Nebbiolo, the prince of grape varieties in north-west Italy
By Francesco Saverio Russo - Photographs: Courtesy of the estates, posted on 16 January 2023
Nebbiolo is widely considered to be the prince of Northern Italian grape varieties due to its elegance and undisputed longevity. This historic variety is widespread across North-West Italy, in Piedmont, Lombardy and Valle d'Aosta. We drill down on one of Italy’s most iconic grapes.
In the Unesco heritage area of the Langhe, Roero and the Monferrato hills, the variety is called Nebbiolo, but in other areas of Alto-Piemonte, Valle d'Aosta and Valtellina it takes on different names including Spanna, Chiavennasca, Prunent, Picotendro, Melasca and Martesana. The documented origins of Nebbiolo date back to the Middle Ages where it was mentioned in 1272 as being given as a gift to the King of England and Duke of Aquitaine Edward I. In 1800 it became a favourite of Thomas Jefferson who declared he wanted to import it to the USA after tasting a 'Gattinara'. Nebbiolo took its next step forward in 1835 with Carlo Alberto in Pollenzo where, thanks to General Staglieno, the winemaker/marketer Oudart and Camillo Benso Count of Cavour, the forerunner of Barolo was born.
Treading the grapes at the traditional grape harvest festival in Fontanafredda.
A slow ripener
Nebbiolo has significant genetic variability and as many as 90 clones have recently been identified, grouped into seven genotypes according to SNV analyses (Gambino et al., 2017). In the Langhe you can find Lampia, Michet, Rosé and Bolla. The latter two can no longer be used for the production of Barolo. Nebbiolo is mostly prevalent in Piedmont (4 500 ha), Valtellina (50 ha) and Valle d'Aosta (45 ha) but it is also grown outside Italy, in Mexico, Australia, the USA, Uruguay, Chile and other areas (such as China) for a total area of around 600 ha. Its growth cycle is long and because it ripens slowly, it can be used to produce very aromatic wines with a robust structure. It has always been planted in the best South and South-West aspects (in the 'sorì'), and only on hilly terrain at between 200m and 450m above sea level. However, nowadays, due to climate change, some producers are experimenting with less exposed and higher altitude plantings.
Gianni Martini and his daughter Eleonora, owners of the great Piedmont winery.
The 'main' denominations of origin using Nebbiolo in Piedmont, Lombardy and Valle d'Aosta are the following: Barolo DOCG; Barbaresco DOCG; Roero DOCG; Gattinara DOCG, ; Ghemme DOCG Piedmont DOC; Langhe DOC; Alba DOC; Albugnano DOC; Colli Tortonesi DOC; Colline Novaresi DOC; Colline Saluzzesi DOC; Coste della Sesia DOC; Fara DOC; Lessona DOC; Monferrato DOC; Terre Alfieri DOC; Boca DOC; Bramaterra DOC; Sizzano DOC; Canavese DOC; Carema DOC; Valli Ossolane DOC; Pinerolese DOC; Sforzato di Valtellina or Sfursat di Valtellina DOCG; Valtellina Rosso DOC; Valtellina Superiore DOCG (several sub-areas); Valle d'Aosta DOC (several sub-areas).
The two most important appellations (100% Nebbiolo) are, of course, Barolo and Barbaresco. The former is located a few kilometres South of the city of Alba, covering 11 localities: the entire areas of Barolo, Serralunga d'Alba and Castiglione Falletto, and parts of Grinzane Cavour, La Morra, Monforte, Verduno, Novello, Diano d'Alba, Cherasco and Roddi.
The Barbaresco production area, on the other hand, includes the entire area and localities of Barbaresco, Treiso, Neive and part of Alba. To date, there are 181 official MGAs (menzioni geografiche aggiuntive) in the Barolo area, 11 of them village-designated, defining the strong link with the individual 'climates' in the area. In the Barbaresco area there are 66 MGAs.
The breakdown in vineyard area is approximately 1,800 hectares for Barolo and 700 for Barbaresco, with output standing at some 12 million bottles of Barolo and 6 million of Barbaresco.
We take a closer look at some of the most prestigious producers in the two appellation areas.
The aspect of the vineyards at Cascina Lo Zoccolaio is among the best in the area and is a fundamental requirement for vines such as 'Nebbiolo da Barolo', which is very demanding in terms of soil and exposure.
