When was the last time you went out of your way to order, buy or drink a Dolcetto wine? With so much competition from other Italian classic grape varieties it has plummeted down the popularity stakes for many years, overtaken in its homeland of Piedmonte by Nebbiolo, in particular, and the Barolo and Barbaresco wines it makes. But sommelier Mattia Scarpazza believes the best quality Dolcetto wines, made from the DOCG vines, are very much worth a second look.
Next time you get a chance to visit Piedmont then make sure you check out the best quality Dolcetto wines, says Mattia Scarpazza.
In the past, last two decades wines from Piedmont saw unprecedented success in the global market, led by Barolo, Barbaresco and the many other wine appellations based on the grape Nebbiolo. Undoubtedly, a vast number of the high-quality wines from the region are produced from this grape variety.
Yet wines produced from Dolcetto are struggling to get the recognition that they may deserve. Let me start by addressing Dolcetto’s biggest fortune and misfortune: Dolcetto is an early ripening grape, it ripens two to three weeks before its counterparts Nebbiolo and Barbera. Therefore, producers in appellations that are focused on Nebbiolo and Barbera, tend to plant Dolcetto in those vineyards that are less favourable, reserving the best vineyard to other grapes. The wines are typically produced to be ready for bottling in the spring following the harvest. As a result, Dolcetto has gained a reputation for wines that are simple and best enjoyed young.
As Daniele Oddone, vice president of Dolcetto Ovada Superiore DOCG, says: “Dolcetto can ripen in those less favourable sites, but the resulting wines are hardly ever of great interest.” But then adds: “For Dolcetto to produce high-quality wines that are complex and age-worthy, it needs time to fully mature its tannins in the vineyards, as they are found in the pips, whereas Nebbiolo’s tannins are found in its skins. Therefore, site selection is important.”
The grapes that are allowed to fully ripen can handle more intricate and lengthy winemaking techniques, long macerations, and oak to mature the wines.
Where it gets interesting
It is this two-sides-of-a-coin situation, where I find that things become interesting. On one side Dolcetto wines can be a source of income months or even in some cases years before Nebbiolo wines, which is something favourable to producers in those appellations where the grape is predominant. On the other side, you have the case that Dolcetto can produce wines that are age-worthy and have a sense of place, that unfortunately are lying under the radar of most consumers.
The best areas of interest, and quality, for Dolcetto are unquestionably the three DOCGs: Dogliani; Diano D’Alba; and, the latest in 2008, Ovada. Those three regions are focused solely on the production of Dolcetto, and the best vineyards are reserved for the grape.
The reason Ovada was awarded DOCG status so late was certainly not for the lack of historical background. As Oddone says: “The region of Ovada was the first Dolcetto DOC in Italy in 1972 and is where the modern clone was generated.”
Ovada DOCG quality and classification is divided into three tiers: Dolcetto d’Ovada Superiore; “Vigna”; and “Riserva” or “Vigna Riserva” which are interchangeable. Yields are limited to 49Hl/ha and (42hl/ha for “Vigna” and “Riservas”) in comparison, Dolcetto D’Alba DOC is 63hl/ha, and with a minimum potential alcohol of 12.5% and (13% hl/ha for “Vigna” and “Riservas”). Wines need to mature for at least 12 months for Superiore and 20 months to 24 months for “Riserva” and “Vigna Riserva”, typically ageing is carried out in large wooded barrels, to aid oxygenation without adding flavours.
Fermentation are typically 10 to 20 days long, with gentle punch-downs. Commonly seen are open vats fermentation in both stainless steel and what the locals refer as ‘Botti’, which are large circular wooded vats, typically very old. Exceptions do exist but are somewhat limited.
So what does a high-quality Dolcetto need to have? Oddone is crystal clear: “Supple and ripe tannins, that is the key to a great Dolcetto”.
These, however, are not easily achieved, as Dolcetto tannins are prevalently found in the pips. Many things are needed to achieve integrated tannins.
All in the vines
Vineyard management is essential to ensure the final wines have balanced tannins and complex aromas. As Oddone explains: “Dolcetto is vigorous and needs more hours of pruning than Nebbiolo, ensuring that the canopy is balanced and that the yields are low, in order to have enough concentration.”
This also helps achieve ripeness without loosing acidity, of which Dolcetto doesn’t have as much Nebbiolo or Barbera. Unfortunately, many producers outside the DOCGs are not investing the time and effort, and are producing too many wines that are unbalanced, with unripe tannins. That, sadly, is the image that consumers have of Dolcetto.
But if you focus on the quality Dolcettos then you can find wines with a real sense of place, something a little bit saline, as they move towards black fruits and savoury notes.
Focus on Ovada
Ovada is a relatively small region, close to the more prestigious Gavi area. Dolcetto produced here is notably different from the other two DOGCs and the various DOCs. Ovada wines are focused, rich in flavours, and have a hearty and savoury undernote. Cascina Gentile, for example, releases its Ovada three years after harvesting, aged in used barriques and large barrels. Give them another couple of years and they really express their full potential, with more maritime, tar-like aromas. Although their acidity is not pronounced, the opulent flavour profile helps with the extra ageing.
Other notable producers from the area are Rossi Contini, which produces an age-worthy single vineyard ‘Vigneto Ninan’ from a 0.7 plot on pure white chalk soil, aged in used barriques for 20 months and further aged in bottle for at least a year. It has distinctively blackcurrant, prunes, and green tea aromas and it can also age beautifully.
For me, Dolcetto is an underrated grape that can produce fantastic wines, that span from gastronomical (pairing amazingly with aperitifs, charcuterie, and mediterranean cuisine) to complex long-lived wines, hidden gems full of personality.
It will take a few more years and a lot of effort to raise the global interest, but the quality is there. For buyers and consumers there is the opportunity to experience one of the most historical grapes of Piedmont. In most cases, wines are well priced especially compared to the more famous appellations of Piedmont. With more consumers becoming aware of Nebbiolo, more will start looking at what else is available from Piedmont. Dolcetto-focused producers must take this opportunity to establish themselves.
Mattia Scarpazza is head sommelier at Petersham Nurseries.