Dolcetto, a wine for all seasons

Only among epicures as exigent as the Piedmontese would Dolcetto be considered a wine for everyday. In the Alba area, Dolcetto is sometimes known affectionately as “Barolino” and considered the wine to go with the opening courses, invariably giving way to Barolo or Barbaresco with the main course.

As a longtime devotee, I consider Dolcetto not secondary to Barolo or Barbaresco but a splendid alternative, outshining its august cousins as a versatile match for many more dishes in the grand tradition of Piedmontese cooking—beginning with the sumptuous array of antipasti but not ending there. In short: a wine for all seasons.

That thought came to mind as I savored a Dolcetto d’Alba Bussia 2013 from Fratelli Barale, a wine of deep mulberry color and luscious grapy scents that gratifies the palate with ripe berry flavors and hints of almond and cacao buoyed by sturdy tannins through a bracing finish. The wine went nicely with an antipasto toscano, then seemed to gain stature through a meal of tagliatelle con ragù and arista di maiale with a side dish of fagioli and a final taste of pecorino.

Outside of Piedmont Dolcetto has never made the impact it deserves. This is due in part to its reputation as a red to drink young—some liken it absurdly to Beaujolais nouveau—conditioning consumers to avoid even moderately aged versions of the wine. Also the term dolcetto, which refers to the sweetness of the grapes, can confuse consumers because modern wines are invariably dry.

In places in Piedmont, Dolcetto prevails, not only in the vineyards but in the hearts of the people. Once such place is Dogliani in the Langhe hills, which claims to be the birthplace of the vine. There Dolcetto dominates the slopes—unlike in Barolo where Nebbiolo commands the privileged plots known as bricco or sorì—and the wine is known proudly as Dogliani DOCG.

I recently tasted through a series of vintages of Dogliani, dating back to a remarkably vital 2003. That and other wines indicated that Dolcetto grown in favorable conditions has aging capacities similar to wines from Nebbiolo. Aged Barolo tends to show greater finesse and complexity in bouquet and flavor, but aged Dogliani tends to retain richer color and body and more vigorous sensations on the nose and palate.

While indulging in a full-range Piedmontese feast with a group of vignaioli in Dogliani, one of them remarked, “Barolo may be a wine for special occasions, but Dolcetto makes any occasion special.” We happily drank to that.

Burton Anderson