Earlier this year I was able to spend a couple of weeks in Piedmont. Of course my mission there was to asses the upcoming 2010 and 2011 Barolo and Barbaresco wines, an article which is nearing completion, but today I wanted to focus on wines that are more appropriate to the season. While I love Nebbiolo based wines , they are not necessarily an ideal summer wine, with their not inconsequential alcohol. Piedmont does of course have wines that are perfectly suited for summertime consumption, namely Barbera and Dolcetto.
A few years back you wouldn’t have caught me recommending the later over the former but my how things have changed. A couple of less than intense vintages and a gradual pulling back from extremes has created a new style of Dolcetto, that greatly resembles the old style of Dolcetto.
Confusing? Just a little, but wow is Dolcetto making an impression on me these days!
So what was the old style of Dolcetto? It was light and easy drinking; the everyday wine of Piedmont, and in some ways the white wine of a region that essentially had no white wine. It was also not always fully ripe, and often suffered from issues of reduction, to which it is particularly prone. Now that doesn’t sound good, does it?
That’s where the new style comes in. Dolcetto is notoriously difficult to produce, more so than Barolo by all accounts. In the vineyard the vines tend to be vigorous and need a lot of management, and in the cellar that reduction issue can be a huge problem, requiring very attentive winemaking. While it was not always the case in the past, today's winemakers are absolutely nailing it in both the vineyard and the cellar, resulting in wines that are clean, pure, and even elegant, which certainly was not the case with old school Dolcetto.
It wasn’t even the case with recent Dolcetto. Before producers returned to a lighter style of Dolcetto, which frankly was made possible by the improvements in their techniques and methods, they had flirted with a style change. Dolcetto had become, in some quarters and for some time, DOLCETTO! Gone were the low alcohol levels, fresh, clear, bright fruit, and eminent drinkability that should be Dolcetto d’Alba’s hallmarks. Notice I changed nomenclature there on you. There are place where, for specific reasons, Dolcetto can be made into more powerful wines with great success. Dogliani to the south of Barolo and Ovada over to the east are two regions that focus on Dolcetto and excel with myriad styles. So why shouldn’t the Langhe?
In a word: Nebbiolo. In the Langhe, where Barolo and Barbaresco are produced, Nebbiolo is king and tends to occupy every square inch of prime vineyard ground. And then there is Barbera, which squeezes into the secondary vineyard sites essentially relegating Dolcetto to the lesser sites. This was perfectly fine for making vino da pasto, food wines for everyday drinking, but when it came to trying to make something important from these grapes, well the raw material simply wasn’t there. I visited one producer who makes Dogliani, Dolcetto from the region around the town of the same name, and the wines were strikingly different than the typical Dolcetto d’Alba, for good reason of course, and frankly I am happy that this is becoming increasingly the case.
I am writing this today specifically because I feel that Dolcetto, this new/old hybrid style of Dolcetto in particular, is ideally suited to serving as a summertime red. They take a slight chill well, being relatively low in tannin and with excellent juicy acids. They are eminently food friendly, with just a hook of bitter almond on the finish that both helps to highlight their fruity flavors and gives so many savory flavors something to play off when pairing these wines with food. That of course is what you should be doing. Dolcetto has returned, in a certain way, to being a vino da pasto, though in a foodie kind of way.
These are not simple wines per se. They offer an array of flavors that are intriguing, but the weight, texture, and balance of these wines should appeal to both the novice and more well travelled palates. I freely admit to being incredibly underwhelmed by many if not most, yes even almost all Dolcetto as recently as a half dozen years ago, but things have changed. Now is a fabulous time to reacquaint yourself with Dolcetto. And to make things even more attractive the wines tend to be relatively inexpensive, an added bonus and a result of producers backing off the extremely low yields they were after when DOLCETTO was their goal.