Very few grapes in the world are Nebbiolo – it constitutes only a very small part of the world’s vineyards. There is probably more Pinot Noir in New Zealand than there is Nebbiolo in the World. While there are small amounts in USA, Argentina and Australia and a few individual growers using it in France. Switzerland, Chile, Mexico and S. Africa… well over 90% of all Nebbiolo is in Italy,

In Italy there are tiny amounts in Val d’Aosta and (surprisingly) Sardinia but nearly 20% of the plantings are in Lombardia and nearly 80% in Piemonte – its home. Despite all this it is still only about 8% of all Piemonte vineyards, where there are several Nebbiolo Denominazione . Only 5 or 6 of these are ever seen in the U.K. The most famous are  Barolo and  Barbaresco, either side of the charming town of Alba.

Less substantial wines can be found in the wider areas called “Nebbiolo de Langhe” or “Nebbiolo d’Alba”. Further North, in fact nearly 100 miles further North, there are six Denominazione, of which Gattinara and Ghemme are of DOCG quality and can be found in the U.K., the rest are small and esoteric, even in Italy. So about two-thirds of all the World’s Nebbiolo is planted in this Langhe / Alba / Barolo / Barbaresco area – an area about half the size of Nottinghamshire that you could circumnavigate in a car in 3 hours.

Some of these Denominazione permit lower levels of Nebbiolo, as low as 85% in wines with the grape on the label, and of course many growers make Nebbiolo blends, principally with Barbera. However the pure expressions of the grape are the 100% Nebbiolo wines of Barolo and Barbaresco, that account for nearly half the worlds Nebbiolo wines….

Nebbiolo is one of the best candidates, many would say the best candidate, for top Italian grape and indeed top world red. The name refers to the fog that is common in the autumn in its Piemonte home. It is a thick-skinned grape variety, so the dampness doesn’t affect it, and it produces prodigious levels of tannin.

Although in many ways very different, it has some similarities with Pinot Noir. Firstly it is similar in that site is very important. Wines made from a couple of dozen yards away may have a discernible different character. For example Barolo is an area made up of 11 village-zones (including Barolo itself) and a total of 170 individual vineyard sites. The same is true in Barbaresco, in general about a third of the size it has three main village areas and 66 sites. Altogether this patchwork recalls the great vineyard area of  Côte de Nuits (14 villages…) very clearly. Individual site maps are linked below….

The second similarity is that it is hard to handle, but can produce beguiling quality when right. Finally, both grapes can produce delightful, fragrant, velvety textured and complex examples. In the case of Nebbiolo wines, of course, this is wrapped in a powerful package, with acid and tannin that take time to come round. However the wait (and the price?) is arguably worth it.

In the past Piemonte Nebbiolo had a reputation for long aging in old, big chestnut barrels. The wine was drunk old, sometimes oxidised, brown and with most fruit long departed. It was treated almost as a digestive after the meal. Even examples like this produced a fragrant, complex, beguiling experience.

More recently modern techniques have come to influence the wine, resulting, in a few cases, in an unrecognisable fruit-driven “big” wine. However most of the best growers combine the old traditions of production with modern “clean” techniques to produce a wine that has immense power, kept in check in a subtle elegant package.

The wine is sometimes said to recall “Tar and Roses” (not a rock band!) and indeed good examples do somehow combine big non-fruit flavours with subtle perfumes, fruit and complexity. Indeed the floral red fruit nose hides a powerful tannic wine with tar and leathery grip. Despite its, sometimes sour or herby, tannic structure, the wine’s fruity flavours of cherry and raspberries, supported with aromas of rose and anise, eventually seem to shine through.

Barolo is at the heart of Nebbiolo production,  situated South-West of Alba, while North East, the other side of Alba, on the town’s side of the river is the slightly more approachable Denominazione of Barbaresco. The wines from here are reputed to be “easier”, soft (relatively speaking) and “feminine”. Prices too are more reasonable with a few famous exceptions. The comparison is a bit like Right and Left Bank claret.

There are a few differences between the areas. Most of the Barolo area is sandstone and clay while Barbaresco (and the North West Barolo areas around La Morra and Barolo itself) is on limestone marl. These are similar soils but the Barbaresco area has slightly lower ph and slightly more nutrients, producing slightly less tannin and acidity in the grapes.  Also the Tanaro river valley gives a tiny temperature benefit to Barbaresco making grape maturity a touch earlier and maceration time slightly shorter. Thus the early tannins in a young Barbaresco are not quite as harsh as Barolo, and under DOCG rules it is allowed to age for a year less than Barolo.  All this produces a marginally softer, more elegant and, to some extent, a more consistent finished product.

So the February Tasting will compare 3 Barolo, 2 Barbaresco (including a single vineyard example of each) and a Langhe example from a top grower (G.D. Vajra). We will be able to examine the differences between these neighbouring Denominazione. We will see if these generalisations work out for the wines we’ll taste. Notes will be available in about 5 days time.

The "Elisa" Vines at Ada Nada - within the Valeriano Vineyeard

The “Elisa” Vines at Ada Nada – within the Valeirano Vineyard

If you want to see the multiplicity of Barbaresco Vineyards you can click on this link:        Official-Barbaresco-Map
We will taste a wine from a sub-area of the Valeirano vineyard (in the Treiso Comune – West and a little North of the township itself).

Similarly you can click on this link:  Official-Barolo-Map.
We will taste an example from the large Bussia vineyard, which is a Monforte d’Alba site, just North of the town itself.