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Dolcetto, amore mio

Published:  18 January, 2007

Nicolas Belfrage mw and Franco Ziliani look at the Italian market.
The Italians may not be everybody's cup of tea, or rather glass of wine. They have never made wines that are easy for punters to love: all those tannins, all that acidity, and the accent on vegetal or savoury rather than fruity flavours. The old clich that Italian wine needs food is all too true for most Anglos. Perhaps that's why Italian wine has never really caught on in the UK in the way that its appassionati deem that it should. Brits tend to drink their wines as beverages, like beer or whisky, and are not, on the whole, interested in having to seek out subtleties and nuances or taste combinations with various foods. The obvious upfront aromas and smooth textures of New World wines will do nicely for most occasions, and when something special is needed, there's always France (or there was).

So it's perhaps odd that Brits have not taken more of a shine

to Dolcetto: the easy, fruity one; the early-picked one; the inexpensive one; the one that the piemontesi drink for lunch; the light, refreshing, non-think one - Italy's Beaujolais'.

Might it have something to do, one wonders, with the fact that Dolcetto is departing more and more from its image? The Italians, never satisfied with simplicity where complication

is possible, have been busy introducing so many variations on the basic theme that even the piemontesi are no longer sure what Dolcetto is supposed to be.

There always was the confusion of the name - most people understand dolce to suggest sweet, and commercial Dolcetto is vinified dry (it's the grapes that are supposed to be especially sweet, not because of superior sugar levels but because of lower acidity levels than other Piedmontese grapes, especially Barbera). On top of that, the lawmakers have put no fewer than 11 DOCs plus one DOCG (Dolcetto di Dogliani) on to the statute book. How is anyone supposed to distinguish what's what in all that lot?

But the main problem is the extraordinary flowering, if that is the word, of different styles of Dolcetto on the part of the (mainly) Piedmontese producers. Casting a somewhat envious eye on the prices fetched by Nebbiolo-based wines such as Barolo and Barbaresco, the regard growing even greener when contemplating how Barbera has managed to raise itself

from bog ordinariness to lofty respectability, many makers of Dogliani, Diano d'Alba and Alba itself, to name only the main three, have decided that Dolcetto, too, may be presented as a vino importante of the sort beloved by the Parkers and Spectators of this world.

We must now, it seems, put from our minds that charming, straightforward, 12-13% unoaked luncheon wine we thought Dolcetto was and start getting used to 14-15% monsters from overripe grapes fed through artificial concentrators and finishing up with colours reminiscent of ink - and lots of lovely oaky aromas where the fruit used to be. All at exaggerated prices, of course. This is despite the judgment of most experts that Dolcetto is a grape that does not thrive on surmaturation, one that needs short maceration, having plenty of its own tannins without adding those of oak, not to mention the subtle aromas that tend to drown beneath those of toast and vanilla.

Earlier this month, a tasting was held in Alba called Dolcetto & Dolcetto - the first such event entirely dedicated to this vinous stalwart. In all, 190 wines were on offer from the 12 denominations referred to above - fortunately over a three-day period, since to evaluate more than 60 of these bruisers in a day would be a feat normally manageable only by a hardened Shiraz taster at one of Australia's various fairs. In too many instances, though, we were subjected to wines owing more to the modernist concept of the Super-Tuscan than to that of traditional Dolcetto - wines that might almost have undergone courses in body-building complete with added hormones and oenological steroids.

Can someone please explain to us what sense there is in attempting to put Dolcetto - with its 5,300 hectares of vineyard, the third-most planted grape in Piedmont after Moscato and Barbera - up there with Nebbiolo, Cabernet and Merlot, style-wise and price-wise? Is anybody going to buy it? Certainly not your average Brit, who sees quite enough of that sort of stuff made better and cheaper from other parts of the wine world, not to say other parts of Italy.

All it's going to do is add to the existing confusion as to what exactly Dolcetto is.

Let's try to define it. Dolcetto, surely, should be undemanding, fruity rather than oaky, relatively fresh and relatively inexpensive. Above all, it should be a good drink, not a monument to muscularity. Within those parameters, there is still plenty of variation possible - far be it from us to wish to reduce variation.

And if we could just get rid of some of those denominations as well, it wouldn't be such a bad thing.