It’s been a while since I’ve had a Dolcetto. I won’t be waiting long again. Especially if I can find ones that are this good. Unfortunately, this is not in the state just yet. But I think the distributor will be bringing this in fairly soon.
Dolcetto is a traditional grape of the Piemonte region of northwestern Italy. At one point it was the most widely planted red grape of the region. Dolcetto has been mentioned in records dating back to the mid 1500’s and many believe it originated in or near Dogliani but this has not been proven. The name means ‘little sweet one’. This is not because the wine is sweet but because the grapes tend to be very sweet around harvest time.
Although Dolcetto is no longer the most widely planted red grape of the region it is still highly prized by producers. Dolcetto ripens earlier and in higher, cooler spots than either Nebbiolo or Barbera. The wines made by Dolcetto mature sooner allowing for an earlier release of the wines giving producers some cash flow while the Nebbiolo and Barbera based wines mature.
Dolcetto is mostly planted in the Langhe and Monferatto hills and around Acqui Terme, Ovada and Tortona. In Piemonte there are 7 appellations devoted to the grape. The wines produced from Dolcetto are typically soft with a tannic grip and low acidity. The aromas are of dark red and black fruits, violets, licorice and prune. The wines have a very pleasant, slightly bitter finish from the tannins. They are often a deeply colored ruby, almost purple. Dolcetto is the wine that starts the meal being consumed with the antipasti.
The Dolcetto D’Alba DOC is the largest of the 7 appellations devoted to the grape. Due to the shear size and production it is also the most well-known. It also has the most variable wines produced in a number of styles. The wines range from simple and fruity to fuller-bodied, structured and complex. Because the DOC overlaps the famous Barolo and Barbaresco DOCG’s, many producers of these wines also produce very good Dolcettos. The Superiore designation demands longer ageing and a slightly higher minimum alcohol.
I have a soft spot for the wines of Viberti Giovanni. I visited the winery 6 years ago (with the same distributor). It was a fantastic experience. Claudio, the young winemaker, took us through the vineyards and winery and gave us a great education on the geography and wine making techniques of the region. They also have a restaurant, Buon Padre, that is outstanding. We were treated to a private lunch by Claudio’s mother. Soft eggs with truffles, tajarin with truffles, anglotti del plin, beef braised in Barolo and about 4 other courses. Needless to say there were some good wines to wash down all of this traditional Piemontese cuisine. It still stands out as a top-ten dining experience. I highly recommend a meal if you are in the Barolo area.
I tasted this yesterday. It is absolutely delicious. It’s exactly what a classic Dolcetto D’Alba should be. All of the grapes are sourced within the commune of Barolo from several different vineyards. Fermentation and ageing is in stainless steel with additional time in bottle before release. The wine is deeply colored, opaque. The nose is bursting with red berry fruits, black cherry, licorice, violet and rose petal. It’s medium bodied with firm tannins and that signature pleasant bitter finish. This could be kept for a year or two but you won’t want to do that. Buy this by the case if you can find it. About $19.
Piemonte, tucked into the northwest corner of Italy, is a stunningly beautiful place. During the growing season one cannot help but notice that vines are almost everywhere, particularly in the heart of the region in the Roero, Langhe and Monferatto hills. In the fall, during truffle season, the patchwork of red and gold hues from the changing leaves on the vines will leave you breathless. In winter, the hills are often covered with blankets of snow. This is wine country. To be more precise, this is red wine country.
The powerful Nebbiolo based wines shine here and take the spotlight. Barolo and Barbaresco are the king and queen of Piemonte wines respectively but wines made from Barbera and Dolcetto are also highly regarded. The whites, although also well-regarded, are not nearly as popular outside of the region as they should be. Although it’s winter time and the temperature is not screaming white, I thought a primer on these very good wines was overdue. So, here are some grapes and the wines made from them that you should seek out now and when the weather starts to turn a bit warmer. But first a bit of history.
Piemonte played a key role in the unification of Italy in the 19th century. It was also where the nation’s industrial revolution took place which shaped the new nation’s economy. The region is the second largest behind Sicily and the largest producer of fine wines in the country. It is also home to some of the best cuisine and ingredients, such as white truffles, in a country that is known for its exceptional food. To say Piemonte is important to the wines, economy and culture of Italy is an understatement.
The region has been inhabited since around 1,000 BC by several tribes who settled here. Wine has been produced here since that time. It was the Etruscans who helped the locals with grape growing and winemaking as they did throughout central and northern Italy. This proud band of people stood in strong opposition against the might of the Romans until they finally capitulated in about 100 BC.
Fast-forward to the 18th century when the House of Savoy acquired all of modern-day Piemonte and set the groundwork for the unification of Italy. The House of Savoy set up shop not in France but in Torino, Italy. Eventually it would acquire the island of Sardegna and become the Kingdom of Sardegna, one of the most powerful in all of Italy. Piemonte then became the central region in the unification movement. In 1861 most of the independent entities of the peninsula were united as the Kingdom of Italy.
