In the Piemonte region of Northern Italy, there is an almost holy triumvirate of grapes that have become synonymous with the region. They are Nebbiolo, Barbera and Dolcetto. Each variety has a unique voice that interprets the terroir of Piemonte through an array of different wine styles.
While the north of Italy is considered to be the quintessential region for these grapes, there are quite a few producers having success with them much closer to home too. Here in Australia, Barbera, Dolcetto and Nebbiolo are grown and produced across a range of different wine regions. And although they express themselves differently from their Piedmont counterparts, they make some truly excellent wines!
The word ‘Nebbiolo’ comes from the Italian for ‘fog,’ and it is Italy’s answer to Pinot Noir; complex, ethereal, layered, and able to produce some of the world’s most stunning wines. It is perhaps most famously produced in the subregion of Barolo in Piemonte; and although Barolo is the most renowned DOCG for Nebbiolo, it would be remiss not to mention the other Piemonte subregions that also claim DOCG status – Barbaresco, Roero, Gattinara, and Ghemme. All of these regions produce beautiful Nebbiolo wines.
Nebbiolo, in its youth, is often branded with the description of “tar and roses”. This is a simplified version of the characteristic floral notes of Nebbiolo, but also a nod to its potential earthy, bitter undertones that need to soften with age. Aged Nebbiolo has a typically red-brick hue, and complex flavours of leather, spice, cherry, dried herbs, tobacco, and cedar.
Similarly Barbera is a wine of many faces. Barbera fans are drawn to its dichotomy of flavours and textures. For instance, dark staining pigments give it a signature dark hue, suggesting a rich wine, while light tannin and high acidity give it a ‘juicy’ taste and feel. At the same time, strawberry and sour cherry flavours are generally associated with light-bodied Barbera wines. The best examples are from winemakers who, instead of taking advantage of the grape’s high yield, opt to grow Barbera in well-pruned vineyards with smaller clusters. Ageing in toasted oak barrels is another effective technique used, which gives Barbera an increased complexity.
Finally, to Dolcetto. Don’t let the name fool you! Dolcetto translates as “little sweet one,” but it is certainly not a sweet grape. The wines made from Dolcetto are deeply-coloured, dry and can be quite tannic. It is grown in very small amounts in other world regions outside of Piemonte, but the most notable regions for Dolcetto are Asti, Alba, Langhe and Dogliani (the only region where wines from Dolcetto have reached DOCG status).
Typically, wines made from Dolcetto are light to medium bodied with very fruity aromas of plum, blackberry and prune, and a sweet, confected note almost like red lollies – perhaps this is where the name comes from? Due to its high tannins, Dolcetto can produce bitter almond characters on the palate if not treated with care. Because of the fruity nature of these wines, they are robust enough to serve with Italian antipasto – pickled, salty and savoury!