Nebbiolo is one of – if not the – most famous Italian grape varieties. Wine lovers across the globe revere Nebbiolo wine for its pale color and delicate aromas alongside big and bold structure and merciless tannins. With a deep history in northern Italy’s Piedmont region, most know it as the sole grape that goes into making DOCG wines such as Barolo and Barbaresco. However, the red grape variety grows across the country and goes by many names.
A Brief Introduction to Nebbiolo
The history of Nebbiolo dates back centuries, with the first detailed mention of the grape (nibiol) in Rivoli near Turin in 1268, according to Oz Clarke’s Encyclopedia of Grapes. Additional historical references include the names nebiolo and nubiolo.
The name derives from the word ‘nebbia’, which means fog. There are two theories behind its meaning. First is the powdery-like bloom that covers the berries during harvest season. Also, many Nebbiolo vineyards are located in the Langhe region, which experiences intense fog sets around harvest time.
Wine made from the Nebbiolo grape variety is pale in color and highly aromatic. It’s a surprising contrast given its full-body and bold flavor character. Most examples have ample acidity and tannin, making them great for aging. Some of the highest quality versions can age for at least a decade, often two or three.
Typical Nebbiolo wine aromas include tar and roses. Further complex characteristics include dried fruit, leather, licorice, carob, and herbs.
Nebbiolo Across Piedmont
Barolo and Barbaresco are the most famous DOCG wines in Piedmont’s Langhe region and sit on the right bank of the Tanaro river. By law, both must comprise 100% Nebbiolo; however, their aging requirements differ.
Barolo DOCG requires 18 months in oak and three years of total aging for normale bottlings. Riserva bottlings require a total of 5 years aging.
Many consider Barbaresco DOCG to be less stringent, with normale bottlings requiring only nine months in oak and 2 years of total aging. Riserva bottlings require 4 years of aging.
In this clip from Sommelier’s Notebook: An Intro to Nebbiolo, available on SOMM TV, Master Sommelier Sabato Sagaria shares how Barolo and Barbaresco can have further cru classifications.
Roero is another high-quality area in the Langhe and is also DOCG. However, it sits to the north of the Tanaro river at a distance. This area’s soil lacks calcareous marl, which gives Nebbiolo its classic tar aroma.
In another part of western Piedmont, about an hour north of Turin in Valle d’Aosta, Nebbiolo goes by Picotendro. Many believe this name came to be because of the grape’s pointed shape (pico).
In the provinces of Novara and Vercelli, near Milan in the eastern part of Piedmont, Nebbiolo is called Spanna. Spanna makes up the DOCG wines Ghemme and Gattinara, which can include small percentages of Bonarda, Croatina, and Vespolina. Although most modern producers favor a high percentage of Nebbiolo.
In neighboring areas, Spanna also makes lesser-known DOC wines such as Boca, Bramaterra, Fara, Lessona and Sizzano, Coste della Sesia and Colline Novaresi.
Further north, in Val d’Ossola near the Switzerland border, we find Prunent. Here, the name derives from the bloom (pruina), which covers the vines giving a foggy color.
Additional synonyms in this area that are no longer common include Brunenta, Marchesana, Martesana, and Melasca.
Nebbiolo From Other Parts of Italy
Just east of Piedmont in north-central Italy sits the region of Lombardy, which includes the country’s capital of Milan. Valtellina is a 1.5-hour drive northeast of the capital, along the coast of Lake Como, and a stone’s throw from the Switzerland border. Here, Nebbiolo goes by Chiavennasca.
Theories interconnected to the regional lexicon say the name comes from “ciu venasca” (vine with more sap and vigor) or even “ciu vinasca” (species more suited to become wine). The wines here produces Valtellina Superiore DOCG and Sforzato (or Sfurzat) Della Valtellina DOCG.
As a surprise to many, Nebbiolo also grows on the island of Sardinia. The grape is called Nebiolo of Luras, in honor of the Luras hills in the region’s northern section, where it was likely imported.
Many believe the grape was brought to the island in the mid-1800s by General La Marmora, an Italian general and statesman who became Prime Minister of Sardinia in 1859 and later Prime Minister of Italy in 1864.
Other Areas of Italy
The Nebbiolo grape variety is also cultivated in central Italy’s Abruzzo region and Basilicata in the south. However, in these two instances, it goes by its common name, Nebbiolo.