Grapejuice contains acids that become a very important part of the structure of wine. Acidity is what makes wine refreshing, rather than dull, and is the most important thing that makes wine taste good with food. Wine should not be overtly acidic, however; not cranberry or lemon, but rather a perfect apple or peach, the crispness of the acidity balanced by body and, in some cases, sweetness. I prefer wines that have fresh, bright acidity and I don't like wines that are low in acidity (sometimes referred to as 'flabby').
Indigenous to the Roero (an underestimated growing area near the Langhe), this grape almost died out in the middle part of the twentieth century, was revived, and is now thriving. It gives wines that tend to be pale in color, and intriguingly herbal in aroma and flavor. I drink a lot of it as both dry aperitif and wine for antipasti.
Barbera is said to be indigenous to Piedmont, possibly to the Monferrato area near Asti. Unlike the other two primary Piedmontese varieties it is widely planted outside of the region, and outside of Italy. It produces wines of middling to dark color, with aromas and flavors that range from bright cherry to a deeper plum, acidity that ranges from moderate to high, and very little tannin.
There are three Piedmontese Barbera DOCs: Alba, Asti and Monferrato. The Alba Barberas are normally made by Nebbiolo producers, for whom they fall in between Nebbiolo and Dolcetto; harvested and vinified after Dolcetto but before Nebbiolo, perhaps given some oak maturation but sold well before the Barolo or Barbaresco. Most better Albese producers are using at least some small wood on Barbera, but the range is wide.
The Asti producers have completely changed the way they make Barbera in the last twenty years or so. Barbera d'Asti used to be famously rustic and sharply acidic, due to overcropping and a poor understanding of malolactic fermentation; now the best wines are bright but not sharp, ripe, concentrated and very clean. The first producer to use barriques to age Barbera was an Asti producer called Giacomo Bologna, and this style is often found here.
The Monferrato is home to many old Barbera vineyards. As yet there are very few producers of note, but the raw material is there and it seems likely that this will be an important source of high-quality Barbera before too long. Note that in Asti and the Monferrato, Barbera is the primary grape and is therefore planted in the best vineyard sites, sites that an Albese producer would use for Nebbiolo.
The styles of Barbera:
•old-fashioned rustic Asti, no wood or dirty larger cooperage, cranberry flavor and acidity, 11.5% ABV, haphazard malolactic;
•modern everyday, lower yields (probably less than 50 hl/ha), raspberry flavor, possibly six months in larger cooperage, bright but not biting acidity, up to 14% ABV or higher; Pavia's 'Bricco Blina' is a great example
•Bologna-style barrique barbera, produced in all three zones; very ripe fruit, 12-18 months in small French oak, sometimes roto-fermented and therefore very dark in color, sometimes over-extracted (this last could be referred to as the ‘Tre Bicchieri’ style).
Clones of a grapevine are genetically identical plants, propagated from cuttings of one parent plant. Different clones of, say, Sangiovese will have different attributes; some will be more vigorous, some more resistant to disease, and some more likely to produce great wine. The use of clones is a relatively recent tendency; historically a grower would use massal selection (the propagation of the best vines in a given vineyard, not one single plant) to produce new vines. A grower may use more than one clone in a vineyard, which may give wines of more complexity.
A co-operative winery, often referred to as a 'Cantina Sociale' in Italian, is an association of local grape-growers who band together to produce and market their grapes as wine. They own the winery and the equipment communally. This avoids them having to sell their grapes every year as a commodity to outside wineries, at unpredictable prices, and gives them a presence in the market. The good Italian co-ops are an excellent source for very well-made wines at very fair prices.
Dolcetto is a much-misunderstood grape variety grown almost exclusively in Piedmont. It may be indigenous to Piedmont (and is claimed as originating in the village of Dogliani), but the ampelographer Galet suggests that it is the same as Douce Noire from Savoie, which may be the same as Charbono. It has been planted in Piedmont since the 1500s, possibly since the 1300s.
Although the name of the grape (which means ‘Little Sweet One’) suggests sweetness or at least roundness and drinkability, most Dolcetto (and almost all good Dolcetto) is in fact rich in tannins, if only moderately acidic. Although this is the grapiest, earliest bottled of the three classic Piedmontese varieties it is certainly not ‘the Beaujolais of Italy;’ the 11% abv, high-yield, everyday style that inspired this phrase is only sold locally and bears little resemblance to better wines. It is usually bottled
before the following harvest, in some cases as early as March, providing a useful boost to the cash-flow of producers whose other wine is nebbiolo. It prefers sites that are not directly south-facing, whereas nebbiolo demands excellent exposure, so the two vines are complementary in terms of site; and it matures well before nebbiolo, which means the Dolcetto vinification is
complete before the nebbiolo is picked. It is rarely blended.
There are seven Dolcetto DOCs; Alba (usually produced by a Barolo or Barbaresco estate), Asti (rare), Diano d'Alba, Dogliani, Langhe Monregalesi (rare but potentially very good) and Ovada. These last four are specialised appellations known for Dolcetto.
Dolcetto sometimes bears a similarity to nebbiolo, in that it shows touches of tar and flowers, and not a little tannin. The color is dramatically different, however; the better dolcettos are an enticing deep purple, with a violet rim. The predominant fruit is blueberry. Styles: the formerly poor reputation of dolcetto was the result of overcropping and casual vinification (Dolcetto has a tendency towards reductive stink if not handled carefully, and needs to be racked frequently). Modern Alba producers are making some excellent Dolcetto, but the best wines generally come from around the village of Dogliani, just south of the Barolo zone.
