Fans of Adam Sandler (yes, they still exist) will tell you that his films are not meant to be profound; they’re meant to make you laugh. They’re easily forgotten, but can provide a pleasant distraction for a short while. Fans of Dan Brown (I think they still exist) tend to concede that his books are meant to offer quick, easy reading, entertainment that doesn’t probe too deeply.

What is wrong, then, with the notion of a simple wine? Why not happily accept that some wines are meant for contemplation-free consumption—lunch wines, if you like—that don’t challenge us to think or work hard to understand them?

For generations, this has been the role of dolcetto. The grape simply lacks the make-up of its local neighbors in Piedmont, nebbiolo and barbera. The dolcetto grape produces low-acid, moderately tannic wines that drink pleasantly for a few years, pairing with pizza and similar fare.

Five years ago in the New York Times, Eric Asimov praised dolcetto while highlighting its limitations: “It’s a delight, but not a demanding one; light verse rather than an epic. No need to chew it over. Immediate pleasure is the goal; it doesn’t require appreciation.”

But what if Dan Brown’s next book was something entirely new and complex, a piece of literature so impressive that you could hardly believe the source? Would you downgrade your assessment of it due to the author’s previous body of work?

I have no problem with dolcetto-as-pizza-wine. But in a small commune called Ovada, a group of winemakers is trying to convince the world that there is something magical in the DNA of this grape, something that has never been allowed to shine. Until now.

Here is their argument.

First-class treatment

Winemaker Tomaso Armento presents his Dolcetto at the European Wine Bloggers Conference, October 2011

Tomaso Armento, co-owner of Forti del Vento (one of the wineries in Ovada), admits that he can become incensed when discussing dolcetto. This otherwise-cheerful Italian winemaker has devoted his life to making dolcetto, and he constantly hears pejorative declarations about his beloved grape:

“Dolcetto will never make a great wine.”

“Why not just focus on Nebbiolo?”

“You’re wasting your time.”

These comments drive Tomaso nuts. “I want to ask people to give our wines a chance,” he tells me during a tasting at the European Wine Bloggers Conference in Brescia, Italy, east of Milan. “But I just get angry when they give up before trying. I become like a bull. I have to calm down.”

Before we taste his wines, I want to understand why Tomaso does not agree with the general view of dolcetto. I want to understand why he can’t accept it as a pizza wine, a lunch wine, a simple wine.  He explains, “Most producers only plant dolcetto where there is room to plant it.” And he raises another good point: The greatest parcels of land in the Langhe are reserved for nebbiolo. Dolcetto, Tomaso says, “is there for producers to make some extra cash.” Hardly the kind of approach that might lead to something special.

His land in Ovada is southeast of the prime parcels for the production of barolo and barbaresco, and Tomaso admits, “We do not have the right climate to produce nebbiolo.” Then he smiles. “But it is right for dolcetto, and so our best hills are entirely dedicated to dolcetto.”

All the same, Tomaso does not dispute the value of dolcetto as lunch wine. “If you don’t dedicate some special vines, you won’t get a special wine,” he says. “So there is a great alternative. You can make a special nebbiolo, and make a simple dolcetto to complement it. I understand that.” That style of dolcetto dominates the market, with Ovada and Dogliani producing small amounts of wine compared to the several dozen other locales that offer simple Dolcetti.

Only in Dogliani (a short drive west) does dolcetto receive similar first-class status. It has led to a breakthrough; both Dolcetto di Dogliani and Dolcetto d’Ovada have received DOCG status, earning it a place among more ostensibly serious Italian wines.

As we get around to tasting wines from five producers of Dolcetto d’Ovada, Tomaso smiles again. “If you make dolcetto in the right place you can get to dreaming,” he says in his good-but-occasionally-bumpy English. But, he emphasizes, “Dolcetto is not less than Nebbiolo.”

What does a serious Dolcetto taste like?

Crews work the dolcetto vines in Ovada

Forti del Vento, Tomaso’s winery, produces roughly a thousand cases of dolcetto annually. The 2008 is unlike the many other versions of dolcetto I’ve tasted. It is structured, with tannins that are much more substantial than dolcetto tends to show—and in fact the tannins are almost overbearing. Brett Jones, a well traveled British wine writer, is tasting alongside us. He nods. “These are quite impressive,” Brett says, also focusing on the layered structure.  He agrees that, “You don’t see very much Dolcetto like this.”

