Even in the Piedmont, no one drinks Barolo and Barbaresco, or even Carema or Gattinara, every day. There on their home territory, those are regarded – rightly, I think – as wines for the best dinners and special occasions. What the Piedmontese drink every day, with great pleasure and no sense of deprivation, are their two “easier” wines: Dolcetto, the common lunch wine, and Barbera, the more frequent dinner wine – though those roles are by no means ironclad. As more than one Piedmontese winemaker has told me, you can drink Dolcetto and still go back to work, a quality much appreciated in its hard-working homeland.
Both Barbera and Dolcetto are delightful wines, though very different, and each partners wonderfully with all sorts of foods. I’ll probably write about Barbera in the future, but I want in this post to talk about Dolcetto, which is the undeservedly lesser known of the two.
Ampelography hasn’t been very informative about the Dolcetto grape. It appears to be native to the Italian Piedmont, which is certainly the zone of its most intense cultivation. Some experts believe that the variety originated in the Dogliani zone (about an hour’s drive south and slightly west of Alba), where in the opinion of many, me included, it achieves its greatest elegance and complexity – perhaps because it is treated more seriously there than in its other zones, where it often plays second and sometimes third fiddle to Nebbiolo and Barbera.
For what it’s worth, Italian officialdom agrees, and has conferred on Dogliani Dolcetto’s only DOCG and the right to call the wine simply Dogliani, if the maker so wishes. There are also several “simple” Dolcetto DOCs: Acqui, Alba, Asti, Diano d’Alba, Langhe, Monferrato, and Ovada. Of those, Diano d’Alba and Ovada are probably the most prized in Italy. Dolcetto d’Alba is the kind most widely available in the US, both because it is the largest zone of cultivation and because its Dolcetto piggybacks on the reputation and distribution of Barolo and Barbaresco.
Despite its name, which means “little sweet one,” Dolcetto always makes a dry dinner wine. It’s a dark grape, with intense color and and abundant tannins that require care in the cellar. Most producers carefully control skin contact to hold the tannins in check. This also reduces the depth of the wine’s color, so Dolcettos occasionally appear with light, almost strawberry-ish tints, but this is not common: Most are dark wines, whose deep color belies their usual lightness on the palate. In sharp distinction to Barbera, Dolcetto is low in acid, so it will never make the kind of spritely aperitif wines that Barbera can yield. Rather, it yields soft, round, friendly wines of potential elegance – good sipping wines and great dinner companions.
As a conscientious wine writer, I of course had to test that last statement, so my amiable spouse joined me in a tasting of several Dolcettos; after which we again tasted and drank them with dinners over the following days. (One incidental aspect of Dolcetto thus revealed: Recorked, partially filled bottles last very well for 5 to 10 days, with no loss of aromatics or flavor.) Here are the wines and our reactions to them.
De Forville Dolcetto d’Alba 2013
This is a fifth-generation family winery, headquartered in Barbaresco. Its Dolcetto grapes all come from the Barbaresco zone. The 2013 had a pleasing raspberry/strawberry/clay nose – quite nice. On the palate it showed similar components, but overall was just a bit rustic, with some still-abrasive tannins peeking through. This isn’t necessarily negative: The wine blossomed with food, which masked the tannins completely. Not a cocktail, but a dinner wine.
Poderi Colla Dolcetto d’Alba Pian Balbo 2013
This is a cru wine from the hands of an almost iconic Alban winemaking family, and it showed its pedigree from the get-go. The aroma was similar to the De Forville, but finer. On the palate, it felt light and round, with tasty berry fruit over soft tannins. Very nice, and incipiently elegant. A superior wine for everyday meals.
Pecchenino San Luigi Dogliani 2013
Another long-time, family-run estate. Like many in the Dogliani zone, the Pecheninos can be considered Dolcetto specialists. This wine clearly showed its origins: A lovely nose of earth, herbs, blackberries, and cherries preceded a mouthful of light, berry-ish fruit, very soft tannins and pleasant, light acidity, all culminating in a long, berry finish. Very enjoyable.
Abbona Dogliani Papà Celso 2013
This one’s aroma was finer and lighter than the preceding Pecchenino, but in the mouth the wine was considerably heavier and not as elegant. It seemed a little simple – decent, rather generic fruit and not too much more. Went well and unobtrusively with food.
Chionetti Dogliani Briccolero 2012
Quinto Chionetti is the grand old man of Dogliani Dolcetto, and this wine is from one of his best crus, and in a fine year. Its aroma was all berries, and in the mouth it gave sapid, juicy berries and plums, round, soft, and pretty, already showing complexity and sophistication. It finished still with a little tannin, so the wine has some evolution yet before it – but it demonstrated clearly why Dogliani deserved the DOCG.
Signor Chionetti is a great winemaker and an encyclopedia of Dogliani lore. He thinks that the Dolcettos of Alba and its surrounding townships have been, in his word, “Barolized.” Tasting his wine alongside some Alba Dolcettos, it’s easy to understand his point. Try the experiment yourself: It’s really illuminating. But whatever else you do, do try some Dolcetto: It’s a fun wine, and a fine one – a nice combination for any occasion.