Our panel tasted almost 150 Barberas and Dolcettos and found 25 that rated in the 90s, as well as 23 Best Buys.
by Mark Mazur and Michael Schachner
The rustic, often fog-shrouded vineyards of Piedmont's hill towns are the source of many superb and very expensive wines. The region's Barolos and Barbarescos rank among the world's great reds, cherished by connoisseurs and serious collectors everywhere. But the red wines regularly consumed by the Piedmontese are the wines made from their beloved Dolcetto and Barbera grapes.
Over the past few years our shores have been flooded by hundreds of Barberas and Dolcettos at prices ranging from around $10 a bottle all the way up to the $50 mark and above; from fairly simple, straightforward quaffs to complex wines aged in barriques.
And based on the results of our comprehensive blind tasting, they deserve your consideration. In January we tasted approximately 90 Barberas and 60 Dolcettos; we've selected the top 124 wines for inclusion in this report (old vintages and wines scoring below 80 points were omitted). Twenty-five wines, or approximately 20 percent of the field, scored 90 points or higher (15 Barberas and 10 Dolcettos). There were also many wines of each varietal scoring in the high 80s, indicating a high level of overall quality.
PIEDMONT'S PRETTY RED Dolcetto Piedmont's pretty red Dolcetto is the lighter of the two varieties. It is also an earlier ripening grape than Barbera and has a decidedly fruit-forward profile.The flavors of Dolcetto are very much in the cherry range, with both sweet and tart expressions of fruit. Chocolate or cocoa accents also are very common. In an appealing Dolcetto, herb and floral nuances are prominent, frequently veering from rose to lavender to anise. Dolcetto should display a lively sweet-tart quality. The wine tends to be very purple in color; at its most extracted, a Dolcetto may display a handsome purple-black hue.
Dolcettos come in a variety of styles, with corresponding weight and density. The most basic are light, fruity Beaujolais-style renderings—good quaffing wines that can even stand up to a light chill during the summer.
We also tasted quite a few medium-weight versions that were reminiscent of Pinot Noir (some with a fair amount of Pinot-esque barnyard aromas), and some fuller, more silky wines almost similar in weight and texture (but not flavor) to Merlot. Because of their concentration and weight, the latter are excellent and flavorful dinner wines.
Dolcetto is produced throughout the Piedmont region of northwest Italy, but most of the wines we tasted—especially the best examples—were from Alba, home to the largest number of Dolcetto and Barbera producers. Eight of our top ten Dolcettos were from Alba. Wines like the 1998 Sandrone (93 points; $25), the '98 Castello di Neive Basarin (91; $12), the '97 Principiano Sant'Anna and the '98 Ceretto Rossana (both 90 points and $17) are serious reds, easily surpassing the level of quality anticipated by our tasting panel members.
With few exceptions, Dolcettos are at their best and should be consumed in the first year or two of life. A quick look at our top wines shows that the majority are 1998s. These wines are now about a year and a half removed from harvest, and most are showing beautifully right now. Perhaps the best news surrounding the current crop of Dolcettos is the wonderful price-quality rapport of the wines. Of the top 20 wines tasted, all but two cost $20 or less, and more than one-third were under $15. Our Best Buys box highlights the wines with outstanding balance between price and quality, and notably, some of them are among the best wines overall, regardless of price.
BIG YET APPROACHABLE Barbera resides just above Dolcetto in the Piedmontese pecking order of grapes. It matures later and is bigger in flavor than Dolcetto. As with Dolcetto, the flavors are decidedly cherry, ranging from sweet-tart to black. Cocoa and chocolate notes appear again, too, making one wonder if perhaps some of the similarities between Barbera and Dolcetto are due to the terroir of Piedmont. In general, Barberas have a chewy, leathery, earthy element that can add complexity, but also some toughness. Without doubt, the grape is decidedly higher in acidity than the friendlier Dolcetto.
If Barbera has one particular problem, it would be its natural high acidity. To address this, producers are taking action in a few ways. Many are harvesting the grape later than ever before, seeking greater ripeness and a reduction of acidity.
Traditionally, Barbera was brought in between the early-maturing Dolcetto and the late-ripening Nebbiolo (from which the esteemed Barolo and Barbaresco are made). However, as a rule these days, producers are seeking longer hang times, and when the vintage permits, they may even allow their Barbera to remain on the vine longer than the Nebbiolo.
