Getting to grips with Nebbiolo

Not long ago I wrote about an exciting white wine from Barolo country – the Nascetta from Rivetto. I had been so thrilled to try it that I had failed to taste any of Signor Rivetto’s red wines. Being the charming man that he is he offered to send me the three bottles of my choice from his range. I saw an opportunity to do something that I had wanted to do for a while, compare different Nebbiolos from the various parts of Piemonte.

Nebbiolo has interested me for years. By repute it produces some of the greatest red wines in the world – Barolo and Barbaresco. Yet, with very few exceptions it is only grown in a small area of north west Italy – not for Nebbiolo the world conquering progression of a Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir.

Then so many unlikely people claim to like Barolo, I have too often tasted cheaper end Barolo, the ones consumers actually buy from supermarkets, and the experience has hardly ever been pleasurable. A mouthful of astringent and dusty tannin is often the best you can hope for in a Barolo under £15 or so, so it always amazes me that so many people who normally only drink very fruity wines claim to find it pleasurable?

To me Nebbiolo is a grape that demands ripeness and concentration to coax out its delicate richness and tame the high acidity, huge tannins and inherent bitterness – all too often the examples we get are dilute, harsh and disappointing.

This is hardly surprising as the grape is one of the latest ripeners of all, Nebbiolo often does not ripen until well into November. This makes life difficult even now, but in the nineteenth century it ensured that Barolo was usually a sweet wine, as by that late in the year the cold weather coming off the Alps regularly caused the fermentations to stick. As a consequence Barolo’s fame came about pretty late. Generally I have found it very hard to get to grips with Nebbiolo’s charms – too many I have tried in the past have lacked fruit, elegane and balance. Hopefully that was about to be put right.

Enrico Rivetto sent me three different wines made from the Nebbiolo grape. I wanted to get a feel for what they do and the differences that exist in the area, so I had selected three wines from different vineyard areas. Would the varietal flavours of Nebbiolo dominate the wines, or would I get a sense of terroir from them? They were a Langhe Nebbiolo, a Barbaresco and a Barolo:

Rivetto Nebbiolo Lirano 2007

D.O.C. Langhe Nebbiolo

Previous vintages of this wine have been sold under the Nebbiolo d’Alba D.O.C.

A translucent wine with a bright, youthful cherry red colour, not the bricky leathery hue I had half expected.

The nose was richly fruity with floral notes, spice, earth and leather.

The palate was surprisingly soft with cooked strawberry and cherry fruit, some fresh acidity and touches of dry, savoury characters that balance the wine pretty well; tar, leather, pepper and hints of bitter chocolate.

The wine is medium-bodied and very dry with firm, chalky tannins on the slightly hard finish.

It is the red fruit that makes this wine so enjoyable, while the firm structure makes it perfect with food – 87 points.

Rivetto Barbaresco Cé Vanin 2006

D.O.C.g. Barbaresco

Much paler wine, this had a bricky and dusty colour with a slightly orangey rim.

The nose was spicy, smoky and fragrant with deep, rich, fresh red and black fruit as well as the occasional note of currants and raisins.

The palate was much more concentrated than the previous wine and had great depth. This is a bigger flavoured wine, but is still medium-bodied and feels very fresh, because of that Nebbiolo acidity.

The overwhelming sensation is one of a supple, smooth texture, fragrant and subtle raspberry fruit rather than a full-on fruit character, and a touch of dry spice. The tannins dry the mouth out in much the same way as  bitter chocolate.

This was an elegant and attractive wine in a savoury rather than fruit bomb style – I wouldn’t want to just sit and drink it, it demands food, but is very good – 89 points.

Rivetto Barolo Serralunga 2005

D.O.C.g. Barolo

This, the oldest of the three had the richest colour, a deep plum colour with a slighty bricky rim.

The nose too was bigger – a deep, pungent aroma of rich brambley fruit with a dusting of spice and leather notes while the acidity offered up a vibrant strand of rose petals. I got my first waft of truffle aroma in this wine too.

The palate was concentrated and supple with a bricky bitterness and slight spicy character. The tannins are right there throughout the wine, but they are supple and not aggressive.

This is a very complete and balanced wine with a lovely smooth texture, well balanced, but very present tannins. This was a real treat with spaghetti and a rich meaty ragu.

The Barolo offered more of everything, spice, depth, flavour, body and fruit. It still cannot claim to be a full-bodied wine, but the overall balance is of a rich and full-flavoured wine.

I really thought this was a very good and well balanced wine – 91 points.

Rivetto wines are available from Ellis of Richmond.

This was a very reassuring tasting indeed. For me so many wineries nowadays produce top end wines that try too hard, leaving the attractive drinking lower down their range. Not Enrico Rivetto, all these wines were good, but you could clearly see the progression, why Barbaresco is considered finer than the surrounding area and why Barolo has long been thought to be the greatest example of Nebbiolo made; it was the most elegant, the most complex and the most concentrated of the three.

What also made this tasting exciting was the fruit, I have so many memories of trying Barolo that delivered no fruit at all, that these wines delivered lovely ripe fruit characters made them something of a revelation.

These lessons were reinforced just the very next day when I tried another great Barolo:

Paolo Scavino Barolo 2004, this is a wonderfully elegant wine with great balance of fruit and power with firm, yet smooth tannins.

9 thoughts on “Getting to grips with Nebbiolo

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  4. thanks for your comments…they were both interesting and very enlightening…I am sitting drinking the 2007 lirano langhe meb. 2007 ($29.95 aux. here) and enjoying what it is providing for that price point…dry asringent finish and lovely fruit…all too often here at this price point I have been dissapointed with the evident lack of fruit in the wines even though the structure has been good…funny, I have enjoyed all the borgogno wines for quality and value as well as the pio cesare, especially the entry petit neb. for value/ quality.
    thank you for your information. Cheers.

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