Wine Opinion

Why nebbiolo may be the world's greatest grape

PUBLISHED : Friday, 06 February, 2015, 6:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 06 February, 2015, 6:00am

Take the ageing ability and tannic backbone of Bordeaux, then throw in the perfumed eloquence of Burgundy, a hint of Italian warmth and the sheer pleasure of eating and drinking, and you're getting close to why nebbiolo might be the world's greatest grape variety.

It's far from the most prolific, and takes great pleasure in being known locally as the "anti-global grape" because of its stubborn refusal to travel far from Piedmont. Plenty of wine drinkers are happy to leave it there - it gets accused of being, by turns, humourless, drying, over-intellectual and austere.

All of which is crazy. Named (at least according to romantics) after the Italian word nebbia from the soft mist that swirls around the hills during harvest time, nebbiolo dates back to at least 1256, when documents show it was cultivated in the hills above Turin.

The most famous, and the most expensive examples, are the wines of Barolo and, coming up not far behind, those of Barbaresco.

The past few years has seen an explosion in the presence of both in auction rooms, from iconic names such as Giacomo Conterno, Guiseppe Mascarello and Angelo Gaja.

These are wines that can tightly lock up their secrets for years before softening.

But the sudden upsurge in popularity has had a welcome effect for less patient drinkers - one of Piedmont's larger regional areas that contains both Barolo and Barbaresco is also making a much more accessible wine under the nebbiolo name, one that still tasting of sour cherry, tar and roses.

This is Langhe, the hilly area in the province of Cuneo to the south of Piedmont that contains, besides those two famous wine appellations, the Cavour Castle and the white truffles of Alba.

Last June it was inscribed on the Unesco World Heritage list for its "authentic and ancient art of winemaking". Langhe nebbiolo is usually made from grapes from young vines under 10 years of age, before they are promoted into the big name bottles - meaning that many of the best producers have a couple of examples of Langhe at the lower end of their price ranges.


Langhe nebbiolo is a great way to explore the grape in an affordable, early drinking way," agrees David Berry Green, who lives in the region as a buyer for Berry Bros.

My eureka moment for Langhe nebbiolo came from producer GD Vajra. Run today by Aldo Vajra and his sons Guiseppe and Isidoro, the vineyards are in one of the highest villages of Barolo.

Where the Barolos are aged in barrels for more than three years before bottling, the more simple Langhe nebbiolo sees no oak, keeping the emphasis on the seductively scented and pleasingly just-ripe red fruits and the telltale purity of flavour.

"It's difficult to get Langhe nebbiolo wrong in terms of quality," explains Berry Green. "The wine is from good soils, from one of the world's best grapes, and sugar levels are not a problem in this part of Italy. It doesn't stay too long on the grape skins, so retains a freshness, and the lack of oak avoids problems with dryness.

"In theory it's an easy style to make well, and nebbiolo is a joy in the vineyard because it behaves itself and is a charmer," adds Green.

"Langhe is made up of a huge mixture of hills and valleys, with many different orientations that give vastly different characters to the resulting wines. It means there are plenty of opportunities to make these delicious early drinking wines."

Despite that, not all are good. There has been an explosion of interest in this style of wine, mainly in parts of Langhe that are not always suitable for making the best styles. At the same time, there has been 100 per cent growth from six million to 12 million bottles of Barolo produced annually over the past six years. There are moves to grow again and produce up to 14 million bottles.

With this push towards higher production, not all of them make the grade to become Barolo, and some Langhe nebbiolo is declassified Barolo.

But the best ones are made specifically to be bottled as Langhe nebbiolo. These are made with little or no oak, left only for a short time in contact with the skins during winemaking to limit the tannins, and aimed specifically at showcasing the soft, fragrant side of nebbiolo.

"The best advice is to choose producers with integrity," says Berry Green.

Jane Anson is a Bordeaux-based wine writer