Have a close encounter with Italy’s greatest grape

Nebbiolo is a superstar grape, producing wines of incredible complexity and intensity.

By Nick Stock, February 28 2020
Have a close encounter with Italy’s greatest grape

You might have heard of nebbiolo, one of Italy’s most feted grapes, and been keen to try it. If you’ve been hanging with the vinous in-crowd, you may even have already done so.

Barolo and Barbaresco, two sibling red wines from the Piedmont region in Italy’s north-west, are among the most in-vogue wines with collectors, winemakers, sommeliers, wine enthusiasts and those that really know great wine. Both are made from the nebbiolo grape, which for winemakers is a holy grail of sorts.

So what makes these nebbiolo-based wines special, and why are they so revered by those in the know? Much of the grape’s notoriety initially stemmed from its ability to produce wines that can age for an incredibly long time.

Greatness in wine has traditionally been associated with going a long distance in the cellar and improving over time in the bottle. Think Penfolds Grange or Henschke Hill of Grace, two iconic Australian wines known to hit their straps at around the quarter-century mark.

Performers with poise

Nebbiolo wines such as Barolo and Barbaresco are legendary performers in the cellar. They are famously full-bodied and high in tannin, and these tannins underwrite their very long ageing potential.

When drunk young they may be so assertive as to seem challengingly dry in the mouth. But persevere and you’ll find they have an extremely intense, almost regal or noble quality, a quality of grand structure and presence, yet they also have a freshness.

That freshness exists because the nebbiolo grape is also gifted in the acid department. It ripens very late in comparison to almost all other grapes and has the ability to retain acidity and freshness where most other grapes picked as late would simply turn to jam.

The nebbiolo grape produces wine that can age for an incredibly long time.
The nebbiolo grape produces wine that can age for an incredibly long time.

This dual quality of high tannin and high acidity creates a perfect storm of intensity on the palate and the higher acidity (and lower pH) is another asset in the armoury of long ageing. The combination is quite rare.

If that all sounds like a lot to comprehend, you’re right, but there’s a twist in the story of this impressive Italian. Nebbiolo may well be a powerhouse of flavour and structure on the palate, but it is not all tough going. It is also a contradiction of sorts because it has a much lighter, ethereal side to its personality in the form of its aromas.

It starts with a unique scent

As much as it is acclaimed for immense power and longevity, nebbiolo is also famous for its beguiling perfume. It most often makes a wine that smells first and foremost of roses.

There’s also often a spicy side with citrus notes such as orange, blood orange and pink grapefruit making an appearance alongside a core set of mainly red to dark cherry fruits. The aforementioned acidity makes these flavours really sparkle and pop.

Nebbiolo wines such as Barolo and Barbaresco are famously full-bodied and high in tannin.
Nebbiolo wines such as Barolo and Barbaresco are famously full-bodied and high in tannin.

Its core of cherry fruit and that irrepressible perfume often sees nebbiolo compared to pinot noir. But where pinot is most often fine, elegant and racy on the palate, young nebbiolo can have all the apparent subtlety of a 1980s muscle car. 

The best nebbiolo winemakers are afforded a level of praise usually reserved for superstar footballers, rock bands and big-wave surfers. With so much going on and complex and divergent characters, great nebbiolo is vastly more difficult to make than wines such as shiraz, cabernet and even pinot noir.

Truly great nebbiolo wines are relatively rare and comparatively more expensive than most other reds, too. Much of that has to do with the fact that nebbiolo vines need very specific conditions to thrive and produce the best quality grapes.

They need the right amount of cool and warm weather over an unusually long growth season and, outside of the grape’s spiritual home in Piedmont, Italy, nebbiolo has found a second home here in Australia.

The cool and hilly Adelaide Hills wine region in South Australia has built a reputation for great nebbiolo, and is attracting international attention with its wines.

Uncovering great Aussie nebbiolo wines

And whilst the best Barolo and Barbaresco bottlings may set you back hundreds of dollars for one precious bottle, there are a growing number of nebbiolo wines from Piedmont whose prices are as palatable as their tannins.

The best Adelaide Hills examples, such as those made by award-winning nebbiolo-phile Stephen Pannell (under his eponymous S. C. Pannell label) also deliver incredible value with so much character.

S.C. Pannell's Adelaide Hills Nebbiolo.
S.C. Pannell's Adelaide Hills Nebbiolo.

Pannell is assured about the Adelaide Hills as a great nebbiolo terroir and has recently purchased the established vineyard from which he has historically sourced his nebbiolo grapes. “It is said to be very finicky and not a good traveler, so this success makes it exciting for the Adelaide Hills,” he says.

“The pedigree of the vineyard and the place are the two most important things in making any great wine, and making great nebbiolo is more about what you don’t do as a winemaker. You make it with restraint, which means you have to start with exceptional grapes. There’s no other way to deliver those striking tannins, no other red wine is really quite like it.”

Pizzini Nebbiolo from Victoria's King Valley.
Pizzini Nebbiolo from Victoria's King Valley.

The wines to watch in the Adelaide Hills alongside Pannell’s are Longview, Adelina, First Drop, Unico Zelo and Spider Bill. These are being hunted by other talented and determined winemakers around Australia, such as Beechworth’s Giaconda as well as neighbours Castagna and Traviarti.

Also look to Luke Lambert, Dal Zotto and Pizzini, who are all well into their journey of obsession with this legendary Italian grape. And make sure you have a decanter ready to go, as these will all need a good hour or two to open up.

Nick Stock is Beverage Director of the 2020 Tasting Australia Festival, which features a full-day nebbiolo tasting and symposium with six talented winemakers visiting Australia from Piedmont, Italy. For more details and bookings visit TastingAustralia.com.au.

Nick Stock

Nick Stock is one of Australia’s most popular and well-travelled wine critics, covering great wine from all corners of the globe.

Hi Guest, join in the discussion on Have a close encounter with Italy’s greatest grape