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What is Nebbiolo?

By Brendan McGuigan
Updated May 17, 2024
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Nebbiolo is a red grape used in northern Italy to produce some of the most inspired wines of the region. It is a tannic and acidic wine, and as such a truly well-made variety can age to a ripeness worth the price. The majority of wines produced using this grape are, to put it bluntly, quite bad. When poorly constructed, this can be a completely uninteresting wine, with strong, heavy-handed flavors that greet the palate roughly and leave little room for development. For this reason, it is rare to find this grape grown anywhere other than northern Italy, and no winery outside of this region has yet produced a Nebbiolo-centered wine of any renown.

Within northern Italy, however, there are two regions particularly well-known for their showcasing of this grape. Both Barolo and Barbaresco wines are made using Nebbiolo — Barolo uses only this grape, while Barbaresco adds a small amount of another grape on occasion. Barolo is hailed by many as the great wine of Italy. Because of the heavy tannin found in the grapes, Barolos are nearly always extremely tannic wines. Those who love wine and are willing to let a Barolo age properly will find this grape produces some incredible and complex wines.

Some newer wineries, and a few established wineries with a modern bent, are starting to use Nebbiolo to make fruitier wines that have a broader appeal – particularly in the New World, where heavily tannic wines are less accepted. To accomplish this, the wines are allowed to ferment for only a very short time, so as not to soak too many tannins from the grape skins. They are also often put in newer French oak barrels. These newer-style Nebbiolos are often compared to lighter Burgundies or Pinot Noirs.

Wines made from this grape start out their life very dark, and as they mature they gradually develop a lighter, almost orange hue. The bouquet of a Nebbiolo tends towards fruit, especially summer berries and jammy preserves. Flavorwise, a good vintage exhibits earthen, musty flavors, with floral notes and touches of mint. A fine Nebbiolo wine from a region like Barbaresco or Barolo should be aged for at least five to ten years after release. Most are built to age substantially longer than this, with some hitting their prime decades after they were bottled.

Nebbiolo may also be made into a spirit called grappa di Barolo. This spirit is usually made from the leftovers of a pressing. After a few years of aging, it becomes a rather respectable smoother alcohol.

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