Dolcetto is often pushed down the ladder of importance for the main red grapes of Piedmont, but it is a characterful and engaging variety, with bright dark fruits matched with pleasing tannins.
Also known as
Dolcetto has many synonyms, with ormeasco – the Ligurian name for the grape – the one most likely to encounter on a wine label.
What dolcetto tastes like
The reference is often made to the dolcetto meaning “little sweet one”, but this is misleading. While it is often made into simple, fruit-forward wines, dolcetto is quite a tannic variety. True, the fruit flavours are generally vibrant in a darker blackberry, plum zone, though rarely in a heavy way, but a good dolcetto will have a fair bit of spice and structural grip, though nowhere near that of nebbiolo, and its acid will be somewhat lower than both nebbiolo and barbera – hence the reference to sweetness.
Vineyard & winemaking
Dolcetto generally ripens earlier and more reliably than barbera and certainly more so than nebbiolo, which is part of the reason that it has become the everyday wine of Piedmont, with it occupying less prime vineyard sites. Another reason is that dolcetto’s three seeds per berry can result in an aggressive and unripe tannin profile, so short extractions are often favoured. The result is fruit forward wine, and ones that rarely see oak.
Where is dolcetto grown?
Dolcetto is usually regarded as the third of Piedmont’s great red grapes, with nebbiolo the king in terms of prestige, and barbera easily the most prolific. Wines made from dolcetto are seen as the everyday wines of Piedmont, with a bottle always on the table. The grape is most famously associated with the commune of Dogliani, where it has its own DOCG. Given its reliability in the vineyard and general lack of prestige, dolcetto is often grown in lesser sites across the Langhe, but this does it an injustice, with the best wines from appropriate sites being quite powerful and long lived. About 98 per cent of Italy’s 6,100-odd hectares are in Piedmont, with the rest planted in Liguria and Oltrepò Pavese in Lombardy.
Dolcetto around the world
Though not planted broadly in the New World, dolcetto was planted in the US by post-war Italian immigrants, mainly in California, though there have also been subsequent plantings in Oregon.
Dolcetto in Australia
Somewhat unusually, Australia is home to the oldest dolcetto vines in the world. Those vines belong to Best’s Great Western, whose Concongella Vineyard is a living museum of old vines, some of them yet to be identified. In fact, dolcetto, which Henry Best committed and unusually large percentage of his vineyard to, was probably thought to be malbec at the time. It wasn’t until 1982 that it was identified as dolcetto. And while dolcetto has been in the country for a long time, that lack of identity at Best’s has been the hallmark of its presence here. Brown Brothers’ marketing of a sweet red made from the grape didn’t help, either. Dolcetto has been a little slow to catch on, with roughly 100 hectares currently planted. However, makers like Unico Zelo and Tarrant Hansen from Spider Bill Wines are teasing out expressions from dolcetto that reflect the bright fruitful side of the grape with a serious level of interest.
Some of the best Australian dolcetto
Liquid Rock ‘n Roll
Spider Bill Wines