A Deep Dive into Nebbiolo at the Culinary Cabin (#ItalianFWT)

A steak dinner and a comparative tasting of four bottles of Nebbiolo – yes, please!

Please note, that some of the wines in this post were provided as media samples. No other compensation was received and all opinions are my own.

One of the great things about tasting with a group of friends is that you can open and taste a lot more bottles simultaneously without worrying that the wine will go to waste. If those friends are willing to go along with you on a wide-geeky ride, it’s also a perfect chance to do some comparative tastings. I admit that I often force friends to join me in conducting these types of experiments. Luckily, when we head off to the Culinary Cabin, only the lightest arm twisting is required. 

The Culinary Cabin is the loving name we’ve bestowed on our friends’ family vacation house in Tahoe, and the weekends we spend there tend to be all about food and wine experimentation. During our most recent trip, I “forced” my friends into a comparative tasting of four Nebbiolo-based wines “for science.” The guys in the group prepared a steak dinner to accompany the wines. Everyone was very upset.


Nebbiolo is Piedmont’s superstar red grape. It’s the grape behind this northern Italian region’s blockbuster wines, Barolo and Barbaresco. The grape’s trademark aromatic signature is notes of “tar and roses.” That tells you something about the combination of delicate and rustic elements this grape tends to bring together.  Tart cherries, leather, anise or licorice, earth, mushrooms, leather, and herbs are all also common flavor elements in Nebbiolo wines. I personally also often get a little orange peel in the mix. 

In addition, the grape tends the show super racy acidity and grippy tannins. While the wines tend to be deeply flavored and highly structured, the body of the wines is often sleek and can be anywhere from medium-bodied and translucent in a way that belies the punch the wines can pack in, to deep and full-bodied, depending on how it’s made and where it’s from. 

The wines often show orange color even when they’re young, but thanks to the mix of high acidity, alcohol, and tannin, the wines can easily age for decades in the bottle. In many cases, particularly in the case of Barolo and Barbaresco, the wines really need that time to chillax and can taste super tight otherwise. They’re kind of like a person that’s super anxious and wound-up in their youth, but learns to unwind and relax with age. If you don’t have the time to wait for your Barolos and Barbarescos to age in a cellar, you’ll at least want to decant them with plenty of lead time before dinner. I’ll often decant them hours in advance when I manage to think of it. The high levels of tannins and acidity also mean, in my mind anyway, that these wines are best served with a meal as these elements smooth out when enjoyed with a hearty meal. Enjoy these wines with foods that are meaty or have some fat, like creams or cheese, as these will help to calm the tannins.

We’ve taken a look at this grape several times before. Check out this post for more on the grape and this one for more on the history of Barolo. 

Nebbiolo can be a fussy grape to grow, a fact that contributes to the high prices some Nebbiolo- based wines tend to command. Nebbiolo is thought to take its name from the Italian nebbia (or nebia in Piedmontese), meaning "fog," and it really seems to relish the foggy conditions of its home region as it doesn’t seem to express itself with quite the same complexity anywhere else. (The name might also be a reference to the bloom that appears on ripe Nebbiolo berries.)

However, while it likes that fog, it also needs a good balance of sunshine as well to ripen fully, so it’s typically given the prime spots on hillsides that get the most sun exposure. It’s a diva. 

Map borrowed from Winefolly.com.

Barolo and Barbaresco might be the celebrity icons of Piedmont, however, they’re not the only show in town. It’s grown across Piedmont, as well as in Valle d’Aosta and Lombardy. While Barolo and Barbaresco tend to be pricey, thankfully, there are other Piemontese appellations making Nebbiolos that are both easier on the wallet and are approachable at a much earlier stage. Here are three: 

  • Roero DOCG – This region is just across the Tanaro river from Barolo and has sandier soil. It’s known for making high-quality Nebbiolos that tend to be lighter and a bit fruitier in style with less intense tannins.
  • Nebbiolo d’Alba DOC – This zone covers much of the territory of Roero but then extends further, crossing the Tanaro south of Alba to Diana d'Alba. It has similar characteristics to Roero.
  • Langhe Nebbiolo DOC – Langhe is the hilly subregion of Piedmont where Barolo and Barbaresco are located.  ("Langhe" is the plural form of langa, a local word for a long, low-lying hill.) Grapes that go into Langhe Nebbiolo might come from areas just outside the borders of Barolo and Barbaresco. The wines might also be made from grapes from younger vines or from less favored plots that lie within the two famed appellations. Wines not adhering to all of the requirements of the two prestige appellations might also fall into this classification. As such, these wines are sometimes thought of as “baby” Barolos and Barbarescos. Given this, prices on Langhe Nebbiolo can vary quite a bit.

