Sunday, July 5, 2009

WN: Due Dolcetti

Or perhaps a Dolcetto duel? Either way, the entrants into my latest side-by-side tasting are the Palmina 2007 Santa Barbara County Dolcetto and the Bricco del Cucù 2005 "Bricco San Bernardo" Dogliani. Both are priced just under $20 per bottle and both have good pedigrees. Palmina is Steve Clifton's Cal-Ital label, and his work with Italian varietals in Santa Barbara is generally well-regarded. I had previously tasted Palmina's single vineyard Dolcetto and really liked it, thus my expectations for the appellation designated Dolcetto were similarly high. Meanwhile, Dogliani is a DOCG devoted solely to Dolcetto. DOCG roughly translates to Guaranteed Controlled Domain of Origin, meaning any wine sold with DOCG on its label must meet strict legal criteria and demonstrate typicity for the region and varietal. A DOC label is used for wines that display "correct" characteristics for a given region; a DOCG label in principle suggests the wine should be an outstanding exemplar for that style and region. However, as I've learned repeatedly, price, appellation or producer is never a true guarantee.

Dolcetto is a varietal indigenous to northern Italy that is typically grown in Piedmont along with Barbera and Nebbiolo. While Nebbiolo is considered an age-worthy and truly noble varietal, Dolcetto is thought of as a simpler wine intended for enjoyment in its youth without much pretense. It's a dark grape that according to different sources is either tannic and low in acid or acidic and low in tannin. I have no idea what's right, but terroir and wine making usually overshadow the varietal anyway (one can limit tannins by reducing the amount of time the juice is in contact with grape skins, for example). The ultimate truth is what's in the bottle.

As it turned out, both wines showed a common characteristic of spice of the nose. The Palmina in particular had what came across as ginger, while the Bricco San Bernardo was more subtle in its expression of cooking spices and floral aromas. Both showed some dark fruit and a refined character (i.e. not rustic), but the ginger of the Palmina was the star of the show.

The two wines differed greatly in their flavor profiles, though. The Palmina, listed at 14.7% ABV, tasted very sweet, almost like caramel, in comparison to the Bricco San Bernardo. Although both wines were likely fully dry, alcohol imparts a sweet flavor, and in the Palmina this was a dominant feature. Predictably, there was also some heat on the finish. The Bricco San Bernardo was more acidic, yet also showed more fruit as well. Neither wine was heavily oaky, while both showed copious, but soft tannins on the finish.

My preference was for the Bricco San Bernardo, which was much better balanced. Despite the interesting bouquet, the Palmina tasted overripe and one-dimensional. This was a bit perplexing given how much I liked their Honea Vineyard Dolcetto, but the tasting notes on the single-vineyard version may hint at why I preferred it:
Not one to shy away from a challenge, in 2007 Steve expanded the cane pruning experiment he began in 2006 in the Dolcetto block at Honea Vineyard. Once again, the crop size was smaller, the clusters longer and heavier and each one uniformly ripe. Picked at lower sugar levels than in the first year, and with a gleam in Steve’s eye, the whole clusters were placed into 1.5 ton open top fermenters, cold soaked for a few days and then fermented with stems. At the completion of fermentation, the cane-pruned Dolcetto aged for 11 months in French oak.
The Honea Dolcetto is pruned differently, harvest at lower sugar ripeness, and fermented on the stems. Certainly the complex aromatics and earthy flavors of the Honea Dolcetto reflect less ripe fruit with some "stemmy" (in a good way) qualities. The Santa Barbara County Dolcetto is most likely a mix of wine that didn't make the cut for the Honea bottling and other vineyards that produce less balanced grapes.

The verdict here is the Bricco San Bernardo is the better value. The Palmina Santa Barbara County Dolcetto is also a good wine with a bit of unique character, but needs more Ital and less Cal on the palate. I'll probably look for the Honea Vineyard Dolcetto if I'm going to buy a Cal-Ital Dolcetto in the future.

Palmina 2007 Santa Barbara County Dolcetto
Price: $18 from East Beach Wine

Bricco del Cucù 2005 "Bricco San Bernardo" Dogliani
: 87-89
: $17 from K&L Wines


Jeff said...

I've had the Bricco San Bernardo too and liked it as well. I found it to be quite a bit more structured and riper than most of the dolcetto based wines I've had. I definitely thought it was a tasty wine, although it was bigger and richer than a lot of the dolcetto's that I have had. By the way--Dogliani is a brand new DOCG that the Italian government created. It used to be Dolcetto di Dogliani, but it was changed in the last couple of years.

CabFrancoPhile said...

This is good to know since I'll be buying more Dolcetto in the future. I saw the Bricco San Bernardo was imported specifically for K&L on the label, so maybe it was put together with American tastes in mind. I would say it's less acidic than your average Italian wine, but it hit that sweet spot where it's supple, modern and clean without being a generic, dull fruit bomb. Maybe next time I'll try for some Dolcetto d'Alba and Dogliani as a comparative exercise. The DOCG designation is a good selling point, though.

Jeff said...

Dolcetto is not really my favorite grape. I definitely like Barbera quite a bit more. If you like really high acid reds though, you're really going to like Dolcetto because it's all acid and cherries. The Bricco is on the more modern side with more structure. One thing I really like about Dolcetto's are that they're really great with any type of red sauce. They're a great food wine--not so great to drink on their own in my experience. I remember really liking one a Vietti one a couple of years ago.