Nebbiolo, the indigenous grape of Piedmont
The best Nebbiolo wine tour in Piedmont can be selected from one of the wine districts where such a grape is grown. The first step is to get acquainted with the names of wines produced with Nebbiolo grapes and with their different production areas.
Piedmont is the region of Italy where this vine performs at its best. There is the opportunity to join the best Nebbiolo wine tour visiting vineyards and wine cellars within a few miles of each other around the town of Alba.
However, Nebbiolo is also grown near the lake district, around Gattinara, in the northern part of Piedmont where the soil composition is completely different compared to the Langhe hills.
In this article, we list facts about this indigenous vine of Piedmont, where it is grown, and the most significant differences between wines obtained from it.
Facts to know for the Best Nebbiolo Wine Tour in Piedmont
While certain characteristics of the Nebbiolo varietal persist in all wines, many other peculiarities are the expression of specific hills or regions where the deep roots of Nebbiolo take their nutrients.
In fact, Nebbiolo stands apart for having one of the deepest root systems among Italian varietals. Its roots can be up to 7 meters (23ft) deep and they are able to source from each underground layer.
Known as “the queen of the black grapes”, Nebbiolo prefers lime-rich soils, mostly in hilly areas and well sun-exposed, protected from spring frost. In Piedmont Nebbiolo is grown at low elevations not exceeding 500 meters (1650 ft) above the sea level.
The style of the winemaker, as well as the type of barrel used for the aging, can have a strong impact on the final product. In Barolo, for instance, using small French casks or large oak barrels or a mix of both gives origin to different kinds of wines.
Old-fashioned Barolo is locally known as “traditionalist” and it consists of aging it in large barrels. On the contrary, the “modernist” way came in the early 1990s and relies on using small toasted barrels which release strong oak and vanilla notes. Read more here.
In Piedmont, there are 3 main biotypes (or sub-varieties) of Nebbiolo: Michet, Lampia, and Rosè.
Berry color: black.
Productivity: good, more or less constant, depending on the variety.
Leaf: medium-sized, three-lobed, orbicular or pentagonal shape
Bunch: medium-sized, elongated, with round berries, purplish, covered in a waxy substance responsible for the visible white film on the grape skin.
Ripening: mid-October. Nebbiolo grapes in Piedmont are the last ones to be harvested. Harvest time can be swift from the beginning of October to the second half of the month, depending on the amount of rain and high temperature that hit the region in summer. Hot and dry summers reflect early ripening.
The term Nebbiolo comes from “nebbia”, Italian for fog. It is said to derive from the fact that Nebbiolo ripens quite late and the harvest takes place in fall when the first fog of the season appears in Piedmont. According to others, fog refers to the whitish veil of wax that wraps each grape.
The best Nebbiolo wine is often high in acidity and in mouth-drying tannins which make it quite tight and austere in its youth. Such tannins tend to soften with aging.
Tannins belong to Nebbiolo: they are one of the perks of this varietal and one of the reasons why Nebbiolo wines are worth the aging.
Why is Nebbiolo so tannic? Because we can then enjoy bold and full-bodied wines. Leathery and gripping tannins clinging to the front of the mouth, quickly reveal fruity notes and floral aromas, depending on the specific wine.
Alba wine tours: Barolo and Barbaresco
Some of the best Nebbiolo wine tours in Piedmont are set in the surrounding hills of the town of Alba. On the same day trip, one can explore the Barolo and Barbaresco wine regions. They are located, respectively, on the west and east side of Alba.
Alba wine tours unwind on the lowest slopes of the Langhe hills, south of the Tanaro river. Nebbiolo used for Barolo or Barbaresco is taking most of the land facing southeast (better exposure). Other varietals, along with hazelnut crops, can be grown on hillsides facing northwest.
In fact, Alba wine tours can feature many other grapes such as Dolcetto (local everyday red wine), Barbera d’Alba, Arneis (local white grape, great with starters), Favorita, and others.
On a wine tasting near Alba, one can often try Nebbiolo d’Alba and Langhe Nebbiolo which are two wines made from Nebbiolo. Both are made from grapes grown outside the area of production of Barolo and Barbaresco wines. The only difference is that Nebbiolo d’Alba comes from a larger zone (both Langhe and Roero hills), while the Langhe Nebbiolo requires vineyards located south of the Tanaro river only.
Barolo vs. Barbaresco – the Best Nebbiolo Wine Tour
One of the best Nebbiolo wine tours in Piedmont focuses on the comparison of Barolo vs. Barbaresco, two different wines both made from 100% Nebbiolo grape.
Barolo is a village situated west of Alba. The wine of the same name can be produced in a defined zone of eleven villages only, where Barolo is the one in the middle. Getting from Alba to Barolo takes about 20 minutes by car.
On the contrary, Barbaresco is a village east of Alba. The Barbaresco wine is obtained from grapes grown in the area facing the Tanaro river, among the villages of Barbaresco, Neive, and Treiso. On top of that, a small part of the outskirt of Alba is also part of that zone. From Alba to Barbaresco it takes approximately 20 minutes or less by car.
Origins of Barolo and Barbaresco wines
The Nebbiolo has been grown in the area for centuries and it is a historical wine of Piedmont. In the mid-nineteenth century Juliette Colbert, the French wife of the last Marquis of Barolo, shared in the area her knowledge of aging wine in wooden barrels.
