The lightest of the three prized Piemontese grapes (the other two being Barbera and Nebbiolo), Dolcetto is a deceiving hidden gem in the world of Italian wines. In Italian the name means “little sweet one” – and although the wines are juicy, they are characteristically dry and mildly tannic.
The Dolcetto grape itself is rather sweet, and can be eaten raw or cooked into a jam typical of Piemonte. This cognà is often eaten with local cheeses, and of course, the simple and satiating Dolcetto wine.
Traditionally, Dolcetto produces soft-styled, fruity wines that are light in color and slightly tart, but more recently, there has been a trend of bolder versions that are heavily fruity, darker in color, and higher in alcohol and tannins.
The Dolcetto grape thrives in the sandy, calcareous soil of Piemonte and is typically grown at higher elevations where Nebbiolo would have more trouble. An adaptable grape, Dolcetto has also been successfully cultivated in Australia and the United States by a few producers.
Some believe that Dolcetto actually takes its name from the Piemontese dialect for “little hill,” or dusset, which was then confused with Dolcetto in Italian. Regardless of the origin, Dolcetto is a regional wine not widely known outside of Piemonte, and is often confused for a sweet wine due to the name. Reasonably priced, the Dolcetto grape is grown in the same regions as Barolo and Barbaresco, but in contrast is better served young and fresh. This less complex wine is generally balanced in tannins and low in acidity, but is sometimes overpowered in alcohol. Because Dolcetto has a lower acid content than grapes like Nebbiolo, this young wine has less time to soften, but still offers great intensity.
Although growing in many of the same areas as Barolo and Barbaresco, Dolcetto should be served young and aged for a lesser amount of time than those great reds. Its intensity is bold and ready early on. In addition, the Dolcetto pairs well with most any cuisine. As it is bright and refreshing, fruity and jammy, Dolcetto is a versatile wine for pairing and great for casual, everyday drinking. It does not overpower food but compliments more rustic dishes like antipasti, cured or raw meats, pizza and pasta.
Dolcetto is also a great go-to wine for cooking (i.e. tomato based sauces and stews).
Dolcetto's best expression
If you want to taste the best Dolcetto in Piemonte, here are the three best-suited zones for its production:
Produced exclusively in the town of Diano d'Alba, the vineyards of Diano extend up a hill of 500 meters high. The best plots of land for producing high quality Dolcetto are called "sorì," a word in Piemontese dialect that indicates the optimum terroir. Today, there are 77.
Diano DOCG is ruby red with violet undertones and a cherry scent, and is characterized by a good body, dry taste, and a slight almond flavor. If the Diano DOCG is aged for 18 months or longer, it may enter in the denomination of superiore.
The zone of production of Dogliani DOCG is in southern Piemonte, the lower Langhe. Its wine is made from the grapes grown in "white" terrain of clayey, chalky composition and on hills between 250 and 700 meters high.
Dolcetto di Dogliani is perhaps the best known type of Dolcetto wine, with its historically important terroir and fruity, well-structured, tannic wines. Its DOCG was given in 2011, an elegant, fruity and immediately enjoyable wine; and Dogliani Superiore DOCG has notes of spice, minerality, and a woodsy underbrush that give it potential for a medium period of aging.
This Dolcetto was given its DOCG in 2008, and it is the oldest DOC Dolcetto with that certification acquired in 1972. It is produced in 22 townships in the province of Alessandria, its center the town of Ovada. The area is hilly but doesn't reach above 600 meters high, and is cut through with the winding Orba River.
Its intense, ruby red color takes on shades of violet as this wine ages. Ovada DOCG is fruity but dry, soft, well-balanced, and with a slight almond flavor. It is a Dolcetto for drinking young to enjoy its versatility in food pairing and easy drinkability. Its DOCG denomination may be accompanied with "Vigna" (vineyard) if its vineyards from which the grapes are grown is at least seven years old. The Ovada DOCG wines that are aged for 24 months or more may be called "riserva."