Italy’s greatest grape? One way or the other, Nebbiolo makes much of the country’s greatest, most sought after and most delicious wines. Consistency of quality, an iron rule for this wine lover, has never been better. Sangiovese for example can be priced from almost nothing to just about anything, but one can never be too sure of what you are getting. Unless of course, purchasing from estates with established reputations and here you can be sure the price will be high. The same could be said of Nebbiolo too, or any other varietal, but ambition and competition and the forensic lens of wine professionals has ensured that there has never been a better time to buy Nebbiolo.
What does Nebbiolo taste like?
The taste of Nebbiolo has changed over the last 20 years. Tar and roses was the most common tasting note, and I have to admit that it was sometimes hard not to taste 50 different wines and to have very similar descriptors. Tar, bitumen, coal, tobacco, leather, ferrous-ness, charcoal and campfire are all common. Tar could often tip into notes of manure, indicating the presence of Brettanomyces, a bacterial fault, found mostly in traditionally made wines.
There is no doubt flowers, most famously roses, are deliciously present in Nebbiolo. Cut flowers, as in the aroma of a florist, and violets, lavender to camphor and geraniums can also feature. This group of floral notes, I would usually associate with Nebbiolo’s with darker fruits. Roses, always with cherries.
Speaking of cherries, there is no other fruit that defines Nebbiolo as cherry does, in particular, sour cherries. To this we can also add plum and other red fruits such as raspberry, cranberry, strawberry, pomegranate and kirsch. The flowers mentioned above are more likely to matched with blackberry, blueberry, blackcurrant, mulberry and cassis. I should stress that darker fruits do not necessarily imply over ripeness or vinous largesse. Many Nebbiolos may possess the dark fruits, and accompanying floral characteristics, and still be hauntingly aromatic, ethereal, balanced and elegant.
Lastly, we may find some secondary flavours, particularly in older wines, but these can also be found in youth. Blood orange, truffles, mushrooms (porcini), herbs (thyme, rosemary, sage, marjoram and bay leaf), cola and spices (cinnamon, clove, vanilla, aniseed and five spice). Autumnal notes, petrichor (the smell of fields rained on after a long period of dry), woodland (pine) and wet leaves.
What is the texture of Nebbiolo? Thinking beyond the tannins.
Many years ago, on our travels, we were lucky enough to be in Barolo for the 2001 vintage release, one of the greatest vintages. Free of charge we tasted through a range of wines, from memory about 70. However, after about the eighth wine, my palate was completely blown apart. The acidity and tannins were gigantic and overt; there was simply no escape from them. We were used to tannin, visiting and tasting from many Barolo estates over the previous week, but the structure of these wines, coupled with an almost over-powering smell of horse manure, was a block wall to pleasure. We fled to Barbaresco after the tasting, where ethereal wines without faults were easier to come by. Cheaper too.
Faults aside, many producers have tamed their structures, through shorter maceration times, and carefully controlled ferments. Nebbiolo tannins are unique, but it’s not just about abundance or size, thank heavens. Tannins may range from an iron grip, all very well if there’s plenty of fruit, to threaded lace. Mineral like tannins, chalky, sensuous velvet, precise, fine, racy and chewy.
Should Nebbiolo be full bodied, light or medium? Nebbiolo it seems can be of any size, but a truly full bodied bottle, is the rarest of all. Even the most powerful and grippy Barolo will rarely be “big”. Intense, immense, full of presence with an acid and tannin cut to savage the palate, but not full bodied. At least, they shouldn’t be. Medium to full bodied at most, to as light as you like.
Mid palate richness was often the missing link. The initial primary and tertiary flavours, followed by the structural assault. Warmer vintages and vastly superior winemaking have changed the game for the better. Nebbiolo may be bright and crunchy, plush, juicy, tight and chewy, round in the mouth, linear and fine, loosely threaded, grippy, sappy and melting. And the best producers, of which there are many more than 20 years ago, will invariably make a complete wine. Front palate, mid palate, back palate.
Nebbiolo – Winemaking
I cannot think of any other classical varietal whose vinification is so open to interpretation. Nebbiolo, I think, has so many different flavours, textures and shapes, compared with Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, and even Pinot Noir. The nature of what can be a bewildering array of expressions has led to seemingly infinite choices open to the winemaker. Choices were not so much as limited, just not conceived, and it is remarkable how many fine wines are created through such a diversity of production.
Traditionally, and for the best wines, macerations could last for 6 weeks or more, always in botte. There was no temperature control and wines were left to mature in wood (Slavonian oak) for five or more years. Eight years wasn’t unheard of. Wood was not new. The wine in barrel was always topped up to prevent oxidisation and preserve freshness. Cleanliness was a problem, I can attest that you were just as likely to taste a faulty wine as a clean one.
At the other extreme, you will find temperature controlled ferments in stainless steel, concrete or fibreglass, maceration times of around 2 weeks, with plunging and three three years aging in wood. You may also find new wood, usually French, in smaller formats, such as the 226litre barriques. Fermentation temperatures may be warm with either approach, but hot ferments will tend to extract more colour and rounder tannins.
Winemakers may play with temperatures, bringing the temperature up, then down in an effort to extract rich and subtle flavours and textures. Whole berry ferments, cold soaks, different shaped casks, concrete eggs, amphorae, you name it 21st century Nebbiolo is rarely, sadly truly traditional.
Notwithstanding a whimsical longing for the past, the reality is that most Nebbiolo that reaches our shores, is at the very least well made, clean, varietal and delicious. Whether they stir the depths of your soul is another matter. It has to be said however, that the best wines are made with an obsessive level of care and almost always simply.
Drinking wine from classic regions, one will find a consistency of style, taste and textures. Different estates, different vineyards and subtle changes in wine making will invariably ensure differences between neighbours. The finest Meursault, to a large degree, carry a signature and will be made similarly. Great Nebbiolo however, has the widest of palates. Stylistically it can be almost anything.