What about the acidity? One of the criticisms of dolcetto is that it lacks acidity, and therefore falls apart with much time in the bottle. These Ovada wines show much more backbone than their simpler cousins. “Location!” Tomaso exclaims. “It is about finding the proper place for the grape.” It’s a convenient explanation, but perhaps it’s true; regardless, you wouldn’t confuse these dolcetti for higher-acid wines like barbera, but they are not fat or flabby.

There is some variation among the five wines that Tomaso has presented, but it’s fair to say that, as a group, they lack the occasionally off-putting bitterness that can plague dolcetto. The fruit is concentrated but not overripe, and Tomaso has an answer for that as well. “Yields can be very high for many producers,” he says. “But the yield for great dolcetto is just half the yield of nebbiolo.” Instead of the clunky bitterness, these dolcetti show a kind of loamy earth character that meshes with their dark fruit nicely.

The challenge is trying to determine what kind of longevity this wine will have. There is almost no track record, so it’s all conjecture. Pulling back from his previous pronouncement, Tomaso shrugs and says, “Nobody can prove that dolcetto can be as good as nebbiolo [yet]. I feel it could. I just hope to demonstrate that before I die.”

Tomaso Armento prunes dolcetto vines at Forti del Vento in Ovada

The future of Dolcetto

If winemakers like Tomaso Armento are going to succeed in convincing wine consumers to take their dolcetto seriously, they’ll have to reach more markets. For now, Dolcetto d’Ovada wines are mainly available in a handful of  New York stores according to WineSearcher.com, though Europeans have a slightly easier time tracking it down. Dolcetto di Dogliani now appears in a dozen U.S. cities.

The good news for consumers is that price hasn’t moved—yet. You can get a bottle for as little as $13, and only a few bottles reach the $20 mark. Tomaso concedes that this could eventually change.

“The market is truly under-priced,” he says, explaining that with such low yields, many producers are taking a financial hit for now. “Simple wines are easier to make than structured ones.”

At the current prices, I find these dolcetti to be strong values. Dolcetto’s reputation is unlikely to change immediately because the vast majority of it is produced by wineries seeking to offer simple wines. Pizza wines. Lunch wines. The world needs these wines, and one type of dolcetto fits the role snugly.

But Tomaso and his ilk will continue working to offer the exception, not the rule. At dinner in Brescia, he unveils a 20-year-old dolcetto, from  the cellar of a neighbor in Ovada. I taste it alongside Magnus Reuterdahl, a Swedish writer who has come for the conference. “This is dolcetto?” Magnus asks after slowly inhaling. “This is something new. Something special.” Tomaso has earned at least one convert. There will have to be many more before he’s proven right.


Evan Dawson is the author of Summer in a Glass, a book about Finger Lakes winemakers. Evan is also the  Finger Lakes Editor for the New York Cork Report. His paid job includes offering his best Ron Burgundy impersonation as a morning news anchor and political reporter for WHAM-TV in Rochester, NY.

About The Author

Evan Dawson
Staff Writer

Evan Dawson is the author of Summer in a Glass: The Coming of Age of Winemaking in the Finger Lakes. It won the 2012 Roederer International Wine Book of the Year. Outside of Palate Press, his wine writing has been published in Wine Spectator, Tasting Panel Magazine, and the New York Cork Report, for which he serves as Managing Editor. He hosts The Connection on WXXI radio, the NPR affiliate in western New York, where he focuses on community affairs. He is a middling but enthusiastic cook.

  • http://arnoldwaldstein.com/ Arnold Waldstein

    Nice piece Evan.

    My experiences with Bobal are similar.

    At the hands of a master, Juan Ponce, the ‘Bobal Whisperer’( http://awe.sm/5chvx) the banal reputation of the grape became was redefined.

    Happy New Year to you!

    • Henrik Koudahl

      Nice and interesting article Evan.

      Dolcetto from Ovada has a big potential. Especially do I like the Dolcettos from Castello di Tagliolo close to Ovada.

      I am not sure if a DOCG in the future will help. I have been visiting quite a lot of winemakers from Dogliani and most of them claims that the DOCG didn’t changes anything commercial.

