Get to know nebbiolo and its royal court of wines

When it comes to wine royalty, nebbiolo is considered by most to be the king, the queen and even the grande dame of Italy’s royal court. Native to northwest Italy, the grape is responsible for some of the country’s — and the world’s — most sought-after wines.

Records show that nebbiolo has been grown and produced in northwestern Italy’s Piedmont region, its likely birthplace (other theories abound), since at least the mid-1200s. Today, nebbiolo-based wines from the region are widely considered the best available anywhere.

The grape’s name is believed to come from “nebbia,” the Italian word for “fog,” which may refer to either fog that blankets Piedmont around harvest, or the foggy appearance of the yeasty bloom covering ready-to-pick grapes. The least trafficked theory is that nebbiolo derives from “nobile” (i.e. “noble”).

It does make some sense, though, since Barolo, arguably nebbiolo’s most famous wine style, has long been called “the king of Italian wines” and “the wine of kings, the king of wines.” Let’s not forget about Barbaresco, though, another famous and venerated 100 percent nebbiolo varietal wine style, which many would argue is as good or better than Barolo. The discussion can be reduced to hair-splitting points of contention because, in both cases, these famous dry, red DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) wines from Piedmont are among the highest quality of wine the country offers, and they are always shrouded in mystique.

Nebbiolo is a tough cookie in many ways. It is a late-ripening grape variety, and unlike some other grapes, especially the classic “international” varieties like cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir, nebbiolo does not grow well just anywhere. It is extremely sensitive to temperature, meaning that climates on the far ends of hot and cool will usually not produce good versions of it.

Of course every grape has its climatic limitations, but some other international varieties subjected to similar extremes might produce different, yet still successful, wines. In other words, nebbiolo is a little less flexible about where it will grow well and thrive. Piedmont is clearly its home field, and that is where it has consistently achieved its greatest advantage decade after decades.

Nebbiolo is generally high in tannin and acidity, and could offer floral notes accompanied by various combinations of cherry, licorice, figs, truffles, leather, earth and tar. “Tar and roses” is the aromatic descriptor that is perpetually pinned on Barolo. It’s intriguing, right? You want to know more about a wine like that. You want to get a whiff of those earthy aromatics. Nebbiolo makes for heady, powerful wines, both in aroma and flavor, as well as its ability to pack a punch. On the far end of the alcohol strength meter, riper nebbiolo wines can approach or surpass 14.5 percent alcohol by volume (ABV), typically experienced as bolder body and texture on the palate.

Nebbiolo’s general formidability — tannins, acidity and powerful concentration — pairs well with hearty fare such as braised meats, lamb, game, rich pasta dishes and the wine’s most natural partner, and fellow Piedmont native, the white truffle. Save your pennies for that last pairing, because white truffles are not cheap. Bottles of Barolo and Barbaresco are not cheap, either, with most retailing for $50 and up.

Many Barolos come out strong, full of power and concentration, in contrast to the relatively more elegant and ethereal Barbaresco — the “queen” to its neighboring, brooding “king.” Do not make the mistake, however, of thinking of Barbaresco as singularly gentle or weak. Even some Barolos have a reputation for elegance sans bluster.

Because of their high tannin and acidity, Barolo, Barbaresco and other nebbiolo-based wines from other Piedmont regions Roero and Gattinara are, by Italian law, aged significantly before being released. Those same high levels of tannin and acidity grant these wines the ability to age further, in some cases as many as 30 years. That time in the bottle can open up even more rewarding aromas and flavors of the nebbiolo grape, while softening those harsher elements.

Contemporary versions of Barolo and Barbaresco, though, have been crafted to drink now — that is, as soon as they are released into the market — delivering softer tannins and an instantly more approachable and more enjoyable drinking experience. After all, who wants to wait decades to enjoy a wine?

Nebbiolo-based wines from nearby locales offer the same — a sooner, more approachable drinkability — at a lower price. Granted, these wines do not match the complexity or prestige of Barolo and Barbaresco do, but if you are looking for a more budget-friendly version of a Piedmont nebbiolo-based wine, track down a bottle of Roero, Gattinara, Nebbiolo d’Alba or Langhe Nebbiolo.

Nebbiolo is grown and produced in relatively small quantities in other parts of the world, too, but this is a grape variety that gets very homesick and is at its best in the comfort and familiarity of the place where it was born. This is a grape variety (and subsequent array of wine styles) that one does not have to draw too wide of a circle around. It is fairly easy to see the big picture, or at least the royal family and its court’s share of it, from a single vantage point. Nebbiolo can be challenging and distant (like everything related to royalty, am I right?), but when it’s right, it might also make you understand what all the fuss is about and why it wears the crowns.