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Nebbiolo (Italian), or Nebieul (Piedmontese) is a red Italian wine grape variety predominantly associated with the Piedmont region where it makes the Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG) wines of Barolo, Barbaresco, Gattinara and Ghemme. Nebbiolo is thought to derive its name from the Italian word nebbia which means "fog." During harvest, which generally takes place late in October, a deep, intense fog sets into the Langhe region where many Nebbiolo vineyards are located. Alternative explanations refers to the fog-like milky veil that forms over the berries as they reach maturity, or that perhaps the name is derived instead from the Italian word nobile, meaning noble. Nebbiolo produces lightly-colored red wines which can be highly tannic in youth with scents of tar and roses. As they age, the wines take on a characteristic brick-orange hue at the rim of the glass and mature to reveal other aromas and flavors such as violets, tar, wild herbs, cherries, raspberries, truffles, tobacco, and prunes. Nebbiolo wines can require years of aging to balance the tannins with other characteristics.
Ampelographers believe that Nebbiolo is indigenous to the Piedmont region, though some DNA evidence suggests that it may have originated in Lombardy, just to the east. In the 1st century AD, Pliny the Elder noted the exceptional quality of the wine produced in Pollenzo region located northwest of what is now the Barolo DOCG zone. While Pliny does not explicitly name the grape responsible for these Pollenzo wines, his description of the wine bears similarities to later descriptions of Nebbiolo-based wines, making this potentially the first notation of wine made from Nebbiolo in the Piedmont region. The first explicit mention of Nebbiolo dates to 1268, in which a wine known as "nibiol" was described as growing in Rivoli near Turin. This was followed by a 1303 account of a producer in the Roero district described as having a barrel of "nebiolo" (sic). In the 1304 treatise Liber Ruralium Commodorum, the Italian jurist Pietro Crescenzi described wine made from "nubiola" (sic) as being of excellent quality. In the 15th century, statutes in the region of La Morra (in what is now the Barolo zone) demonstrated the high esteem that the Nebbiolo vine had in the area. According to these laws, the penalties for cutting down a Nebbiolo vine ranged from a heavy fine to having the right hand cut off or hanging for repeat offenders.
The grape first captured attention outside of Piedmont in the 18th century, when the British were looking for alternative wine sources to Bordeaux due to prolonged political conflicts with the French. However, the lack of easy transport from Piedmont to London would keep the Piedmontese wine from having the enduring relationship with British connoisseurship that is associated with Bordeaux, Port and Sherry. Nonetheless, plantings of Nebbiolo continued to grow during the 19th century until the phylloxera epidemic hit. With vast swaths of vineyards devastated by the louse, some vineyard owners decided to replant with different grape varieties, with Barbera being a significant beneficiary. Today, Nebbiolo covers less than 6% of Piedmont vineyards.
In 2004, research at the University of California-Davis and Istituto Agrario di San Michele all’Adige found Nebbiolo to be related to Piedmont by way of two aromatic grape varieties — the Freisa grape of Piedmont and the French Rhone variety Viognier. This research would further suggest a parent-offspring relationship between Nebbiolo and several Italian grapes including Freisa, Bubbierasco, Nebbiolo Rosé, and Vespolina of the Piedmont region, and the Lombardy grapes Negrara and Rossola nera. Additional DNA analysis also suggest a parent-offspring relationship with the Lombardy grape Brugnola, previously thought to be only a synonym for the Emilia-Romagna grape Fortana.
Compared to the annual growth cycle of other Piedmontese grape varieties, Nebbiolo is one of the first varieties to bud and last variety to ripen with harvest taking place in mid to late October. In some vintages, producers are able to pick and complete fermentation of their Barbera and Dolcetto plantings before Nebbiolo is even harvested. To aid in ripening, producers will often plant Nebbiolo in the most favored sites on south and southwestern facing slopes, which give the grape more access to direct sunlight. The most ideal location is at an elevation between 150 and 300 meters (500 and 1,000 ft) and must provide some natural shelter from wind. The vine is very susceptible to coulure, especially if there is wet weather during budbreak or flowering. While rains during this period can affect yield and quantity, rains that occur after the period of veraison can have a detrimental effect on quality. The most highly rated bottles of Piedmont Nebbiolo tend to come from vintages that had dry weather during September & October. Nebbiolo needs sufficient warmth to develop the sugars and fruit flavors needed to balance the grape's naturally high acidity and tannins. In cooler climate areas, such as the subalpine regions of Carema, Valtellina and Donnaz, the grape will produce medium bodied wines with bracing acidity and tannins that need the benefit of a warm vintage.
