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Friday, April 19, 2013

Red Wine Basics: Nebbiolo

Close up of the Piedmont grape variety Nebbiolo
Nebbiolo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The Nebbiolo Namesake
Nebbiolo is a red grape variety most often associated with the Piedmont region of Italy. There are several theories on the grape’s name. Many think that it is derived from the Italian Nebbia, meaning fog, because of the heavy mist that settles over the region in early October during the Nebbiolo harvest. It may also refer to the fog-like film that coats Nebbiolo skins as the grapes mature. Nebbiolo may also be derived from the word nobile, meaning noble in Italian. By whatever means its namesake was bestowed, Nebbiolo is certainly a noble grape, requiring a skilled vintner, very particular growing conditions and a lot of patience.

History
Nebbiolo began to gain notoriety during the 18th century as the British looked for alternatives to Bordeaux due to ongoing political disagreements with France. However, no simple transport route could be established between Piedmont and London, making it less popular than the already well-established favorites such as Bordeaux. The 19th century phylloxera outbreak nearly wiped out Nebbiolo plantings in Italy, and Barbera was more widely replanted afterwards, being more hardy and resistant than the fickle Nebbiolo. Today, it is very sparingly planted, even in Piedmont.

A Finicky Grape
In the Italian wine region of Piedmont
Italian wine region of Piedmont (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Nebbiolo is extremely picky about its growing conditions, preferring good drainage and a long growing season. Plenty of sunshine and warmth is necessary for the grape to develop enough sugar and fruit flavors to balance its high acidity and tannin levels. The grape is first to flower and last to ripen, requiring a very dry autumn. Nebbiolo particularly suited to the Piedmont region, especially the Barolo and Barbaresco zones, where the growing conditions are prime. Many New World vintners struggle with growing Nebbiolo because of its very particular requirements, though it is experimented with in California, Oregon, Washington, Argentina, Mexico and Australia, among others.

Varietals and Blends
Each region produces very distinctive wines, and even the slight difference in elevation between the Barolo and Barbaresco zones produces different flavors and aromas. In these zones, wine regulations require only 100% Nebbiolo varietals, though the variety can benefit from blending because of its very tough tannins. Some regions permit blending with certain varieties such as Barbera and even some white varieties.

Traditional vs Modern Vinification Processes
Due to the distinctive growing conditions and high astringency of the grapes, Nebbiolo winemaking is a careful process. More traditional vinification processes lead to heavier, stronger wines requiring much more aging time. The more traditional method requires fermentation during cooler temperatures, leading to a longer maceration period and higher temperatures early on in the fermentation process, which can reduce aroma and flavor potential. Tough tannins must be softened with at least five years of oak aging. The more modern approach is to shorten maceration and cool down fermentation to preserve flavors and aromas. During the end of fermentation, temperatures are raised to soften the tannins creating wines that need only a couple of years of aging. More modern vintners often choose to age the wine in new oak barrels which impart the wine with the flavor of vanilla, though this method may mask the hints of rose that are typical of Nebbiolo wines.

A photo showing the characteristic coloring of...
Barolo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The Nebbiolo Profile
Aromas and flavors associated with Nebbiolo wines include dried fruit, damson, leather, licorice, spice, herbs and tar. Younger wines exhibit the aromas of tar and roses, while more mature wines demonstrate a more complex profile of roses, violets, tar, herbs, cherries, raspberries, truffles, tobacco and prunes. A stout bottle of Nebbiolo may be aged upwards of 30 years. Young wines are ruby red, while aged Nebbiolo turns to a brick orange.

Pairing
Pair a Nebbiolo with strong, flavor-rich meats and cheeses. Spicy foods and well-aged cheeses such as parmesan and asiago are perfect. The strong flavors associated with this wine require foods that pack a flavor punch, so pairing with heavier, well-seasoned meals is ideal.

This concludes my exploration of Nebbiolo. Join me next time for a look at Pinot Noir.
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