Italian red wine: Dolcetto D’Alba
Hannah Bellis goes beyond the famous and expensive Barolo and Barbaresco wines to discover Dolcetto, a great value, easy drinking red wine from Piedmont
Piedmont was the first region I visited when I was old enough to appreciate wine. I was still too young to afford the legendary Barolos of the area, but I did develop a taste for the Gavi whites, which were comparatively affordable in those days. As for red wine, I would always choose a Dolcetto, which was the everyday red wine of choice for the people in Le Langhe. In those days, my decision was based on price, but even as I’ve matured and can afford more expensive wines, I have still chosen this grape, and it’s great to see these underrated and, in my opinion, underpriced wines becoming more readily available outside Italy.
We are looking at Dolcetto d’Alba here, which is arguably the finest of the seven varieties of DOC wines made from Dolcetto grapes. Dolcetto means ‘little sweet one’, but actually a strong characteristic of this grape is that it is not very sweet. This is due in part to its early harvest – the grapes mature a full month before the venerated Nebbiolo grapes of Barolo. Its terroir is a very different environment too, as it favours the lighter tufa soils that cannot support Nebbiolo’s demands. Rather than sweet, the red wine is fruity, with a low acidity and gentle tannins. This is common for all the Dolcetto wines, but Dolcetto D’Alba should also have almond notes in its character and a definite almond finish. This gives it an easy drinking style that makes it perfect on its own or with a few antipasti. Raise a glass – it’s a low rent star in the making.
italia! discovery of the month GD Vajra Dolcetto D’Alba DOC 2012 From Liberty Wines www.libertywines.co.uk
This is one of the lower priced wines from GD Vajra, yet it is clearly a Dolcetto of some quality. Intensely aromatic, it is all plum fruit and floral scents, with a touch of the expected violets but also some rose on the nose. (A rhyme! It’s easy to get a little lyrical about this wine, even after just a few sips.)
In the mouth, you do get the signature Dolcetto cherry at the first taste, but it then reveals an almost herby character, with thyme and even oregano in the mix, that would make me want to accompany it with a good marinara pizza. The tannins are so structured you could almost chew them, giving you a really agreeable elegance that shows the quality of winemaker Aldo Vajra’s methods, as it balances the acidity beautifully.
The perfumed nature of the wine continues at the end of the palate, with a sweet, aniseed finish that will have you coming back for more. The wine looks as good as it smells too, with a deep red ruby colour in the glass. I’d choose this, a very good Dolcetto, over an overpriced, inferior Barolo any day.
Ascheri Dolcetto d’Alba DOC, 2011
From Great Western Wine
Dolcettos are best drunk young, within a year or two, but there are still bottles from the 2011 vintage available and drinking well. The harvest of 2011 is considered to be unusual as bud break came early but was followed by wet summer. But you don’t notice the strain in this wine from Ascheri, which is wonderfully fruity and light, with even hints of pepper and aniseed giving way to bitter almond. It’s not one for keeping – but none of them are, and why would you want to?
Enjoy this alongside some subtly spiced roast meats or pasta dishes.
Cascina Fontana Dolcetto D’aLBA DOC, 2011From Berry Bros & Rudd
This wine was a mixed bag for me. On the nose you get little but pure red fruit, but it’s a different story on the palate. Snappy tannins and a subtle, bitter almond give way to quite high acidity, which makes this wine a great partner for creamy flavours. It is a perfectly pleasing, highly drinkable Dolcetto d’Alba, with some real hints of quality, but personally I am more of a fan of the other Dolcetto d’Alba from Berry Bros in this review, which is also a little bit cheaper.
This will refresh your palate after creamy chicken dishes or risottos.
Bricco Bastia Dolcetto D’Alba DOC, 2012 From Great Western Wine
At 13 per cent, this is the strongest wine here (the rest are 12.5 per cent) but the fruity intensity and easy drinking style belies its strength. The wine is charmingly soft on the palate, with notes of hay and nuts not seen in any of the others. The signature berry and cherry flavour is there too, with a hint of minerality that makes it wonderfully refreshing. A fine summer red – but that’s no reason not to enjoy it in the winter months too!
Sliced ham and soft cheese with fresh bread – pretend it’s still summer.
De Forville Dolcetto D’aLBA DOC, 2012 From Majestic Wine
Usually £10.99 per bottle, this is on offer, so you can buy two bottles for £8.47 each. Unlike most Dolcettos, this wine spends six months in oak, and you can taste this. Yet, while pleasant, the oak does obscure some of the signature characteristics – there is no almond on the palate here, but the rich bitter cherries and orchard fruit still abound. The tannic structure is a little less than it should be, so struggles to balance the acid, but it is the cheapest in our selection.
The oakiness makes it a great partner with smoked meats and cheeses.
Prunotto Dolcetto D’Alba DOC, 2012From Berkmann Wine
I’ve sampled this wine in its 2011 vintage, and I am happy to say that I like the 2012 vintage even more. In the glass it has an almost violet intensity to the red, showing its youth, and the aroma is leaning towards redcurrant. It’s an acidic wine, but with sufficient tannic structure to keep the balance in proportion. It lacks some of the aromatics of the more expensive wines, but it is a highly drinkable red, very like the everyday Dolcettos drunk in Le Langhe.
A big slice or two of pizza – knock back a bottle in the company of friends.
Manuel Marinacci Dolcetto D’ALBA DOC, 2012From Berry Bros & Rudd
David Berry, Berry Bros’ wine buyer, is based in Piedmont, so I always expect wines from his locale to be chosen with particular care. This elegant Dolcetto d’Alba doesn’t disappoint. The brilliant violet colour is there, as are sweet, violet notes on the nose, interlaced with big ripe berries which follow on the palate with some big orchard fruit flavour too. Rather than minerality, this offers a refreshing chalkiness to balance the fruit. Impressive at the price.
Salted almonds or grissini as a pre-dinner drink, or even a buttered steak.
More than just a cash cow
Dolcetto’s reputation outside Italy is not great, though thankfully that is improving now. As it grows happily on the terroir unsuitable for Nebbiolo grapes, as well as being an early harvester and best drunk young, it could be harvested and sold for fast cash, while the Barolos and Barbarescos had to be stored and aged. But actually, these non-fussy characteristics lead to more than just a quick buck. The vines are often planted in cooler regions at higher elevations. These cool temperatures help to postpone an early ripening and preserve the acidity of the grape, which is naturally low and can struggle to stand up to the grape’s high tannins if not handled properly – both with careful growing on the vine and a short fermentation to avoid over extraction. So in fact, being unsupervised and quickly rushed onto the shelves will make an overly tanninic, bitter wine. Vigniers are discovering that with just a little extra attention, this grape can be made into something quite special.