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FOOD FOR THOUGHT - April 15, 2009
Mark R. Vogel - [email protected] - Mark’s Article Archive

Barbera & Dolcetto

Piedmont, which translates as “the foot of the mountain” is an aptly named territory at the base of the Alps in north-western Italy.  Bordered by France and Switzerland and bifurcated by the Po River, Piedmont is as beautiful as it is fertile.   Turin, (or Torino in Italian), is the capital city.  Home to the coveted white truffle, Piedmont is also known for a range of agricultural products including wheat, corn, and rice.  But with 142,000 acres devoted to vineyards, Piedmont is a major wine producing area.  Reds dominate, highlighted by Barolo and Barbaresco, the two heavy hitters and most esteemed (and expensive) wines of the region.  In fact, Barolo has been hailed as the “king” of Italian wines.  And while everyone can’t be the king, there are still plenty of other noble wines to choose from.  In fact, two in particular lay claim to that uncommon synchronicity of good quality and reasonable price, not to mention being food-friendly.  I speak of Barbera and Dolcetto.  As wine prices soar and our economy plummets, it becomes increasingly imperative to search out those elusive wines that won’t break the budget yet still provide satisfaction.  As of this writing $25 is sufficient to procure all but the most elite Barberas and Dolcettos, with many good ones still in the $15-$20 range.  With no further ado, let’s delve into Barbera and Dolcetto. 

     The Barbera grape produces dry wines of medium body, deep color, high acid and low tannin.  It can evince spicy and fruity flavors such as blackberry, raspberry and even cherry.  Because of its lower tannin content, Barbera should be drunk young, usually within 3-4 four years of the vintage.  However, Barberas from strong vintages can age up to 10 years.  Some producers age their Barbera in oak casks to boost their tannin level.  These Barberas are a little more expensive and will be somewhat stouter than their non-oaked brethren.  Like every grape in the world, there are certain geographic areas and climates that are more conducive to the development of its full potential.  While grown in California, Brazil, and Argentina, the best Barberas are found in Piedmont.  Barbera is believed to have originated here, at least as far back as the 13th century.

     Piedmont, like most wine regions is subdivided into smaller zones.  Alba and Asti are two of the most important Piedmont satellites.  Barberas from these areas will sport Barbera d’Alba or Barbera d’Asti on the label.  While both are good, Alba is generally considered to be superior.  Another important consideration, once again true for all wines, is knowing who the first-rate producers are.  Erudition, personal experience, and consultations with experienced wine retailers will guide you to the top performers.  Some well known Barbera producers include Vietti, Angelo Gaja, and Giacomo Conterno but there are others as well.  I am particularly fond of Vietti and if you wish to experience a state of the art Barbera I recommend Vietti’s Barbera d’Alba from the Scarrone vineyard. 

     Barbera, because of its acidity, is a fantastic match with traditional Italian dishes, particularly tomato-based concoctions.  It pairs extremely well with pizza and pasta.  Other than Chianti, you can’t beat a hearty bowl of pasta with tomato sauce with a nice Barbera, especially in this price range.  But I wouldn’t hesitate to match it with meat dishes, especially ones with acidic or wine based sauces such as veal Marsala. 

     Snipping at Barbera’s heels is Dolcetto, Italian for “little sweet one.”  This moniker is a misnomer for virtually all Dolecetttos are dry.  Grown mainly in the southwest region of Piedmont, Dolcetto, like Barbera produces wines of medium body, deep color, high acidity and ripe berry-like flavors.  It has higher tannin than Barbera but is still meant for early drinking.  Nevertheless, its higher tannins can impart a more bitter finish than Barbera.  Dolcetto is normally consumed within 1-2 years of the vintage.  Pair it with the same kinds of food as Barbera.  Dolcetto is also grown in California and Australia but again, the Italian hills of Piedmont are where Dolcetto truly shines.  Dolcetto probably originated in Piedmont although one theory posits its genesis in France.

     Dolcetto, again like Barbera, hails from varying sub-regions of Piedmont such as Alba, Asti, Acqui and others.  Here too the Alba district is considered to be the best.    Generally speaking, many of the top producers of Barolo and Barbaresco also produce top-notch Dolcettos.  Look for Vietti, Paolo Scavino, Renato Ratti, and Bruno Giacosa.   

     Dolcetto is an early ripening grape.  It reaches maturity before Barbera, which in turn ripens earlier than Barolo and Barbaresco.  Because Dolcetto ripens sooner, the vintage year plays somewhat less of a role since it can avoid inauspicious late season weather.  Nevertheless, it is always prudent to know the standing of the various vintage years for any wine region, just as it pays to be cognizant of the best producers. 

     Recently the Piedmont region of Italy has been blessed with a highly unusual, nearly unbroken string of good to excellent vintages.  You pretty much can buy with impunity, (speaking of the year only), with the exception of the dreadful 2002 vintage.  While I’m sure there are a few isolated stars, I would avoid 2002 altogether. 

Also Visit Mark’s website: Food for Thought Online

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