Nebbiolo, the varietal that defines the fabulous Barolo and Barberesco wines, is a notoriously difficult grape. It is not only early to flower but also late to ripen which means it can only be grown on very specific sun-drenched terroirs like the Barolo region, a tiny group of hills often enshrouded with fog, south of Turin (the Italian word for fog is ‘nebbia’). The Vajra family is famed for making fantastic Barolos and Barberas. They adhere to old-style winemaking methods, though blend these with new techniques, such as temperature controlled fermentation, to produce superbly elegant wines. This Langhe Nebbiolo comes from younger vines that will in a few years graduate to DOCG Barolo status.
The 2016 vintage was tricky because of the rains but was rescued by a season-end that was warm and dry and which allowed the grapes to ripen. Ruby red in colour, this Nebbiolo is both delicate and intense, with expressive aromas of violets and dried roses and red berry notes. In the mouth it is silky and energetic. Vajra is a Sanskrit word meaning both thunderbolt and diamond, which seems right for this vivacious wine.
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Believed to be native to either Piemonte or Lombardia in northern Italy, Nebbiolo is responsible for producing some of Italy’s best known wines, such as Barolo and Barbaresco. The grape’s characteristic tannin structure, marked acidity and often pale, ruby colour divide the wine world into those who do and those who don’t ‘do’ Nebbiolo. Akin to Pinot Noir in some respects, especially in the emotional response it triggers in many wine drinkers, it is demanding in the cellar and vineyard. It is low yielding and prefers calcareous marl soils with sunny slopes and good exposure. It buds early and ripens late, making it more susceptible to early frost and wet autumns. It is usually the latest variety to be picked in Piemonte, with the harvest sometimes stretching into November.
In the cellar, winemakers have struggled for an eternity to soften the tannins of Nebbiolo. This struggle led to the ‘style wars’ in Barolo and Barbaresco in the 1980s and 1990s, when the so called modernists and tradtionalists argued as to the best way of vinifying and ageing Nebbiolo. With time, and better viticulture, today’s best producers have taken the best practices from both camps, ensuring that the wines now being produced are of outstanding quality. The grape’s name is thought to derive from ‘nebbia’, the Italian for fog, as the suggestive of the weather in late October when it is traditionally harvested. Some hold that the earliest mention is in AD1, when a wine from Pollenzo (just north of today’s Barolo zone) was described by Pliny the Elder.
Outside Italy, it is cultivated to some extent in California, Australia’s Adelaide Hills and a little in Argentina, but its greatest wines are produced in the rolling Langhe hills. In addition to Barolo and Barbaresco, it also produces Langhe Nebbiolo (usually from younger or less auspiciously sited vines) and Nebbiolo d’Alba. North of Torino, in the tiny area of Carema, Nebbiolo, known locally as Picutener, is the primary variety.
Nebbiolo grown in northern Piemonte, in the provinces of Novarra and Vercelli, produces distinctly different wines to those from the Langhe. The marine sand soils on igneous rocks are very high in acid and result in wines that have softer tannins than those in the Langhe. Until the early part of the 20th century, there was more area under vine in these two provinces than in the Langhe. Nebbiolo, here known as Spanna, was the major variety in wines such as Lessona, Gattinara, Bramaterra, Ghemme, Boca, Sizzano and Fara. Some of these wines are today being hauled back from the brink of extinction and Nebbiolo, still the predominant variety, is being supplemented by local varieties like Vespolina, Bonarda and Croatina.
There are two distinct sub-varieties of Nebbiolo: Lampia and Michet. Rose, once thought to be a sub-variety, is now known, thanks to DNA profiling, to be a separate variety, though one that is related to Nebbiolo. The new clones developed by the University of Torino, particularly 71 and 66, are highly prized by quality conscious producers for their low vigour. Clones 385 and 423, from Picutener, have thicker skins, and are also sought after.