Nebbiolo’s Dual Nature as the King and Queen of Italian Wine

Nebbiolo’s Dual Nature as the King and Queen of Italian Wine

Nebbiolo! The “wine of kings, the king of wines,” from the region of Barolo. As any good monarch would tell you, a King must have a Queen. Nebbiolo, from the Barbaresco region, is the “queen of wines.” Both of these powerful wine regions champion Nebbiolo viticulture and winemaking. They are only 10 miles apart in the Piedmont region of Italy, which is like comparing Cotes de Nuits and Cotes de Beaune Pinot Noirs regions in Burgundy, France. What formulates the contrasting style is just subtle differences based on topography, soil, and rules

Historically, Barolo is the older of the two regions. It was either named after Marches of Barolo, a noblewoman living in the 19th century, or it was named through its association with the local royal House of Savoy. It was known for producing sweet and sparkling wines. The region was designated as a Denominazione di origine controllata (DOC) in 1966, and then promoted to a Denominazione di origine controllata e Garantita (DOCG) in 1980.

Originally, and up until 1894, Barbaresco-produced fruit was shipped to Barolo for their wine production. The Barbaresco winemakers banded together and refused to sell to Barolo, instead deciding to make their own wine. This alternatively produced Nebbiolo was lighter, younger, more delicate, and easier to drink. In 1958, the Gaia family founded the Produttori del Barbaresco, which is a small group of producers who have banded together.

The name "Nebbiolo" has an interesting theory behind it. It may come from the Italian word 'nebbia', meaning fog, referring to the grape being harvested during October's first fall fog. Another theory suggests that the name derives from the Italian word “nobile,” meaning noble, which could explain why it is considered the King of Italian wines.

The greater Piedmont region has a moderate, continental climate, with cold winters and hot summers. Springtime rainfall encourages low vegetation growth, but it increases in late September and October. The Alps protect against cold winds and excessive rainfall to the north, while the Apennines to the south prevent the entry of some Mediterranean weather systems. This continental climate leads to significant temperature swings and the possibility of frost during the transition from winter to spring. Gaps between the Apennines and the Mediterranean occasionally create fog, which can bring excess moisture and fungal diseases, as well as slow fruit ripening.

Nebbiolo is an early budding varietal that grows mainly in the Langhe Valley, a subregion of Piedmont. It progresses slowly over the summer, developing sugar, color, and aromatic compounds, while exchanging bitter tannins for riper ones. It is one of the last varietals to be harvested, and growers face risks such as spring frost and fungal diseases due to fog. However, strategic measures can be taken to mitigate these risks. Planting Nebbiolo on south-western facing slopes helps the vines benefit from sunlight while avoiding excessive fog. The vine's vigorous nature helps withstand hail storms, and dense planting promotes competition for nutrients, resulting in more concentrated juice. Due to its small berry size, Nebbiolo contributes more color and tannins to the juice, resulting in a fuller body

Why the King and Queen reference? Broadly speaking, Barolos (the Kings) are more dense, tannic, and muscular versions of Nebbiolo. It has dense red fruit flavors of cherries, strawberries, raspberries, and. rose and violet florals. When left to age, it develops a considerable complexity of earthiness, tar, herbs, licorice, and tobacco. It is a wine you have to let lay in the bottle, your patience will allow it time to soften the tannins and integrate the flavors and complexities. The culture promotes this pridefulness from how long the wine can be left in the bottle before the perfect imbibing moment. The Queen, however, is just 10 miles away in the region of Barbaresco. The growers here, using the exact same grape, produce a graceful, elegant, playful, fruity, yet powerful wine that is more immediately drinkable.

Which is better? That is up to you. Both are revered and deserving of their royal titles. Try these bottles and come up with your own decision:

2019 Rocche Costamagna Nebbiolo Langhe DOC:  Deep raspberry and rose scents, well combined with spicy sensations. Elegant with soft tannins and long finish.

2018 G.D. Vajra Able Barolo: This wine made #5 of 100 wines on the Wine Spectator Top 100 List in 2021. 100 percent Nebbiolo. Aroma of rose, crushed mint, red berry and dark spice, mingled together with an earthy whiff of leather on this fragrant Barolo. The vibrant, extremely delicate and light palate delivers juicy Marasca cherry, star anise, and an almost salty note alongside taut, polished tannins and racy acidity.

2022 Lugi Giordano Vino Rosato: 80 percent Nebbiolo, 20 percent Arneis. Brilliant rose color. Sweet bouquet of red roses, rhubarb, red currant, ripe strawberry, with a touch of earth. The palate is dry with flavors of red fruits, apple, lime zest, orange peel. Structurally it has medium-plus acidity, with faint tannins. Finishes with a refreshing tartness that makes you come back for more.

Or a Virginia option, 2019 Barboursville Vineyard Nebbiolo Reserve: 100 percent Nebbiolo. Elegant and complex, aromatically enthralling depth of violets, forest loam, dark berry and tobacco notes. Fuller body with hints of rose, vanilla, and slight black pepper. A firm, dense structure followed by a seamless, sustained finish.


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