Dolcetto, a dark-hued, native grape of the Italian northwest, has a name that rolls off the tongue like music. Pronounced “dole-CHET-oe,” it translates to “little sweet one.” Pluck a berry off a cluster, pop it in your mouth, and the variety lives up to its description. But while the fruit can be eaten as a sweet treat, it’s not made into sweet wine. This grape is vinified dry, as it has been for generations.
If you are lucky enough to roam among dolcetto vines in Piemonte’s Alba, you’ll no doubt be tempted to snack on a bunch. But resist taking more than a cluster or two. Over the years, this workhorse grape — used to craft deeply pigmented, everyday-drinking reds — has declined in acreage. Since the 1980s, dolcetto has ceded real estate to its more sought-after counterpart, nebbiolo, of Barolo and Barbaresco fame. Many producers, following market demand, have replanted plots of dolcetto with higher price-fetching nebbiolo — even though nebbiolo does not ripen as easily in the cooler, high-elevation sites where dolcetto thrives.
Dolcetto itself presents a number of challenges. An autumn cold snap can damage the vine’s vascular functioning. Further, when berries are ripe, they tend to drop to the ground — a bonus if you’re a foraging animal, but not so desirable if you’re intent on making wine. In the cellar, the slurry of fermenting juice and grape solids can become odiferous unless racked and aerated — but makers must do so gently since the berries’ seeds can throw copious tannins. Given such idiosyncrasies, you might wonder how this grape persists.
The variety’s endurance has everything to do with winegrowers who regard the grape as essential to the heritage of the landscape. They’re pragmatic too. Because dolcetto typically ripens a month earlier than nebbiolo, growers can harvest it first, vinify it, and get bottles to market in relatively short order. Nebbiolo, on the other hand, requires more hang time, and its most sought-after wines require longer aging before they can be sold.
This month, I recommend two examples of DOC Dolcetto d’Alba, both from the 2019 vintage and vinified in stainless steel. One is from G.D. Vajra, established by Turin-born Aldo Vaira, whose storied career began in the late 1960s on his grandparents’ farm in Vergne. (Note the old-fashioned spelling — Vaira with a ‘j’ — in the winery’s name.) Today, the family estate includes 100 total acres under vine, including venerable plots in the western hills of Barolo. Another bottle is crafted by Réva, whose flagship property is situated at the southern edge of Barolo in Monforte d’Alba. The company, which produced its first commercial vintage in 2012, is owned by Miroslav Lekes, who works with a team at a production facility near La Morra. Réva’s 60 total acres throughout the Langhe are farmed organically.
The wines are visually identical, showcasing dolcetto’s saturated hue. But put your nose in the glass, then take a sip, and you’ll find that each is distinct, even as both display medium body and vivid fruit character. I guarantee that you’ll be enamored of both pours — so much so that you won’t miss snacking on the “little sweet one” as a table grape.
G.D. Vajra, Dolcetto d’Alba 2019 Expressing scents of ripe cherry and crushed violets, this dolcetto is vivacious, full of juicy, mouth-filling fruit, with supple tannins and a lovely salty-savory note. 12.5 percent ABV. Distributed by Vineyard Road. Around $18. At Needham Center Fine Wines, Needham, 781-400-1769; Marty’s Fine Wines, Newton, 617-332-1230.
Réva, Dolcetto d’Alba 2019 Lavender, red fruit, and whiff of cedar lead to a palate with an autumnal sensibility — brooding at first, then softening with time to show plush berries and rounded tannins. 13 percent ABV. Distributed by Arborway Imports. Around $22. At Social Wines, South Boston, 617-268-2974; Needham Center Fine Wines.
Ellen Bhang can be reached at email@example.com.
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