Italy - Piedmont
Castiglione Falletto in Piedmont, where the Nebbiolo grape is king
Features 30 August 2021

The rise of Nebbiolo

For devotees, it is Italy’s most profound grape. For naysayers, it’s pale yet tannic. Now, collectors’ love affair with Burgundy is putting Nebbiolo in the spotlight – and not just in its Barolo and Barbaresco heartland

Words by Walter Speller

Photography by Stefano Scatà

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The world can’t get enough of red Burgundy. Prices are spiralling out of control, and the best wines are so far out of the reach of mere mortals that one wonders how the likes of grand cru Chambertin can be considered benchmark styles when so few people are able to access them. Yet there are also other winemakers who have profited from the idolatry of Burgundy and Pinot Noir – not least those of northern Italy. The Burgundian style of light and elegant wines is echoed across many indigenous Italian red grape varieties, and those possessing these traits, although completely different from Pinot, are now being rediscovered and celebrated.

Ironically, not long ago, many of Italy’s indigenous varieties were dismissed for their lack of colour and perceived ‘lightness’, which were considered defects in an international market demanding deeply coloured, concentrated reds. The Italian ‘lightweights’ were forcefully ‘corrected’ by blending in Bordeaux varieties and being aged in barrique, a stylistic straitjacket that distorted them beyond recognition. However, thanks to its success as the embodiment of elegance and expression of origin, combined with a stratospheric price tag, Burgundy has taken over from Bordeaux as the stylistic paradigm for Italians. Indeed, so great is its influence that there is a danger the wine world will pass from one infatuation to the next, and Burgundy will become as much a diktat of style as Bordeaux has been.

a glass of barolo in hand
Nebbiolo and the wines from its most renowned regions of cultivation - Barolo and Barbaresco - share traits with Burgundy, notably a focus on individual vineyard terroir and a light hue, but also the ability to age and develop haunting aromas

It is against this background that Nebbiolo – which bears striking similarities to Burgundy, and which reaches its pinnacle in the long-lived wines of Barolo and Barbaresco in Italy’s north – has advanced on the international market. Like Burgundy, Barolo and Barbaresco have a tradition of small, family-owned estates going back for generations; both are divided into many different single vineyards, each with their own characteristics and identity, though their wines must all be 100% Nebbiolo. Like Pinot Noir, Nebbiolo is pale in appearance; after years of ageing, it displays a haunting bouquet of red fruit, with hints of undergrowth, iron and tar. Markedly different from Pinot, however, are the grape’s high acidity and firm tannins, hallmarks that left British wine lovers, in particular, unsure how to approach it.

Until relatively recently, the wines were considered out of kilter due to their lack of colour and considerable tannic heft. Over the past decade, though, the UK has developed a thirst for Nebbiolo. The turnaround can be traced back to a coterie of producers who believed that, for Barolo to be more palatable, its acidity and tannins needed reining in and its pale colour ‘fixed’. Producers who favoured very low yields combined with ultra-short maceration times (to avoid the extraction of tannins), in addition to ageing the wines in French barriques (to stabilise Nebbiolo’s colour), became known as the modernists. And the modernists despised the pale, tannic Barolos of the traditionalists, which demanded endless ageing.

Ultimately, the modernists’ phase was short-lived – most of their rich and heavily oaked Barolos didn’t age well due to a lack of tannins and acidity. What followed was an education in tannins – both for producers, whose experiments with ever-longer maceration times delivered finer rather than weightier tannins, and for consumers, who began to embrace Nebbiolo’s firm structure and the traditional style that favours elegance over power.

the cube at ceretto
The Cube at Ceretto - 'angular, like a young Barolo,' says the winery, which is found in Castiglione Falletto

Cartographer Alessandro Masnaghetti’s knowledge of the Barolo and Barbaresco regions and their wines is second to none: he has done more than anyone to give Barolo and Barbaresco their identities by meticulously mapping every inch of vineyard. He recalls Nebbiolo’s past difficulty in getting a foothold in the UK market. ‘The English palate I got to know 30 years ago was that of Michael Broadbent,’ he says, noting that the late Master of Wine resisted Barolo because of its tannic load. According to Masnaghetti, in the past there were very few references outside of France. ‘Today, people have much more experience. They are more curious, and therefore they tend to have a less rigid palate.’