As the yields have been reduced the concentration of the wines has increased, but the tannins have tended to increase as well, particularly in Dogliani. Developments in vinication to address this imbalance include picking on phenolic ripeness (rather than sugar), micro-oxygenation (widely used since the 2000 harvest), and maturation in wood. (Most Dolcetto is still made entirely in stainless steel.)
The best Dogliani producers are developing a Superiore style, bottled after perhaps eighteen months of maturation in 225 to 600 liter barrels. This style shows potential for bottle age, whereas most stainless-steel Dolcettos are drunk before the release of the following vintage. (The Superiore from Il Colombo is the best example I have of this style; the '99 is very successful, although at this writing it's too soon to tell whether it will improve in the bottle.) There is a plan to create a new DOC called simply Dogliani, along the model of Barolo, to avoid the stigma attached to the word Dolcetto and to create a seperate identity for the village.
Dolcetto has a promising future, and it is possible that the judicious use of oak will give the variety a boost in the same way it did for Barbera, adding a new, ageable tier of quality. At the moment the ‘normale’ Dolcetto is outstanding value.
Most wines in the world are made of a limited number of grape varieties that were made famous in France, such as cabernet sauvignon, syrah and chardonnay. Many of these grapes are grown in Italy, too, but there are also hundreds of varieties that originated in Italy and are, for the most part, grown nowhere else. This makes Italy unique in the world of wine.
I have a particular fondness for these varieties, whether well-known (sangiovese, barbera, gewurztraminer) or obscure (ribolla gialla, nosiola). If you have been feeling that there must be more to like than chardonnay and merlot, your're right; there is a world of different flavors out there.
A secondary fermentation performed by bacteria that converts malic (apple-y) acid to lactic (milk-y) acid. This process reduces the apparent acidity of the wine, and is routinely performed on barrel-fermented Chardonnays, in which it causes the famous buttery flavor (diacetyl). Most Italian white wines are not obviously marked by malolactic fermentation (MLF), although
partial MLF is sometimes carried out. This lack of butteriness is one of the most obvious differences between California white wines and Italian white wines. (Almost all red wines everywhere are put through MLF, although you can't taste it.)
A winemaking technique invented in the Madiran appellation of south-west France, to tame the tannins of the Tannat grape. A ceramic or stainless-steel disk with many tiny holes in it is put in the bottom of a tank of wine, and small amounts of oxygen are pumped through it. This oxygen helps to 'fix' color (make it more stable in the bottle), reduce bitter tannins in the finished wine, and get rid of any reductive smells in the wine. In effect it mimics the diffusion effect of the sides of a wooden tank, without the wooden tank. Many producers are experimenting with this for dolcetto, which sometimes needs help with both tannins and reductive 'stink.' This a very promising new technique for high-tannin varieties like Dolcetto, although controversial with other varieties, such as Cabernet Sauvignon.
The Nebbiolo grape is Italy's noblest indigenous grape variety. Grown mostly in Piedmont, in north-west Italy (near the border with France), it produces Barolo, Barbaresco and other fine red wines, not all of them expensive. Nebbiolo is famously hard to grow, at least according to the California producers who have tried; in Piedmont it insists on the best-exposed southern slopes, being hard to ripen. If I had to pick one wine over all others it would be Barolo.
Oak and Wine
The use of small French oak barrels ('barriques') to age wine has become controversial, particularly when used to age wines such as Barolo or Brunello that traditionally were aged in larger, neutral barrels. The argument against the use of small barrels is that the flavor of the oak changes or overwhelms the flavors that come from the grapes, leading to a world-wide similarity of flavor that has been called the International Style. This is a valid point; if the proportion of new wood used is too high for the substance of the wine, the wine will smell like vanilla rather than grapes, which is not a good thing.
On the other hand, small barrels are easy to clean, and the large Central European oak casks they replace are hard to clean, which means they sometimes harbor spoilage organisms. Wine aged in dirty old casks develops a slight but distinctive smell of chicken manure, and I prefer a hint of vanilla in my wine to a hint of chicken manure. (For one thing, the vanilla is usually absorbed into the wine over time, whereas the poop is not.) The other reason to choose smaller, newer wood is that the wood tannins interact
with the wine and change the wine in ways that are fundamental; this is more important than the vanilla, if much less talked-about. (See Wood Flavor versus Wood Influence in the Oxford Companion to Wine.) Note that I am referring mostly to red wines; Italian white wines are very rarely fermented in barrels, the notable exception being Piedmontese chardonnays, which are
mostly barrel-fermented in the Burgundian manner. Oddly enough, barrel-fermentation of white wines rarely gives much oak flavor to the wine.
I look for wines that are typical of their appellations. Some of these wines are matured in barriques, some are not; my criterion is that the wood should not intrude and that the result should be balanced.
A wine-producing area of Piemonte just to the west of the Langhe (see entry). The best-known wine here is Arneis (see entry), but some very good Barbera and Nebbiolo (which is usually labelled as just 'Roero') are also grown here. The best wines are very good values, although they don't reach the heights of Barolo itself. Think of Savigny-les-Beaune in Burgundy.