Nebbiolo isn't just my favorite wine to say, it's also (probably) my favorite red wine. It's grown in the Piedmont region of Italy, the hilly farmland that sits at the foothills of the Italian Alps. Even though it makes the so-called king and queen of Italian wines (Barolo and Barbaresco, respectively), it's a grape that's never managed to gain a foothold outside of its native land, nor has the name "nebbiolo" ever garnered the household recognition of more popular grapes like merlot or pinot noir.
Why? Well, it's complicated, with the same factors that make these wines so special being the same ones that make them so relatively rare. The oldest mention of the grape comes from the mid-1200s when records mention that it was the oldest and most widely planted grape in the region. Its name comes from the Italian nebbia, or "fog," either due to the fog-like bloom that covers the berries or the thick rolling fog that covers the vineyards during harvest. It's often the first grape to bloom in the spring and the last to be harvested, with harvests regularly occurring in late October or early November. Its late ripening, along with high market demand, mean that it's often planted in the best vineyard sites, on the higher slopes and tops of hills across the region.
Nebbiolo is unique in that attempts to grow it outside of Italy have been almost universally underwhelming. Nowhere on earth seems to have that magic combination of soil, sun and climate that nebbiolo requires to reach its pinnacle. And that pinnacle, elusive as it is, is worth the effort. At its finest, nebbiolo produces wines that are a striking color in the glass, brick red when young and vibrant orange when aged. It can be pinot-like in its aroma, spouting off notes of rose petal and earthen cherry, but where pinot goes soft with low levels of tannin, nebbiolo packs a powerful punch of bitterness, more akin to grapes like cabernet sauvignon or petit verdot. Altogether, the best wines are akin to being kicked in the face by the world's greatest ballerina, an unmatchable combination of beauty and power.
And while all the things make nebbiolo and its wines special, the true magic of nebbiolo (and believe me, magic is the right word) only shows itself with time. Nebbiolo, perhaps better than any other grape in the world, transcends the mortal passage of time. I realize that's a very Jedi Master thing to say about a bottle of hooch, but hear me out — because when you come across a fantastic bottle, be it Barolo, Barbaresco, or any of the other fantastic sites around northern Italy where the grape achieves brilliance, you're not opening a mere bottle of wine, but a time capsule. That dusty cherry nose is no more a scent than a memory of cherry orchards under the Italian sun. That hint of rose petal perfume? A lifetime of flowers on a grandmother's kitchen table. Over time, taste becomes memory and sense becomes feeling.
It sounds weird — I get it. Really, I do. Wine isn't always a thing you want to get metaphysical over. But trust me, when you do, if you do, you'll find so much more in a bottle of Barolo than something to pair with spaghetti.
Next week, we'll cover the bottles you should look for if you want a taste of brilliance.
As always, you can see what I'm drinking on Instagram at @sethebarlow and send your wine questions and quibbles to firstname.lastname@example.org