Nebbiolo does not adapt particularly well to various vineyard soil types, preferring soils with high concentration of calcareous marl such as those found on the right bank of the Tanaro river around Alba where Barolo & Barbaresco are produced. The grape can thrive in sandy soils, such as those on the left bank of the Tanaro around the Roero district but the wines from this soil type tend not to be as perfumed - lacking in particular the classic tar aromas. The slightly acidic pH of the sandy Roero soils tend to produce early maturing wines. The lighter wines of Ghemme and Gattinara come from the acidic porphyry soils of the hills between Novara and Vercelli. In the lower Aosta Valley, the soil has a high concentration of granite while the soils of the Valtellina region of Lombardy are predominantly schist based. In addition to soil type, the drainage ability and concentration of magnesium and potassium can have an influencing effect on the type of Nebbiolo wine is produced.
Like many varieties (such as Pinot noir) with ancient pedigree, the Nebbiolo vine is genetically unstable and prone to mutation. As of 2001, there were around 40 different clones of Nebbiolo identified. The three main strains used for winemaking are Lampia, Michet and Rosé Nebbiolo (which is distinct from the grape variety called Nebbiolo Rosé). Rosé Nebbiolo has fallen out of favor in recent years due to its wine's light coloring. The Lampia strain adapts best to different soil types. Perhaps due to inbreeding in Nebbiolo's lineage, the vine is very prone to grape diseases caused by viruses. Viral infection of the Lampia strain causes the cane of the vine to fork, or split, giving rise to the Michet type, which adapts poorly to different soil types. Its smaller bunches and lower yields cause it to produce highly concentrated wines. In many vineyards, producers will maintain a variety of Nebbiolo clones in order to maximize their wines' complexity.
In the most notable expression of Nebbiolo, the wines of Barolo, there is division between what is considered a "traditional" approach to Nebbiolo and a "modernist" approach. The roots of both styles can trace their history to the early "pre-technology" production of Nebbiolo. Prior to the advent of temperature-controlled fermentation, the late harvest dates for Nebbiolo meant that the wines began fermentation when the weather turned cold. These cool temperatures would delay fermentation for several days, extending the maceration period and extraction of phenolic compounds such as tannins. When fermentation did begin, temperatures would reach excessive levels of 95-100 °F (35-38 °C), which would drastically reduce potential aromas and flavors. With the high levels of tannins, these early Barolos would require five years or more of aging in oak barrels to soften some of the astringency. Lack of understanding of proper hygiene lead to less sanitary conditions than what both traditional and modernist producers maintain today. Those conditions lead to the development of bacterial infection of cement fermentation tanks and old wood barrels, which contributed to the development of off flavors and potential wine faults that would require at least 24 hours decanting to alleviate.
Today's winemaking for both traditionalists and modernists include strict hygiene controls and the use of some modern winemaking equipment. Rather than fall into one hardline camp or the other, many producers take a middle ground approach that utilizes some modernist techniques along with traditional winemaking. In general, the traditional approach to Nebbiolo involves long maceration periods of 20 to 30 days and the use of older large botti size barrels. The modern approach to Nebbiolo utilizes shorter maceration periods of 7 to 10 days and cooler fermentation temperatures between 82 and 86 °F (28 and 30 °C) that preserve fruit flavors and aromas. Towards the end of the fermentation period, the cellars are often heated to encourage the start of malolactic fermentation which softens some of Nebbiolo's harsh acidity. Modern winemakers tend to favor smaller barrels of new oak that need only a couple years to soften the tannic grip of the wines. As new oak imparts notes of vanilla, it has the potential to cover up the characteristic rose notes of Nebbiolo.
In the Piedmont region, there is a long history of blending other grape varieties with Nebbiolo in order to add color and/or soften the grape's harsh tannins. In addition to use of red wine grapes such as Barbera, Croatina, and Bonarda Piemontese, white wine grapes such Arneis and Favorita also have a history of being blended with Nebbiolo. Historically, the association of blending Arneis with Nebbiolo was so strong that a common synonym of the former is Barolo Bianco or "white Barolo". Today, the DOCG regulations for Barolo and Barbaresco call for the wine to be a 100% varietal of Nebbiolo. In 1998, producers of the Barbaresco region drafted a proposal to allow 10-15% of other grape varieties into the wine, but bad press by Italian wine critics lead to the rejection of that plan. While there is some speculation, from critics such as Oz Clarke, that Barbera or even Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon may be used to augment the color and flavors of Barolos by some producers, there is no explicit proof that this is occurring.
