Rough day at jiu jitsu. A little Nebbiolo might help
Varietal Overview: Nebbiolo
History and Cultivation
Nebbiolo grapes have a long history indeed, dating all the way back to the 13th century when they were first mentioned! The grape’s name is derived from the Italian nebbia, meaning “fog”. Peculiar as it may seem, the grapes likely got their name from the dusty white power that covers the fruit at the time of harvest, distinguishing these grapes from other varieties in the field. As the Italian name origin suggests, these grapes originate from Italy, native to the Piedmont region in the northwestern corner of the country. These grapes grew (pun intended) to great esteem in Italy throughout their history. In fact, in the 1500s, a fine was instituted to punish anyone who intentionally cut down a Nebbiolo vine. This fine ranged anywhere from a small monetary payment to having the offender’s arm cut off! The 16th century Italians didn’t play around when it came to wine apparently…
Sure enough, Nebbiolo grapes made their way out of the Piedmont in the 18th century, when they were planted by British winemakers. Other than that these grapes make fantastic reds, the British also got on-board with Nebbiolo because of a shortage of wine imports from Burgundy. Politics are to blame here, as a long-standing conflict between the French and the British led to the Brits looking for a new wine source after having severed ties with French importers; that source happened to be Nebbiolo in Italy. Since then, Nebbiolo grapes have been grown in the US, Mexico, Argentina, Australia, and even Switzerland, where they are revered for producing fantastic red wines.
Nebbiolo is picky when it comes to how it grows. It is an early budding variety, but late to ripen, leaving a wide range of time in between. Even during the ripening period, vintners struggle with un-even or hesitation of ripening, so careful watch of these grapes is needed to ensure that they are harvested at the right time. Nebbiolo grapes grow best in a warm and dry climate, as heavy rain and cool weather can have a negative effect on their growth. Since these grapes are naturally very acidic, the warm sun and dry weather allows a higher production of sugar which balances the flavor at the end of the day. It is for this reason that even within their home country of Italy and despite the varietal’s popularity, they are only grown in a very narrow strip within the Piedmont region.
Tasting Profile and Pairing
Traditional Old World winemakers in Italy take a very specific approach to the winemaking process when it comes to Nebbiolo. In this method, grapes are subjected to a long period of maceration, ranging anywhere from 30-70 days, in order to extract the optimal level of phenolic compounds and plenty of tannins. Fermentation is then carried out at very high temperatures, which tends to limit the fruit flavor and aromas of the wine initially. For this reason, in this traditional approach, Nebbiolo wine is best aged for quite some time to ensure that the final product is balanced. Often times this aging occurs for upwards of two years in order to let the fruit, tannins, and acidity get balanced out by the oak. The finished product is a lighter-colored, somewhat translucent wine that rivals Pino Noir in appearance due to the thinness of the grape skins (although has a slightly orange hue due to the aging), but is surprisingly full-bodied and highly tannic, with strong notes of bright cherry complemented by a noticeable acidity that makes this wine the perfect pairing for any hearty red meat dish such as braised veal or pasta Bolognese, just like the Italians like it! The grippy tannins and acidity of classic Old World Nebbiolo make it the perfect pair for dishes which feature olive oil and that are higher in fat.
New World Nebbiolo can come from many of the usual suspects when it comes to fine winemaking; California, South Africa, and Australia. Although unlike many other popular varietals, Nebbiolo’s geographic spread is fairly limited due to its finicky nature when it comes to growing. Many growers have expected to get results like Pino Noir when cultivating these grapes, but have been frustrated at just how tricky Nebbiolo is to master. Of those that HAVE had success, New World winemakers often tend to take a slightly different approach to the production of Nebbiolo wine, blending both modernist and traditionalist approaches and taking using an intermediate time-period of maceration and more moderate fermentation temperature. Therefore, New World Nebbiolo wines (not all, but most) often do not need as much aging as the traditional Old World Nebbiolo produced in the Piedmont of Italy. These New World Nebbiolo wines are noticeably less tannic, slightly more aromatic with floral notes of rose petals, and filled with plenty of fresh red fruit including tart cherry, plum and cranberry. New World Nebbiolo will also pair nicely with richer meat, but can also be paired with a charcuterie board with Manchego or Pecorino cheeses and prosciutto, as the more fruit-forward and less tannic structure makes these wines an interesting pair with various hors d’oeuvres.