Fratelli Martini 'Cascina Lo Zoccolaio' - The jewel in the crown
Cascina Lo Zoccolaio is owned by Gianni Martini and his daughter Eleonora. It produces exclusively red wines from over 30 hectares of vineyards located in Barolo, Monforte d'Alba, Novello and Verdino. Every step of the winemaking process is conducted with great passion and dedication. The grapes are lovingly cared for and the mantra here is to show respect for the rhythms of nature. Harvesting is done carefully by hand, selecting the best clusters. From gently pressing the grapes, through to fermentation and ageing, all the way through to bottling, respect is shown for tradition but using the most modern methods and equipment. The family believes Nebbiolo is one of the noblest grape varieties, along with Pinot Noir, producing elegant wines that are spicy, but never thick or austere. This is the ultimate noble wine whose qualities are enhanced with ageing in wooden casks. It can be laid down in bottles for many years without losing its flavour. The company aims to treat its vines and vineyard sites with respect by using traditional methods of tillage and no weedkillers. It is a practitioner of sustainable winegrowing, and is certified SQPNI. The careful selection of grapes and low yield production demonstrate its focus on maximising quality. Its key markets, outside Italy, are Germany, England, Northern Europe and the United States.
Az. Agr. Cagliero – A history dating back 1500
Cagliero specialises in the production of quality grapes which are used to make the most famous red wines in Piedmont. The current net vineyard area amounts to about 6 hectares.
The company was founded by one of the oldest winegrowing families in Barolo in 1500. The arrival of phylloxera in the early 1900s led most of the family to move away from their home land and seek their fortune in the city. The vineyard was kept going by their uncle Giovanni Battista until Mario Cagliero, grandfather of the current owner Stefano, returned with the aim of rebuilding and reviving the family's Barolo traditions. 1961 was their first 'official' vintage when they produced an exceptional Barolo, marking a turning point for the family’s fortunes.
Stefano Cagliero believes Nebbiolo is the area’s main grape variety and should be understood as such, albeit with different regional variations. Barolo Ravera is a symbol of the region, tradition and Langhe peasant culture. It has a local Piedmont personality, appearing initially austere, almost surly, with hard tannins that don’t initially seem appealing, but when it begins to open up, it reveals its true flavours, expressing incredible self-confidence together with persistence, softness and elegance. Barolo Terlo, the latest wine, is softer, delicate, feminine, less structured and fresher. Langhe Nebbiolo is structured but, at the same time, fresh, thanks to 15% of Barbera. Finally the Langhe Rosso (Dolcetto and Nebbiolo) combines the immediacy of Dolcetto and the intensity of Nebbiolo. The winery subscribes to a classical approach from the vineyard to the cellar. To achieve maximum regional expression, however, technological evolutions need to be taken on board, lending the wines an even sharper identity. The winery’s mantra is “Deep roots in tradition but always looking to the future”. Cagliero's markets are the USA, Canada, Northern Europe and South East Asia.
The barrel cellar at Cagliero where Nebbiolo is vinified in many ways.
Serragrilli Hill - A piece of Barbaresco history
In 1890, Lequio Alessandro arrived with his family on ‘Serragrilli’ hill and began planting vineyards to produce wine, in what was to become Agricola Lequio Alessandro. His son Giuseppe and subsequently his son Alessandro expanded the vineyards, becoming one of the few wineries in Neive to produce wine using only their own grapes. Alessandro had 3 daughters – Rosanna, Daniela and Antonella – who improved and expanded production, helping the winery to achieve its first awards in a male-dominated environment. In 1990 the brand changed to ‘Collina Serragrilli’, honouring one of the best Barbaresco crus. In 1998, Rosanna's husband Bruno Piernicola, who came from a family of Barolo producers, joined the business and decided to reorganise the vineyards with the help of consultant winemaker Gianfranco Cordero into single-vineyard parcels with the aim of producing distinctive wines. The agronomic approach is respectful of the environment and avoids products with a high environmental impact. In fact, the business is certified 'The Green Experience'. The barriques have been replaced by larger tonneaux and large barrels to preserve the specific characteristics of the grapes. The aim is to produce clean, classic wines that can be enjoyed even when they are young, without harming their potential longevity. Piernicola Bruno believes that “Sipping Nebbiolo transports you to the Langhe in October, with its beautiful hills, splendid colours and vineyards that have adorned the landscape since time began”. The wine is closed and stubborn when young but as it ages, it becomes deeper, calmer and softer, though preserves its innate strength, just like its winemakers, who will never accept compromise. Collina Serragrilli produces the following wines from Nebbiolo: Langhe Nebbiolo DOC, Barbaresco DOCG 'Cru Serragrilli', Barbaresco DOCG 'cru Starderi' and a very small amount of Barolo from Piernicola's family vineyards in Monforte d'Alba. Today, the Collina Serragrilli brand is registered worldwide and, in addition to Italy, the key markets are Switzerland, Belgium, Holland, UK, Canada, USA, Brazil, Japan, Hong Kong and Taiwan.
