Among all the grape varieties suitable for making fine wine, Nebbiolo is the most discerning and one of the hardest to cultivate. It will grow only in steep, well drained south facing slopes from 250 to 450 meters above sea level and it requires tailoring style canopy management to harness its vigorous shoot activity and channel its extraordinary aroma production into the grapes. When successfully grown, Nebbiolo delivers outstanding results. It is only the world’s 104th most planted grape and covers less than 0.13% of the world’s planted vine surface, yet it regularly wins between six and eight per cent. of the spots in rankings like Wine Spectator’s Top 100. The world’s most successful fine wine varieties, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, jointly cover 80 times more surface than Nebbiolo but only win four times as many spots in the rankings. In Italy the picture is even more pronounced. As the 30th most planted variety covering a mere 0.9% of Italian planted vine surface, Nebbiolo captured 40% of the top 50 spots in the Best Italian Wine Awards 2014.
Terpeni and Norisoprenoidi in a recently bottled Nervi Gattinara 2009 versus a six year old bottle of Nervi Gattinara 2003. The total level of precursors to aromas is fairly similar in the two vintages (1 038 µg/L versus 993 µg/L) but the free – liberi – and hence detectable aromas have increased by a multiple of five.
Nebbiolo’s main challenge – and blessing – is its long growing season. It is the first variety to bud in the spring and the last one to mature in the fall. It follows that it is only viable in regions where the transition from winter to spring is rapid and definite. One mild day in winter will cause premature budding and one single night of frost after budding will obliterate the entire vintage. Nebbiolo needs to stay clear of the travails of weather throughout its long growing season and presupposes a dry and temperate September and October to bring about optimal results. In technical terms Nebbiolo needs at least 1 900 growing degree days and a minimum two square meter canopy per kilogram of fruit. This large canopy is required to capture sunlight, perform photosynthesis and channel the resulting precursors of aromas into the grapes. At harvest in late October or early November, the Nebbiolo tastes almost nothing but has in fact built up a vast reserve of undetectable precursors to perfumes and aromas. Via vinification these precursors are tied to the saccharides in the resulting wine. When the wine is aged, the precursors slowly free themselves from the saccharides and become perceptible as mesmerizing perfumes and aromas to the human nose and palate. The sensations of dried rose petals, violets, licorice, truffels and tar often stand out. This slow release of perfumes and aromas is illustrated in the table below. At the time of bottling the Nervi Gattinara 2009 had released only 5% (44.9 µg/L) of the aromatic composts Terpenes and Norisprenoidi while the six year older Nervi Gattinara 2003 had released 23% (240.7 µg/L) – but still held a vast reserve for future release. In fact, a decent vintage of Nervi Gattinara is still enjoyable after 30 to 40 years of aging and the top vintages like 1931, 1934, 1947, 1958, 1961 and 1964 still drink well. If you are so lucky as to lay your hands one a bottle, please bring it along to the vinery and we will treat you to lunch in Podere dei Ginepri on top of the Molsino vineyard!
Ruby red Nebbiolo depicted in a Last Supper motive from 1542. The painting is in the Gaudenzian school and exhibited in the Duomo of Gattinara. The vineyards and 10th century tower of Gattinara can be seen in the window above Jesus
On visual inspection Nebbiolo shows a transparent ruby red colour. This is because Nebbiolo has little of the deep purple anthocyanin Malvidin which dominates most fine wine grape varieties. The leading anthocyanin in Nebbiolo is Peonin and gives the wine the characteristic ruby red colour. Peonin is more fragile and dissolves easier than Malvidin. At harvest the Peonin constitute around half of the Nebbiolo grape’s anthocyanins but rapidly dwindles to around one third throught the wine making process. Retaining sufficient anthocyanins to stabilize colour and binding the tannins is one of the largest challenges within Nebbiolo wine making
Nebbiolo is exceedingly difficult both to grow and to vinify but produces some of the world’s most elegant wines. Therefore many view Nebbiolo as the holy grail of viticulture. Peter Godden, Group Head of the Australian Wine Research Institute chose it for his Arrivo project in the Adelaide Hills, legendary California winemaker Randall Graham planted it in his Ca del Solo vineyard south of Santa Cruz and Alberto Arizu, third generation Mendoza producer and President of Wines of Argentina planted it in his wife’s vineyard Vigna Alicia. Today Nebbiolo grows in Argentina, Austria, Australia, Chile, Mexico, New Zealand, Switzerland and the US. However, 90% of the world’s Nebbiolo is still grown in the peculiar continental climate of North West Italy.
