The Piemonte is one of the finest wine regions in the world. Wine is made there utilizing so many different grapes. This column has discussed Barolos (made from Nebbiolo), Barberas and the light sparkling wine Moscato d’Asti. This article will examine another great Piemonte wine: Dolcetto.
The people of the Piemonte enjoy all of these different wines, but traditionally, their everyday wine of choice has been Dolcetto. Dolcetto was a light, soft and easy to drink wine which could be drunk very young in part, due to its lower acidity and soft tannins. In recent years Barbera has overtaken the role as the everyday wine of choice chiefly because the pricing for Barbera has undercut that of Dolcetto. Barbera is a more prolific producer of fruit allowing for more production. At the same time, the supply of Dolcetto grapes is routinely reduced by locals who make their own wine from purchased fruit. Hence, the price of Dolcetto has risen above that of Barbera.
Dolcetto is the name of the grape which literally means “little sweet one”. Although traditionally lighter, less expensive wines, this is no longer the rule. Many Dolcetto’s are being made in a bigger, bolder style. The fruit is left to hang on the vine longer resulting in higher alcohols and more age worthy wines. Some producers are using new and old oak to age the wines. As a result, there are now various styles of Dolcetto in the market place. The better ones by far are the more modern interpretations. The “new” Dolcetto’s are deep purple in color. The aromas have black raspberries, violets, coffee and chocolate covered cherries. On the palate, they can be jammy with dark cherries and black raspberries. They also can show notes of oak. At the same time, these are still wines that drink well young. The acidity is lower and balanced compared to other Piemonte reds. Certainly, their tannins are much softer. Surprisingly enough, these wines are capable of ageing for five to ten years, the best ones even longer.
The wines produced from Dolcetto are labeled with the name of the locale the grape was grown and the wine produced in. There are seven Docletto DOC’s and one DOCG! They are Dolcetto d’Acqui, Dolcetto d’Alba, Dolcetto d’Asti, Dolcetto delle Langhe Monregalesi, Dolcetto di Diano d’Alba, Dolcetto di Dogliani, and Dolcetto d’Ovada.
The DOCG Docletto di Dogliani Superiore requires ageing the wines for 18 months before release. All of the wines are made from 100% Dolcetto grapes. With the exception of Dogliani and Ovada, all of these areas also produce other types of wines. Two Dolcetto districts seem to be the most established in the market place; Dolcetto di Dogliani and Dolcetto d’Alba.
The best of the Dolcetto’s come from Dolcetto di Dogliani. This is believed to be the original home of Dolcetto. The wines are the biggest and ripest of all the Dolcetto’s. Dogliani’s name is a corruption based on the name Janus, who was the god of the sky and sunlight in Roman mythology. Legend tells that he stopped in the region and the wine was so good that he delayed his travels. The first written record of Dolcetto di Dogliani goes back to 1593 in a writing titled “Orders for the Harvest”. Even before, in 1369, the Marquesses of Saluzzo granted the citizens of Dogliani the rights of free trade and an exemption from taxes and military service then imposed a tax on their wines as a means of stocking their own cellars. Most guesses have the grape being grown for at least 300 years before that!
Dogliani was the home of Luigi Einaudi, the first president of the Republic of Italy in 1948. In addition his presidential duties (and those of being a professor), he founded a winery that is still making excellent wine in Piemonte today. Their Dolcetto di Dogliani may be one of the best. The basic bottling is under $20. They have two higher end bottlings, which are perhaps a bit better, labeled as DOCG’s and should cost in the mid-$20’s. All of the Einaudi Dolcetto’s are of the modern, full-throttle nature. Vibrant purple in color with lots of blueberries and raspberries. Although new oak is used, the wine seems to be able to handle it without being overwhelmed. Other producers to look for in Dogliani include San Romano and Pecchenino. Both are priced around $20 and are made in a very approachable style with lots of cherries and spice notes.
The district of Alba, on the other hand, is famed for many different wines including Barolo, Barbaresco, Barbera, Nebbiolo and Moscato. They are also one of the most prolific producers of Dolcetto. Often, however, prime vineyard sites are dedicated to the more prestigious and more profitable grapes such as Nebbiolo and even Barbera. Dolcetto, however, as the earliest ripening of the red grapes, can be planted in sites where Nebbiolo or Barbera might not be able to get ripe. Hence, in the hands of the best producers, excellent wines are still able to be fashioned.
Dolcetto d’Alba’s have floral notes (lavender and violet) with almond notes too. They are not, as a rule, as intense as the ones from Dogliani. When choosing a producer, there are more alternatives. As is the rule with Barberas, the best producers of Barolos and Barbaresco’s also tend to make the best Dolcetto’s. Some of my favorite producers include Altare, Luigi Einaudi, Manzone, Molino, Pira, Vietti, Ratti, Pio Cesare, Clerico, Sandrone, and of course Bruno Giacosa. For my money, Bruno Giacosa is the best winemaker in the world. Even his “lowly” Dolcetto’s are excellent. You can expect to pay in the mid-$20’s for his Dolcetto D’Alba Falletto but you get a world class wine that is drinkable now and probably capable of ageing for ten years or more.
Traditionally, Dolcetto is served in the middle of a meal, after the whites and before the heavier reds. In the United States where meals are not marathon social occasions, Dolcetto’s are very food friendly. They go great with everything from cold cuts to stews.
In terms of vintages, I would buy anything on the shelves from 2003 or later with confidence. From the better producers, I would be willing to try even the dreaded 2002 vintage. As Docletto ripens earlier, the better producers were able to produce better wines than those based on Nebbiolo (which I have advised to avoid). Since even the best Dolcetto’s are available for under $30 and most under $20, this is a wine that you can buy with some confidence. I hope you all go out and try a bottle. Please let me know what you think.
Loren Sonkin is an IntoWine.com Featured Contributor and the Founder/Winemaker at Sonkin Cellars.