The Successful Collector – By Julian Hitner ~ Barbera and Dolcetto – two terrific grapes ~ Saturday, September 3rd, 2011
Piedmont’s two greatest red grapes (after Nebbiolo):
For the record: Barolo is incontestably the greatest red wine of Piedmont, as well as one of the most wonderful wines in the world. That much is simple. After this comes Barbaresco, extremely similar in style, though oftentimes not as complex and capable of lesser cellaring potential. Put together, however, these two DOCG-based wines constitute some of finest offerings Piedmont has to offer. Furthermore, both of these wines are crafted from 100% Nebbiolo, a fickle, ultra-sensitive grape, particularly in terms of climate, that often demands at least five years’ worth of aging to show its beguiling array of aromatics.
A most challenging grape.
But this column isn’t about Nebbiolo, nor is it about Barolo or Barbaresco. It’s about two other Piedmontese red grape varietals that, thanks to the overshadowing prominence of Barolo and Barbaresco, have often been considered worthy of only limited attention: Barbera (pictured right) and Dolcetto. Put simply, the time has come – as some persons have already realized – to give these two grapes their due.
Let’s begin with Barbera. Often considered the runner-up to Nebbiolo in terms of overall quality (i.e. in Piedmont), Barbera is the type of grape that seems perfectly comfortable in all sorts of conditions; which probably helps to explain its widespread cultivation not just in Piedmont, but also throughout many other parts of Italy. From serving as a basic, fruity everyday offering, vintners have lately begun to realize that Barbera is also remarkably well-suited to aging in French oak barriques; making for a wine that can not only be enjoyed young, but one that can also be aged for more than just a couple of years. Indeed, some of the best examples of barrique-aged Barbera have proven deliciously serious and uniquely complex – definitely worthy of collectors’ interest. For the most part,
however, the vast majority of Barbera is often crafted in the straightforward style. Such wines are typically aged in almost-neutral large Slavonian oak (sourced from Croatia), and offer lovely notes of fresh plums, dark sour cherries, very mild undergrowth, herbs and spice. Not that one should object to such wines in the least. After all, not everything can be a collectors’ item. In the end, the best ones to watch out for – barrique-treated or not – typically come from Barbera d’Alba DOC, with ones from Barbera d’Asti DOC generally considered to be of a somewhat lighter style.
Finally, we turn to Dolcetto. What an adorable name for a grape! The name means ‘little sweet one’ in Italian, which is almost exactly how I would characterize this delightfully vibrant varietal. The third-most important grape in Piedmont, Dolcetto is often planted in cooler sites not deemed suitable for Barbera (or Nebbiolo). And unlike its more exalted counterparts, the best examples of Dolcetto tend to be those with only a very minimal amount of oak influence. Unglamorous perhaps. Unworthy of purchase no, for Dolcetto is one of those wines that almost never fails to give pleasure: think dark cherries picked fresh from the tree, intermixed with a few red plums, herbs, and just a hint of spice. On the palate: solid acidic content and plumy cherries are traits to watch out for; on account of the former, many people opt to pair Dolcetto with antipasti. As for aging, Dolcetto is really best drunk young, while its delicate primary flavours are in full bloom. After all, though only just a handful of (Italian) wines are as prestigious and ageworthy as Barolo, there are still plenty of other, additional choices to be had.