Superior Summer Reds: Dolcetto


On the last night of Nebbiolo Prima, something quite unusual happened: we left the area of Barolo and drove thirty minutes south, to the township of Dogliani, where nebbiolo is not grown. While this did seem a bit odd at first, there were a few good explanations for it:
This year, the annual event sponsored by Albeisa that focuses on the new releases of nebbiolo-based Barolo, Barbaresco and Roero, was combined with another event called Grandi Langhe that features other wines of the area, including dolcetto.  Another reason is that after Roero DOCG left the Barolo, Barbaresco, Alba, Langhe consortium a few years ago to form its own administrative body, Dogliani (which became a DOCG in 2005) stepped up to take its place. And this is where it starts to get really interesting.
The truth is that while nebbiolo is clearly the most important grape variety of Piedmont and Barolo is the region’s most prestigious wine, up until not too long ago dolcetto was the most popular and most ubiquitous: this is what people drank every day and if you ordered red wine in an unpretentious osteria (when it was still easy to find such a thing) inevitably the bottle that got plopped down on the table was dolcetto. And it’s easy to understand why.
Typically the dolcetto grape produces simple, fresh and pleasantly fruit-forward wines, with a bright ruby-red color and soft tannins, which means it doesn’t need—and usually doesn’t benefit from—long ageing. This also means it ‘s less expensive  (so you can drink more of it) and the alcohol is usually a degree or two lower (so you can drink even more), plus it goes with just about everything—antipasti, pasta, main courses and cheese—so you don’t have to worry about what to pair it with or wait for a special occasion.
But not all dolcetto are created equal. The dolcetto from Dogliani has always been recognized as being distinctly different than the others: bigger-bodied, earthier, more structured and more complex, with a broader spectrum of aromas, a bit more alcohol and more pronounced tannins. Because of this, it usually gets a bit of ageing (often in wood, though not necessarily) prior to release. A wine labeled Superiore must be aged for at least one year. The distinctions of Dogliani, however, stem chiefly from its growing area.
Though it’s less than thirty minutes from the town of Barolo, the climate of Dogliani is a degree or two cooler, the median altitude of the vineyards is higher (about 350-500 meters above sea level compared to 250-350) and the slopes are a bit steeper, with many areas so steep they must be worked entirely by hand. And while the soil is basically the same — a combination of calcareous limestone, marls and clay — pronounced mineral notes are common here, and get locked into the grapes through a more dramatic excursion between daytime and nighttime temperatures. And there’s one more significant factor: whereas in the Barolo area dolcetto is relegated to the less desirable locations, in Dogliani dolcetto gets planted in the very best vineyard sites.
In an effort to underscore these geographic distinctions and distinguish the dolcetto of Dogliani from all the others, in 2005 the name of the grape variety was dropped, the name of the wine was changed to Dogliani, and the appellation was elevated from a DOC to the higher DOCG status. The Doglianesi were obviously starting to take their wine seriously. But the consequences of this were not always felicitous.
Living in the village of Castiglione Falletto in the heart of the Barolo region, each autumn I would make a pilgrimage to Dogliani on All Saint’s Day for the Fiera dei Santi when a steaming soup of tripe and chickpeas called Cisrà is served in the piazza accompanied by a vast assortment of the town’s namesake wine by the glass. Some years ago, however, I started to feel that many producers were trying too hard to make an ‘important’ wine. Many of the examples I encountered were over-extracted, over-aged, and overly woody, nearly as dark as balsamic vinegar and almost as thick and syrupy. It seemed as if Dogliani was losing its dolcettoness.
So when I pulled into the long driveway and up to the beautifully restored farmhouse that is the country hotel of Einaudi, one of Dogliani’s most historic and prestigious producers, it was not without some trepidation. I temporarily forgot it, however, when Matteo Sardagna, the sun-tanned athletic-looking Einaudi who is now running the family winery, greeted me warmly and escorted me out to a grassy terrace where the sun was setting over the Dogliani hills and a mixed group of people from Nebbiolo Prima and Grandi Langhe was standing around talking quietly, eating hand-sliced shards of prosciutto crudo and sipping glasses of chilled sparkling rosato, which turned out to be the perfect antidote to my tannin-fatigued palate.
After the sun sank behind the hills, it immediately got chilly and we drifted inside to a room turned into a makeshift movie theater for the world preview of a film about Dogliani produced by the Bottega del Vino Dogliani, the consortium of producers that manages the appellation which turned out to be a quite lovely portrait of the area through evocative images, ambient sounds, brief yet poignant interviews with local producers, and piano music composed and performed by Ludovico Einaudi, a well-known pianist-composer.
When the lights came back on and the clapping petered out, we moved into the adjacent dining room and took a seat at one of four long tables. Platters of salami and baskets of bread were brought out, corks began popping (popped by the very same producers who made them), bottles were passed around, and glasses filled. Then came the moment of truth.
I was having an enjoyable evening and, as I lifted the first glass, was steeling myself for disappointment. But that’s not what happened.
Overall, the wines were excellent—intense but not unwieldy, with enticing aromas, forward fruit balanced by firm acidity, earthiness with a stony mineral edge, and no sign of any invasive wood. And they only got better as successive courses—meat-filled tortelli with ricotta cream, roasted goat—arrived. Dolcetto of Dogliani was back and better than ever.
As the evening started to wind down, I went over to the next table to convey my appreciation to one of my favorite producers, Anna Maria Abbona, who also happens to be the current president of the Bottega del Vino di Dogliani, the consortium of producers that manages the appellation.  “Yes,” she said, “we’ve been working very hard to improve our winemaking to better express our territory. Perhaps we exaggerated a bit in the past, after the DOCG was created, trying to show how exceptional Dogliani is. But now I think we’ve found our path and found an equilibrium that shows in the wines.”

I couldn’t agree more.
Here are a few of the standouts of the evening:
Dogliani DOCG “Briccolero” 2015 — Chionetti
Dark ruby with a shine; aroma of violets, wild rose and asphalt, with bright cherry fruit tempered by orange peel acidity.
Dogliani DOCG “Sorì dij But” 2015 — Anna Maria Abbona
Warm & welcoming of ripe black plums, sour cherries
Dogliani Superiore DOCG “Vigna Tecc” 201_ — Poderi Luigi Einaudi
Structured, tannic, elegant. Tightly knit and extremely well-balanced
Dogliani Superiore DOCG “Sirì d’Jermu” 2015— Pecchenino
Velvety maroon black. Concentrated frutti di bosco flavors with a touch of fresh oregano, black pepper and anise.
Dogliani Superiore DOCG “San Bernardo” 201 — Anna Maria Abbona
70 year old vines; dark purple, almost opaque. Macerated prunes, dried black currants. Soft, dense & full-bodied but not heavy. Chalky mineral edge from the white soil. Extended ageing in large acacia casks. Big, powerful fruit core framed by supple tannins.

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