      Best regards

      Henrik Koudahl

  • http://www.fortidelvento.com Tomaso

    Hey Evan,
    thank you for the article, I am proud to read about Ovada!

    Hope to see you again soon and share more views on Ovada and its growth!

    A great 2012 also to you and to all your family.

    Cheers

    Tom

  • Lizzy

    Dolcetto di Ovada is (just) one among many underappreciated wines, and it’s a shame. As Tomaso says, if cultivated in its proper ground, Dolcetto is a very pleasant and…territorial wine, far from trivial.
    Good choice for beginning this 2012, Evan.
    :-)

  • http://www.newyorkcorkreport.com Evan Dawson

    Arnold – Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the underappreciated wines of the world. As Lizzy says, we have only just begun to seek them out and tell their stories.

    Now, as far as the determination of whether Tomaso is right… The lamest of cliches is that old saw, “Time will tell.” In this case, it’s apt.

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  • http://jamesonfink.com/ Jameson

    I hope some Dolcetto d’Ovada makes its way to the west coast soon. An intriguing post!

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  • http://www.vinoalvino.org Franco Ziliani

    Hi Ewan, you are quoted in today issue of WineWebNews weekly press review, new series on my blog Vino al vino and not in AIS web pages
    link
    http://vinoalvino.org/blog/2012/01/winewebnews-negli-states-un-bicchiere-invita-a-bere-meno.html
    kindest regards
    Franco Ziliani
    http://www.vinoalvino.org
    http://www.lemillebolleblog.it

  • http://vinotintoinenglish.wordpress.com/ Magnus Reuterdahl

    Great piece and your right I was blown away not only by the 1990 and 1991 that showed the aging potential but also by the Ovada wines of recent years :)

    Best wishes

    Magnus

  • http://www.newyorkcorkreport.com Evan Dawson

    Franco – Grazie! I appreciate the link. Cheers.

    Magnus – That was a nice moment in Brescia. Enjoyed sharing it with you and Tomaso. We are all connected by the vine.

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  • http://www.broadbent.com Bartholomew Broadbent

    Great article. Thanks.

    I’m curious to know if you really knew what British wine writer Brett Jones meant? You quote him saying “These are quite impressive”

    It took me about 20 years living in America before I realized that Americans don’t know what the English mean when they use the word “quite”. In America, quite means “very”. In England, if you say a wine is “quite good”, it has the meaning of being “drinkable but nothing special”, in other words “slightly less than good”.

    The way you quoted him sounds positive indeed, as if you thought he meant “very impressive”, but was he really saying “very impressive” or was he saying that the wines were “almost impressive”?

    It was a revelation to me to discover that if I said “this wine is quite impressive” that Americans would assume I meant “Very impressive” when I’d really been saying “almost impressive”. It is confusing but just an example of two nations divided by a common language!

    Your article, otherwise was very good, definitely not quite good.

    • http://www.newyorkcorkreport.com Evan Dawson

      Bartholomew,

      Many thanks for the comment, and a fascinating point. It reminds me of my first days trying out Spanish with friends in Spain. In certain parts, “no me importa” does not necessarily translate to, “doesn’t matter to me” or “I don’t care.” It’s more coarse, and tends to come off as, “I don’t CARE, you sorry ass!” My Spanish friends counseled me to say, “me da igual,” which I still use to this day.

      So the short answer is, I don’t know! But Brett is a friend and I will find out. I was scribbling notes as we went down the lineup, and I starred a notation in my book that said, “B. Jones was impressed, said, ‘These are quite impressive – don’t see much dolcetto like this’”.

      Could I have interjected a “quite” while scribbling? I don’t know, but I guess I don’t think so! I’m interested to find out. Regardless, I can say that Brett responded with admiration for the wines, and not necessarily in the damning-with-faint-praise variety.

      I hope Mr. Jones will stop by and answer this question! He’s a wonderfully good guy and quite an astute wine evaluator. And now I’ve done it again, haven’t I?

    • http://www.thewinemaestro.co.uk Brett Jones

      I used ‘quite’ in the American way!
      My experience of Dolcetto is they are usually easy, quaffable wines so was very pleased to discover and taste Tomaso’s Ovada wine, which is definitely a big step up.
      Sorry to have taken a while to respond to this comment.
      Thanks, Evan, for a good piece about an exciting (means the same on both sides of the Atlantic, I trust!) wine and producer.

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