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Dolcetto, Piedmont's Affordable Red
By Ed McCarthy
Sep 14, 2010
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Many of my favorite red wines come from Italy’s Piedmont region.  They include, of course, Barolo and Barbaresco.  But frankly, these two great wines are too big and powerful—and too expensive—to drink on a regular basis.  Instead, I find myself drinking a lot more Barbera and Dolcetto, Piedmont’s affordable reds, both at home and in Italian restaurants.

I love Barbera, my favorite wine with pizza.  But I’ve noticed that, with its new-found popularity, Barbera is starting to get a bit pricey.  More and more Piedmontese Barberas are now retailing for over $20, and a few of the best are over $40.  For me, an affordable red wine should retail in the $12 to $20 range.  Fortunately, many fine Dolcettos can still be found in this price range.

I’ve got a soft spot in my heart for Dolcetto, the one Piedmont wine most overlooked in the U.S.  I even named my little Siamese cat “Dolcetto.” She’s about to turn 19, and is aging better than her namesake wine does.

Traditionally, Dolcetto and Barbera are the two red wines that Piedmontese drink the most; they save Barolo, Barbaresco, or any of the other important Nebbiolo-based wines for special dinners.  Because Dolcetto and Barbera are very different wines, they are typically served separately, depending on the cuisine of the day.

Barbera, with its fruitiness, high acidity and very low tannin, goes best with all tomato-based dishes, such as pastas, meat, and even fish.
Dolcetto—which means “little sweet one” in Italian—is actually a very dry, medium-bodied wine, made from the Dolcetto grape variety, and it is not blended with any other variety.  It has good acidity (but not as acidic as Barbera), medium tannins, and a rich texture, with aromas and flavors of black pepper and ripe berry fruit.  It is an ideal accompaniment to Italian antipasti—especially hard salami—and to simpler pasta dishes such as spaghetti al pomodoro.

Dolcetto has been compared to Beaujolais, but this is an erroneous comparison, because it is too dry a wine to drink without food, unlike the softer, fruitier Beaujolais.  When Dolcetto and Barbera are served together at the same dinner, Dolcetto is invariably served first, as it is dryer and slightly lighter-bodied than Barbera.

Dolcetto ages differently than Barbera.  Both wines are best when they’re young, in my opinion. But Barbera can age for ten or twelve years.  It just doesn’t really improve that much with age—unlike its big brothers, Barolo and Barbaresco.  Dolcetto tastes best in the first two years, and at three years of age it’s still fine.  Beyond three years of age, only the best Dolcettos will still improve; most become less interesting or compelling once they lose their freshness.

Dolcetto comes from eight different DOC zones in Piedmont, and so there are eight different Dolcetto wines, but we see mainly three in the U.S. market— the three most highly regarded Dolcetto wines:

Dolcetto d’Alba (by far the most commonly exported Dolcetto)
Dolcetto di Dogliani (from the town of Dogliani, south of Alba, and renowned for its Dolcettos; biggest, longest-lived Dolcettos)
Dolcetto di Diano d’Alba (the village of Diano’d’Alba is high up in the hills above Alba; these Dolcettos are elegant, with good acidity).

The other five Dolcetto wines are the following:
Dolcetto d’Asti (light-bodied, with good acidity; not as well-known as Barbera d’Asti)
Dolcetto di Ovada (southernmost Dolcetto zone; full-bodied and tannic)
Dolcetto d’Acqui (in Alessandria; light and floral)
Dolcetto delle Langhe Monregalesi (lighter-bodied)
Langhe Dolcetto (general DOC Dolcetto; wines from no specific zone, other than the large Langhe area around the town of Alba)

Three Dolcetto wines are entitled to use to the more prestigious DOCG appellation rather than the more commonly used DOC, provided that the wines follow stricter production requirements.  Dolcetto di Dogliani was the first Dolcetto wine to be granted DOCG status, in 2005.  In August, 2010, Dolcetto di Diano d’Alba and Dolcetto di Ovada were also granted DOCG appellations.  Dogliani and Ovada, large Dolcetto zones, can use DOC or DOCG, based on production standards used for the wines.  The small Diano d’Alba zone now is entitled to use only DOCG for all of its Dolcettos. 

This past spring I made my annual trek to Piedmont.  One of my specific goals on this trip was to find some of the best Dolcettos.  I concentrated on the Alba and Dogliani wine zones, and tasted Dolcettos on every wine visit. 