Piemonte’s vineyards cover about 110,000 acres. There are almost two dozen grape varieties planted that are unique to the region. The 42 DOC/G’s of the region ranks it as #1 in that category in terms of the number of appellations and the quantity of wine produced at this highest level. In fact, all of Piemonte’s vineyards, except a scant 10%, fall under the DOC/G category. This is the only region in Italy to hold this distinction.
No other region can challenge Piemonte for fine wine production. The region has the lowest average yields each year. All of the vineyards are planted on superior hillside locations and there are many single-vineyard wines produced within each appellation. Piemonte wins more wine awards than other region each year. Piemonte is the King of Italian Wine. And reds get the vast majority of the respect.
But there are some unique, fantastic whites produced here as well. I’ve picked 5 grapes and the wines made from them that you should try.
This is the most widely planted white grape and second overall, behind Barbera, in Piemonte. Most of these are used for the sparkling wines of Asti: Asti Spumante and Moscato d’Asti. These are both DOCG wines that share the same geographic boundaries. They are different in style though. This is the largest DOCG in terms of production in the region. Together they account for over 100 million bottles per year.
Asti Spumanti is a fully sparkling, slightly sweet wine produced from the Moscato grape exclusively. It was created in the 19th century by Carlo Gancia. Gancia had grown up in the region and traveled to Champagne where he learned the technique of traditionally made sparkling wines. He brought his knowledge back to Piemonte and made a sparkling wine using the traditional method like in Champagne. But Gancia’s wine was sweet. It was a big hit.
Eventually, an easier way of making wine sparkle was introduced called the Martinotti method. This involved making the wine sparkle in a tank instead of the bottle it was going to be served from as in Champagne. This, known as the Tank Method, was much easier and less labor intensive. Gancia adopted this method which better preserved the fruit of the Moscato grape. The wine has been recognized by the Italian government as Asti Spumante since the 1930’s.
Asti Spumanti is a fully sparkling wine that has a finer mousse (bubbles) than one might imagine from a Tank Method wine. Aromas are pronounced with the telltale grapey notes along with white flowers, orange zest, acacia, stone fruit and rose petals. The acidity is usually moderate as is the alcohol which rarely exceeds 9 or 10%. You can find a good Asti Spumante for around $10.
Moscato d’Asti is also produced from Moscato exclusively but it is a decidedly sweeter version with less sparkle. These wines are frizzante, meaning slightly sparkling. These are perfect wines to pair with desserts due to the high residual sugar. The wines are usually around 5% alcohol and must have the vintage on the label. Due to the low amount of carbonation these wines have a traditional cork unlike the mushroom cork and cage that Asti Spumante has. The aromas are more pronounced. There is much less Moscato d’Asti made and the producers are smaller often making red and white wines from other grapes as well.
This is an ancient, native grape grown in northern Piemonte near the border with Valle d’Aosta around the town of Caluso. The wines made from it vary in style from bone-dry to ultra-sweet and even sparkling. The reason for the variety is due to its’ thick skins and high natural acidity. Both are required for wines made in the appassimento method. This involves picking ripe grapes and then drying them on mats to concentrate the sugars. Thick skins are beneficial as they are less likely to be affected by rot. The high acidity keeps the sugar in the wine from tasting too cloying or thick.
The wine made from Erbaluce is called Erbaluce di Caluso or Caluso DOCG. All of the styles are permitted under the regulations. It is up to the producer to decide what style he or she wants to make. It is possible and often common for a producer to make dry, sweet and sparkling. The still, dry style is becoming more popular. The dry wines hint of apple, white flowers and citrus. The sweet versions will have more stone fruit, honey and spice. These are not easy to find but well worth the effort. One of the best producers is Liugi Ferrando.
Arneis in the local dialect refers to a difficult personality. It fits as the grape is difficult to grow with its’ naturally low acidity and inclination to become overripe if harvested too late. It is also prone to mildew, has low yields and oxidizes rather easily. For these reasons the grape, and its’ wines, fell out of fashion in the mid-twentieth century. If it were not for two producers, Giacosa and Vietti, the grape may have remained in obscurity and disappeared altogether.
These and other growers found that the chalky, sandy soils of its’ home, the Roero hills, added structure and acidity to the wines. Now, there are several outstanding producers of Roero Arneis DOCG including Giacosa, Vietti, Ceretto and Malvira to name just a few. The wines are on the fuller side with aromas of nuts, peaches, apricot, honey, ripe red apple, pear and orange blossom. There is also an excellent sparkling wine made under the Roero DOCG if you can find it.
The Crotese grape with its’ restrained character has been documented as far back as 1659. In 1870 it was noted that the grape was widely planted in the Alessandria province of southeastern Piemonte. The grape was particularly valued for its’ resistance to disease and its’ ability to deliver large crops while producing quality wines. It is still considered a vigorous variety and yields must be curtailed to tame the naturally high acidity. Ripe fruit from lower yields produces wines with ripe apple, pear and citrus with refreshing acidity.
