Focus on Barbera and Dolcetto

In Italy Piedmont region, the locals drink dolcetto and barbera on a daily basis, reserving their more serious nebbiolo wines, Barolo and Barbaresco, for special occasions. Dolcetto and barbera are among the most flexible, food-friendly reds made anywhere, and although prices for some special cuvees have risen sharply in recent years, these are still mostly moderately priced wines with outgoing personalities and considerable early appeal. Thanks to the Piedmont's unprecedented string of warm harvests in recent years, and continued improvements in winemaking, the market is now flooded with excellent barberas and dolcettos.

As a rule, dolcetto is easygoing, supple and intensely fruity, best suited for consumption within two or three years after release. Dolcetto is an early-ripening grape with generally low levels of acidity but no shortage of tannins, picked by producers a good two or three weeks before they begin bringing in their barbera and nebbiolo. Barbera is generally leaner and more penetrating, relying almost entirely on its acidity, rather than its tannins, for structure. Barbera is the more serious wine, and competition among quality-conscious estates has motivated producers to reduce barbera crop levels in order to make riper, more concentrated wines. Stronger raw materials, in turn, have allowed an increasing number of producers to age these wines in small French oak barrels, which can give the wines more structure and spice and often have the effect of buffering their bracing acidity. Where the underlying material is not sufficiently strong, the result can simply be dry, overoaked wines. But when the barbera comes from a top site and the grapes are thoroughly ripe, the use of barriques can make utterly satisfying wines, some of which will develop in bottle for a decade or more.

Recent vintages. Barbera needs a balmy early fall or a dry, late harvest for the acids to descend to manageable levels. The freakishly warm early autumn of 1997 provided a crop of barberas that most locals, as well as international fans of these wines, consider among the greatest of the last generation. Then followed '98 and '99, two more unusually warm and successful harvests for the Piedmont, as well as outstanding years for barbera.

Dolcetto is a more delicate grape than barbera. Drought conditions can easily prevent the fruit from ripening properly, while unusually cool September nights, which help the late-ripening nebbiolo and barbera build sugars slowly while retaining acidity, can quickly cause the dolcetto vines to drop their bunches. But 1999, according to most growers in the region, brought near-perfect conditions for this grape variety. Most of the dolcetti noted below are from this spectactular vintage. If you're not familiar with dolcetto, there will never be a more propitious moment to become acquainted with these wines than with the currently arriving '99s.

My tastings below are limited primarily to wines from Barolo and Barbaresco producers, but there are also a number of examples from appellations outside Alba (e.g., Dolcetto di Dogliani, Barbera d'Asti). The bulk of these tastings took place during my tour of the Piedmont in September (including several wines not yet bottled; ranges, rather than precise scores, are provided for these wines), but I followed up by tasting another 120 or so finished wines in New York in recent weeks. Due to the sheer number of successful bottles I found, notes are provided only for those wines I rated 87 points or higher.