The Nebbiolo family is large and the aromatic difference between clones is meaningful. There are 27 different homologated clones. The one homologated clone pertaining to Gattinara is called Spanna, the 10 clones of Valtellina are called Chiavennasca, the three clones of Valle d’Aosta are called Picotener and the 13 clones the Langhe are called Lampia (7), Michet (5) and Rosè (1). The most common clone is a Lampia clone termed CVT CN 230. It sports many and big grape clusters and was widely planted in the 1980s and 1990s because of its productivity. Its cluster weighs circa 330 grams whereas a Spanna cluster typically weighs around 200 grams. Hence concentration of both color and precursors to perfumes and aromas tend to be higher in the Spanna clone. In the research leading up to the homologisation of the Spanna clone CVT C2 in 2012, three year averages from the Gattinara research vineyard at Castelle showed the Spanna CVT C2 had anthocyanins of 143 µg/L and precursors of aromas of 2 140 µg/L while the Lampia CVT CN 230 had anhocyanins of 107 µg/L and precursors of aromas of 1 890 µg/L. In Nervi’s research vineyard in Garavoglie we have grafted 5 700 Spanna plants selected from 14 old and robust Gattinara vines and work with the University to preserve this local sub-variety of Nebbiolo through homologisation of further Spanna clones.
Average characteristics of Spanna clone CVT C2 (Cobianco) versus Lampia clone CVT CN 230 over a three year period
Terracotta Spanna cluster, Duomo of Gattinara 1475
Nebbiolo’s extraordinary suitability for the making of fine wine has been known for centuries. One of the first mentions of Nibiol is found in Pier de Crescenzi’s Liber Ruralium Commodorum from 1330. He sites a wine of excellent quality to save for special occasions. Spanna, the North Piedmontese expression for Nebbiolo appears in a document from 1350 found in Orta San Giuglio north-east of Gattinara. It cites Vini Spanni Cernuti – Selected Spanna Wines. There is controversy surrounding the origins of the name Spanna. Some scholars claim it derives from the grape Spionia described by the Como born Pliny the Elder in his Storia Naturalis published in 70 AD while others think it comes from Spanibus, a method used for training the best vines of the Gattinara hills in the 13th and 14th centuries. By the 15th century Spanna was considered the most noble grape grown in Gattinara as witnessed by the terracotta Spanna clusters embellishing the Duomo of Gattinara built in 1475.
Spanna enjoyed a strong reputation in the 15th and 16th century and was regularly exported to the courts of Milan, Turin and Madrid. Lord Halifax had it shipped to London in 1756 and after trying Gatina in Vercelli in 1787, Thomas Jefferson spent 19 years searching for Nebiule before he managed to have it procured to the White House in 1806. By that time Napoleon had occupied Gattinara and moved the Italian border to the Sesia River so as to incorporate Gattinara’s Spanna vineyards into his French Empire. In the Pomona Italiana published in 1817 Spanna was assigned the scientific name Uva Spana – Vitis Vinifera Pedemontana. In the 1836 Reperto d’Agricoltora of Rocco Raggazoni the Spanna was much heralded as the source of Italy’s finest dry wines, a claim repeated in the Giornale Vinicolo Italiano in February 1876. In an article comparing Italian fine wine to that of Bordeaux, the editor states that in Italy only the exquisite Nebbiolo wines of Barolo, Gattinara, Ghemme and Lessona can rival Bordeaux’ finest. The adjacent price list shows these Nebbiolos selling for Lira 80-100 per hectolitre while Barbera sells at Lira 46-54, Freisa at Lira 38-42 and Commune da Pasto at Lira 28-32.
Giornale Vinicolo Italiano February 1876