Thursday, January 31, 2013

Discovering Nebbiolo

By Amanda Schuster

Two disparate theories surround the origins of Piedmont, Italy's celebrated varietal, Nebbiolo (a.k.a. spanna, picutener and chiavennasca).

One is that it is indigenous to Piedmont, where it is found in the wines of DOCG Barolo and DOC Barbaresco as well as its own varietal table wine. The other theory is that it was first planted in Valtellina, a valley within the Lombardy region, where it was then brought to Piedmont. The name means "little fog", either for the damp Piedmontese autumn weather, or the frosty appearance that was observed on the mature grapes. Several documents trace its early success: As far back as the 1st century, in what is now known officially as the Barolo region, Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder gave props to a wine with described bold characteristics that almost certainly suggest it was made from Nebbiolo. In the 13th century, there is reference to a wine called "nebili" from a grape that was growing near Rivoli outside of Turin. More definite written history notates examples from the 14th and 15th centuries praising the grape by name.

Wines made from Nebbiolo became the official wines of the court of the Savoys, who ruled Piedmont for nearly 800 years starting in the early 11th century. Barolo became known thus as the "king of wines and the wine of kings".

In the 18th century, Britain's on-again-off-again relationship with France re-entered a rocky phase. Wine aficionados and merchants were forced to look for alternatives to then popular Bordeaux wines, which was when the Brits discovered the glory of Nebbiolo, which for a time replaced French wines as their go-to.

Unfortunately, the phylloxera crisis decimated the Nebbiolo vineyards, thus ending its glorious run. When the grafting cure was discovered and grapes could once again be replanted throughout Piedmont in the late 1800s, other "workhorse" varietals, such as Barbera and Dolcetto, took precedence over the notoriously fickle grape. Today, Nebbiolo is grown in only 6% of Piedmont.

The varietal is known for its earthy, tannic, dark berry and plum flavors, with hints of violet, rosemary, licorice and/or tobacco. Prized for its longevity, most Barolo or Barbaresco is only considered "drinkable" when cellared for several years, sometimes for decades. However, the Nebbiolo table wines of the North are produced as "baby" versions of those more prominent DOCs and DOCGs, and can be enjoyed in their youth. It is also now grown throughout Italy, no longer confined only to the North. In the New World, particularly California, Oregon, Australia and New Zealand, winemakers have found great success experimenting with it. In warmer climates, the riper grapes take on fruitier characteristics. These typically lack the powerful tannins of those grown in Northern Italy, but still retain certain robust flavor characteristics that are unmistakably part of its overall "Nebbiolo-ness".

Though Nebbiolo is famous for red still wines, late harvest grapes are also produced as fortified wines or found as the base for Barolo Chinato – a sweet, herb-infused digestif.  It has also found its way into some fine grappa.

Cheers from DrinkUpNY!

Amanda Schuster is a native New Yorker, but without much of the accent. The mobile landscape of the city has taken her on a whirlwind journey from Medieval historian, photo archivist, jewelry designer and invitation specialist to earning her sommelier certification in late 2005. After working as a retail wine and spirits buyer and freelance brand promoter, she turned to the one thing that has stayed a constant all these years – her love of writing. She has published dozens of articles on cocktails, spirits, wine and other culinary interests, and is currently working on her first novel. Her favorite cocktail is a Manhattan.

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