The small town of Dogliani in southern Piedmont is today probably best known for the eponymous DOCG wine made from the Dolcetto grapes grown in the surrounding hills. However, the town has another claim to fame and that is the work of the self taught architect Giovanni Battista Schellino. Trained as a surveyor, his work as a designer earned him the epithet ‘The Gaudi of Dogliani’. Whilst that is certainly unfair to Gaudi, it also probably does not do justice to the variety of eclectic styles that this provincial talent unleashed upon his hometown. Everything from Romanesque, through Gothic to Classical is shamelessly plundered and the results are nothing if not impressive. I particularly like the entrance to the municipal cemetery with its forest of neo-Gothic spires standing guard over the gateway to the eternal. By contrast, nearby is the start of the 14 stations of the rosary. In riotous Baroque, they depict scenes from the life of Christ as they wend their way out of the town and up a hill to the chapel of the Madonna delle Grazie.
By this time Vinnie was becoming impatient and it was time to focus on the main reason for our visit. Driving up into the hills above the town we paused to look back over the countryside and the valley covered by forest because the sides are too steep to cultivate. All around us were vineyards and all seemed timeless and peaceful, yet ghosts walk this countryside. Towards the end of 1944, the occupying Germans were hanging on to northern Italy against allied forces fighting up from the south. In this area Italian partisans were particularly active even going so far as to set up their own, albeit short-lived, republics and amongst their number was the father of Nicoletta Bocca. After the war, he used to return to this area every year with his family, from Milan, to meet with the wine producers in the hills that he had known as a partisan, during the conflict. From this a desire grew in the young Nicoletta to move here. The urge grew so strong that in 1992 she left the city and relocated and even though she knew nothing of viticulture she threw herself into her new life. Over 30 years she has gradually built up the holding she calls San Fereolo. From 17 hectares of vines, of which two have recently been replanted, she produces around 40,000 bottles of wine per year.
The local grape in this area is called Dolcetto and, historically, it has always been used for lighter wines than those produced using the more famous Nebbiolo and Barbera varieties but Nicoletta wanted to fully explore its potential. Over time, vines adapt to their environment and the Dolcetto now is habituated to the sandy soils in the hills around Dogliani that are open to cooler breezes, eschewing the hotter climes to be found in other parts of the Langhe. Here the countryside has an untamed feel to it when compared to the geometric precision of the hills around Barolo. Here you have the feeling that nature is working with man rather than being dominated by him.
Nicoletta makes a variety of wines all produced with the same underlying philosophy of working with nature and, first of all, I tasted a wine she calls 1593. This has a somewhat tortuous history as it was at one point a Dolcetto di Dogliano DOC but following a reclassification it is now a Langhe Rosso. The legendary Italian bureaucracy aside, it has a delicate bouquet. On the palate there are soft tannins balanced with a nice acidity and bitter cherry. This is a wine I would pair with pasta at lunch.
Valdibà is a DOCG Dolcetto di Dogliani that has a deep ruby colour. It is fermented in steel before spending 18 months maturing again in steel prior to bottling. On the nose it is big with soft cherries and plums and floral notes of violets and roses whilst in the mouth it is dry with more structure.
San Fereolo is, again, a DOCG Dolcetto di Dogliani but this has been fermented in wood before being matured again in wood for two years followed by another year in steel and the four in the bottle. It has a deep garnet colour with a big bouquet full of vanilla, cherry and plums. The flavour is intense but at the same time delicately balanced and I found it went spectacularly well with a blue cheese.
These wines are the product of years of not only care and love, but also a drive to be different and to dare to experiment. Nicoletta has taken a grape that was considered only fit for light easy drinking wines and shown how it can be persuaded to reveal previously undisclosed depths of flavour and structure. A visit to the cellar with its multiplicity of steel and wooden vats and barrels of varying ages is testament to this restless urge to experiment. Nicoletta is a remarkable lady.