By Frank Cipparone
In the rugged Valle d’Aosta vineyards of Picotendro cling to rocky terraces. Crossing into Piedmont there are wines such as Gattinara, Gemme and Carema, all of which may be referred to as Spanna. In the sub-Alpine Valtellina area north of Lake Como are row upon row of Chiavannesca. Winding south through small towns you hear of Brunenta, Malesca, Prunenta and Martesana. No matter the local terminology, all are synonymous with Nebbiolo, the king of grapes in northern Italy.
Nebbiolo is to that part of the peninsula as Sangiovese is to the central regions, the grape responsible for world-class, age-worthy wines. But unlike Sangiovese, the most widely planted varietal, Nebbiolo is not among the top 20 measured by the number of acres planted. It accounts for less than 1 percent of Italy’s vineyards, belying its status in the international market and the spell it weaves among connoisseurs.
That was not always the case. Though cultivated in the hills near Alba for 700 years, it was not until the 1980s and the introduction of better vineyard management and modern winemaking methods that Nebbiolo-based wines began to attract serious attention. Traditional, archaic practices had resulted in too many bottles that were highly oxidized, harshly tannic, or full of offensive odors from bacterial infection.
It took progressive thinking modeled on Bordeaux and producers willing to end decades of rustic, peasant winemaking to bring Nebbiolo out of the dark ages to its current renown. Those revolutionaries have become the iconic names of Italian wine – Angelo Gaja, Elio Altare, Enrico Scavino, Roberto Voerzio, Giorgio Rivetti.
The name itself, Nebbiolo, may derive from the fact it is not harvested until mid-October into November, when autumn rains shroud the valleys in fog, nebbia in Italian. That comforting blanket shields the sensitive grapes from excessive temperature variations while supplying moisture to the skins. It is a difficult grape to master, susceptible to even minor changes in the environment. Like Pinot Noir in Burgundy it is a thin-skinned berry that must be patiently supervised and nurtured in order to achieve optimum results in the bottle. Even winemakers dedicated to Nebbiolo would not argue that it borders on madness to think of its vinification.
Nebbiolo attains its truest expression in centuries old vineyards of the Langhe and Roero regions, especially around the communes of Barolo and Barbaresco, whose wines are the gold standard by which others are judged. Rolling hills covered with vines surround those towns and supply the aromatic and sensory characteristics that have earned Nebbiolo its reputation as the “wine of kings, and the king of wines.” It is also the main grape in more than a dozen other legally defined and regulated production zones scattered nearby.
The elevation and soils in which it is grown presents challenges for winemakers. In the high altitude of Lombardy’s Valtellina the severe incline of the slopes means that the vines receive as many hours of intense sunlight as do those in Sicily. The heat is compounded by rocky soil that absorbs solar radiation, acting as natural storage to be released. Only the cooler northern climate maintains the balance that allows the grapes to mature. In more temperate parts of Piedmont, high acidity and sufficient tannins aren’t a problem. The result is a purer, softer style of Nebbiolo without sacrificing its concentration and unique aromas. Producers in Valle d’Aosta have made their peace with geography and climate to make distinctive Nebbiolo that is simple, light, fruity and less full bodied than those found further south. Aromas of flowers, mint and blueberries mingle with lively, peppery berry flavors. Nebbiolo, or Picotendro, from around Donnas and Arnad is a fine example of higher elevation red wine. Sadly, very few bottles find their way across the Atlantic.