Nebbiolo is an iconic grape hailing from the Piedmont region of Italy. Over 95 percent of the word’s Nebbiolo is grown there, and you’d be hard pressed to find much growing in Italy outside of this region. The origins of the name Nebbiolo have been linked to the Italian word nebbia meaning fog. This connection may be attributable to the fact that the best vineyard locations for the grape are above the fog line, once it has settled into the lower valley.
Other theories on the grape's naming come from the whitish bloom that forms on the surface of the grape during harvest that makes it appear foggy or the name possibly being derived from the Italian nobile meaning noble.
References to Nebbiolo, or a grape like it, have been found dating back to Pliny the Elder in the first century, AD, and his description of the grape like Nebbiolo. There are other recorded references dating from the 13th century and beyond. In the 15th century, there were penalties for damaging a Nebbiolo vine, ranging from stiff fines, to physical harm, to even death, for repeated offenses.
Nebbiolo garnered attention from the British back in the 18th century as they looked for alternatives to French wine; however, the difficulty of transport of wine from Piedmont to England didn’t allow for the relationship with the British to flourish.
DNA profiling of the grape shows there is a familial relationship between Nebbiolo and the Freisa grape from Piedmont, and the Rhône variety Viognier. Other tracings have found relationships between Nebbiolo and Piedmont grapes Bubbiersaco, Nebbiolo Rosé, and Vespolina; and Lombardy grapes Negrara, Rossolanera, and Brugnola.
The variety Nebbiolo is not an easy grape to grow. It buds early, ripens late, and often can struggle to get fully ripe. It does well in lime-rich soils that are planted on the best sun-facing slopes to allow for maximum warmth.
Nebbiolo is grown in the United States including California, Washington, Oregon, and even Virginia, along with Australia, and the Baja region of Mexico. The Langhe in Italy is known for producing lovely wines, but Italy’s most famous areas for producing wines from Nebbiolo are Barbaresco and Barolo. Barbaresco wines are lighter and less astringent than those from Barolo, as the soils there have more nutrients available to the vine, which yield less tannin in the final wine. Aging requirements in Barbaresco include nine months in oak, 21 months total aging for non-riserva wine, and a total of four years of aging for a riserva wine. Wines from Barolo are more tannic, and these wines are required to be aged one year in oak, for a total of three years for non-riserva wine, and for 57 months for a riserva wine.
While aging requirements for Barbaresco and Barolo wines prior to availability for sale seem quite long, these are wines meant to age, based on their high acidity and high tannins. Wines made from Nebbiolo might appear darkly colored upon their release, but they lose their pigment very rapidly. The opacity and light color might lead you to think the wine will be soft, and will surprise you when you taste it, with its tannins.
Wines made from Nebbiolo often display aromas and flavors of roses, perfume, and cherries. With age, you’ll find notes of dried fruit, leather, licorice and tar. Due to the high tannins and acidity, these wines pair best with foods that are fatty or cooked with butter or olive oil. Rustic Italian dishes are a natural pairing, but other pairings include savory Chinese dishes or other spice-rich Asian dishes.