Masnaghetti doesn’t see many similarities between Barolo and Burgundy, except for a parcelled vineyard area and the focus on a single red grape, but what producers on both sides do share is a sense of terroir. ‘They see it as a central part of their work,’ he says. Documents show knowledge of superior vineyards is part of the history of Barolo; the first efforts to map them were by Masnaghetti’s predecessor Renato Ratti in the early 1970s. Masnaghetti refers to the historic mercato dell’uva, once held right after harvest on the piazza in Alba, in which Nebbiolo grapes were sold to merchants. Prices depended on the grapes’ provenance. ‘It shows that, historically, there has always been a system in place charting grape quality based on origin. Producers have this ancient culture in their blood.’

While Burgundy may have raised awareness of Barolo, the latter, has put the spotlight on other regions where Nebbiolo has long been grown

Youthful winemaker Gian Luca Colombo is well versed in both Nebbiolo – which he makes for a string of affluent newcomers in Barolo, such as Réva and Castello di Perno, in Monforte d’Alba and Garesio in Serralunga d’Alba – and Pinot Noir from a north-facing patch in Barolo’s famous Ravera cru, where he makes a wine under his own name. Passionate about both varieties, Colombo believes that all winemakers should vinify Pinot Noir at least once in their life: ‘It throws every preconceived idea overboard. It expresses the vintage even more extremely than Nebbiolo and needs to be handled very carefully because it is incredibly sensitive to any treatment during winemaking. Nebbiolo is much more forgiving.’ Colombo isn’t a fan of the long maceration times that have become fashionable as a reaction to the modernist approach – but not for the obvious reason of avoiding tannins. Quite the contrary. ‘Long macerations might mean you lose those harder tannins, but it comes at the cost of Nebbiolo’s ageing potential,’ he says. ‘Softer tannins lead to a much simpler wine.’

Alex Sanchez, who makes some of Barolo’s most coveted wines at his Brovia estate, believes admiration for Burgundy has opened wine lovers’ eyes to Barolo. ‘Both are red wines from a single grape that is capable of transmitting terroir in the glass. And now, because of Burgundy, people understand what Barolo is about, and they are fascinated by how the differences between vineyards are shown in the wines. The sensibility for and knowledge of Burgundy has made Nebbiolo more accessible and easier to understand.’

While Burgundy may have raised awareness of Barolo, the latter, in turn, has put the spotlight on other regions where Nebbiolo has long been grown. The grape is regularly cultivated at the very margins in northern Italy, on vineyards clinging to Alpine slopes in the likes of Carema and Valtellina. The result is pale, fragrant, complex reds. Allied to very modest alcohol levels, these almost featherlight reds had become unfashionable almost to the point of extinction. They have since been saved by the trend for lighter, more elegant, original wines with a clear sense of origin. That may sound very much like Burgundy, but in reality, these are simply the traits of any fine wine, wherever it is grown.

Nebbiolo grapes on the vine

The beauty of Nebbiolo: Barolo, Barbaresco and beyond…

Barolo

Giacomo Conterno, Monfortino, Barolo Riserva 2014

Drink 2021–38
98/100
Lustrous mid-ruby with orange tinges. Cool and concentrated, with a fine minerally note of liquorice dust. Huge depth. Still tightly wound on the palate, with succulent fruit, bags of coating tannins and nervy, long acidity. Perfumed, complex, long and refined. Its length can only be measured in light years. 14%
£2,132 (three bottles; in bond) Winebourse

Bartolo Mascarello, Barolo 2016

Bartolo Mascarello, Barolo 2016

Drink 2024–28
95/100
Lustrous mid-ruby. Great purity, lift and focus, with cherry and raspberry fruit. Great freshness. Compact raspberry-fruit palate with energetic, long tannins and a build-up of perfumed, red fruit on the finish. Sensational length and focus. 14.5%
£330 (in bond) Turville Valley Wines