Since we’re going to look at a bottle of Langhe Nebbiolo further down, we’re going to go a little deeper here. Production rules are meant to give winemakers more flexibility than they have in making Barolo and Barbaresco, so there are no minimum aging requirements and the wines will tend to spend less time in oak than in the other two. (Basic Barolo must be aged for at least three years with 18 months in oak, and basic  Barbaresco is aged for a minimum of two years with at least 9 months in oak.) Winemakers might also leave the juice less time macerating on the grapes than in the case of the other two, making a less extracted, easier-drinking style. Sometimes, winemakers use the Langhe Nebbiolo appellation simply to make declassified  Barbaresco and Barolo wines, allowing them to sell more wine without compromising their elite labels. Production rules also allow for up to 15 percent of other indigenous grape varieties, like  Barbera and Dolcetto, but most are also made entirely from Nebbiolo.


The guys did most of the cooking on this particular trip. One of our hosts, Northern Drew, was the head chef, Greg and Southern Drew were the sous chef. (Each Drew is so-called dependent on where in the state of California they live.) 

On this particular evening, they made a feast centered around Northern Drew’s favorite cut of beef: ribeye cap. This is the outer muscle of the ribeye roll, which is the source of ribeye. It’s richly marbled and also super tender, so it’s kind of like a ribeye crossed with a filet mignon. (For more on this cut, read J. Kenji López-Alt’s ode in its honor.)  The guys prepared it sous vide and finished it on the grill, seasoned with salt and pepper. 

In addition, they made a slew of veggie sides including grilled asparagus, roasted cauliflower topped with gremolata,  sautéed cabbage, and  roasted sweet potatoes. We also had horseradish sauce to enjoy with the beef.

It doesn’t directly relate, but there might’ve also been a Basque cheesecake prepared by my friend Dee for dessert. 

This meal did not suck. 


We had two Barolos (both were decanted), one Langhe Nebbiolo, and a bottle from California with this fabulous steak dinner. Here’s what was in the line-up. 

Massolino Barolo 2016

Average Price: $55 (sample)  | ABV: 14.%

The Massolino family’s history in the commune of Serralunga d’Alba dates back to 1896 when Giovanni Massolino founded the estate. Giovanni was the very first person to bring electricity to the village. His son, Giuseppe,  built their wine cellar, and he along with his sister Angela, extended the estate. Giuseppe was also one of the founders of the Consortium for the Defence of Barolo and Barbaresco in 1934. Giuseppe had six children and three of them – Giovanni, Camilla, and Renato – followed their father into the family business. They continued the estate’s expansion and purchased three of their cru vineyards: Margheria, Parafada, and Vigna Rionda. Franco, Roberto (both oenologists), and Paola represent the current generation. Their vineyards are farmed sustainably

Winemaking: Their Barolo DOCG represents a blend of their vineyards, each bringing different characteristics offered by each terroir. There is a blend of soils with a tendency toward limestone. This is traditional Barolo with long fermentation and maceration in oak fermenters (“tini”) at temperatures around 30°C; the wine is aged in large Slavonian oak casks for up to 30 months before being left to mature in bottle. Additional details can be found in the tech sheet here or here.

Tasting Notes: This is a classic Barolo showing the characteristic “tar and roses,” along with cherries, white pepper, and licorice. This wine showed an elegant and pretty side of Nebbiolo, showing a pleasant bright, tangy quality to the fruit, accompanied by the structure grippy tannins. One of the Drews noted that it tasted like his mental image of what he wants Barolo to taste like.  In comparison to Langhe Nebbiolo that we’ll see further down, the fruit quality was deeper, rounder, and plusher.

Pairings: This wine was generally friendly to the food on our table. No surprise, it was stellar with the steak, but it was also surprisingly ok with the asparagus, which is not a wine-friendly vegetable. 

The winery also offers the following recommendations: “It achieves its best expression when served with red meats, particularly game, and with dishes dressed with truffle. It is also excellent with fresh egg pasta and meat sauce, and with risotto, as well as medium-mature cow’s milk and goat’s milk cheeses.”

