Dolcetto is Piemonte's traditional every day wine, and rightly so: It's light, fruity, lively, with moderate acidity, and a pleasant bitter almond tannic bite that allows it to go very well with foods. It's also as a rule quite fresh, with pleasant floral and bitter almond accents on the nose that only make it more inviting.
From a commercial standpoint, however, Dolcetto's fortunes have waned in the past 30 years, in part because of decreasing local consumption -- in the past, come fall, areas whose Dolcetto grapes were especially good were mobbed by people buying grapes to make wine at home, but those days are now gone -- and in part because Piemonte's Nebbiolo-based wines, Barolo and Barbaresco especially, have grabbed the international limelight thanks to their complexity and aging capacity.
Complexity, for Dolcetto, is not a problem, quite the contrary (incidentally, despite its name -- Dolce means sweet -- the wine Dolcetto is dry; the name probably derives from the fact that Dolcetto grapes are low in acidity and therefore taste especially sweet when chewed upon). What is, on the international stage, I think, is that it is not a wine for long aging, but is rather best enjoyed within 2-3 years of the harvest, after which time the delightful floral aromas and freshness begin to give way to more tertiary aromas of leaves and underbrush, while the fruit, which doesn't have that much acidity to support it, begins to settle. People find a bottle from Piemonte, whose wines have a reputation for long aging, buy it without noting the vintage, find something past its prime, and decide once burned twice shy.
Therefore, for consumers outside of Piemonte Dolcetto is a potential diamond in the rough, a delightful day-to-day wine awaiting discovery. They simply have to remember to look for the current vintages, which at present would be the 2010 and the 2009; I might also buy a 2008 but would be more cautious with a 2007 and ask to taste a bottle before I bought several.
And Dolcetto di Diano?
The Dolcetto varietal grows well in a broad swath of southern Piemonte, from the hills around Ovada and Acqui, though the Astigiano, and on past Alba to Diano and Dogliani; with respect to Nebbiolo it is more tolerant to altitude, and some of the best Dolcetto comes from vineyards that are higher than those where Nebbiolo is grown.
Diano is one of the two areas near Alba that is especially suited to Dolcetto (the other is Dogliani); it's located south of Alba and west of the Barolo production area, and the town proper sits upon a high ridge formed by a thick sequence of pale interbedded clays and more compact calcareous layers; if you drive up to the town on a sunny day the bedrock, where it crops out, is almost blindingly white. The soils the vines grow on are clayey and calcareous, and the Disciplinare governing production states that the vineyards must be on sunny hillsides; flat ground, damp areas, northern exposures, and altitudes greater than 550 meters above sea level are forbidden. Minimum planting density is 3,500 vines per hectare (about 2.5 acres), and the maximum allowable yield of grapes is 8 metric tons per hectare (this translates into about 5,600 liters of wine); this is, by modern standards, generous, and many winemakers will reduce production to increase complexity and concentration.
In addition to the Vino Base released the spring after the harvest, winemakers can also make Dolcetto di Dogliani Superiore, which must age for at least 10 months prior to release.
There is one element of confusion to Diano: Since it has long been known for Dolcetto, and the name "Dolcetto di Diano" doesn't stand out that much from the various other Docetti made in the area, at some point some of the winemakers in Diano began simply labeling their bottles "Diano D'Alba." The custom is by now well established, and therefore depending upon the winemaker, you will find either Dolcetto di Diano D'Alba or simply Diano D'Alba.
Enough talk. I tasted the wines this spring, in a tasting organized by the folks at Albeisa for journalists attending the Nebbiolo Prima presentation of Barolo, Barbaresco, and Roero. They made for a very different, and very enjoyable change of pace.
Lively ruby with white rim. The bouquet is fresh, with violets and berry fruit supported by clean spice and some peppery accents; Fresh. On the palate it's bright and rich, with lively bitter berry fruit supported by violets and some bitter almond accents coupled with clean bright acidity; the tannins are lively and substantial as Dolcetto's are wont to be. A classic Dolcetto that will go quickly. 2 stars
Deep violet ruby with violet rim. The bouquet is fairly bright, with violets and some vegetal accents supported by berry fruit and slight acidity. On the palate it's powerful with intense violet-laced plum cherry fruit -- it's a bit riper than some -- supported by dusky tannins that have powerful bitter accents and flow into a decidedly bitter finish mitigated by some berry fruit. Pleasant but more charged, a wine that I would find excessive for daily use, though it will work well with roasts or stews. 2 stars
Barrel Sample Ruby with purple highlights. Nice bouquet, with berry fruit that has some sour notes and bitter almonds. Quite fresh. The palate is bright, with rich fruit supported by tannins that have a bitter bite and nice acidity. Promising.
