Three varieties, all from the same region, all red, and all very different: Dolcetto, the “little sweet one”, underdog Barbera, and lordly Nebbiolo, king of Italian grapes.
Dolcetto gets its name from its lower-than-most-Italian-wines acidity, not because the wines it produces are actually sweet; it’s not particularly “little”, either – in fact, it has the firm tannins and often very dark colour of a quite big wine. It’s also grown as an eating grape, so we’re not talking mouth-puckering structure, but there’s still plenty of it.
Of the three varieties we’re looking at today, Dolcetto’s the earliest-ripening. It’s hard to grow, because its buds break off easily, it grows low to the ground (not good for the vine-grower’s back, though it helps the grapes ripen fast) and it’s very weather-sensitive, so quite a lot of Dolcetto acreage has been replanted with Nebbiolo (which gets higher prices and is easier to work with). That’s a shame, as it means both the harvest and the risk of losing your entire crop if there’s a change in the weather aren’t as spread as they used to be. Enjoy Dolcetto while you can – try the Ribote’s Dogliani version with chicken, meatloaf, or even salmon!
Barbera is the “middle child” of these three, with high acidity, low to moderate tannins, and producing medium-ageing wines: more structured than Dolcetto, less so than Nebbiolo. That doesn’t mean it’s dull, but it does sometimes get lost in Nebbiolo’s shadow - it’s the wine you drink while waiting for your Barolo to age.
Barbera’s mainly associated with Piedmont but is in fact one of Italy’s most-planted red varieties and also found all over the world – California makes some excellent examples. It’s often made as an easy-going, everyday-drinking wine, but it can produce really rich, deep and long-lasting wines, so don’t overlook it. Both the Augusta Barbera d’Asti Superiore and Ribote’s Barbera Langhe are great with meat-and-tomato sauces.
Nebbiolo doesn’t lack either acidity, tannin or fruit but it can be very light in colour – it’s like a very structured Pinot Noir and about as easy to categorise. It’s a chameleon variety that really reflects its terroir and changes depending where you plant it, so it’s no surprise that there’s a system for classifying the vineyards in Piedmont. The great Barolo and Barbaresco vineyards are carved up into dozens of “crus”, just like Burgundy. Some are better, some less brilliant, but are all produce top-quality wines.
The second division, as it were, includes large areas that use a regional name, without further distinction, like Ghemme (where Nebbiolo is called Spanna) and Roero. Also in this division are areas, like the Colline Novaresi, where Nebbiolo/Spanna dominates, but the wines may not be varietal. If they are, they will say so on the label, like Roncati’s Runcà Colline Novaresi Nebbiolo.
The third division consists of the vineyards where Nebbiolo has replaced Dolcetto. Because these are not traditional Nebbiolo-growing spots, wines from them tend to be labelled with the name of the variety, not the place (though they will say Piedmont). All these differences are reflected in the price, as well as the quality, so you can enjoy Nebbiolo at every price point.
Like all wines, it’s a question of “horses for courses”. Weekend meatloaf? Dolcetto’s ideal. Pulling out all the stops to impress the neighbours? Barolo fits the bill perfectly.
In the middle, as usual, is Barbera, reliable and cheerfully undemanding, ready to accompany pizza, pasta, lamb, medium cheeses and almost anything else you throw at it. Sometimes the middle child is just what’s needed.