Nebbiolo is vinified in the classic way, aiming for authentic flavours with the support of the well-known consultant winemaker Gianfranco Cordero (pictured here with Piernicola Bruno).
La Biòca – A blend of tradition and innovation
La Biòca is a winery located in Serralunga d'Alba, in the Langhe, which was founded in 2012.
The word 'biòca', in the Piedmontese dialect, means a 'stubborn, determined person' which is an apt description of the winegrowers in this region who strive, vintage after vintage, to produce the best grapes and the best wines. La Biòca believes in balancing innovation with tradition, which is why they mainly use large barrels made from French and Slavonian oak. The wines are racked in tonneaux and barriques more than 5 times. There is no lack of experimentation, as evidenced, for example, by the 18 hl of unglazed Cocciopesto amphora in which a Nebbiolo cru from Monforte d'Alba (San Sebastiano) is matured.
The young producers at La Biòca view Nebbiolo as the king of the Langhe, which in this area acquires a unique mix of aromatic complexity, tannicity and elegance. La Biòca uses integrated pest control and in the cellar macerations are weighted according to the vintage. The wines with Nebbiolo as the base are the Langhe Nebbiolo DOC ‘Riccinnebbia’ (matured in stainless steel only), the Nebbiolo d'Alba DOC ‘Pipina’ (matured only in cocciopesto amphora) and the Nebbiolo d'Alba Superiore DOC ‘Stërmà’ (vinified in a special steel cask where part remains and part is matured in large oak casks). The Barolos produced are Aculei, Ravera, Monvigliero, Bussia and Stolèt while the Barbarescos are Ronchi and Secondine. The markets are divided between 50% Italy and 50% abroad (UK, Thailand, Australia, China, Japan, Russia and the USA).
The La Biòca winery team is young and dynamic like the wines it produces.
Fontanafredda - From King Vittorio Emanuele II to organic
In 1858, the Fontanafredda estate was purchased by King Vittorio Emanuele II, as a gift for his beloved ‘Rosina’ and it was later named after their children. In 1878 their son Count Emanuele Alberto founded a winery on the estate. Its 300 hectares were farmed directly by specialised employees which was unusual for the time. In 1918 the company was in its heyday in terms of sales and production, employing 200 people with over 40 families living in the village.
The Fontanafredda Village, in the heart of the splendid Unesco-listed vineyard landscape of the Langhe, provided the backdrop for the love story between the King of Italy, Vittorio Emmanuele II, and Rosa Vercellana.
Unfortunately, in 1931, due to phylloxera and the Great Depression, the estates and winery were sold to Monte dei Paschi di Siena, which converted it into ‘Tenimenti di Barolo e Fontanafredda’, while the ‘Casa E di Mirafiore’ brand was purchased by the Gancia family. In 1964, the first certified Barolo Cru ‘Vigna La Rosa’ was produced, and in 1988 the first Barolo Serralunga d'Alba, with the village designated on the label. In 2008, the estate was purchased by Oscar Farinetti and Luca Baffigo. Since 2018, it has been certified organic and in 2022 it was also certified Equalitas, vegan and Marchio Storico. Organic production begins by stimulating the symbiotic relationship between vineyards and forests, preserving and increasing biodiversity. Yeasts from the estate’s own vineyards are selected for fermentation. Cement is used for maturing the fresh red wines, while Slavonian and Allier oak barrels are used for the more structured and mature offerings. The producers at Fontanafredda believe that Nebbiolo is the noblest grape, due to its personality, elegance, but above all its ability to birth wines with different identities. The winery ferments the grapes traditionally using, for example, medium and large capacity Slavonian oak barrels, with the aim of bringing the flavours from the region into the glass. The highest volumes are for the Barolo di Serralunga and the Barolo Classico, but there are also some niche pours such as the Barolo Vigna La Rosa, Vigna la Villa and Vigna La Delizia. The company generates around 55% of its revenue from markets outside Italy, with Sweden, Norway, the USA, Canada and Japan as key destinations.
The vineyards at Fontanafredda.
Ciabot Berton - A family tradition
The company was founded in the 1960s thanks to the intuition of Luigi Oberto who comes from many generations of winegrowers in La Morra. Oberto carried on the business until 2005, successfully increasing vineyard area to 10 hectares of vines over the years. In the 1990s, he was joined by his son Marco, who took over the business in 1997. Thanks to his commitment, the company now boasts almost 15 hectares of vineyards. Marco's wife Federica handles marketing, while his sister Paola takes care of the office work and customer management. Ciabot Berton's vision of Nebbiolo is that of a noble, versatile vine with great personality that can convey the flavours of the region and has the ability to reproduce vintage variation features in the glass, combined with its intimate interaction with the soil where it grows. Sandy soil yields ethereal and graceful Nebbiolo, as with Langhe Nebbiolo or village-designated Barolo, while marl and clay or limestone produce wines showing greater body and structure. They are elegant and rich with more stubborn and intriguing tannins and sensations that are at times more spicy or fruity, depending on the original vineyard site.
