"Barbera is best known outside Italy for being Piedmont's second-best red grape after Nebbiolo ... Dolcetto is not as prestigious as Barbera or Nebbiolo...," "Oz Clarke's Encyclopedia of Grapes"
Make no mistake, Nebbiolo is Piedmont's best red grape, hands down. But Italian red wine drinkers do not, and should not, live on Nebbiolo alone. There is more to Piedmontese wines than Nebbiolo.
There are Barbera and Dolcetto. The former is a noteworthy red that has struggled for recognition, not because it doesn't deserve it, but because Nebbiolo is such a spotlight hog. Barbera is berry-rich, with ample body and texture. Add aging in small oak barrels and Barbera takes on layers of dark fruits, plus a hint of exotic spice.
Dolcetto, on the other hand, tastes more like ripe cherries, with bracing acidity and firm tannins. Dolcetto has a lighter body and finishes with moderate fruit and a trace of anise. A plate of pasta with red sauce is the perfect partner with a glass of Dolcetto.
Digression -- Although it may be splitting hairs, there are differences between licorice, anise and fennel. All three smell and taste similar, but there are nuances that a wine taster should be aware. Licorice is made from the juice of a root and is usually combined with other ingredients such as molasses. Anise is a plant with a flavor more like fennel than licorice. Fennel is also a plant, but in the same group as parsley. The taste of fennel is more like anise than licorice. The bottom line, then, is most red wines smell more like anise than licorice.
Barbera -- In the Piedmont, Barbera is more important than Dolcetto, for its versatility. A strong characteristic of Barbera is its high natural acidity, which makes it a valuable red grape, especially in warm areas. Ironically, the high acidity kept Barbera from being a big seller in American markets, because the wine did not appeal to American wine drinkers who were used to softer reds with ripe fruit flavors and moderate acidity.
Traditionally, Barbera was not oak aged in Piedmont. Then, in the 1980s, a number of producers, led by Giacomo Bologna, released an oak-aged Barbera and the fight was on. The addition of oak changed the flavor profile of Barbera to more spice and rich dark fruits. Traditionalists cried that this new wine was not a Piedmont Barbera, but the style stuck and today both oaked and non-oaked Barberas are made.
The three most important DOCs for Barbera in Piedmont are Asti, Alba and Montferrato. Vineyards sprawl across the hills in these areas, providing optimum conditions for the best Barbera in the region.
Elsewhere in Italy, Barbera is a popular variety in neighboring Lombardy, mainly in Oltrepo Pavese and can be found in Emilia-Romagna and Campania. In South America, Barbera's high acidity proved valuable in the warmer parts of Argentina's Mendoza Valley, where growers struggle sometimes to raise acidity before ripeness gets out of hand.
Expect to pay between $20 and $30 a bottle for Italian Barbera, although a few special wines like Giacomo Bologna Bricco del Uccellone sells for $80. At the other end of the price range is Fontanafredda Barbera, $15. Other producers offering a Barbera: Bruno Giacosa, Scarpa, Vietti, Pio Cesare and G.D. Vajra.
Dolcetto -- In terms of natural acidity, Dolcetto is the polar opposite of Barbera. Dolcetto is grown in the northwest part of Piedmont, mainly in the provinces of Cuneo and Alba.
The flavors of Dolcetto are round and fruity, with relatively low acidity; the ideal foil for Piedmont's bigger reds, like Barbera. Dolcetto's early-drinking profile allows wineries to offer customers an alternative to Barbera and Nebbiolo.
In Italian, Dolcetto means "little sweet one," although most Dolcettos are dry, with a sweet fruit impression. Dolcetto is made to be drunk early, but those from the province of Dogliani are considered to be more complex and age worthy.
Piemontese Dolcetto d'Albas are priced at $20 to $25, with the Mascarello at $51 and Giuseppe Rinaldi Dolcetto, $54. Other Dolcettos: G.D. Vajra, Pio Cesare, Luigi Einaudi, Bruno Giacosa, Vietti, Poderi Oddero and Fontannafedda.
If variety truly is the spice of life, then next time you're thinking of buying a Nebbiolo-based red, spice up your wine life with a Barbera or Dolcetto.
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