For the Nebbiolo-based wines of the Roero DOC between 2 to 5% of Arneis is permitted in the blend, but the majority of producers rarely use this allowance. Similarly, many producers in Ghemme and Gattinara who are allowed some blending of Vespolina, Croatina, and Bonarda opt instead to use nearly 100% Nebbiolo. In the Valtellina region of Lombardy Merlot, Pinot nero, Pignola, Prugnolo, and Rossola are permitted blending partners for Nebbiolo.
Nebbiolo is found predominantly in the northwest Italian region of Piedmont where it forms the base of many of the regions most well known Denominazione di origine controllata (DOC) and DOCG wines including Barolo, Barbaresco, Gattinara, Ghemme and Nebbiolo d'Alba. Despite the prestige and acclaim of Nebbiolo based wine, it is far from being the most widely grown grape in Piedmont. In 2000, there were just under 12,700 acres (5,100 ha) of Nebbiolo producing 3.3 million gallons (125,000 hectoliters) of wine which accounted for a little over 3% of Piedmont's entire production. In contrast, there is nearly 15 times as much Barbera planted in the region. Outside of Piedmont, it is found in the neighboring regions of the Val d'Aosta region of Donnaz and Valtellina and Franciacorta in Lombardy. In the Veneto, there is a small amount which some producers use to make a Nebbiolo recioto wine. Outside of Italy, producers in the United States are experimenting with plantings in California, Washington and Oregon. In the Northern Region of Baja California, Mexico, over 2,700 acres (1,100 ha) support the production of the Nebbiolo varietal. In Argentina there are 200 acres (81 ha) planted in the San Juan province and Australian producers in the King Valley region of Victoria have found some success with their Nebbiolo plantings.
The Piedmont region is considered the viticultural home of Nebbiolo and it is where the grape's most notable wines are made. The consistent continental climate of the region, coupled with the influences of Tanaro river produces a unique terroir for Nebbiolo that is not easily replicated in other parts of the world. The two most well known Nebbiolo based wines are the DOCG wines of the Barolo & Barbaresco zones near Alba. Barbaresco is considered the lighter of the two and has less stringent DOCG regulations, with the normale bottlings requiring only 9 months in oak and 21 months of total aging and the riserva bottlings requiring 45 total months of aging. In contrast the Barolo DOCG requires 1 year in oak and 3 years total aging for normale bottlings and 57 months total aging for riserva. The minimum alcohol levels for the two region vary slightly with Barbaresco requiring a minimum of 12.5% and Barolo 13%.(However, Barolo, as of 1999, now only requires a minimum of 12.5% as well)
The Barolo zone is three times the size of the Barbaresco zone with the different communes producing Nebbiolo based wines with noticeable distinctions among them. In the commune of Castiglione Falletto, the wines are more powerful and concentrated with the potential for finesse. Nebbiolo grown in Monforte d'Alba has a firm tannic structure and the most potential for aging. The Serralunga region produces the heaviest, full bodied Nebbiolo wines and is also the last region to start its harvest, often two weeks after other areas have begun picking. These three region located on the eastern edge of the zone have soils that are dominated by sand and limestone. In the west, the communes of La Morra and Barolo have soils dominated by chalk and marl and produce wines that are more perfumed and silkier in texture. Throughout both the Barolo and Barbaresco zones are deposit of clay which add considerable tannins to Nebbiolo.
Outside of Barolo & Barbaresco, Nebbiolo is found in the DOCG wines of Ghemme and Gattinara in the Novara and Vercelli hills of northern Piedmont. In these regions the grape is known as Spanna and tends to produce lighter more earthier wines. Rather than mandate a 100% Nebbiolo, producers are allowed to blend a small percentage of Bonarda, Croatina and Vespolina though most modern producers favor a high percentage of Nebbiolo. In the northwestern corner of Piedmont, near the Valle d'Aosta, the cool climate of Carema DOC produces Nebbiolo wines with lots of perfume but in some vintages will have difficulties with ripeness. In the Roero district located across the Tanaro river from Barolo & Barbaresco, the wines tend to be less tannic and lighter while those produced in nearby Alba under the Nebbiolo d'Alba DOC can have more complexity and body.
