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By Rachael Lucas

Certain wine grapes exist that are known as indigenous, and they are so particular to their places of origin that they are nearly impossible to grow elsewhere. 

Moreover, their wine styles are almost verifiably safe from replication.  Nebbiolo is one such grape.  An ancient variety hailing from the Piedmont region of Italy, this grape is personality-plus.  She is a hormonal, emotionally fraught fashion model--elegant and graceful on a superficial level, but volatile, mercurial, ornery even, beneath the surface.  With age, however, comes stability…a mellifluence.

Nebbiolo has been prevalent in the northernmost reaches of Italy since at least 1303 when the vine was first documented.  It requires south facing slopes and a moderate spring and fall since this variety of Vitis Vinifera buds early and ripens late.  This means Nebbiolo has an extended amount of time on the vine during which things could go terribly wrong (or right, depending on the will of nature and the care of its keeper).  Therefore, viticulturists must be meticulous in their nurturing of these plants to ensure that said Class-A winemaking grapes have potential to live up to their reputation.

Barolo and glass vertical Picmonkey

When we consider Nebbiolo, most of us think of cheeky Barolo and Barbaresco (Barolo’s more docile chum).  There are, however, mini-hectares of Nebbiolo vines freckled throughout the northernmost reaches where the rugged alps offer up terroir and climactic peculiarities to small production ambrosia.  Nebbiolo’s prominent aromas are highlighted as tar and roses.  For those of us who have a habit of purchasing this brand of grape gravy, though, we know that the list of aromatics goes on and on.  I often get notes of licorice/fennel, herbs like oregano, bright red fruit, violets, warm spices, and so much more!

Nebbiolo has thin, delicate skin, so upon viewing it in wine form, one might assume she is drinking Pinot Noir or Sangiovese.  There is clarity to the color that deepens into a garnet hue as the wine matures.  One discernible visible feature is the orange tint in the meniscus (the outer rim of the wine), so if you are blind tasting, and your nectar has a garnet hue with an orange rim, you can infer that it might well be a sip of Nebbiolo.

Due to the grape’s naturally thin skin, there is not a significant amount of body to these wines, which is why sometimes you will find one with a little addition of some obscure grape that nobody has ever heard of to help bulk it up. Even without much body on its own, Nebbiolo’s berries are ultra high in tannin and acidity.  Therefore, the phenolics are sensational and are best expressed when decanted.  The innately tannic aspect gives these wines lengthy ageability (although I enjoy them a little younger when fruit nuances are more obvious).  In fact, many of its name-protected wines are required by law to age in barrel for a few years prior to release, and often these wines are expected to be held in one’s personal cellar for several more years before opening. If you want to know what tight means in wine speak, open a 3-year Barolo.  

Because of the juicy acidity and tannic grip, Nebbiolo is a perfect wine to pair with food.  Piedmont is truffle country, and Nebbiolo loves nothing more than to be coupled with a hearty, creamy dish of something truffley or laden with earthy mushrooms (think risotto).  Gamey meat like wild boar and moose are also excellent options for Nebbiolo-friendly fare.  Cheese, of course, is another fabulous partner for this extraordinary elixir.  Piedmont produces robiolas, which are kind of like Italy’s version of brie.  They tend to be mixed milk, have a rind that blooms, are high fat, unctuous cream pillows that shamelessly boast heady, sweaty stank.  These cheeses are, in a word, delicious.  And they cut right through the sharp acids and domineering tannins that exist in Nebbiolo wines.  Robiolas are increasingly difficult to obtain in the U.S., but there are some tasty ones made at an industrial level, like Bosina and La Tur, that are easy to find.  Boxcarr Handmade Cheese is dominating the robiola scene domestically, and I highly recommend their artisan products.

As my palate continues to evolve, my appreciation for Italian wines progresses.  Nebbiolo is such an unusual grape variety, and its price (if not one of the more popular appellations) is reasonable.  Try a Langhe version the next time you are seeking something floral and feminine.  A fun tasting project is to grab a few bottles from separate appellations and conduct a comparison; you will note there is quite a variance in expression.  Or seek out a domestic adaptation—if you can find one—and taste it side-by-side with a Nebbiolo Peimontese.  How ever you decide to experience your Nebbiolo, enjoy it for the enigma that it is.  Pause and appreciate how a berry so delicate can detonate such a massive oral and retro-nasal boom.  And try to find another grape like this, I dare you.

Editor’s note:   Rachael Lucas is an American Cheese Society Certified Cheese Professional (CCP).  She also has the distinction of being one of forty-six people in the country with the ACS C.C.S.E. (Certified Cheese Sensory Evaluator) accreditation.  You can most often find her cheesemongering in the Seattle area.  When she's not working with cheese, she's eating it, talking about it, reading about it, writing about it, and dreaming about it.  She can be reached with inquiries about fromage and food excitement in the Seattle area at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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