Barbera producers have also changed their barrel aging techniques. Many have taken up using French oak barriques instead of the traditional large Slavonian oak casks. The finer, more potent oak in the small barrels is intended to impart a sweet vanillin quality, resulting in a richer and softer wine.
The results of this shift to barriques, however, seem mixed. In the best cases, the Barbera-barrique marriage can be splendid. For example, a beautiful oak-fruit balance exists in wines such as the '97 Cascina Chicco (93; $26) and the 1997 Bersano Generala (91; $34). On the other hand, we encountered many instances of overoaking. If one thing is for certain, it's that Barbera is not Cabernet Sauvignon when it comes to absorbing lavish doses of oak, and with Barbera and barriques, the winemaker must employ a sensitive hand so as not to completely overwhelm the fruit.
Barbera, it seems, is capable of lasting longer than Dolcetto, as the younger wines in our tasting did not necessarily show more positively than the older ones. Eleven of our top 25 Barberas were from the 1997 vintage, and ten were from 1996. The best wines clearly have aging potential, with producers recommending that you drink their Barberas from good vintages about four to eight years after harvest.
In wine circles, Piedmont is often called Italy's Burgundy. The hilly land and chilly climate play equally big roles in determining the quality of the wines, as do particular vineyard sites. Because favorable weather is far from guaranteed in Piedmont, the individual producer is your best assurance of quality. Based on our tasting, we can recommend names like Castello di Neive, Cordero di Montezemolo, Attilio Ghisolfi, Elio Altare, and Vietti, all of which placed more than one wine in the upper echelons of one category or the other, or both.
In the world that is red wine, both Dolcetto and Barbera provide credible alternatives to better known wines like Merlot, Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon. The top Barberas especially, and even the best Dolcettos, are finely-crafted, world-class wines that no longer need to stand in the shadow of the more famous Piedmontese reds.
DOLCETTO * = Best Buy
93 Sandrone 1998 Dolcetto d'Alba $25 A beautiful Dolcetto, defining the state-of-the-art for this grape. Black cherry, violets, roses, and vanilla mark the lovely nose. Robust flavors of cherry, chocolate, and licorice on the palate. The feel is plush and round, but still sub- stantial, with an admirable seamlessness.
91 Castello di Neive 1998 Basarin Dolcetto d'Alba $12* Very inviting aromas of dense fruit and rose-tinged floral notes announce this impressive wine. Big and well balanced, with cassis, cherry, coffee and black-licorice flavors. Finishes very long, with full tannins, cherry and mint flavors, and echoes of rose aromas.
91 Paolo Scavino 1998 Dolcetto d'Alba $20 Harmonious aromatics of cherry, chocolate and herbs flow beautifully onto the palate. Lush in the mouth and fairly large scaled, with excellent fruit concentration. A very long finish with fine but substantial tannins. Maybe it could use a year of aging.
90 Azelia 1998 Bricco dell'Oriolo Dolcetto d'Alba $15 Lovely wine. Deep black-cherry aromas and flavors, with a classic cocoa note. Full, rich mouthfeel and a creamy texture. Well balanced, with a long, dry, spicy finish full of dusty tannins—similar to cocoa powder. Elegant and supple.
90 Francesco Boschis 1998 Vigna del Prey Dolcetto di Dogliani $19 Very extracted purple-black color. Concentrated black fruit on the nose with peppery and earthy accents that follow through on the palate. Also shows a touch of anise/licorice. Well-balanced despite its hefty weight, with a full mouth- feel and a long finish displaying well-dispersed tannins.
90 Cantine Gemma 1998 Madonna della Neve $13* Dolcetto d'Alba Rich and solid black-cherry fruit greets you and it persists through the palate and finish. Cocoa and herb notes provide interesting accents. The lush and dusty mouthfeel is balanced by good acidity that keeps it lively. Classic Dolcetto at an excellent price.
90 Ceretto 1998 Rossana Dolcetto d'Alba $17 Bright and focused all the way through. Cracked black pepper nose, with expansive cherry and earth notes on the palate. A delicious, easy-drinking wine with dark coffee flavors and tannins to resolve. This is big, full and very well made.
90 Parusso 1998 Piani Noce Dolcetto d'Alba $15 Rich black-purple color. Big welcoming aromas of black cherry, cassis and herbs. Candied fruit, but in an appealing way. Very good creamy mouthfeel. Dry cherry and cocoa flavors. Handsome dusty tannins on the long finish.
