I've just returned from Italy's Langhe region, in Piedmont, where I visited a dozen producers of Barolo, the complex, elegant wine made from the nebbiolo grape. While there, I attended an auction, called Asta del Barolo, where bottles from prized vintages sold to collectors — from as far away as Hong Kong, Singapore, and Dubai — for thousands of dollars.
I tasted dozens of amazing — and often profound and transcendent — Barolos, which convinced me, once again, that nebbiolo grown in this corner of northwestern Italy creates one of the world's greatest wines.
So now that I'm home, will I be drinking very much Barolo? Sadly, no. That's because the price of a decent Barolo starts at around $50 a bottle, and quickly climbs to well over $100. No, even though I love Barolo, it will always be a special-occasion wine.
Which is why, when I was in the Langhe, I took note of the region's lesser red wines, the kind I can afford to open on a Tuesday night.
All the world's great appellations make wines from an idiosyncratic, obscure grape that offers a good-value alternative to the trophy bottles, and the Langhe is no different. Alongside prestige Barolo, winemakers still produce pleasurable everyday wines from the humble dolcetto grape. Visit the top wineries, and they almost always pour you a Dolcetto d'Alba to begin your tasting before you get to the barbera and the Barolo.
Dolcetto is the opposite of Barolo. It's fresh, fruity, and low alcohol, with a rustic, earthy, sometimes spicy character. It is usually free of oak influences. It's not a wine you age or brood over.
"Dolcetto is the everyday wine around here, and we match it with many simple foods: Pasta, pizza, a plate of meat." said Lorenzo Scavino, whose family owns Azelia winery, known for producing Barolo in the village of Castiglione Falletto.
"Dolcetto, for me, is very local. You don't find it in other regions. It feels more rustic," said Elisa Scavino, whose family owns Paolo Scavino winery, another top Barolo producer in Castiglione Falletto.
In recent years, producers around the village of Dogliani have tried to elevate dolcetto and give it more prestige. In 2005, dolcetto from Dogliani was designated as a DOCG, Italy's highest wine denomination. Dolcetto labeled Dogliani Superiore has been aged for at least one year.
"Dolcetto has always been a wine you could drink every day, but now we are getting more consideration," said Sonia Berrino, of Luigi Einaudi, one of the leading Dogliani producers. "I think dolcetto is a wine with a future."
Perhaps the future is now. Dolcetto seems to be popping up more and more in wine circles. In January, sommelier Levi Dalton elegantly summed up dolcetto in a New York Times article: "Dolcettos are like the off-cut of meat that the butcher keeps for himself."
In fact, speaking of meat, dolcetto will be a perfect wine to pop open this summer to drink with the burgers and steaks you'll be grilling.
Given the way most of us eat, I don't understand why dolcetto hasn't always been more popular. Perhaps it's the name, which suggests to people that it's a sweet red. It's not, by a long stretch. While dolcetto is fruity, it's balanced by light tannins and often a hint of bitter on the finish.
"It's a must have on our lists due to the fact that it's so approachable, so food friendly, and such a great introduction to Italian wine," said Steve Wildy, beverage director of Vetri restaurants. "It's a gateway wine for non-Italian wine drinkers who have been turned off by decades of drinking bad Chianti."
"For the non-Italian-wine drinker, Italian wine typically carries a few harsh stereotypes: high tannin, high acid, and earthier flavors, all profiles on the opposite end of the average American wine drinker's taste spectrum," Wildy said. "Dolcetto is the perfect antithesis for this, since it's usually plump, juicy, and easy-going, loaded with purple fruit, and light-hearted enough to go with almost anything."
"What kind of a person is a dolcetto drinker?" said Tim Kweeder, wine director at a.kitchen. "A person looking for that bottle of wine on a Tuesday night, where he/she is not looking to impress anybody and doesn't need to overanalyze anything. They can just enjoy a glass or three with some simple foods while they kick back."
Since dolcetto will be a perfect complement to your warm-weather grilling, here are some recommendations:
Prunotto Dolcetto d'Alba 2012. $16.99 in Pennsylvania.
Fresh, ripe berries, balanced by a smooth-stone minerality, and a touch of "amaro" on the finish.
Elvio Cogno Vigna del Mandorlo Dolcetto d'Alba 2011. $22.49 in Pennsylvania
Very purple, fruity, and aromatic. Lots of plum, blueberry, and licorice.
Ca' Viola Dolcetto d'Alba Vilot 2009. $22.99 in Pennsylvania.
Big, rustic, lots of juicy fruit and some black pepper.
Fontanafredda Briccotondo Langhe Dolcetto. 2010. $13.99 in Pennsylvania.
Spicy nose, and dry, green tannins, with just enough fruit to balance.
Parusso Dolcetto d'Alba Piani Noce 2012. $14.99 at Wine Legend in Cherry Hill, $12.99 at Canal's Bottlestop in Marlton, $12.98 at WineWorks in Marlton.
Earthy, with tobacco on the nose and tart berries on the palate.
Pio Cesare Dolcetto d'Alba 2010. $19.99 in Pennsylvania.
Dense, but balanced, with lots of dark fruit and black pepper.
Azelia Dolcetto d'Alba 2012. $11.98 at WineWorks in Marlton.
Bright, young, with ripe red berries and lots of acidity.
Anna Maria Abbona 'Sori dij But' Dogliani DOCG 2011. $19 at Moore Brothers in Pennsauken.
Deep and dark, with baked cherry and a hint of menthol on the finish.
Poderi Luigi Einaudi Dogliani DOCG 2011. $20.
Ripe fruit, but also significant herbal and spice notes, and a hint of bitter on the finish. Classic dolcetto and a wonderful food wine.