'There is everything of Piedmont in this wine': why we need to love dolcetto once more

It’s fallen behind since its Seventies glory days, but dolcetto shouldn’t be playing third fiddle

Vineyards in Piedmont
Vineyards in Piedmont Credit:  917133080 Credit: Andrea Pistolesi

Dolcetto is a grape I like to drink in winter. Its pert black cherry flavour and bitter finish make a good companion to the season’s chicory and radicchio, especially when you put them with some fat. I like dolcetto with a plain risotto; radicchio, pancetta and crème fraîche pasta; Marcella Hazan’s lasagne served with wilted radicchio on the side; endive salad and mac ’n’ cheese; roast pork with bitter vegetables; and so on. It feels special to me, a high point of these miserable grey months, because I choose it deliberately.

Dolcetto is grown in the Alp-framed region of Piedmont in north-west Italy. In the Seventies and Eighties it was an important commercial crop with a very strong local following; an Italian wine guide of the time suggested that if a chemical analysis were performed on the blood of the people of Piedmont it would be found that there was more dolcetto than blood. Fabio Alessandria of Comm G B Burlotto, which is based in the village of Verduno, remembers his parents’ “push to produce good dolcetto at cheap prices”.

Today, though, dolcetto is very much Piedmont’s third red grape, behind nebbiolo, the grape that makes barolo and barbaresco, and barbera, which appears as itself (barbera d’Asti) and is widely combined with other grapes, both in Piedmont and elsewhere. The rise of brighter, easier nebbiolo styles like langhe nebbiolo and nebbiolo d’Alba, made, like dolcetto, for early drinking, has not helped its cause. As David Berry Green of DBGitalia says: “Nebbiolo is the new dolcetto at the moment.” In many places – even in Dogliani, a Piedmont appellation that has specialised in dolcetto – dolcetto is being taken out and vineyards replanted with nebbiolo.

I can see why dolcetto isn’t an easy sell, for either producers or merchants. It comes in at over a tenner a bottle, for a start – a price at which many casual red wine drinkers have an expectation of gravity or at least of weight and power, while serious wine drinkers tend to look for a more intellectually complex drink.

Invece, as the Italians would say – on the contrary – a good dolcetto is a joyful drink. Unexpectedly, dolcetto also counts among its supporters the producers of some of the most sublime, and sought-after, barolos and barbarescos you can find. “I am very happy that you ask about dolcetto,” says Maria-Teresa Bartolo Mascarello when I taste in her barolo cellar. “I am a supporter of dolcetto: for some it is no longer even considered to be wine – but for me it is a very typical wine for every day”

Likewise, Isidoro Vaira’s face illuminates at the mention of dolcetto. “What I love in dolcetto is that there is everything of Piedmont – you can feel the structure, the acidity, the freshness, the fruit – all in such a combination that the wines are very beautiful to drink.”

For anyone who loves the food and wine of Piedmont this is really the crux of it. A good dolcetto has the quality Wine People sometimes incomprehensibly call “typicity” – it tastes both of itself, and of the place in which it has been grown.

“Dolcetto tastes of place quite a lot,” nods Luca Roagna when, after joking, “Dolcetto? Are you sure?” he finally opens a bottle. The Roagna dolcetto is excellent. It should be: it comes from 60 to 70-year-old vines grown in Barbaresco, in the producer’s Paje and Asili vineyards. It might not make the best financial sense to continue to grow it but, Luca says: “my great-grandfather and the generation before planted dolcetto; it’s good to keep it.”

Alberto Alessandria, whose family estate, Crissante, is in La Morra in Barolo also prizes dolcetto’s place in history. Aren’t you tempted to graft your vines to nebbiolo? I ask. “No. We know nebbiolo is more requested, but our tradition is to make a bit of dolcetto.” Besides, he adds, the site is “perfect for the grape. We don’t want to change.”

As any gardener will realise, a good spot in the vineyard for one grape variety isn’t always such a great place to grow another. This hasn’t stopped some producers making the switch from good dolcetto to mediocre-but-more-lucrative nebbiolo. The supremacy of nebbiolo in the market does mean, though, that nebbiolo usually gets first pick of the slopes. Historically, an exception to this rule was Dogliani. But people don’t always make things easy for themselves. Changes to the rules and status of Dogliani’s dolcetto-only appellation in 2005 and 2011 saw the word dolcetto dropped from the name of the appellation – meaning that if you buy a dolcetto from Dogliani today it will not have dolcetto in big letters on the label: you’re just expected to know what the grape is.

In my view, this is a suicidal move. Nicola Chionetti, of the eponymous producer, defends it: “It doesn’t make a big difference [to selling wine]. It’s a rational evolution, if you consider that Barolo and Barbaresco are places and they’re now synonymous with wines.”

Another problem for dolcetto is best encapsulated by the phrase Trying Too Hard. Dolcetto sings when it is relatively simple. In an effort sometimes to make it more attractive to the American market, sometimes to make it more Important, certain producers have variously over-oaked and over-ripened dolcetto to make overblown wines that lose all sense of place and ease.

I see a pendulum swing towards the wines we all love to drink, however – graceful, joyful creatures. If you love them too, then note that they will have a different personality depending on where the grapes were grown. The best are wines with life and vim in them, ideally vinified in concrete or if they are oaked, then old, large format oak that leaves less of a mark on the brightness of the wine.

Look for the next vintage of Einaudi’s gorgeous dolcetto from the Wine Society – the current one has just sold out. Otherwise, check out the wines below.

Wines of the week

Crissante Dolcetto d’Alba 2018 Italy

13%, Tanners, £14.95

Made in tiny amounts, in a small family winery in La Morra, near Barolo, from the fruit of vines more than half a century old, this is a beautiful dolcetto – juicy but also textured and with plenty of Piemontese atmosphere in it.

GB Burlotto Dolcetto d’Alba 2018 Italy

12.5%, Lea & Sandeman, £15.25/16.95 mixed case/single bottle price

GB Burlotto is a serious player when it comes to barolo and also makes this beautiful dolcetto. The producer is located in Verduno, whose wines are known for their finesse and elegance, a style that you can see in the dolcetto, too.

G D Vajra Dolcetto d’Alba 2018 Italy

13.5%, Bottle Apostle, £21; Vinoteca, £19; Butlers Wine Cellar, £19.99

Vajra is located close to the village of Barolo and its dolcetto is bright and juicy, with a silky smoothness and a joyful cherry taste.