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Delhi Wine Club

Posted: Monday, 31 May 2010 12:54

Feature: Taming Tiger Nebbiolo with Food

Nebbiolo is a tough, complicated and fascinating grape of Piemonte known to the wine world as Barolo, Barbaresco, Roero and Nebbiolo d’Alba. The aggressive tannins that change personality depending on the winemaker’s philosophy may be tamed with proper food match, making it exclusively a food wine that you either love or hate, writes Subhash Arora who was recently in Alba tasting around 400 wines with and without food.

Nebbiolo is certainly one of the oldest known grape varietal of Italy which is being used in wine making and is the tiger of Piemonte. It is a tough, complicated, fascinating variety that historically comes from Torino province. It is one of the first varieties to bud and last variety to ripen with harvest taking place in mid to late October


‘There has been a reference to the grape as being found near the Alpine region of Piemonte and records of it being sold to Switzerland in 1250 exist. It is known to have spread to a large area by 1300. However, the reference to the Barolo wine made from the grape first came in 1865, the wine getting a gold medal in a wine competition in 1873.’

No mention has been generally made of the grape outside this north-western part of Italy, said Anna Schneider of Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche, Istituto di Virologia Vegetale, Grugliasco, in the province of Torino while talking to the journalists at Nebbiolo Prima Tastings organised by Albeisa in Alba from May 16-20, 2010.

She said that 76% of this variety is grown in South Piemonte- around Alba. With 6300 hAs of Nebbiolo vineyards in Piemonte, the rest of the world has a very small planting of  627 hA only, implying it is not a global grape. In fact, most of it is concentrated in a corner of the Alpine region where the viticulture of this grape is highest. Historically, the grape has been reportedly mentioned as a superior grape variety from the region.

Genetics and Clones

Interestingly, Schneider concedes that one cannot say with certainty that Piemonte is the origin of the varietal. One of the parents has been linked to Shiraz with seedlings coming from the Rhone valley of South East of France. From over 400 varieties studied there are a lot of similarities with the local Piemontese varietals like Freisa, Teroldego, Valtellina, Bubbierasco and Negrera as found through DNA tests. But nothing is known about the second parent- it could be from Piemonte or even dead.

She talked about the diversity in Nebbiolo with the grape being divided into three morphological groups- Lampia, Michet and Rosé Nebbiolo. She also described the problems and the virus associated with the three clone types, stressing the Michet variety was infected with a virus GFL which gives yellow colouration to the leaves. If you eliminate the virus, it comes back to higher vegetation.You cannot cure the virus with chemicals but must start from the beginning. She also explained that the Virus also suppresses sugar in the plant.

Talking of the clones for Nebbiolo she said there were 15 registered clones of the varietal. She emphasized on the selection of good performer mother plants, something the growers have been doing for centuries. She also suggested that it was advisable to have grapes from different clones and blend them for better results.

Food and wine match for Nebbiolo

There are many who believe that wine and food match is not important while the others are even emotional about it. Nebbiolo certainly makes a food wine which needs to be matched more meticulously with the food. Speaking at a seminar organised by the Albeisa at the Nebbiolo Prima, Fabio Gallo, President of the Piemonte branch of the Association of Italiana Sommeliers, emphasized that it was fundamental to understand that Nebbiolo wines are not simple; they have to be taken with food and matched as well as possible.

The match

‘One cannot enjoy rich food with simple wine. Simple food with proper wine can give an interesting experience. Obviously there are simple wines like Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and other varietals that are good as aperitif too. But oaked Chardonnay and Pinot Noir deserve a good combination with food-like stuffed or baked pasta. As we go up the food ladder for complexity, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Nebbiolo come in.’

Even the tasting of Nebbiolo is difficult without food. (The daily tasting of over 90 Nebbiolo wines a day in fact burnt the palate, making everything taste bitter. Only the beginning of the new dawn meant a fresh start for the palate)

Nebbiolo not for everyone

Fabio stressed that Nebbiolo wines are not for everybody.  People who know something about wine and demand a bit extra from it are the people who appreciate it better. Barolo and Barbaresco do not have much fruit but a lot of floral sensations-lot of tannins and acidity. The character of wine grows complex with age and they become very elegant, says Fabio. But you need proper food to tame the tannins of this tiger.

One did not think it necessary to tell him of a piquant situation in India where some people insist on serving Barolo at a party or banquet as an aperitif, because it has a strong brand recognition as an extra premium wine and is considered king of wine and wine for the modern day kings – the nouveau rich..

One has to consider many factors for proper matching, especially for Nebbiolo. The acidity of food has to be compatible with the grease in the food. Alcohol and flavour of wine have to e matched with the succulence.

We have simple Nebbiolo and a complex one which takes a Noble character. As it ages, it increases the sustenance of the dish. We could have a great experience having  simple Nebbiolo with pasta and white meat too, whereas with the meats, Roero Riserva will go well. Barbaresco will go better with beef and veal.

Aged Barbaresco and Barolo are sublime with ox, game and seasoned cheeses. Further we go to the structure of the food, further we would want to go in that direction with the wine for the match, he felt.

Trust the Locals

The general rule of thumb for food and wine matching according to Fabio, is to ‘ look at the possibility of the typicity (French typicité, Italian tipicità) of the food in area in which wine is made You have to listen to the people who live there and tell you the best combination. Different people would combine wine with various types of food. Listen to them and you will get the traditional match,’ his motto being ‘remember-the locals know the best!’

Nebbiolo has a lot of tannins which can be invasive on the palate and need to be tamed. It can be too dry sometimes, depending upon the age of wine, he cautioned.

Serving temperatures for Nebbiolo

Effect of temp is important in serving the Nebbiolo. Although there are a lot of opinions, and room temperature means nothing (fortunately, in India wine drinkers have now learnt that it means around 18°C) it should never be served at higher than 20°C and luckily ‘we have equipment to do so now,’ he said.

‘If you serve Nebbiolo at higher temperatures, you lose the balance and elegance. If it is lower than 16°C, you lose all tannins and it tastes bitter.’

Fabio also touched the issue of the proper glass to serve in. He was for the typical Riedel Bordeaux glass, like the ones were being used at the Albeisa tastings. He cautioned against the use of too broad a bowl or too rounded on top as the Burgundy shaped Riedel, saying, ‘you lose something, we feel.’ He also warned against using the very fashionable glasses with small tops. ‘They are not good for enhancing the flavours and aromas,’ he opined.

Decanting Nebbiolo

‘Some people say decanting is better to remove sediments while it is also good for airing  out the aromas. It is a practice that has always been carried out in Piemonte. It is important with wines which are more than 7 to15 years old. They need time to breathe and bring the aromas in time. There are people who feel, you lose some flavours while decanting. Also the customers do no have time to follow the development of wine in restaurants while, at home you have time to decant the wine. It gives you the opportunity to appreciate all aspects of wine though some sommeliers feel it is old fashioned.’

Incidentally, talking of the other two popular red wines of Piemonte, il professore felt that Barbera does not need decanting but wines like Dolcetto need a lot of air-may be not decanting. But for best result he advised to decant it an hour and a half before drinking.

For more info, visit or write to him at


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