Your Wine IQ


International Varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon   Merlot   Pinot Noir   Syrah

Major Varieties: Cabernet Franc    Grenache    Malbec    Nebbiolo    Sangiovese    Tempranillo    Zinfandel

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Nebbiolo is an Italian red grape probably most known for making up 100% of the ruby-red Barolo DOCG, a highly respected wine appellation made in the Piedmont area of Italy. With powerful floral aromas, most Barolos are high in tannin, and can take decades to soften. Barolo itself is cooler and higher in altitude than most of Italy, the optimal zone for Nebbiolo. Global warming has actually helped Barolo, since a slightly warmer climate increases tannins but still is not hot enough to ruin the grape. Tasters of Barolo have noted a fabulous array of flavors, including camphor, chocolate, dried fruit, leather, mint, plum, spice, tobacco, and white truffles.


A bottle and glass of Barolo.
Photo by Biskuit on Flickr.
License: Creative Commons 2.0 Generic.

Also in Piedmont, neighboring Barbaresco also makes varietal Nebbiolo, with subtle differences from Barolo. While Barolos are usually $60 and up, Barbarescos are even pricier. Less expensive Nebbiolos are available in Gattinara and Ghemme DOCG, which are at least 90% Nebbiolo.

Outside of Piedmont, however, Nebbiolo's popularity is limited. It is hard to reproduce the climate found in the hills of Piedmont, and Nebbiolos grown at lower altitudes often are too high in tannin to be made as 100% varietal. The grape is famously finicky, susceptible to just about every vine disease as well as high yields.

Nebbiolo was planted by Italian immigrants in California, but Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot then took over, leaving Nebbiolo in the dust. This is good for Barolo and Barbaresco, as they are left with few foreign competitors. The problem is that Barolo and Barbaresco are well-known, but the grape is not, which makes producing a separate example an uphill battle. Producers in Australia and the Pacific Coast are trying; Washington, in particular, might be interesting due to its mountains and cold climate.

Nebbiolo is a fairly neglected grape worldwide, since it is a finicky grape requiring the perfect climate to thrive, and most producers prefer to plant more common grapes. But in the regions of Barolo and Barbaresco, it can produce some of Italy's best, most aristocratic wines.