Today I’m zero-ing in on the northwest portion of Italy, specifically the key regions for the key red wine grapes grown—Nebbiolo, Barbera, and Dolcetto. Pop Quiz:Can you describe each of these grape varieties’ key characteristics? How would describe the market positioning for each?
Anyone else ever feel like Nebbiolo is the grape that shouldn’t work. It’s so light in color, it’s practically see-through: a faint rouge hue with its rusty orange-y-brown aura that just hints that this wine isn’t what it appears to be: Firm in structure, full-bodied, and undeniably tannic, but balanced by an—at times—racey acidity. The classic aroma descriptor is “tar and violets,” as the wine typically includes scents and flavors of herbs, dried flowers, and the bitterness of a dark coffee. But one only has to taste the differing expressions coming from the Nebbiolo motherlands of Barolo, Barbaresco, as well as Asti and Alba to know that location and climate means everything to this grape.
Here is what California’s El Dorado County has to provide this dark beauty.
For those of you following along on my WSET wine tour around the world, we recently did a brief stop in Northern Italy for a pop quiz about some of the wines produced. Indeed, that did cover a lot of ground, but not nearly the whole region. So I want to take time to look at Northern Italy in its entirety and explore the different regions and wine styles produced.
[Information based on WSET Level 3 material]
When we look at Northern Italy, we are looking at the area closest to the foothills of the Alps as well as the plains of the River Po. In general, Northern Italy has a moderate climate with dry, short summers. The Alps, which you may be able to tell from the map above, span the length of the Northern Italian border, thus shielding the area from rain. Like the River Po, other bodies of water that provide climatic moderation to the more inland areas include lakes such as Lake Garda. As you can see, there are also portions that are close to the sea—these areas can have higher levels of rainfall, so the major vineyard concern there will be fungal diseases.
Traditionally, vineyards were trained on the pergola system, as this provides air flow as well as keeps the grapevines off of the moist vineyard floor. Furthermore, with the vine canopy drooping over the fruit clusters, the training system also helps minimize excessive sun exposure. This system is still utilized today for grapes that require a high amount of acidity and low sugar (such as for sparkling wine) and for those wines that require grapes to be sun-dried (as in the passito method, which requires grapes to be fully developed and free of fungal disease so they can dry-out off the vine, post-harvest—we covered last time, but will touch on it again here). However, it’s noted that higher density plantings utilizing a VSP training system is now more widely used overall.
Nebbiolo is a beautiful grape, native to the Piedmont region of Italy. A late ripener, vintners tend to celebrate Nebbiolo’s harvest toward the end of October or early November when the Langhe region becomes submerged in thick, pea-soup-like fog. Indeed, the name Nebbiolo is said to stem from the Italian word for fog, nebbia. Out of this darkness, this denseness, this stone-wall of a cloud, comes one of Italy’s most noble and notable grapes. A shy shade of red in its youth and often quite tannic, the wine ages into rich and vibrant colors — not unlike dragon’s fire — and develops deep aromatics, complex flavors, and matures right out of those sticky tannins. Nebbiolo, at its peak, can be one of the most intense wines alive.
Of course, these are characteristics associated with the Italian varietal from Italy. I don’t believe I’ve yet had the opportunity to taste a Nebbiolo from the United States. Until I popped the Big Cork on Big Cork Vineyards 2015 Nebbiolo.