Pale ruby with violet reflections and pink rim. The bouquet is bright and fresh, with violets and raspberry cherry fruit supported by deft acidity. Quite graceful. On the palate it's bright, with lively berry fruit supported by bright berry fruit acidity and sweet tannins that have a slight burr and flow into a bright slightly mineral berry fruit finish. Graceful, and will go very fast. 88-90
Distinctive bottle with string tie and red sealing wax to top the string. Inky violet. The bouquet is powerful and a bit dusky, with berry fruit supported by violets and greenish vegetal accents, some hardwood ash, spice, and slight lactic acid. Gives an impression of extraction. On the palate it's ample and quite smooth, with rich cherry plum fruit supported by slight berry fruit acidity and by tannins that are very smooth and flow into a clean bitter finish. It's an extreme wine with respect to the others, rounder and smoother, and is not what I'd call a day-to-day wine; drink it with drier meats, and you will enjoy it if you like the charged style. 2 stars
Lively violet ruby with violet rim. The bouquet is rich, with violets and red berry fruit supported by some menthol and slight peppery spice. Quite fresh. On the palate it's full and quite round, with fairly powerful cherry fruit that gains direction from greenish almond bitterness and flows into a fairly long warm cherry finish with bitter underpinning. Pleasant, and as one would expect from its being a Superiore, it's not a day-to-day wine, but one that will work nicely with more substantial meat dishes. 2 stars
Deep violet with violet rim. The bouquet is fairly intense in a duskier key, with violets and wet leather mingled with berry fruit and some wood smoke; it's not quite as fresh as some. On the palate it's ample, with moderate fruit supported by tannins that are fairly smooth, and by moderate acidity. I found it somewhat settled. 1 star
The wine had just been bottled, and was somewhat shocked, with a muted nose that was not together. On the palate it's full, with moderate fruit supported by savory balsamic accents and spice coupled with warm berry fruit acidity, flowing into a long warm rather balsamic finish. It promises well in a fairly graceful, not explosive key.
Lively violet with white rim and black reflections. The bouquet is fresh and floral, with fairly rich berry fruit supported by some lactic acidity -- scalded milk -- and by fresh spice; it's graceful but not explosive. On the palate it's bright, with fairly rich berry fruit supported by minerality and delicate spice that flow into a clean slightly spicy finish, while the tannins are very smooth and flow into a slightly bitter finish. A modern delicate, slightly more restrained rendition of Dolcetto. 2 stars
A note: I had tasted this at Vinitaly, and because of the time allotted at Diano simply swished it, sniffed, and tasted, and wrote very good after jotting a score of 88-90. The note below is from Vinitaly, where, as you will note, the score was the same.
Lively cherry with violet accents. The bouquet is classic, with rich violets mingled with berry fruit and bitter almonds, and hints of underbrush as well, and some deft spice that keeps things moving right along. On the palate it's quite nice, with rich prune laced fruit shot with violets and graphite bitterness and warmth, and supported by mineral acidity and tannins that have a graphite shaving bitter burr and flow into a clean fresh finish. A classic Dolcetto that will drink very well with simple grilled meats, or light stews, and that will also be a nice cookout wine, working well with both hot and cold foods. 88-90
Lively ruby with some orange in the rim. The bouquet is fresh, with violets and berry fruit supported by some vegetal accents and bright greenish acidity. On the palate it's full and rich, with lively cherry and berry fruit supported by sweet tannins and some almond bitterness. Very approachable, though somewhat lighter than some, and will drink quickly with simple foods, including drier meats. You'll likely want a second bottle. 2 stars
Lively violet with black reflections and cherry rim. The bouquet is moderately intense, with some berry fruit and some scalded milk -- it was bottle shocked, and the palate provides a better indication; it's bright, fairly light, and more acidic than many, with sour cherry raspberry fruit supported by tannins that have a greenish peppery burr and flow into a bright sour cherry and raspberry finish with pleasant bitter almond underpinning. It's a wine to set out and drink, and will go fast, with simple grilled meats, or fired meats and vegetables too. 2 stars
Deep violet with violet rim. The bouquet is fairly rich, with violets and berry fruit supported by some greenish spice and deft greenish acidity, as well as hints of sweetness. On the palate it's bright, with moderately intense cherry and red berry fruit with some raspberry accents supported by moderate acidity and some sweetness, with underlying tannins whose burr provides definition. It's a little lighter than some, and very easy to drink. Expect it to vanish. 2 stars
