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Italian Grapes 101: Nebbiolo

Say hello to a very noble Italian grape – Nebbiolo. It hails from Piedmont, the mountainous Northwestern region of Italy. The Nebbiolo grape is behind the world-famous wines of Barolo and Barbaresco. That’s because this grape has a seriously impressive character and history.

If you’re an Italian wine lover, then you definitely should learn all these facts about Nebbiolo. It not only is an esteemed wine of Italy – its wines are sought after and respected all over the globe!


The Meaning of Nebbiolo

There are a couple of theories behind the meaning of Nebbiolo. The first actually dates all the way back to Roman times, where the philosopher Pliny the Elder mentioned the grape, calling it nubiola. This means fog in Latin. Pliny was most likely referring to the fog that creeps into vineyards during the Fall. Since Nebbiolo is a late-ripening grape, it is usually harvested in the Fall, when fog lingers most around the Piemontese hills.

The other theory about the Nebbiolo grape name also has to do with fog, but isn’t related to any ancient philosophers. Many believe that nebbia (fog in Italian) is the root of Nebbiolo because of this grape’s flowering stage. The grapes have a ton of bloom, which makes them appear as if they’re covered in fog.

vineyard site in barolo

This Regal Grape’s History

You can’t talk about ancient grapes without mentioning Nebbiolo. In writing, we know this grape has been around since at least the 12th century. But, if the myth of Pliny the Elder first identifying the Nebbiolo grape is true, then this grape dates back to the 1st century. That’s over 2000 years ago!

Nebbiolo’s home is in Piedmont. As early as the 15th century, laws existed to protect Nebbiolo vines. More specifically, laws were established in La Morra, one of Barolo’s acclaimed villages, in 1402 to safeguard the Nebbiolo grapes. Those who damaged their vines would face pretty harsh punishment. 

But, it was in the 19th century that the historic wine regions of Barolo and Barbaresco found their very beginnings, bolstering Nebbiolo’s reputation. In fact, this is how Nebbiolo gained its nickname as a ‘King’ or the ‘wine of Kings.’ Certain vineyards in Piedmont were purchased by King Carlo Alberto, passing them down to his son and his successor Vittorio Emmanuele II. The two were head over heels in love with the Nebbiolo. Their love of Nebbiolo influenced more nobility to venture to Piedmont and invest in setting up their very own Nebbiolo vineyards.

Fun fact: both Barolo and Barbaresco became DOCG wines in 1980. DOCG (denominazione origine controllata e garantita or controlled and guaranteed designation of origin) is the highest quality classification level for wines in Italy. There are currently 77 DOCGs in Italy.


What Does Nebbiolo Look, Taste, and Smell Like?

Nebbiolo is a robust wine, with fantastic acidity and intense tannins. Both these qualities make Nebbiolo a wine that needs aging to soften its vigorous structure. Some Nebbiolos have such great structure, that they can even age for over 4 or 5 decades.

Despite its enduring bold character, Nebbiolo appears delicate in terms of color. Its color is always pale. When young, it can be pale ruby, inching towards garnet. As Nebbiolo ages, it becomes increasingly more garnet and almost orange-ish in color.

When it comes to flavor, Nebbiolo is most famous for its aromas of tar and roses. These specific aromatics are a perfect way to describe Nebbiolo, as it is a very potent wine that also boasts elegance. Other flavors you may find in Nebbiolo are red cherry, anise, leather, and dried fruit. Some people say that certain Nebbiolo-based wines (like Barolo) can even smell like truffles!

Types of Nebbiolo Wines


In Italy

Of course, the majority of Nebbiolo production happens in its home in the region of Piedmont. There, you will find a variety of wines made with this noble grape. Each wine’s character all comes down to where its grown.

The most famous are Barolo and Barbaresco, two highly-valued DOCG wine regions. These two wines are made with 100 percent Nebbiolo. The difference between Barolo and Barbaresco all comes down to the terrior. The soil Nebbiolo is grown on defines the wine’s entire identity. This goes beyond just Barolo and Barbaresco.

Nonetheless, Barolo wines typically features Nebbiolo grapes grown in less fertile soils than Barbaresco wines. The nutrient-deficient soil makes the grapes more tannic and complex, lending a more structured and intense persona to Barolo, when compared to Barbaresco wines. This also makes Barolo wines require more aging. But, don’t be fooled – Barbaresco wines are still very stunning and intense. 


Alto Piemonte

Nebbiolo is also grown in Alto Piemonte, a region that includes the wine appellations of Ghemme, Gattinara, Boca, Bramaterra, Carema, Fara, Lessona and Sizzano. There, Spanna is the local name for Nebbiolo grape. The wines can be quite ravishing. Just as with Barolo and Barbaresco, the differentiating character of the wines in Alto Piemonte all comes down to soil. The high altitudes of the Alto Piemonte can boast some awesome vineyard sites for Nebbiolo.

Beyond Piedmont

Piedmont isn’t the only place that grows Nebbiolo in Italy. You can also find this grape grown just North of Piedmont, in the region of Valle D’Aosta. There, Nebbiolo is called Picotener or Picotendro. The wines are fresh and light, with grapes grown in the foothills of the Alps. To the east of Piedmont, you will find Nebbiolo thriving in Valtellina, a wine-producing area in the Lombardy region of Italy. Chiavennasca is the name for Nebbiolo in this region, named after the town Chiavenna.


Nebbiolo Outside of Italy

The unique complexity of Nebbiolo wines has sparked demand for the grape in international vineyards. This goes especially for American winemakers.

InDomenico Nebbiolo Amador County the United States, California winemakers took interest in Nebbiolo back in the 1970s, planting the grape in vineyards in regions like Paso Robles and Amador County. Many say that Nebbiolo was in California way before that, traveling over with Italian immigrants as early as the late 19th century.

Nebbiolo is also making an appearance in Virginia as well. Various winemakers are experimenting with the grape, identifying unique vineyard sites for this noble grape to grow. 

As you can see, Nebbiolo is one fascinating grape. It is an iconic part of Italian wine history, with a character that’s hard to miss. It has tannins like no other grape and a color that no one can miss. Nebbiolo is bold, yet it’s elegant. It takes time to age, but it is well worth the wait. And, trust us, you will wait for the grape as stunning as Nebbiolo!