When thinking about wine to drink at an Italian restaurant like LugÃ¤no (see Dining), it’s only natural to reach for Chianti, Sangiovese, Brunello or maybe a Super Tuscan. And there are plenty of good ones to be had on the LugÃ¤no wine list. But if you’re looking for something really versatile—a wine that can take you from a goat cheese appetizer through to a grilled coulotte steak—you should consider Dolcetto.
Although northern Italy is known primarily for Barbarescos and Barolos, Dolcetto is the everyday drinking wine of the region, especially in Piedmont, where it’s produced. In this country, Dolcetto isn’t particularly well known in comparison to more popular Italian wines. Perhaps that’s because the name Dolcetto creates confusion. If you have even a rudimentary knowledge of the Italian language, then you know that the word dolce means “sweet.” And dolcetto translates literally as the “little sweet one.” So people tend to assume that Dolcetto wine is sweet. But that’s not the case.
In fact, Dolcetto is a medium-bodied red wine that can be very fruity but with soft Merlot-like tannins, and grapier than Sangiovese. In other words, it’s an easy-drinking wine not too dissimilar to Beaujolais in France although it has more character. A well-made Dolcetto, like the Dolcetto d’Alba Destefanis “Vigna Monia Bassa” on the list at LugÃ¤no, more closely resembles a good California Zinfandel with its ripe fruit. Best of all, Dolcetto is an early-drinking wine that tends to be inexpensive. Although you can pay more, respectable ones typically sell for $15-$20.
In the main, Dolcetto isn’t a good candidate for long-term cellaring. It’s usually ripe enough to drink on release, although a premium Dolcetto will age nicely for a few years. The 1999 vintage is excellent right now. But putting Dolcetto away for longer than a few years may result in its fruitiness growing faint.
A good whiff of Dolcetto will probably remind you of crushed ripe blackberries, plums, blueberries and raspberries. In that regard, it’s very similar to Zinfandel. And you’ll taste that rich Zinfandel fruitiness on the palate as well. But a particularly distinctive characteristic of Dolcetto is a subtle but noticeable aftertaste of bitter almonds. Dolcetto’s fruitiness—combined with a fresh acidity and silky soft tannins—makes it an unusually good wine to pair with food. And as I said before, when it comes to being food-friendly, versatility is Dolcetto’s middle name. An absolutely wonderful way to experience Dolcetto would be to open a bottle with nothing more than a hunk of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese alongside. But it also pairs nicely with red-sauced pasta, chicken dishes, risotto and grilled meats and fish.
Of the Dolcetto available in Utah, I’m especially fond of the aforementioned 1999 Destefanis Dolcetto d’Alba “Vigna Monia Bassa” ($25). It’s made from single vineyard old vines grapes and is unusually rich, dark, and almost chocolatey. For a more traditional and straightforward example of Dolcetto d’Alba, try the Silvio Grasso ($13.90). It’s lighter in color than the Destefanis with typical blueberry flavors and hints of vanilla and almonds.
Pecchenino also produces superb Dolcetto and we’re lucky enough to be able to buy the Pecchenino Dolcetto di Dogliani SirÃ¬ d’Jermu here in Utah ($26.15). It’s an amazing wine with more complexity and tannins than you usually find in Dolcetto—incredible for its price. Save the Pecchenino Dolcetto de Dogliani SirÃ¬ d’Jermu for meals with red meat or game, since it’ll overpower just about everything else.
As with most wine varietals, Dolcetto comes in a range of styles, from light and easy-drinking types like Grasso to massive, serious versions like the Pecchenino. About the only style it doesn’t come in is sweet!