Deep violet ruby with violet reflections and pale rim. The bouquet is reduced at first sniff, but as it oxygenates reveals red berry fruit and some spice. On the palate it's full, with moderately intense sour berry fruit supported by warmth and slightly balsamic tannins that flow into a warm berry fruit finish. It's more heavy set than some of the others, and lacks that light deftness that distinguishes some of the other Diani. 1 star
Violet with violet rim. The bouquet is bright, with violets and berry fruit supported by greenish accents, and still coming together but promising. On the palate it's bright and fresh, with lively cherry fruit supported by red berry fruit sweetness and tannins that have a dusky burr, and by sour berry fruit accents that flow into a warm tart blackberry finish with clean tannic underpinning. It will go quite fast and be quite versatile. 2 stars
Deep violet with cherry rim. The bouquet is moderately intense, with some lactic accents and berry fruit; it's still coming together. On the palate it's rich and rather sweet, with violets and red berry fruit supported by tannins more than acidity and flows into a warm tannic finish. It's more extracted and sweeter than most, and also more particular, though some berry fruit acidity does emerge in the finish to confer warmth. 1 star
Deep violet ruby with cherry rim. The bouquet is moderately intense, with violets and some bitter accents mingled with some herbal accents and bitter greenish almond notes. On the palate it's ample and soft, with moderately intense berry fruit supported by warmth and tannins that are fairly smooth, and flow into a clean bright berry fruit finish with some dusky bitter notes. Pleasant and will drink quickly; though there is some vegetal acidity it's not quite as bright as some of the others. 2 stars
Deep violet ruby with lively cherry ruby rim. The bouquet is fairly rich, with violet laced sour berry fruit supported by dusky bitter almonds, clean spice, and some vegetal accents with slight underlying sweetness. The palate is bright, with lively cherry and blackberry fruit supported by moderate mineral acidity and by tannins that are smooth, with a slight spicy burr, and flow into a clean, fresh, cherry and forest berry fruit finish. Quite pleasant, and will go very fast with everything from fried foods to quickly grilled meats to the fixings of a cookout. 88-90
Deep violet ruby with white rim. The bouquet is fairly rich, with violets and berry fruit laced with bitter almonds and some elegant greenish accents. Very pleasant to sniff, and as it opens slight candied fruit accents also emerge. On the palate it's full, with rich fairly sweet cherry blackberry fruit supported by mineral acidity and tannins that flow into a fairly bright mineral tannic finish with berry fruit underpinning. It's a bit sweeter than some (though not a sweet wine), and this will make it that much more approachable for those who prefer wines that are not aggressive, while it does have complexities for the "serious" wine drinker too. In short, versatile and for a broad audience. 2 stars
Deep violet with black reflections and violet rim. The bouquet is muted, though swishing brings up some berry fruit and slight underbrush; it's still coming together. On the palate it's full and fairly sweet, with berry fruit supported by some berry fruit acidity, and by warmth and tannins that have a slight burr, and flow into a fairly long warm finish. A little less bright than some, and a little more languid. 2 stars
Deep violet with violet rim. The bouquet is fairly intense, with violets and berry fruit laced with blackberry sweetness and some underbrush. On the palate it's full, and bright, with lively sour berry fruit supported by clean bright berry fruit acidity that has some bitter accents, and flows into a clean fresh tannic finish. Quite pleasant, and will be extremely versatile at table. 2 stars
Violet ruby with cherry rim. The bouquet is fairly intense, with berry fruit and some spice mingled with vegetal accents. On the palate it's ample and fairly soft, with fairly bright fruit supported by deft acidity and smooth tannins; by comparison with some of the others the bitter almond accents typical of Dolcetto are less pronounced. 2 stars
Impenetrable deep violet ink with violet rim. The bouquet is bright, with cherry fruit supported by violets and by some bitter almonds, with greenish vegetal accents as well. On the palate it's fresh, with bright berry fruit supported by moderately intense tannins and dusky bitterness with pleasing savory notes too. Pleasant and quite approachable thanks also to richness of fruit; it will work very well with foods and go quite fast. 2 stars
NO STAR goes to wines that are correctly made but nothing to get excited about.
ONE STAR goes to wines that are good. TWO STARS go to wines that are very good to excellent. THREE STARS and a POINT SCORE (90-100) go to wines that are superb to extraordinary. And I will give pairing suggestions, which I consider much more important than the scores.