Great Reds of Piemonte – Nebbiolo
Nebbiolo is the most highly regarded red grape in Piemonte. Little wonder, given the regal wines made from this grape, which include the iconic, long-lived reds Barolo and Barbaresco as well as other excellent types including Roero Rosso, Nebbiolo d’Alba and Gattinara.
Nebbiolo derives from the Italian word, nebbia, meaning “fog.” As Nebbiolo is a late-ripening variety – some Nebbiolo grapes are harvested as late as mid-November – the vineyards must be planted above the fog to ensure sunshine.
Nebbiolo is known for its high levels of tannin, which give wines made from this grape excellent cellaring potential. A good example of a Nebbiolo d’Alba will drink well for 5-7 years after the vintage date, while the finest Barolos can age beautifully for as long as 40-50 years.
The aromas and flavors of Nebbiolo are quite distinct. Unlike the black fruits and deep colors of many of today’s international reds, Nebbiolo wines display a garnet color with aromas of red cherry, currant, orange peel, dried roses, cedar and brown spices and herbs (sage, nutmeg). Older bottlings, especially with Barolo and Barbaresco feature aromas of truffles and balsamic.
The most celebrated wine made exclusively from Nebbiolo is Barolo, produced from vineyards in eleven communes south of the town of Alba. One of the towns is Barolo, which lends its name to the wine; others include La Morra, Castiglione Falletto, Novello, Monforte d’Alba and Serralunga d’Alba. Barolo must be aged for a minimum of two years in wood and is not released until four years after the vintage date (thus the 2005 Barolos are just being released in 2009).
There are hundreds of small estates making Barolo; most wineries produce cru (single vineyard) bottlings, although a few firms still bottle a Barolo blended from several vineyards in various communes (Bartolo Mascarello is the most famous example of this type of Barolo).
A short list of famous cru Barolos produced today include:
- Giuseppe Rinaldi “Brunate – Le Coste”
- Ceretto “Bricco Rocche”
- Vietti “Lazzarito”
- Fontanafredda “La Rosa”
- Massolino “Margheria”
- Elio Grasso “Ginestra Casa Maté”
- Roberto Voerzio “Sarmassa”
- Marchesi di Barolo “Cannubi”
- Paolo Scavino “Rocche dell’Annunziata”
- Cavallotto “Bricco Boschis”
There are various aging methods for Barolo; the traditionalists work with large Slavonian oak casks known as botti grandi, which are as large as 2000 to 6000 liters. The modernists prefer small French oak barrels known as barriques, which are 225 liters in size. Many producers today use both types of wood, starting the aging process in barriques and then moving the wine to the larger casks (this is the preferred choice at wineries such as Fontanafredda and Renato Ratti, for example.) In a future post, I will deal with the choice of traditional versus modern aging of Barolo; for now, here are lists of a few producers of each method:
Traditional Barolo producers
- Bartolo Mascarello
- Giuseppe Rinaldi
Modern Barolo producers
- Roberto Voerzio
- Gianni Voerzio
- Paolo Scavino
- Elio Altare
Barbaresco – also produced exclusively from Nebbiolo – originates from three towns east of Alba: Treiso, Neive and Barbaresco itself (there is also a tiny section of Alba called San Rocco Seno d’Elvio where Barbaresco can be produced). This is a much smaller area than Barolo, so there are fewer producers, meaning this is a less well-known wine than Barolo. Angelo Gaja is arguably the most famous producer of Barbaresco (although his best wines from this zone are now labeled as Langhe Rosso), but other producers have gained great notoriety over the past decade. Thes include:
- Produttori del Barbaresco
- Bruno Giacosa
- Bruno Rocca
- Ada Nada
- Fiorenzo Nada
As with Barolo, there are different thoughts on aging in Barbaresco. Produttori del Barbaresco and Bruno Giacosa are the greatest of the traditional producers, while Bruno Rocca and Moccagatta represent the modernist approach.
By law, a Barbaresco must be aged for a minimum of one year in wood and cannot be released until three years after the vintage date (2006s now released in 2009). In general, Barbarescos do not age as long as Barolos, due in large part to a difference in soils (the soils are thinner in much of the Barolo zone, meaning more firm tannins), yet a well-made Barbaresco can age for 25-30 years.
OTHER EXAMPLES OF NEBBIOLO IN PIEMONTE
There are several other excellent Piemontese wines made from Nebbiolo; including Nebbiolo d’Alba and Roero Rosso. These wines are aged for shorter periods of time and generally have lower levels of tannins than Barolo or Barbaresco. Several Barolo producers (such as Pio Cesare and Fontanafredda) make a Nebbiolo d’Alba, which at one-third to one-half (or even less) the cost of Barolo, are excellent values. As for Roero Rosso, these are also fairly priced (usually around $25-30 retail); some of the best producers include Malvirà and Matteo Coreggia.
Two final wines worth mentioning are Gattinara, produced from a minimum of 90% Nebbiolo and Ghemme (minimum 75% Nebbiolo), both from north-central Piemonte, north of the town of Novara. These wines offer many of the same charms as Barolo or Barbaresco, but are lighter in body ( as well as being lighter in the pocketbook!). Excellent producers of Gattinara include Antoniolo and Travaglini, while Luigi Dessilani and Antichi Vigneti di Cantelupo are among the finest makers of Ghemme.
What to eat with a Nebbiolo-based wine? Most red meats work as do hearty game, while rabbit (coniglio) is a local specialty. Aged cheeses – the older the better – are also wonderful with these wines.
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