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Sweet in Price, not Taste, Dolcetto Reds Take Hold in Piedmont

Dolcetto Grapes
Dolcetto grapes in the Pasquale Pelissero vineyard. The low-acid dolcetto grapes grow easily in imperfect soil, making them a popular choice among Piedmont's winemakers. Source: Pasquale Pelissero via Bloomberg

No wine name seems more of a misnomer than Piedmont’s dolcetto, which in Italian means “little sweet one.” Piedmont does make sweet wines, like Asti Spumante and Brachetto d’Acqui, but dolcetto is a very dry red wine made from a namesake early-ripening, low-acid workhorse grape that grows easily in soil where the more refined nebbiolo does poorly. Dolcetto is sweet only in the colloquial sense of the ripeness of its grapes and softness of its tannins.

Because of its versatility, dolcetto is widely planted in Piedmont, with seven mini-appellations under the dolcetto umbrella, including dolcetto d’acqui, dolcetto d’alba, and dolcetto d’asti. Its light acids allow the fruitiness of the wine to come to the fore on the palate, so it’s easy to drink early after vinification and many bottlings are made in a light beaujolais style at a low price.

References to the grape date to the 15th century, but only in the past decade has the wine made from it acquired much of a reputation for real quality. As with Piedmont’s other commercial varietal, barbera, the region’s finest and most expensive barolo and barbaresco estates have realized that a quality dolcetto sells well in the international market if priced right.

A stunning example of how a famous barolo vintner can produce a dolcetto of such quality is Aldo Conterno’s Masante 2007 from the Langhe region, where the vineyards were established in 1969. When I tasted the wine last week I was amazed at the depth and complexity that followed the expected deep purple color. It has aged impeccably, its fruit, acids and tannins in perfect harmony, and an extraordinary value at $20 a bottle.

(There are three other dolcetto-making Conternos in Piedmont -- Fantino, Paolo and Giacomo, who is related to Aldo - - but they are independent of one another.)

Tannic Backbone

Bruno Giacosa is another of the top guns in Piedmont, a region famous for its big, bold long-lived barbarescos and barolos, so I was not surprised by the tannic backbone of his Dolcetto d’Alba Falletto ($20), which Giacosa’s website describes as having a “bitterish aftertaste typical of this variety.” Up front, however, is a nice wave of fresh fruit flavors. It’s a wonderful wine to have with a saffron risotto with Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.

Still developing its character, even after nine years, was Pio Cesare’s Dolcetto d’Alba 2000 ($20), whose tannins remain firm but whose flavors blossomed when paired with a thick, rare rib eye scented with a little rosemary.

Five Generations

Pio Cesare goes back five generations, to 1881, and while the winery clings to traditions the family pioneered, it takes advantage of the most modern technical advances. Its dolcetto is made from grapes from several of the best terroirs in Serralunga d’Alba (the Ornato Estate), Grinzane Cavour (Cascina Gustava), and Treiso (Il Bricco Estate).

The late Pasquale Pelissero, who started making wine in his garage in the 1970s, is described on his website as a “very conservative wine producer” but open to new technologies. The boutique winery, now under his daughter Ornella’s control, makes only 15,000 bottles annually.

The estate’s Dolcetto d’Alba Cascina Crosa 2008 ($15), made in the Langhe region, has a very deep color and rich tannins. Micro-oxygenation enhances the fruit, so obvious in the bouquet. At 13 percent alcohol, this is a lovely, easy-to-drink expression of 21st century dolcettos.

Remarkable Buy

Stefano Farina, which has holdings in Piedmont, Tuscany and Puglia, makes Dolcetto di Diano d’Alba 2008 ($10), a remarkable buy. While it lacks the complexity of others I tasted, it is sturdy, with good dark fruit flavors, and it becomes looser and more interesting after a half-hour in the glass.

Dolcetto is unlikely ever to achieve the status of barolo and barbaresco, but for a dry red wine that complements the complete range of meats in summer and winter, it has come a long way at a price level that makes perfect sense right now.

(John Mariani writes on wine for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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