Nebbiolo, the grape responsible for Italy’s most prized wines, is known for its deep, brooding flavor, inky tannins, and complex structure.
It’s so bold that when drunk young, the tannins cling to your teeth almost as if wrapped in shrink wrap. But when allowed to age to maturity, this richly flavored wine unwinds to reveal a delicious, mouth-filling, eclectic wine that’s truly unbeatable.
With flavor and aroma akin to violets and tar (in a good way), it’s not surprising wines made from this grape are so wildly popular.
In this guide, we’ll take a deep dive into wines made from the Nebbiolo grape, its growing regions, tasting notes, serving recommendations, and of course, plenty of food pairings.
Characteristics of Nebbiolo
Nebbiolo is a red grape grown in the Piedmont region of Italy, where it may also be known as Spanna. It is known for being highly structured, acidic, and tannic. The most notable wines made from Nebbiolo are Barolo and Barbaresco.
Part of Nebbiolo’s charm is in its complexity and finickiness. It’s a late-ripening grape, which makes for a late harvest and a greater chance the grapes won’t fully ripen. When the wine goes to barrel in the early winter months, the yeast essentially hibernates, and the wine doesn’t really start to soften until months later.
This makes for a wine that requires lengthy aging to soften and be drinkable. Until recently, you’d be hard-pressed to find a drinkable Barolo or Barbaresco without being aged for at least 20 years.
Luckily, modern winemaking practices have made many of these wines enjoyable after as little as five years of aging. That said, there’s no trouble in cellaring your wines for longer, as they will only continue to improve with time.
Different Styles of Nebbiolo
As mentioned earlier, Nebbiolo wine comes in many different styles. Here’s a quick breakdown of the wines Nebbiolo is most notable for.
Undoubtedly, the most well-known example of Nebbiolo is Barolo, known for its floral, chocolaty, coffee, and dried fruit flavors. It is best grown in Piedmont’s steeper, cooler vineyards and can be made in 11 villages, each with its own microclimate. This makes for wines with subtle variations in flavor and quality.
Barolo and Barbaresco are among the longest-aged wines in Italy. Barolo must be aged a minimum of 38 months, 18 of which must be in oak. For Barolo Reserva, 62 months of aging is needed, 18 of which must be in oak.
Second to Barolo is Barbaresco, and the two are really quite similar in flavor. In general, Barolo tends to be more robust, whereas Barbaresco is slightly more fruit-forward. That said, Barbaresco requires the same rigorous aging as Barolo. Only about a third as much Barbaresco is produced as Barolo.
As for aging, Barbaresco must be aged for a minimum of 26 months, with nine months in barrel. For Barbaresco Reserva, 50 months of aging is required, with 24 months in barrel.
Wines made from Nebbiolo in the northern vineyards towards the alps produce more earth-driven wines with noticeable minerality. Flavors range from bright red fruit to blackberry, plum, licorice, and subtle spiciness.
Recently upgraded to DOCG status alongside Barolo and Barbaresco, this region is producing some exciting examples of Nebbiolo — but at a fraction of the cost. It lies directly in between the two regions and makes for Nebbiolo wines every bit as bold as Barolo, with perfectly balanced flavors of red fruity flavor as Barbaresco.
How to Serve
Wines made from Nebbiolo are best served at room temperature, around 60°-65°F in a Burgundy glass or a Bordeaux glass. If you don’t have either, then a standard red wine glass will work just fine.
As for decanting, all Nebbiolo wines should be decanted for at least one hour to unravel the wine’s naturally tight tannins and release those voluptuous flavors.
Notable Regions for Nebbiolo
So, we’ve already established that Piedmont is Nebbiolo’s home. That said, one obscure region is producing surprising examples of this grape.
Valley de Guadalupe, Mexico
While no one could argue the best Nebbiolo comes from Piedmont, this grape has had surprising success in Mexico’s Valley de Guadalupe, located on the Baja California peninsula. This region is where most of Mexico’s wine is grown due to its Mediterranean climate, which offers warm days, cool nights, and a consistent ocean breeze.
In addition to having a favorable wine-growing climate, Mexico is also all about creativity when it comes to winemaking. It wouldn’t be uncommon to find a blend in Mexico with a bit of Barolo, Merlot, Grenache, and Tempranillo – and better than that, many of them are quite delicious!
Expect Nebbiolo from Mexico to have similar flavors of black cherry, roses, baking spices, and leather.
Nebbiolo Food Pairings
Nebbiolo is by no means a wine suited for modest poolside chatting. It’s a wine meant to work, and it’s best suited to pair with your most richly flavored, hearty dishes.
Definitely skip the lightly-flavored dishes and seafood, and steer clear of the salad section of the menu, as these will all be no match for Nebbiolo.
With high tannins and high acidity, Nebbiolo is best paired with foods that are equally as flavorful so that neither one overpowers the other. Meat roasts, barbecue, and steaks are all excellent ideas. If you really want to go traditional, stick with the Piedmontese classic white truffles! Consider pairing this with our Short Rib Ragu or Filet Mignon.
Truly, Nebbiolo is one of our all-time favorite wines, and I always look forward to enjoying it with food! Have a favorite food pairing you love to enjoy it with? Be sure to let us know below in the comments!