I’M USUALLY not one for crying in public, but there have been a few rare instances in my life when tears have been unavoidable. Most often, they’re brought on by movies (Toy Story 3 is my kryptonite) or Facebook videos of soldiers being reunited with their dogs. It’s rare that a wine will move me to tears, but it’s happened. And there was once one particular bottle that pushed me beyond the misty-eyed point of is-it-me-or-is-it-dusty-in-here and into the realm of full-on sobbing.
I was at a wine-industry conference sitting at a table full of other sommeliers from around the country. We were at the end of one of those awkward lunches that convention organizers like to plan, seating attendees at random tables under the guise of networking, when really all that happens is we spend time trying not to be the person to drink the last glass of whatever wine is the best at the table. The meal ended, and my table began to empty when, almost out of nowhere, a bottle of 1961 Barolo Riserva from the producer Giacomo Borgogno was set in front of me. It was one of those moments, almost divine, when people fall silent and time moves slowly. Everyone left at the table stared at this small dingy bottle. It glowed back at us.
The few ounces that made it to my glass stayed there for over an hour. I was too nervous to let them slip away, even though in this case, slipping away just meant drinking them. Even now, years later, I still look back at that glass of wine as the love-at-first-sight moment between myself and one of the world’s most incredible grapes: nebbiolo.
Nebbiolo hails from the Piedmont region of Italy, the hilly farmland that sits in the foothills of the Italian Alps and the Ligurian Sea. Despite the fact that it makes the so-called king and queen of Italian wines (Barolo and Barbaresco, respectively), it’s a grape that’s never managed to gain a foothold outside its native land, nor has the name “nebbiolo” ever gained the household recognition of more popular grapes such as merlot or pinot noir.
Why? Like almost all things wine-related, it’s complicated, with the same factors that make these wines so special being the same that make them so rare. The oldest mention of the grape comes from the mid-1200s, when records state that it was the oldest and most widely planted grape in the region. Its name comes from the Italian nebbia, or “fog,” either due to the fog-like bloom that covers the berries or the thick rolling fog that covers the vineyards during harvest. It’s often the first grape to bloom in the spring and the last to be harvested, with harvests regularly occurring in late October or early November. Its late ripening (along with high market demand) means that it’s often planted in the best vineyard sites, on the higher slopes and tops of hills across the region.
Nebbiolo is unique in that attempts to grow it outside of Italy have been almost universally underwhelming. Nowhere else on Earth seems to have that magic combination of soil, sun and climate that nebbiolo requires to reach its pinnacle. And that pinnacle, elusive as it is, is worth the effort.
At its finest, nebbiolo produces wines that show a striking color in the glass—brick red when young and vibrant orange when aged. It can be pinotlike in its aroma, spouting off notes of rose petal and earth cherry, but where pinot goes soft with low levels of tannin, nebbiolo packs a powerful punch of bitterness, more akin to grapes such as cabernet sauvignon or petit verdot. Altogether, the best wines are akin to being kicked in the face by the world’s greatest ballerina, an unmatchable combination of beauty and power.
And while all of the things make nebbiolo and its wines special, the true magic of nebbiolo (and believe me, magic is the right word) only shows itself with time. Nebbiolo, perhaps better than any other grape in the world, transcends the mortal passage of time. And I know that’s a very Jedi Master thing to say about a bottle of hooch, but hear me out—because when you come across a fantastic bottle, be it Barolo or Barbaresco, or any of the other fantastic sites around northern Italy where the grape achieves brilliance, you’re not opening a mere bottle, but a time capsule. That dusty cherry nose is no more a scent than a memory of cherry orchards under the Italian sun. That hint of rose-petal perfume? A lifetime of flowers on a grandmother’s kitchen table. Taste becomes memory; sense becomes feeling.
While some wines offer a snapshot of history preserved under cork, nebbiolo shows the inverse; not so much a window back to a specific moment, but a sensory timeline of the world until its uncorking. That’s why I cried in front of strangers—not because I was having some rare glimpse into the world of 1961, but because I was drinking everything that had happened since.