Kirkland Barolo 2017 

Price: $20 | ABV: 14%

Since Costco doesn’t share the details of the winery behind the wines, there’s no background info to share. However, as has been my general experience with their wines, this was a very solid representation of the style at a price point that can’t be beaten. The fact that it says “Kirkland” on the bottle might rule it out as an option to take to most dinner parties, but it should definitely not keep it from showing up on your dinner table. The price makes Barolo a possibility for a weeknight dinner. This is also a great option if you’d like to get an idea of what Barolo is all about without breaking the bank. 

Tasting Notes: This wine displayed the earthier side of Nebbiolo. It was the earthiest of the bunch. I picked up a little bit of brett when I first opened it up, but this quickly blew off, and then the nose became a bit shy. It showed notes of cherry, bay leaf, mushrooms, and thyme on both the nose and palate, all lifted by bright acidity. Unsurprisingly, this wine didn’t show the finesse of the Massolino Barolo, but it definitely delivers good value at $20. 

Pairings: Of course, this wine liked the steak, as they all did. However, I failed to take notes on how it went with the various veggies. This wine should also go with anything involving mushrooms.

Massolino Langhe Nebbiolo 2017

Average Price: $29 (sample) | ABV 14.5% 

The grapes for this wine come from several municipalities. As you might guess, it’s made for earlier consumption. 

Winemaking: The wine undergoes a medium period of fermentation and maceration (approximately 15 days). It ages in large Slavonian oak barrels for over a year. Additional details can be found in the tech sheet here and here.

Tasting Notes: A good representation of the fresher side of Nebbiolo. It showed notes of bright strawberries, cherries, and even a hint of cranberry on the nose and palate, along with floral notes and freshly tilled earth and stony minerality. While this was certainly a lighter expression in comparison to the Massolino Barolo, Nebbiolo’s structure wasn’t lacking and the wine still showed good density and grip.  

Pairings: Good with the steak of course, but this one paired quite well with bites involving horseradish as well. It was also quite good with many of the veggies. The wine became lighter and brighter alongside the roasted cauliflower with gremolata. 

Here are additional pairing recommendations from the winery: “Ideal throughout a meal but at its best when served with rich, tasty dishes, ranging from fresh-egg pasta with meat or vegetable sauces to grilled or roasted red meats. It is also excellent with soft and delicate blue cheeses.”

Lepiane Nebbiolo Alisos Vineyard 2015

Price: $49 (sample) 

I’ve shared a couple of wines from Alison Thomas’s Lepiane line in the past, so I’ll refer you here and here for more details on this one-woman operation in Santa Barbara, California. To be honest with you, I’m not typically the biggest fan of California Nebbiolos, but I thought it would be fun to have one in the line-up and this is usually one of the better examples, IMHO. Sadly, the wine wasn’t showing so well on this particular day, but I don’t really think it was its fault. I’d Coravin’d this bottle to AGES before and I think the gas cartridge had been running low because the fruit in the wine was a little flat, it was a touch oxidized, and overall, it lacked the vibrancy I’d previously experienced with it. 

Winemaking: Elevage occurred in a 600L neutral barrel for 33 months before being bottled without any fining or filtration. An additional 20 months of bottle aging allows this wine to show its beautifully complex nature. Organically farmed. Additional details here.

Tasting Notes: Since the wine wasn’t showing so well this evening, my tasting note is from my previous tasting of the wine. The wine reminds me of fall with notes of dried flowers, orange zest, and cranberries on the nose. The fruit is bright on the palate and joined by notes of black pepper, herbs, and the characteristic “tar and roses.”  

Pairings: It was good with the steak, of course. It was also good with the sweet potatoes, but it did not like the cauliflower. 

Go forth and explore the many sides of Nebbiolo!


For more posts related to Nebbiolo, check out these posts:


The writers of the Italian Food, Wine, and Travel (#ItalianFWT) blogging group have been exploring the wines of Langhe this month. Check out their posts here:

Additional sources used for this post and extra reading: 



  1. Roughing it at the culinary cabin, I see. Ha! Love a side-by-side comparison, and putting Barolo beside Langhe Nebbiolo is a great way to note the similarities and differences.

  2. If it's not Brezza; it's just Barolo


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