Five generations of Oberto family winegrowers in La Morra have an ancient and indelible bond with La Morra and the Barolo hills.
The wine must be evocative and authentically convey the essence of its vineyard provenance; it is fermented and matured separately. The Barolo is macerated in cement tanks, followed by maturation in large Slavonian oak casks. There is minimal impact on varietal and regional identity, and the focus is on quality and environmental sustainability. The company uses massal selection, allowing it to work with vines that have adapted best to the area. The key markets are Great Britain, Japan, the USA, South Korea, Switzerland, Belgium and in recent years also Italy.
Sordo Giovanni Wines - The largest collection of Barolo crus
Giovanni and Paola Sordo inspect their vineyards.
This winery is located in Castiglione Falletto, in the heart of the Barolo area. It is one of the largest private estates in the Langhe and the winery has over 100 years of history. It has been family-run for four generations. Today, the estate is helmed by third-generation Giorgio Sordo, who mainly manages the vineyard, and fourth-generation Paola Sordo, who supports the winemaking team alongside her father Giorgio. Sordo is a traditionalist, concentrating on the production of very elegant single-vineyard Barolo matured in large Slavonian oak barrels.
Cantina Sordo wines are left to rest in large oak barrels in the heart of the winery, its barrel cellar.
For the Sordo family, Nebbiolo is the most precious grape variety, capable of displaying complex nuances when it is young while also impressing with its longevity. In the Sordo winery, Barolo Riserva dating back to the 1980s are available, and today the following Nebbiolo-based wines are produced, including 8 Barolos from 5 different villages: Nebbiolo d'Alba DOC (Roero area), Barolo DOCG classico, Rocche di Castiglione, Parussi, Villero, Monprivato, Perno, Gabutti, Ravera and Monvigliero. The Sordo family's dream is to increase this selection with new single-vineyard labels. They work with care and respect in the vineyard and ferment their wines traditionally, submerging the cap during maceration in stainless steel tanks for some 4/6 weeks. Only the maturation process is carried out in wooden barrels, for 2 years for the classic Barolo and 3 years for Barolo Riserva. The Sordo family's target markets are mainly the hotel sector and the following countries: the USA, Australia, South Korea, Hong Kong, China, Italy, Great Britain and Denmark.
G.D. Vajra - History, respect and research
In Turin in 1968, Aldo Vaira was fifteen years old and dreamt of living surrounded by nature. The desire to take over the family vineyards led him to leave city life and begin this adventure. A pioneer in organic farming, he obtained one of the first certificates awarded in Piedmont in the early 1970s. His wife Milena and then their children Giuseppe, Francesca and Isidoro, brought additional support to the business. Vineyard research opened up to studies on the influence of soils, climate change and a renewed focus on flora and fauna.
Aldo Vaira has been considered “the most modern of traditionalists and the most traditional of modernists” as he is in love with tradition, but capable of viewing it through a scientific and reasoned approach in order to produce wines that are increasingly enjoyable and palatable and have a strong identity. The high-altitude vineyards remain one of the distinguishing features of G.D. Vajra wines, as does the house style which yields wines of great finesse and complexity. Nebbiolo is, of course, at the heart of production (30ha), and is produced with varietal and regional sensitivity and respect. The company views this grape variety as multifaceted and challenging, faithfully conveying the flavours of the region.
The Vaira family: Aldo Vaira and Milena Vaira with their children Giuseppe Vaira, Francesca Vaira and Isidoro Vaira.
Emblematic of G.D. Vajra and the company's vision of Nebbiolo is its Barolo Bricco delle Viole, the highest and westernmost cru in Barolo. It also produces Barolo Mga Ravera, Coste di Rose, Baudana and Cerretta, and the ‘classic’ Barolo Albe, as well as Langhe Nebbiolo, Rosato di Nebbiolo and two limited production wines, ‘N.S. della Neve’ (a Classic Method rosé, 60% Nebbiolo and 40% Pinot Noir) and ‘Claré JC’ with Nebbiolo grapes which are fermented as whole clusters. G.D. Vajra sells 90% of its wines abroad.
Among Italian grape varieties, Nebbiolo is the one that best depicts the perfect combination of elegance and longevity. This can be ascribed to Barolo and Barbaresco wines, but also to the other appellations that are focusing on this fascinating variety which is currently suffering less than others from the effects of climate change.
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