One bothersome trend that I confirmed on this visit is that some producers have either stopped making Dolcetto or have cut down its production drastically.  Often, Dolcetto vines have been replaced with Barbera or Nebbiolo vines.  For example, Giacomo Conterno, one of my favorite producers, pulled out its Dolcetto vines in Serralunga and re-planted Nebbiolo.  Angelo Gaja gave up on Dolcetto over a decade ago.  Vietti used to make single-vineyard Dolcetto wines, but no more.  I asked Vietti winemaker Luca Currado the reason for the cutdown on Dolcetto.

“We don’t make any money on Dolcetto,” he replied.  “People won’t pay a lot of money for Dolcetto, even though it costs us the same to make as Barbera.”  The logic was plain: Why use valuable vineyard land to grow Dolcetto when you can make a lot more money selling Barolo, Barbaresco and Barbera.

Fortunately for those of us who enjoy Dolcetto and would hate to see it disappear—in the manner that two other of my favorite Piedmontese wines, Freisa and Grignolino, have almost vanished—two good reasons exist that insure the continuation of Dolcetto:

• The terroir of some Piedmontese zones—such as Dogliani, Diano d’Alba, and Ovada—is perfect for the early maturing Dolcetto variety, but definitely unsuitable for the late-maturing Nebbiolo or even Barbera.  For example, Dolcetto can thrive at much higher altitudes than Nebbiolo.

• Some Piedmontese producers love Dolcetto so much that they wouldn’t dream of discontinuing it, even if it’s not a big moneymaker.

Three producers of Dolcetto truly stand above the crowd, and I believe make the very best Dolcettos.  Two are in Dogliani, the zone that many critics believe is the very best for Dolcetto . The producer of the other great Dolcetto wine is in Alba, but his wine is in short supply and is difficult to find.  These wines are all a bit more expensive than the typical Dolcetto, but they are definitely worth the price.

Quinto Chionetti, a producer in Dogliani who is now 85 years old, is the uncrowned king of Dolcetto wines.  On a hillside overlooking the town of Dogliani, Chionetti makes two superb, long-lived Dolcettos, and a little bit of Nebbiolo Langhe (which is quite good!).

I mentioned that Dolcetto should be generally consumed in the first three years, when it’s at its best, to enjoy its fresh fruit.  But Chionetti’s Dolcettos are an exception: Don't drink them in the first three years; they’re too big, too tannic, and are still closed. I would wait at least five years.

Chionetti’s single-vineyard San Luigi Dolcetto is his larger-production wine (about 48,000 bottles), and is slightly more approachable; his single-vineyard Briccolero (about  32,0000 bottles), as dark and as concentrated a Dolcetto as you can find, which can age for up ten years or more, is only slightly pricier than the San Luigi.  I tasted the superb 2008s, which will be in the U.S. shortly.  Meanwhile, you can find Chionetti’s 2007s, average retail price $25, and the 2006s a bargain at $19.

The second-great Dogliani producer, Poderi Luigi Einaudi, is a much larger winery than Chionetti’s.  Founder Luigi Einaudi purchased his first vineyard back in 1897; today, Matteo Sardagna, fourth generation descendant of Luigi Einaudi, is running the winery. Einaudi is probably slightly better known for its Barolos than its Dolcettos, although Dolcetto accounts for 70 percent of its production. 

Luigi Einaudi produces three different Dolcettos, totaling up to 200,000 bottles. This producer takes its Dolcettos very seriously.  I tasted Einaudi’s  big-production (160,000 bottles) 2009 Dolcetto di Dogliani DOC at the winery (Einaudi uses the DOC appellation on its standard Dolcetto   and DOCG for its two premium Dolcettos), and found it to be excellent, much more concentrated  and powerful than other Dolcettos.  This wine is not in the U.S. yet, but Einaudi’s 2008  Dolcetto DOC is available, and retails for $19 to $21.

For me, the great Einaudi wine is its Dogliani “Vigna Tecc” DOCG. Made from two of the oldest Dolcetto vineyards in Dogliani (planted in 1937), the 2008 Vigna Tecc (35,000 bottles) which I tasted is a powerhouse, with explosive black fruit flavors; it needs another four or five years of aging.  I rated it “93,” my favorite Dolcetto on this trip along with Chionetti’s Briccolero.

The 2007 Vigna Tecc is currently retailing in the U.S. in the $26-$27 range (with the 2008 just becoming available).  The third Einaudi Dolcetto, “I Filari ” (only 5,000 bottles made), also a DOCG, is aged in large oak barrels—as opposed to Vigna Tecc, aged in stainless steel.  I tasted the 2008 I Filari and found it to be elegant and smooth, a “modern” Dolcetto, if you will.  Not my style, but it has its fans.  The 2007 I Filari retails in the U.S. in the $33 to $36 range.