Brovia, Brea Vigna Ca’ Mia, Barolo 2015

Brovia, Brea Vigna Ca’ Mia, Barolo 2015

Drink 2022–38
95/100
Lustrous mid-ruby. Very compact and closed on the nose. Noble and backward, with a peppery touch; with aeration it shows brooding depth. Slumbering complexity with hints of iron. Austere but perfectly balanced palate with great depth of cherry fruit, but very slow to open up and with persistent, grainy, stalky, underlying tannins and a perfect dose of sappy acidity on a long, savoury cherry finish. This will need time, but its build and structure near perfection. 14.5%
£95 (in bond) Cru World Wine

Elvio Cogno, Bricco Pernice, Barolo 2016

Elvio Cogno, Bricco Pernice, Barolo 2016

Drink 2024–38
95/100
Lustrous mid-ruby, with the beginning of orange tinges. Fine, but a little drawn back on the nose and in need of lots of air. Brooding depth, with saline notes and hints of blood orange. Quite compact and a little closed on the palate, but it can’t obscure the fantastic balance of cherry, the rich layer of powdery tannins and the succulent acidity. Tannic and complex fruit finish with lots of juice and energy. 14.5%
£65 (in bond) Lay & Wheeler

Comm GB Burlotto, Barolo 2016

Comm GB Burlotto, Barolo 2016

Drink 2021–32
94/100
Soft, fine, lifted cherry-and-raspberry nose with a hint of rosehip. Great focus, concentration and purity. Still a little austere, but with a wonderful, aromatic, long finish with tangy, succulent acidity and long, gorgeous, chewy tannins. 14.5%
£450 (six bottles; in bond) Asset Wines

Gian Luca Colombo, NICBA, Barolo 2016

Gian Luca Colombo, NICBA, Barolo 2016

Drink 2022–32
94/100
Mid- to deep ruby. Deep, concentrated and a little rich on the nose. On the palate, the ripe fruit is pulled up quickly by energetic acidity. Gravelly tannins, succulent acidity and bright red fruit. Very long and juicy. NICBA indicates the vineyard: ‘Nome in Codice [Codename] Bricco Ambrogio’. 14%
N/A in UK

Barbaresco

Cantina Sociale dei Produttori del Barbaresco, Rabajà Riserva, Barbaresco 2014

Cantina Sociale dei Produttori del Barbaresco, Rabajà Riserva, Barbaresco 2014

Drink 2022–34
95/100
Mid-ruby, with the beginning of orange tinges. Deep nose of strawberry and iron, and a cool edge in spite of its obvious concentration. Firm layer of coating tannins, while the linear raspberry fruit is elegant, as well as concentrated. Gorgeous, vibrant finish. 14.5%
£67.50 Field and Fawcett

Gaja, Costa Russi, Barbaresco 2016

Gaja, Costa Russi, Barbaresco 2016

Drink 2024–38
95/100
Just mid-ruby. Very deep, concentrated and complex on the nose. Cherry and raspberry with a savoury edge. The palate is packed with red fruit and bags of fine, sandy tannins, but it is all still embryonic. Elegant and poised, yet firmly structured. Beautifully balanced. A wine like a sculpture. 14%
£399.80 Berry Bros & Rudd

Punset, Basarin, Barbaresco Riserva 2013

Punset, Basarin, Barbaresco Riserva 2013

Drink 2024–38
92/100
Lustrous mid-ruby. Hugely attractive nose of concentrated, sour cherry with hints of oak. Succulent dark- and sour-cherry fruit palate, with plenty of depth and gravelly tannins. This is an elegant but firm Barbaresco. 13%
£35.61 Tannico (2014)

Bramaterra

Le Pianelle, Bramaterra 2016

Le Pianelle, Bramaterra 2016

Drink 2021–30
94/100
Aged for 18 months in large oak casks. Just mid-ruby. Amazing, perfumed red-fruit nose with touches of spice and oatmeal. Elegant, suave red fruit cut through by vibrant acidity and packed with firm, finely chiselled tannins. Great depth, and with fantastic chewy tannins on the finish. Packs a punch but is far from being ready. 13.5%
N/A in UK

