Don’t mention the ‘D’ word – in defence of Dolcetto

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“It’s a blood pressure issue” my friend says at the mention of the dreaded ‘D’ word….. Dolcetto. And I can well believe it when I hear that Dolcetto is prone to disease, difficult to grow and difficult to vinify. The devil child of the Langhe area, so I understand. Devil – another ‘D’ word.

I’ve said before that I like Dolcetto. In this world of Barolo cru, world famous sophisticated wines, Alta Langa DOCG, and spectacular Nebbiolo d’Alba…. admitting to liking Dolcetto is like admitting to the fact that you yearn after bad 80’s music. Or would really like to wear socks and sandals around the ritzy seaside resorts of Liguria.

But still…. I LIKE DOLCETTO. Okay, I don’t have to make it myself and am therefore in the privileged position of being able to insist on ensuring it still has a place on the map of Langhe DOCGs, but I like it. I like a challenge, I like the idea it matures early and you have to be more in sync than ever with seasonal changes, and that delicate time at summer’s end when you’ve got to get your grapes in. Such a tortured choice for Dolcetto growers and makers.

I like how fruity it is, and then tannic, and slightly tart on the finish – that unapologetic sass it seems to have, despite its age. It has a kind of “take me or leave me” attitude. I also like how Dolcetto has been the daily drink around this area for years, nourishing old guys in trattorias on lunch breaks and families around the dinner table.

I like how old it seems – the wise, unsung hero of the Langhe, from the town of Dogliani, a hard knock, ancient town on the wrong side of the tracks (on the wrong side of the Barolo hills in this case). At the recent Grandi Langhe event, I attended the seminar on Dolcetto, quieter compared to the previous one on Nebbiolo. The Italians would probably describe the attendance as “pochi ma buoni” with quite a few young people attending too – pleasing to see for a variety that has nowhere near the earning potential of Barolo.

Dolcetto notes

Dr. Edoardo Monticelli described Dolcetto as a powerful, rustic variety, capable of re-flowering after traumatic events. It requires more care in the vineyard, the window of opportunity to pick Dolcetto is difficult as the vegetative cycle and the ripening of the fruit must reach their peak at the same time. It has great potential and is capable of expressing marked terroir when at its best.

It can produce lovely fruit, even in difficult situations and is of great fascination for agronomists – not to mention the challenge it poses in making great wine. The question is what is the nobility of Dolcetto? Not an easy question to answer. Dolcetto now has reduced cultivation around these parts, but its niche presence is one to protect and nurture, especially if you visit wine makers in Dogliani, the passionate cradle of this variety.

There is a Dolcetto vineyard not far from my house that is being replaced, likely by the Alta Langa DOCG varietal of Pinot Noir. Seeing the various stages of its removal has made me sad in a small way. The evolution from plants to stumps has given birth to a series of black and white photographs I have taken that I have named “The Graveyard Series”. Vines are beautiful things, even the fallen ones. It is a choice, not an easy one, to remove one vine and plant another. It’s breaking a life cycle, giving life to one thing, where you take it from another.

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Dolcetto will always be part of the map of the Langhe DOCG and I’m on a journey to understand it better, starting from the local producers of Dogliani. I want to know what makes them tick, what is it about Dolcetto that makes them want to keep making this devilishly difficult wine.

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