Although Cortese is grown outside of Piemonte in Lombardia and the Veneto it performs best around the town of Gavi in southeastern Piemonte. Wine has been made in Gavi since at least 972 AD. The wines gained popularity in the 1960’s and 70’s in Italy and abroad.
The Gavi DOCG encompasses 11 communes. The wines must be made exclusively from Cortese grown on hillside vineyards. In cooler years when the grapes don’t ripen fully the wines can be rather austere. Ripe grapes from low yields have good body with plenty of acidity and minerality. Producers can also make a sparkling version. If all the grapes come from one of 18 communes and hamlets the producer may label the wine with the name of the commune as in Gavi del Comune di Gavi is the grapes are all from the commune of Gavi.
Timorasso is an ancient variety that was once widely planted in Piemonte and Liguria. Its’ home is in the hills of Tortona in southeastern Piemonte. The grape fell out of favor after the arrival of phylloxera when it was not re-planted in favor of other grapes that were easier to grow and more commercially viable. If it were not for the efforts of one man, Walter Massa, the grape would have disappeared forever. Today there are several producers producing excellent wines from this high-quality grape.
The wines made from Timorasso, labeled under the Colli Tortonesi DOC, are some of the most exciting wines coming out of Piemonte today, red or white. I love them. They are high in acidity with good body. The aromatics are intense with floral and citrus notes along with apple, pear and a tinge of honey. The palate is on the full side but the acid keeps everything fresh. Although there is not a lot of oak being used on the wines they have a beautiful texture and creaminess that comes solely from the grape. Most of these retail in the mid to high twenties but they are worth it. Look for the wine of Walter Massa and La Colombera.
I hope you can find these in your local retail shop or a restaurant as they are well worth the hunt.
Had these three over the course of a couple of days and was very pleased. The great thing is that they could not have been more different from each other. Variety is the spice of life!
2011 Flametree Cabernet Merlot, Margaret River, AU
Flametree bust onto the Aussie wine scene in 2008 for its’ first-ever wine, the 2007 Cabernet Merlot. The wine received award after award. And the rest is history. A short history, but a good one nonetheless. The winery was started in 2007 when the Towner family purchased some land in Margaret River in Western Australia with the intent of making exceptional, hand-crafted wines. They have come a long way in such a short time regularly being recognized as one of the best, small wineries in the country.
The 2011 Cabernet Merlot is actually a blend of mostly Cabernet Sauvignon with a good smattering of Merlot and some Petite Verdot and Malbec thrown in for good measure. This is almost opaque purplish that stains the glass. Very aromatic with blackcurrant fruit, cassis, blackberry and some smoke. The oak is there but very well-integrated. The palate is ripe and lush with soft tannins. Plenty of fruit here but not jammy or over the top. Nice long finish. Very good at $35.
Ornella Pelissero and her husband Lorenzo now own the Cascina Crosa farm outside of the the town of Neive. She worked the land with her father, Pasquale, until he passed away in 2007. Even though the farm has been in the family since 1921, the first bottling came in 1971 when Pasquale transitioned from a grower based on quantity to a producer based on quality.
The grapes for this Barbaresco, one of 3 made, come from the cru San Giuliano in the commune of Neive. This is still a bit tight but it does show the tell-tale Nebbiolo markers of rose petal, violet and cherry along with a turned earth note. The tannins are still young and high making this very grippy. Give it some time in a decanter or the glass and it rounds out nicely. This needs food to tame the tannins. Steak would be the obvious choice but lamb, duck or quail would also work. About $34.
2012 Domaine Hauvette Les Baux de Provence ‘Amethyste’, Provence, France
Domaine Hauvette sits at the foothills of the Les Alpilles near to the Roman ruins where Van Gogh painted his famous ‘Starry Night’. The land is wild and rocky with limestone soils, perfect for the vine. Garrigue (the aromatic vegetation found in southern France) is everywhere, even showing up in the finished wines with its’ notes of pine resin, rosemary and lavender. Dominique Hauvette came here in the 1980’s from Savoie to raise horses and make wine. She now has a reputation as one of the best natural wine producers of the region.
She started to focus on biodynamics in 2000. When you are making wines as naturally as she does, a focus on the health of the land is absolutely necessary. Healthy, perfect grapes are mandatory to produce wines of this caliber. In the cellar she is decidedly hands-off and low-tech with outstanding results.
This wine surprised me a bit. The color was a pale ruby. Or was it garnet? Either way, one would not expect such a pale wine from this very hot corner of Provence. The blend is made up of mostly Cinsault with Carignan and Grenache rounding out the grapes. Very perfumed but delicate aromas of raspberry and strawberry with thyme and pine. No oak here. This wine is not a lightweight but certainly not full-bodied. The palate is soft and inviting. It reminds me a bit like a Valpolicella or Barbera in that the tannins are barely there and the acidity is high. Red fruits abound on this juicy wine. This is so refreshing that you cannot help but want to take another sip. Delicious. $35.