90 F. Principiano 1997 Sant'Anna Dolcetto d'Alba $17 Complex and expansive aromas. The dense nose offers black cherries, violets, roses, coffee, prunes and spice. Rich and ripe flavors of cherry and licorice, with a pleasing, full mouthfeel. The flavors carry over onto the long finish, which has some tannins to shed.
90 Vietti 1998 Lazzarito Dolcetto d'Alba $19 Black cherries, rhubarb and a rosy quality to the nose. Full and dark in the mouth, with black fruit and oak vying for predominance on the palate. The finish is long and rather big, with cocoa and a dusty licorice note acting as the anchor.
93 Cascina Chicco 1997 Bric Loira Barbera d'Alba $26 Dense and complex. Very pleasing black-cherry, herb and toast aromas open to a mouthful of concentrated fruit, pepper, coffee, cake and more. Top notch.
92 Coppo 1996 Pomorosso Barbera d'Alba $35 Extracted, with deep black-cherry fruit and toasty oak. Very suave mouthfeel—full and velvety. Almost perfect balance, with a long ripe finish. Pricey, but you get your money's worth.
91 Bersano 1997 Generala Barbera d'Asti $34 Rich and open from the start through the end. Abundantly ripe, with cherry fruit that sings. Really solid, with a beautiful finish. A good one for the next several years.
91 Aldo Conterno 1997 Conca Tre Pile Barbera d'Alba $37 Tight and powerful nose of funky barnyard, oak char and earth. Complex flavors of tobacco and bramble bush intermixed with more basic cherry, chocolate and mint.
91 Attilio Ghisolfi 1997 Barbera d'Alba $14* Handsome nose of dark cherry fruit, chocolate and toast. Rich and mouthfilling, with good fruit that is buttressed, but not overshadowed, by oak. Moderate acidity and tannins, but nothing harsh. Layered fruit with licorice on the finish.
91 Seghesio 1997 Vigneto della Chiesa Barbera d'Alba $30 Lots of oak along with tobacco, menthol and cherry. A compact, intense core of black fruit leads into a long chocolaty, spicy finish that tastes like espresso.
91 Vietti 1998 Tre Vigne Barbera d'Alba $18 Cherries and chocolate on the nose. Deep sweet fruit and bittersweet chocolate flavors. Nice mouthfeel, good balance and a weighty, jammy finish.
90 Elio Altare 1996 Larigi (Langhe) $70 This ranks as the most expensive Barbera we know of, and while it's very good, you can't help but question the price. Hefty oak throughout is manifested in the form of coffee and toast. Layered, deep fruit, and it improves exponentially with time in the glass.
90 Pietro Barbero 1996 La Vignassa Barbera d'Asti $35 Displays a masculine, dense nose full of earth, chocolate, smoke and spices. Full in the mouth, the acidity keeps it driving forward but also holds it together. Features a long, dynamite finish.
90 Brezza 1996 Cannubi Muscatel Barbera d'Alba $20 Chocolaty, with a touch of charcoal and pie cherries in the nose. A stand-up Barbera with tart black-cherry fruit, coffee, and more chocolate flavor. Very polished taste and feel.
90 Piero Busso 1996 Vigna Majano Barbera d'Alba $20 Dense as crude oil; the color is opaque purple. Definitely an earthy, tight wine, with precise but still plump cherry fruit touched off with the requisite chocolate. A great take on Barbera, with some age already helping it out.
90 Giacomo Conterno 1998 Cascina Francia Barbera d'Alba $24 Complex and friendly aromas of fruitcake, almond candy, chocolate and herbs. Berry flavors augmented by a nutty, almost spicy accent. Elegant and soft, if slightly raisiny, in the finish.
90 Cordero di Montezemolo 1998 Barbera d'Alba $25 Full, unusual nose, with berries and cream, chocolate, and orange notes. Classic chocolate and cherry flavors are in good balance. Displays medium acidity and a full mouthfeel. Tart cherries come up on the long, classy finish.
90 Prunotto 1997 Pian Romualdo Barbera d'Alba $28 This is a big Barbera that spares nothing on the oak. For some it will be a toasty treat, while others may get scared away by the charred, bitter taste of the wood.
90 Vietti 1996 La Crena Barbera d'Asti $30 Cherry fruit and lavish, toasty oak jump out of the glass. Big cherry flavors, vanilla and chocolate—like an ice cream sundae. Lots of oak, but it is wedded to the fruit handsomely.