The Nebbiolo grape

Today’s article is about the Italian varietal Nebbiolo.  There are a couple of different thoughts on where the name of the grape comes from but my favorite is that it comes from the Italian word “nebbia” or foggy.  Ripe Nebbiolo grapes have a foggy/frosty appearance thus the name.  Predominately grown in the Piedmont region of Italy the grape is known for its’ dark, inky, and bold qualities.  Nebbiolo in Piedmont, northwest Italy, is also known by the names Spanna and Picutener.  Nebbiolo in the Lombardy region, located near Piedmont, is known by the name Chiavennasca.  Nebbiolo is famous in wines like Barolo, Barbaresco and Gattinara.  Interestly enough only about 3% of the wines produced in Piedmont are produced from Nebbiolo.  It definitely takes a production “backseat” to Dolcetto and Barbera.

The Nebbiolo vine can be a difficult grape to cultivate and a very late in the season ripener.  Additionally, some claim the vine is prone to powdery mildew though recent cloning research has begun to isolate clones of Nebbiolo that have more tolerance to mildew. Other research claims contradict this by saying that the skins are thin but very tough so resistant to molds and pests. The vine’s tendency for low crop yields and for the wine to reportedly oxidize easily contributed to its’ steady decline in popularity in the early to mid 20th century. Better understanding of the variety in the later half of the century helped revive the variety as winemakers found that the chalky, sandy soils around Roero gave the grapes more acidity and structure while Nebbiolo grapes planted in sandy clay soil developed an elegant and exotic perfume.  (Roero is a geographical area in the north-east corner of the province of Cuneo in Piedmont.)

Nebbiolo’s historical role has been for blending with other red wines.  Today the grape is more commonly seen as a varietal wine.  Nebbiolo has the potential to produce wines with aromas of cherries, violets and black licorice or truffles.  A great Nebbiolo is rich in flavors with a big finish.  Some producers make a late harvest passito Nebbiolo.

As an aside, passito is an Italian term used both for a method of making sweet wines and for the sweet wines made this way.  Passito wines begin by laying freshly picked grapes on mats (or hanging them in bunches) so that they can partially dry. This process eliminates much of the grape’s water and concentrates its’ sugar and flavor components.  Depending on the technique used, the drying time can vary from several weeks (in the hot sun) to several months (in a cool ventilated room).  When the grapes are crushed and fermentation begins, the sugar content is usually high enough to take the wine to a reasonable alcohol level and still end up with enough residual sugar so that these wines are fairly sweet.

Back to the grape at hand… food pairing.  Good Nebbiolo pairs nicely with rich, strong flavored meats as well as dry, aged cheeses that may be too strong for other wines.

In Temecula Valley, Nebbiolo is available in limited quantities at Cougar Vineyard & Winery located at 39870 De Portola Road.  The wine is 100% varietal, aged for 19 months in American Oak Cooperage.  This winery resides on the De Portola Wine Trail of Temecula Wine Country.  Cougar Vineyard & Winery has planted 3 year old vines on the winery property in Temecula Wine Country.  Also growing Nebbiolo in Temecula Wine Country is vineyard located at Ponte Family Estate.  Ponte is located at 35053 Rancho California Road in Temecula Wine Country.  Also growing the varietal in Temecula is Villa di Calabro.  The vineyard is in Temecula Wine Country but their tasting room is located in Old Town Temecula.  Look for this wine on their tasting menu in a few years.  Curran Ranch Vineyard also has Nebbiolo planted. Cougar Vineyard & Winery, Ponte Family Estate, Villa di Calabro and Curran Ranch Vineyard are all members of the Temecula Valley Winegrowers Association.

Cougar Vineyard & Winery is planted entirely in Italian varietals.  The Nebbiolo is actually planted on the adjacent property to Cougar that is managed as an estate vineyard.  The vineyard, La Vigna e Destra, is planted with sixteen hundred of the eight thousand vines planted being Nebbiolo.  We will be discussing all of these other varietals being grown and managed by Cougar in upcoming articles about the Italian grape varietals planted in Temecula Wine Country of Southern California.