At first, most of the production of aged Nebbiolo wine coming from the vineyards surrounding Alba was called Barolo. Then, by the end of the nineteenth century, prominent wine expert Domizio Cavazza noticed substantial differences in Barbaresco’s soil composition. Moreover, he studied the microclimate of Barbaresco’s hills which are shaped naturally like amphitheaters, and open toward the Tanaro river.
Therefore, local farmers gathered together and started to name their wine after Barbaresco village.
Both Barolo and Barbaresco wines gained the DOCG appellation in 1980.
Barolo and Barbaresco wine tastings
Barolo is locally called the “king” of wines” (because of its full-body structure). Barbaresco, on the other side, is referred to as the queen of wines, because of its elegant approach.
Barolo was also known as “the wine of the king” due to its popularity among the House of Savoy. In particular, King Carlo Alberto fell in love with this wine since the very first bottles were aged.
The distinctive character of Barolo wine is in its structure. It expresses a complex bouquet of great longevity, set to develop and improve over time.
As far as Barbaresco is concerned, vines cultivated in that area benefit from lower elevations where the slightly higher average temperature anticipates the sugar ripening. The lower concentration of musts allows for a shorter maturation period compared to Barolo.
Overall, the Barbaresco wine must age a minimum of 26 months, of which at least 9 in oak barrels. The Barbaresco Riserva must age at least fifty months.
In a Barolo and Barbaresco wine tasting one learns that the aging requirements for Barolo are a minimum of thirty-eight months (of which eighteen in wood) for the basic version and five years in total for the Reserve version.
Day trip to Barolo and Barbaresco
Barolo & Barbaresco Wine Tour with the Winemaker is a day trip from Alba where we visit some of the most prestigious hillsides of the Langhe hills.
Named single vineyards (the equivalent of the French “cru”), these vineyards stand out for their soil composition and privileged locations.
The Barolo gives its best with game recipes, roasted quail, or guinea fowl. Impossible to forget the famous braised beef slowly cooked in Barolo. While Barbaresco is perfect with similar pairings, it is also recommended with truffle-based dishes and aged cheeses such as Castelmagno.
Nebbiolo Wine Tour north of Alba: the Roero Hills
The best Nebbiolo wine tour in Piedmont can take place in the so-called Roero hill district.
The Roero territory extends to the left of the Tanaro river, north of Alba. In this zone, the Nebbiolo has adapted well on steep hillsides, in the most meager and sandy soil, where winemakers get a fragrant and perfumed wine.
Wines made from at least 95% Nebbiolo grape and the remaining part of other red varietals are named Roero DOCG and Roero Riserva. Aged at least 20 months (of which 6 in barrel), is generally fruity, with a ruby or garnet color and good texture.
Alba vineyards north of the Tanaro river have been home, since the XV century, to a white grape variety called Arneis. Ideal with appetizers, starters, and pasta dishes, Arneis white wine is considered one of the best wines in Piedmont. In fact, it recalls white flowers and fresh fruit ranging from apple to peach to hazelnut.
Roero Arneis is a still wine but it can be found as well as a sparkling version.
Nebbiolo in northern Piedmont: Gattinara and Ghemme
In northern Piedmont, less than one hour away from Milan Malpensa airport and from the lake district (lake Maggiore, lake Orta), lies a hilly territory. Its great sun exposure benefits as well as the protection provided by the Alps. In fact, mountains stand behind, like a shield, avoiding cold winds and harsh climate to hit the area.
Moreover, the terrain is drier than in the Langhe hills, with reddish soil rich in iron. The Nebbiolo in northern Piedmont is consequently different and its relatively high PH level renders it particularly excellent when aged for years.
Wine tours in Gattinara
The best Piedmont Wine Tour focused on Nebbiolo grapes should include the northern part of the Piedmont region. The first stop can be the town of Gattinara, located on the way to the Swiss Alps and to the sky resorts of Monte Rosa, an imposing peak that stands next to the Matterhorn.
Nebbiolo grape grown in the town of Gattinara is locally named “Spanna” and it gives origin to the Gattinara DOCG wine (and to its Riserva version). No other varietal is blended in this wine but Nebbiolo only.
The minimum aging requirement for Gattinara DOCG is 35 months of which 24 in wood; for the Reserve at least 47 months of which 24 in wood.
Gattinara wine relishes for having been appreciated for centuries, long before Barolo. It was praised on contracts dating back to the 13th century and it then became one of the preferred wines of eminent Popes during the Renaissance.
Nebbiolo wine tour in Ghemme
A few miles from Gattinara, on the opposite side of the Sesia river, lie two more towns, Ghemme and Romagnano Sesia where Nebbiolo wine gets the Ghemme DOCG appellation.
For this wine is required at least 85% of Nebbiolo grapes and the remaining 15% of local red varietals such as Vespolina and Bonarda Novarese (called Uva Rara).
On top of that, Ghemme DOCG requires a minimum aging of at least 34 months of which at least 18 in wood. The Ghemme Riserva instead, are required at least 46 months of aging, of which 24 in wood.
Surprising Italian Nebbiolo Wines in Piedmont