Bill’s Best Bets – March 2017
Dolcetto and Barbera
by Bill Zacharkiw
Located at the foot of the Alps, and bordering France and Switzerland, Piedmont is my favourite Italian wine growing region. While the wines can demand a little bit more of you to understand, they are unique. And in a wine world where we have seen a certain homogenization of style, for me, unique counts for something extra.
While there are some decent white wines, most notably from the cortese grape in the Gavi region, this region is all about three very distinct red wine styles. Each has their own grape. Each is very different. I have talked often about nebbiolo in these pages, so today I will devote myself to the two others – dolcetto and barbera.
Due to Piedmont’s northerly latitude, full ripeness is never a guarantee for later ripening grape varieties. So the prime real estate is given to nebbiolo. Dolcetto, the earliest ripening, often gets the coolest sites. Dolcetto is a strange grape. Its name in Italian translates as “the little sweet one,” however the reality is that it is far from sweet.
I often compare dolcetto to “a Beaujolais with torque.” They share a similar bright and chirpy fruitiness but dolcetto has much more tannin. So unlike Beaujolais, dolcetto needs food. And it is at the table that the beauty of dolcetto is unlocked.
Most producers make a dolcetto, but my favourite appellation is Dogliani. While the clay, marl and limestone soils are ideal, more importantly, here is that dolcetto gets the prime growing areas. Here are a few to try.
Starting with Dogiliani, if you want to see the “power” potential of the grape, then try the 2015 Quinto Briccolero from Chionetti or the 2013 Bricco Botti from Pecchenino. Both of these are worth their over $25 price tag, but there are a number of more value choices out there.
Paolo Scavino’s 2015 Dolcetto d’Alba offers up delicate florals and spice alongside surprising freshness. A touch more traditional is the 2014 Dolcetto Langhe from Silvio Grasso, which can handle lighter meats.
Despite being blended with 15% nebbiolo, one of my favourite dolcetto wines from all of Piedmont is the 2009 Bricco del Drago from Poderi Colla. Such incredible refinement and length, and can live for ages in a cellar. For under $30, it’s a treat.
Because of the tannins, you have to feed dolcetto some fat. In Italy, these wines are paired with anti-pasti dishes, like mushrooms in olive oil. A traditional Piedmontese starter is carne cruda – raw veal with olive oil – which is a perfect match. I often serve dolcetto with fettuccine with sun-dried tomatoes and Italian sausage.
After sangiovese and montepulciano, barbera is the third most planted grape in Italy. While wineries were waiting for the nebbiolo to ripen to make their Barolo or Barbaresco, they would harvest and vinify the barbera. Because the nebbiolo vine doesn’t yield a ton of grapes, and isn’t commercialized for years after harvest, barbera became the cash cow grape to be drunk almost immediately. Classic barbera is quite high in acid and rarely sees an oak barrel.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. These light, fruity wines are great for lighter dishes – the perfect spaghetti wine. But recently we have started to see a change in the way wineries use barbera. Wineries are planting the grape in better vineyard sites, have cut down the yields and are using oak aging to make much more complex and age worthy wines.
Staring with the simpler and fresher style, try the barberas from Fontannafredda, Michele Chiarlo or Castello del Poggio. All three offer up that cherry fruit and bright acidity that make it the ideal spaghetti or pizza wine, or pretty well anything with tomato sauce.
If you are looking for this new generation of more complex barberas, I have two to try. The 2014 Sant’emiliano from Marchesi Incisa della Rochetta is a beautiful wine, with so much finesse. And for even more depth and texture, try the 2014 Tre Vigne from Vietti.
“There’s enjoyment to be had of a glass of wine without making it a fetish.” – Frank Prial
You can find complete critic reviews, prices and availability by clicking on any of the highlighted wine names or bottle images. Premium subscribers to Chacun son vin see all critics reviews immediately. Non-paid members wait 30 days to see new reviews. Premium membership has its privileges; like first access to great wines!