Piedmont is one of the northernmost regions of Italy and the release that spring grants to this land from the cruel hand of winter is almost palpable. While the Alps in the north of the region may still be crowned with snow, further south nature rises from her hibernation and hits the ground running. South of the Pò, in the foothills of the Apennine mountains, the countryside is luscious and the pickings are rich for the adventurous wine lover.
More commonly known for famous wines like Barolo and Barberesco, there are other gems to be enjoyed here in Piedmont and Vinnie and I were in hot pursuit of one of these. The object that my faithful corkscrew and I were pursuing is the Dolcetto grape and to find the best we were in the region around the town of Dogliani where they produce an appellative wine that is 100% Dolcetto. The vines grow quickly here, as they had to in the not-so-distant past when they had to climb trees, before they were restrained by the ancient Egyptians. But now, the perfectly regimented lines of vines stand guard over the gently rolling hills, a tribute to the work of the Piemontese winemakers. A vibrant green mist hangs around them as the buds burst into leaf and this is surely one of my favourite times of year, full of the possibilities that the new season may bring, a new year to be enjoyed, a new harvest to be nurtured, and, in due course, a new vintage to be savoured.
The cantina of Osvaldo Barberis sits unobtrusively in this rural backwater as it has for generations. His grandmother started the business but it was very different in her day when wine was produced for local consumption by local people. His father in his turn took over the business but it was still on a local scale. The wine was sold ‘sfuso’ or loose. In other words people would bring their own containers to be filled in the cantina. This is a practice that is still prevalent today; many times I have seen ‘nonne’ or grannies clutching their plastic bottles and awaiting their turn to top up from the vino sfuso tanks in their local shop. At that time, the holding consisted of only about three to four hectares of grapes – Dolcetto and Barbera – together with some land where they raised the famous Piedmontese cattle renowned for the quality of their beef.
Under his stewardship, Osvaldo has gradually expanded the enterprise but the basics remain the same. He now has 11 hectares under vines, 7 of which are Dolcetto, with the remainder given over to Barbera and other local varieties. He still raises cattle and they contribute to the circle of organic farming that eschews the use of artificial fertilizers and synthetic fungicides. This respect for traditional techniques and values does not mean that Osvaldo is trapped in the past for he has grown with the world market for wine and now he produces quality wines that have the prestigious DOCG appellation and are exported as far afield as Canada and Australia. However, production is still on a very human scale, a total of around 20,000 bottles per year from vines that are, on average, around 30 years old.
The name Dolcetto roughly translates as the little sweet one but do not be confused by the name – these are not sweet wines. This is a grape that is almost exclusively grown in Piedmont and does well on the chalky soil of the area around Dogliani. Piedmont is justifiably well known for Barolo, the king of wines and its consort, Barbaresco, the queen, and so the question has to be asked, why concern yourself with a wine like Dogliani that is 100% Dolcetto? The answer lies in the Italian love of food and wine combinations and the powerful flavours of the two ‘royal’ wines are simply too big to accompany many Italian dishes – and this is where Dogliani finds its place in the scheme of things. Just as Italian cuisine has its roots in cucina povera, the poor man’s cooking, but has evolved into the sophisticated dishes that we enjoy today so Dogliani, in the hands of producers like Osvaldo, has developed into a very desirable wine in its own right.
Osvaldo produces two DOCG Dogliani wines. The first is called Valdibà. The wine is left on the skins for a relatively short six days which has the advantage of keeping the tannins low before maturing for six months in a steel tank and four months in the bottle. The colour is a rich purple which is common with the Dolcetto grape. On the nose there are cherries and violets with a hint of spice and on the palate it is fruity with good acidity and a hint of almonds.
The second is called Puncin which in the local dialect means ‘hilltop’ reflecting the sunny location of the vineyard. The production is the same as Valdibà except that the wine is left on the skins for eight days rather than six resulting in a deeper purple colour with slightly higher tannins. As with the previous wine, the bouquet is a fruity one with cherries and blackberries and in the mouth there is again a full fruitiness with the acidity necessary to accompany a range of foods and the hint of almond that is a characteristic of the Dolcetto grape.
These are wines that should be drunk within a few years. They are made with love and care and they are made to be enjoyed with the love of life that is in every Italian’s DNA. Try them with your favourite pasta or with fresh cheese but above all enjoy them with gusto.