Dolcetto and Barbera

On the following pages I offer notes on the best dolcetto and barbera bottlings I tasted in the Piedmont in September and subsequently at home this fall. The recent succession of superb Piedmont vintages has been kind to these varieties, although a few growers told me that the early-ripening dolcetto had some problems in 2000 as the nights during the key early September period were very cool. The high-acid, low-tannin barbera, which is harvested three or four weeks after dolcetto, has enjoyed a string of highly successful years since 1997: thorough ripening has enabled these wines to develop more sugar and flesh to buffer their bracing acids.

Dolcetto is generally a supple, intensely fruity, medium-bodied, low-acid wine with solid tannic support. Because dolcetto is normally inexpensive and destined for early drinking, most examples are made in tank or larger, neutral barrels; only a few are aged in French barriques. Barbera is generally leaner and more penetrating, relying almost entirely on its acidity, rather than its tannins, for structure. Its cherry and berry flavors are often complicated by spice notes and more obvious suggestions of soil. But it's also a more serious wine, with the best examples possessing good density and the ability to gain in nuance with bottle aging and last well. 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 intensify the natural spicy character of this variety and provide tannic grip. The sweetness of the wood also helps to buffer barbera's brisk acidity. But where the underlying material is limited, the result can often be chocolatey, tarry and sometimes bitter wine in which the oak overwhelms and dries the fruit.

Due to the plethora of successful bottles I found, notes are provided only for those wines I rated 87 points or higher.