A Guide to Pairing graphic in red with a wine bottle

A Guide to Pairing: Nebbiolo

Hey folks, as you may well know by now, we’ve decided that February is devoted to one of our absolutely favorite grapes to gush over and geek out upon: Nebbiolo.  We even made our own hashtag, #febisnebb (feel free to use it yourselves).

So with that, let’s talk food pairings for this exceptional grape!

A bit about Nebbiolo:

  • Stylistically, Nebbiolo is closer to Pinot Noir or Sangiovese, it is not a huge structured red wine like a Cabernet Sauvignon with one exception: it’s massive tannic structure (due to thick grape skins)
  • Surprisingly, for how unlike Cab Nebbiolo is, it has the potential to age up to 40 years from the vintage date in some of the better years and expressions of the grape
  • Although the vast majority is planted in Northern Italy (Piemonte), Nebbiolo can also be found in California, Argentina, and Australia
  • Nebbiolo’s name comes from nebbia (meaning: fog) and is a reference to the foggy nature of the region’s rolling hills and valleys the grape naturally inhabits

That said, let’s talk food (think like a chef):

Ok, so Nebbiolo is totally a food wine, in every sense of the idea and application.  Light and terroir focused in the flavor department, but heavy on tannin for excellent full-bodied structure, and best described in general as a medium-to-full bodied wine, this is something that can go with a vast array of mains and sides.

From a flavor perspective, you’re working with violets, tar, raspberries, cherries, mushrooms, truffles, and tobacco in a bone-dry expression, the only variant will be perceived color (Nebbiolo generally loses vibrant coloring in favor of a brick-colored presentation much faster than most other structured red wines) and shifts in the fruit-to-terroir balance over time (important to note for a wine that can potentially age out to 40 years).  So, as always, we continue to preach trying your bottle before bringing it to the next post-quarantine dinner party to have a sense of what you’re diving into.

The acidity on Nebbiolo wines is worth noting and is generally pretty high…that’s a good thing!  You’ll want that bright, uplifted acidity to cut through rich fats and creamy textures in foods, helping cleanse the palate between bites – something generally celebrated in white wine varietals and food pairings.

What really drives it home for Nebbiolo being possibly the most versatile red pairing wine is the tannic structure from the grape’s thick skins.  The tannin goes well enough with lighter fare, but really holds its own against robust items like steak and wild caught game meats.

Compare AND contrast:

As always, easy comparable pairings first.  Anything with cherry or raspberry sauce is great (honestly, any red berry-based compote or reduction sauce).  Truffled dishes or anything mushroom or mushroom sauce based will also be welcome with Nebbiolo wines.  Anything with a soft, sweet smoke to it will pair nicely as well, playing up the tobacco notes in Nebbiolo wines.

Now, contrasting flavors and pairings add a considerable depth of quality to your meals when done right, and in the case of Northern Italian cuisine, it’s actually pretty difficult to mess up a Nebbiolo pairing due the the extreme versatility the wine has to offer.  First off, and most all encompassing: red sauce.  Any tomato-based red sauce (ragù to bolognese to amatriciana to marinara to puttanesca to arrabiata to whatever regional red delight of any way shape or form) is ready to serve with Nebbiolo.  Adding a touch of cream for a “pink sace” is totally within the realm of possibilities too.  Basically, choose your sauce, choose your pasta, and open a bottle of Barolo or Barbaresco to get it breathing.  Dinner will be magic.

As it goes with high acid wines, they go great with rich fats, a.k.a. CHEESE!  Regional hard cheese favorites like Parmigiana Reggiano or Pecorino are excellent with Nebbiolo, but don’t shy away from fresh mozzarella, especially in the form of burrata cheese.  Essentially any mild cow or goat cheese will be at home with Nebbiolo and will play beautifully with the rose petal and tar nature of the wine.  Just make sure the cheese isn’t too high on the “funky” spectrum, that can start to get into weird territory.  If you’re ever uncertain, it’s always best to sample some of your wine and some of the cheese you plan on eating, you know…just to be safe.

Up next, veggies!  So we already know tomatoes will work (ok, not actually a veggie, a fruit, but you get what we mean).  Time for the aromatics: leeks, onions, shallots, and garlic.  All wonderful with Nebbiolo.  More traditional Italian veggies such as capers, olives, butternut squash, and wild mushrooms all work exceptionally well for pairing, best to present them in a savory and/or buttery manner so the acidity of the wine has something wonderful to cut through while cleansing the palate between bites.

So if any form of red sauce, any mild fatty cheese, and any savory, buttery or aromatic veggie works with Nebbiolo, it sounds like it’s time for a PIZZA PARTY!  You bet your butt you’re hitting the nail on the head.  In a list of great pizza wines like Zinfandel or Pinot Noir, Nebbiolo is king.  We could elaborate, but all the preceding information is at play here, just placed over a pizza crust and topped with melted cheese.  Money.

Grilled chicken in a red sauce and savory pork preparations will both go well enough with a glass of Nebbiolo, however, lamb, goat, wild boar, or other wild caught game animals (looking at you antelope) will all go excellently with the red-berry-balanced-on-earthy-backbone that Nebbiolo produces, generally dishes served with savory compote or fruit reduction sauces topping the protein to tame the game flavors.

While it’s not quite in the territory of weird pairings, it would seem uncommon to pair a wine akin to Pinot Noir or Sangiovese with a steak.  Nebbiolo has no problem taking on or playing incredibly well with a fatty ribeye (or Tomahawk cut), tender filet, perfectly marbled umami-bomb Japanese Wagyu, or beautifully fat capped grass-fed New York cut.  The acidity will cut the rich fats nicely while the earthier flavors from the steak will be played up, and an amalgamation of meat and wine tannin will play upon the palate in excellent harmony and integration with any peppered steak crust playing with the spice notes in the wine.  An unexpected, but definitively perfect pairing.

There is basically one rule with Nebbiolo pairings: Don’t pair it with anything sweet.  You will hate your life.  And you’ll learn how amplified the acidity and tannin in this wine can actually be.  It’s a meal ruiner.  So no Nebbiolo with sweet dishes or dessert courses, sorry.

Get weird:

Nebbiolo and spice-driven Chinese dishes.  Yup, not the sweet sauce dominated American-Chinese cuisine.  Straight up, savory, sichuan peppercorn-driven, 5-spice laden deliciousness with a healthy dose of green onions that can be found at any authentic Sichuan or Taiwanese restaurant.  As well, Chinese and Vietnamese dishes based around anise, clove, cinnamon, star anise, coriander, white pepper, black pepper, fennel or celery seed; all excellently weird pairings for your great bottle of Barolo or Barbaresco.  If you have access to an expanded array of Asian cuisines in your area, you may find it pairing well with Nepalese or Indonesian foods with these spices incorporated too!

So there you have it, our guide for pairing Nebbiolo.

How about you though? For our other guests, please feel free to share your pairing suggestions for Nebbiolo in the comments below.

#febisnebb, cheers!




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