Antoniotti, Bramaterra 2017

Antoniotti, Bramaterra 2017

Drink 2021–30
92/100
Aged for 30 months in large oak casks. Lustrous, youthful mid-ruby. Gorgeous cool nose of raspberry and red cherry, although this is from the very hot and arid 2017 vintage. Hints of iron, raw meat and stalks. Sappy cherry fruit of great depth on the palate, with finely woven tannins that make their mark on the finish. Long, focused and youthful, and although already accessible, it should be aged for at least another couple of years. 13.5%
£31.95 Uncorked

Lessona

Colombera & Garella, Cascina Cottignano Pizzaguerra, Lessona 2017

Colombera & Garella, Cascina Cottignano Pizzaguerra, Lessona 2017

Drink 2022–32
94/100
Once on the brink of extinction, this historic vineyard area was saved thanks to newcomers Colombera & Garella. Vineyards on yellow sands of volcanic origin. Palish ruby. Beautiful, lifted nose of cherry and raspberry coulis with savoury minerally notes and hints of orange skin. Vibrant red-fruit palate with waves of sandy tannins. Very long, but still tight and embryonic. 13.5%
£30.95 Vinified Wine

Carema

Chiussuma, Carema 2017

Chiussuma, Carema 2017

Drink 2021–28
92/100
Just mid-ruby. Enticing nose of red fruit and oatmeal, perfumed but not sweet: cherry with a touch of liquorice and a suggestion of smoke. Gentle, elegant, cool palate of red fruit in spite of this coming from the hottest vintage on record. Very fine, polished tannins. An Alpine Nebbiolo of great character, but not for those looking for power. 14%
POA DBG Italia

Valli Ossolane

Cantine Garrone, Prünent, Valli Ossolane Nebbiolo Superiore 2016

Cantine Garrone, Prünent, Valli Ossolane Nebbiolo Superiore 2016

Drink 2022–32
94/100
Mid-ruby. Youthful, serious and reluctant on the nose. Youthful and a little austere. The fruit is very slow to unfurl, while showing great depth. Compact and spectacularly balanced, with a layer of powdery tannins and a hint of liquorice. Minerally, complex and long, but still very embryonic. 13.5%
N/A in UK

Valtellina

Arpepe, Rosso di Valtellina 2016

Arpepe, Rosso di Valtellina 2016

Drink 2021–26
94/100
Ninety days on the skins. ‘We keep on experimenting, and this [long maceration time] started for the Rosso in 2014 because the grapes had lots of tannins and high acidity, and we wanted to find a natural solution [to temper the two].’ Minerally, dusty cranberry and raspberry nose of great appeal, with a hint of stalks. Fresh, succulent and elegant, with a very long, vibrant finish. 12.5%
£24.95 Vin Cognito (2017)

Boffalora, Pietrisco, Valtellina Superiore DOCG Nebbiolo 2016

Boffalora, Pietrisco, Valtellina Superiore DOCG Nebbiolo 2016

Drink 2021–30
94/100
Lustrous and just mid-ruby. A more intense version of the winery’s Umo, with notes of cherry, cranberry and raspberry, and a minerally edge. There is fullness of fruit and, at the same time, lightness of touch. Super-fine, long tannins and vibrant acidity. 13.5%
£33 The Huntsworth Wine Company

Dirupi, Riserva, Valtellina Superiore Grumello 2015

Dirupi, Riserva, Valtellina Superiore Grumello 2015

Drink 2022–32
94/100
‘Riserva’ means the wine has been aged for one year longer (36 months rather than 24 for the normal Superiore). Just mid-ruby, with orange tinges. Beautiful depth of spice and cherry fruit, with a certain lightness to it. Hints of iron and stones. Compact and tightly woven tannins wrapped around cranberry and cherry fruit. Very long and still tight, in need of further bottle ageing. Transparent. 14%
N/A in UK

Club Oenologique Issue 7

This article is taken from the spring 2021 edition (Issue 7) of our quarterly magazine which focuses on wine, spirits and good living, with vivid imagery and insightful articles. Click here to find out more.

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