Barolo has earned its reputation as the king of Italian wine. With this regal status, comes a hefty price tag. The great wines of Barolo in Italy’s Northwest Piedmont region, near the truffle town of Alba, are made from the Nebbiolo grape and can fetch price tags in the hundreds. If you love the subtle yet bold, complex, and contemplative fullness of Barolo but don’t want to shell out the cash, explore Italy’s other expression of the noble Nebbiolo grape at a fraction of the price. Three key regions producing outstanding examples of Nebbiolo are the Langhe, Barbaresco, and the sub-region of Gattinara.
Nebbiolo is a full-bodied red offering intense floral aromas of violet and rose. Red fruit flavors of cherry, and earthy notes of forest floor, leather, and tobacco are prominent. Like Pinot Noir, Nebbiolo is thin-skinned and thus particular about where it will successfully grow. Late ripening and early flowering means that it struggles to fully ripen unless it is grown in the right terroir like the south facing slopes of the Langhe that get plenty of sunshine.
The Langhe is a region that contains both Barolo and Barbaresco territories, but also includes declassified vineyard sites, meaning wines are not permitted to be labeled with the prestigious regions of Barolo or Barbaresco. The wines of the Langhe are known for their delightfully low tannins, higher acidity, and fresher style. They share some additional similarities with Pinot Noir, since they express softness and ease. Most Langhe Nebbiolo are meant to be consumed in their youth and the prices are in the $20-$30 range. Many Barolo producers make lighter Langhe labels from younger vines to showcase an easy drinking style. These wines are a wonderful way to discover the iconic Barolo wineries without breaking the bank.
Barbaresco, north of Barolo and to the east of Alba, is considered the “queen of wines” as it is often described as having a more feminine, elegant style than its cousin, Barolo. This is due to the shorter aging requirements, more nutrient soil types, and land topography. These factors allow the wines of Barbaresco to express lighter and brighter flavors and textures than Barolo.
Gattinara, located in historic Alto Piemonte, about two hours north of Alba and much closer to the Alps, is also treasured for stunning examples of Nebbiolo. While Gattinara does not have the same name recognition of Barolo, it delivers on quality and value for money. The Gattinara DOCG is one of only two appellations with respected DOCG status in Alto Piemonte, the other being Ghemme. Gattinara expressions of Nebbiolo tend to be more mineral, elegant, leaner, and approachable than Barolo or Barbaresco. The microclimate is more extreme (cooler and drier) than the Langhe, with drastic day-to-night temperature swings, giving the grapes more acidity and less tannic structure. The soils are more mineral-rich as well. This terroir means that the delicate floral and earthy aromas appear earlier than in Barolo without the long cellaring times needed. These wines are fantastic when consumed in their youth.
Top Barolo Alternatives
2014 Cascina Adelaide Langhe Nebbiolo $29.99
A long harvest yielded ripe and lush fruit. Medium ruby in color with aromas and flavors of raspberries, cherries, and peach. Perfumed floral tones and rich, savory baking spice burst form the glass. Accessible, fresh, and enticing, the soft tannins are balanced by lively acidity.
2013 Albino Rocca Barbaresco $29.99
Tart cherry, wild strawberry and violets make up the aroma structure, while elegant and supple tannins round out the mid palate. This is an incredible wine for the money.
2012 Sassaia Barbaresco $49.99
Mature, with cherry, cacao, and fennel aromas and flavors. 26 months in oak leads to very soft and delicate tannins. Pair with a rare grilled steak.
2015 Produttori del Barbaresco $49.99
Inviting aromas of garden lavender, hibiscus, cherry, and raspberry. This wine offers mineral characteristics of graphite and a long finish with a hint of orange citrus.
2014 Marchesi di Gresy Martinenga Barbaresco $69.99
Fetching the highest price tag of the Barbaresco wines listed, this elegant and stylish offering form the acclaimed producer, Marchesi di Gresy, boasts an aging potential of 30 years like the great Bordeaux. The single vineyard site of Martinenga is among the most important of the area. The wine expresses notes of tobacco, cherry, and balsamic vinegar. Pair with an iconic pasta dish from Piemonte, agnolotti del plin.
2015 Nervi Gattinara $52.99
Nervi is the oldest winery in Gattinara still making wine. Look for intense aromas of rose, strawberry, and tobacco. Fresh, vibrant fruit is balanced by the silky tannins. Pair with truffle risotto.
Visit Elyse Genderson at Schneider’s (300 Mass Ave. NE) to discover wines you’ll love.