Outside of Piedmont there are significant plantings of Nebbiolo in the Lombardy region of Valtellina where the grape is known as Chiavennasca. The high yields and sub-alpine climate tends to produce Nebbiolo lacking ripeness with bracing acidity. Nebbiolo is also used to make a deeply concentrated Amarone-type wine known as Sfursat. In the Franciacorta, Nebbiolo is a permitted grape variety along with Barbera, Cabernet Franc and Merlot in the rosso wines of the region. Northwest of Piedmont, in the Valle Aosta, some Nebbiolo is grown in the Donnaz region near the border with Carema.
In California, the influence of Italian immigrants in the early history of the state's wine industry introduced Nebbiolo to the United States in the 19th century. As Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot increased in popularity in the 20th century, Nebbiolo (as well as other Italian grape varieties) steadily decreased in plantings. Today there are scattered plantings of Nebbiolo throughout the state with the majority located in the jug wine producing region of the Central Valley. As California wine producers aim for producing higher quality wines, there has been difficulties in locating ideally suited sites for Nebbiolo and the progress in producing world class California Nebbiolo is considerably behind that of other Italian varietals like Sangiovese, Primitivo and even Barbera and Dolcetto. In Washington State, Nebbiolo was first planted in the Red Willow Vineyard in the Yakima Valley AVA in 1985 with the first varietal release in 1987. As in California, Washington producers are still trying to figure out which sites are best suited to grow Nebbiolo. While the wine is mainly produced as a varietal, some producers make blends with Dolcetto and Syrah added in.
In Australia, winemakers found little early success with Nebbiolo as many of the earliest plantings were in sites that turned out to be too warm for the grape. Research into cooler climate sites lead to some favorable examples coming from the marginal climate of Victoria's King Valley. Further studies have indicated that the Mornington Peninsula in Victoria and the Margaret River area of Western Australia have similar amounts of rainfall, relative humidity and sunshine hours as the Langhe region of Piedmont. Victoria's Bendigo, South Australia's Clare Valley and the Mudgee, New South Wales's are also currently being explored for their potential with Nebbiolo.
In Ensenada, Mexico, producers (L.A. Cetto) have been experimenting with plantings of Nebbiolo in Baja California near the US border with promising result, there are 100% Nebbiolo wines produced from low yielding plants with very good color and fine qualities, like the wine produced at Arcilla. In South America, early results in Chile have so far produced wines with high acidity and poor color as winemakers work to find which clones are best suited for their climate. The development of Argentine Nebbiolo has been held back by excessively high yields. In Europe, there are some plantings in the Austrian region of Mittelburgenland.
Wines made from Nebbiolo are characterized by their ample amounts of acidity and tannin. Most examples are wines built for aging and some of the highest quality vintages need significant age (at least a decade or more) before they are palatable to many wine drinkers and can continue to improve in the bottle for upward of 30 years. As Nebbiolo ages, the bouquet becomes more complex and appealing with aromas of tar and roses being the two most common notes. Other aromas associated with Nebbiolo include dried fruit, damsons, leather, licorice, mulberries, spice as well dried and fresh herbs. While Barolo & Barbaresco tend to be the heaviest and most in need of aging, wines made in the modernist style are becoming more approachable at a young age. Lighter styles from Carema, Langhe and Gattinara tend to be ready drink within a few years of vintage. Nebbiolo from California and Australia will vary from producer and quality of vineyard.
Nebbiolo has a wide range of synonyms used in various local districts of northwest Italy. In the areas of Novara and Vercelli it is known widely as Spanna. In the Val d'Aosta region and around Carema it is known as Picutener. In Valtellina it is known as Chiavennasca.
The Nebbiolo grape variety is also known under the name Barbesino, Brunenta, Femmina, Lampia, Marchesana, Martesana Melasca, Melaschetto, Melascone, Michet, Monferrina, Morsano di Caraglio, Nebbieul grosso, Nebbieul Maschio, Nebbiolin, Nebbiolin Canavesano, Nebbiolin lungo, Nebbiolin nero, Nebieu, Nebieul, Nebieul fumela, Nebiolo, Nebiolo du Piedmont, Nibieul burghin, Nibio, Nibiol, Nubiola, Pantin, Picot, Picotendre, Picote, Picotenero, Picoultener, Picoutendro Maschio, Počte, Prugnet, Prunent, Prunenta, Pugnet, Rosetta, Spagna, Span, Spana commune, Spana grossa and Uva Spanna.