My third great Dolcetto was the wine that first made me realize how awesome the humble Dolcetto variety can be when grown under the best conditions.  Marcarini is renowned as a traditional producer of well-priced Barolo wines in La Morra, the largest and prettiest village in the Alba/Barolo zone.

I discovered Marcarini’s little-known gem, Dolcetto d’Alba “Boschi di Berri,” over 20 years ago on a visit to the winery, when Elvio Cogno (now with a winery of his own) was Marcarini’s winemaker.  Marcarini’s standard Dolcetto d’Alba “Fontanazza” is a good example of a solid, well-made Alba Dolcetto; the 2007 is available in the U.S. for about $14-$15, but go for the fresher 2008, at around $15-$16. 

Better yet, buy Marcarini’s exquisite, pre-phylloxera Dolcetto d’Alba, “Boschi di Berri.”   The small Boschis di Berri vineyard was planted in the late 19th century about 1200 feet up in the La Morra hills, in sandy soil.  It is planted on its own rootstocks; the phylloxera louse cannot get to it through the sand.  I last tasted the Marcarini Boschis di Berri in the 2005 vintage.

I can still remember the 2005, the last bottle of which I finished drinking this year.  It was ruby red-violet in color, and had intense aromas and flavors: violets and raspberries, with a long finish worthy of a Barolo.  Not much is made (as I recall, about 2,000 bottles, maximum).  Because it’s Dolcetto, this rare beauty is extremely well-priced; vintages 2005 through 2008 can be found in the U.S. retailing in the $25 to $28 price range (which I find amazing!).  Like The Chionetti and Einaudi Dolcettos, Marcarini’s Boschis di Berri is another age-worthy exception: a Dolcetto that can age and will improve with age.  I recommend drinking it with five years or more of age.

I list here in no particular order other good Dolcetto wines available in the U.S. that I have tasted during the past year. Unless otherwise noted, the current vintages of these Dolcettos retail in the $15 to $20 range:

• Vietti Dolcetto d’Alba “Tre Vigne” 2008
• Renato Ratti Dolcetto d’Alba “Columbe” 2009 (good value, $13-$15)
• Roberto Voerzio Dolcetto d’Alba “Priavino” 2007 ($19 to $25;’08 very good)
• Luciano Sandrone Dolcetto d’Alba 2008
• Marchesi di Gresy Dolcetto d’Alba “Monte Aribaldo” 2008 (one of my very favorite Dolcettos; very elegant, like the Marchese)
• Gigi Rosso Dolcetto Diano d’Alba 2008, 2009
• Claudio Alario Dolcetto Diano d’Alba “Montagrillo” 2007, 2008
• Marziano Abbona Dolcetto di Dogliani “San Luigi” 2008
• Marziano Abbona Dogliani DOCG “Papa Celso” ’07, ’08 ($23-26)
• Poderi Aldo Conterno Langhe Dolcetto “Masante” 2008 ($23-$28)
• Poderi Colla Dolcetto d’Alba “Pian Balbo” 2007
• Marchesi di Barolo Dolcetto d’Alba “Madonna di Como” 2008
• Giuseppe Mascarello Dolcetto d’Alba ‘Bricco” 2007 ($20-$23)
• Bartolo Mascarello Dolcetto d’Alba “Vigne Monrobiolo” 2008  ($25-$30)
• Francesco Rinaldi Dolcetto d’Alba “Roussot” 2008, 2009
• De Forville Dolcetto d’Alba 2008
• Elvio Cogno Dolcetto d’Alba “Vigna del Mandorio” 2008
• Brovia Dolcetto d’Alba “Vignavillej” 2008
• Cantina del Pino Dolcetto d’Alba 2007, 2008
• Cavallotto Dolcetto d’Alba “Vigna Scot” or “Bricco Boschis” 2008
• Anna Maria Abbona Dolcetto di Dogliani “Sori dij But” 2008
• Boroli Dolcetto d’Alba “Madonna di Como” 2007
• Francesco Boschis Dolcetto di Dogliani “Pianezzo” 2008 ($14-$16)
• Bruno Giacosa Dolcetto d’Alba “Falletto” 2008, 2009 (’09 especially fine)
• Vigne Regali (Banfi) Dolcetto d’Acqui 2007, 2008 ($11-$12; great value)

Needless to say, Dolcetto wines go very well with Italian cuisine.  They remain one of the best red wine values in today’s wine world.