by barbera in Piedmont, and only existing meaningfully in neighbouring Lombardy in the cold and impossibly steep terraced vineyards of Valtellina. Nebbiolo is also grown in cooler zones to the north of Piedmont’s Langhe, such as Boca, Ghemme, Bramaterra and Carema, which are seeing a resurgence of interest, perhaps partially facilitated by a warming climate.
Nebbiolo around the world
Although its reputation as a grape capable of making some of the world’s finest wines, nebbiolo has not been planted around the world as much as similarly noble grapes like pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon. This has a bit to do with Italian wines, and in turn varieties, not having the same stature as French ones until late in the 20th century, but the proliferation of sangiovese around the world suggest this is not the only reason. As the small growing areas in Italy illustrate, nebbiolo is not the most adaptable of grapes, excelling in certain conditions but struggling in most others. The USA and Australia have dominated plantings of nebbiolo outside of Italy, though both are still in the relatively early phases of exploring the territories with best potential, as well as mastering the complexities of growing and making.
Nebbiolo in Australia
Outside Italy, Australia has arguably proven to be the most fertile ground for working with the grape. While the plantings number not a lot over 200 hectares, nebbiolo has found suitable homes in areas such as the Adelaide Hills, Victoria’s King, Yarra and Alpine Valleys, Beechworth, the Pyrenees and even Heathcote, with all having produced notable examples. Victoria’s Malakoff vineyard in the Pyrenees has become a major source of grapes for younger makers, while the Longview vineyard has served a similar function in the Adelaide Hills. Today, there are producers like Luke Lambert, S.C. Pannell, Domenica and Traviarti who are making seriously savoury wines that are Barolo-like in their stature, while makers like Spider Bill are emphasising the bright red fruit to turn out fresher, yet no less complex versions.
Photo of nebbiolo grapes seen here, courtesy of Chalmers vineyard.
Some of the best Australian nebbiolo
Thick as Thieves