A pair of lightweights revived

After descending into cliched obscurity, Italy's Soave and dolcetto perk up

By Tom Hyland

Special to the Tribune

Published September 18, 2002

Of the hundreds of Italian wines available today, not all are glamorous or even fashionable. Two distinctly unstylish wines are Soave and dolcetto, even though excellent examples are available to consumers at reasonable prices. But these wines finally are starting to earn recognition.

Today, pinot grigio is the country's best-known white, and chardonnay has become more widely planted. Indigenous grapes such as greco and fiano, grown primarily in the south, are finding their way onto more wine lists, as restaurants try to offer an authentic selection.

But in the 1970s and '80s, Soave was Italy's best-known white. It could be found in practically every liquor store and restaurant, thanks mostly to Franco Bolla advertising his family's version.

As Americans discovered Italian wines, they looked for riper and more robust wines. Red wines became much more popular, and when the choice was white, pinot grigio became the default selection, though it, too, can be innocuous.

Recipe for blandness

Producers of Soave can attribute some of the wine's decline to marketing (or lack thereof), but they have themselves to blame too. Originally, Soave came only from a district in the province of Verona known as "classico," where hills naturally limit the yield of the crop, insuring a wine of greater complexity.

But as Soave grew in popularity, the approved production zone expanded to include less favorable districts. Mostly in flatlands, the vineyards were planted for quantity, not quality, and Soave became bland.

Today several producers are attempting to create distinctive Soave. Leonildo Pieropan, winemaker at his family's firm that is recognized as a benchmark producer of Soave classico, uses only the local grapes, garganega and trebbiano di Soave, in his wines, although laws allow the use of other grapes such as chardonnay.

While incorporating chardonnay could add richness, Pieropan calls that grape "a contamination" in the Soave area. He believes that his wine represents "the exclusive expression of the terrain of Soave," as he only uses indigenous grapes. He maintains that many Soave producers do not believe in the merits of the local grapes, which explains the addition of chardonnay.

Garganega is a grape treasured for its aromatics, expressing honeydew melon, pear, apple and a floral component. The 2001 Pieropan Soave Classico Superiore (Superiore refers to a Soave that has slightly more alcohol) has exceptional aroma along with notes of lemon oil, almond and lilies. The 10 percent trebbiano gives the wine a refreshing finish. At $14, this is a good value.

Another distinctive Soave, but of a different style, comes from Gini. Its 2000 Contrada Salvarenza is a single-vineyard Soave produced from older vines and receives aging in small oak barrels. This gives more richness than a regular Soave. It's also more richly priced, at $25.

Other producers to look for include Tamellini, Pra and Inama. The styles depend on aging, grape blend and vineyard selection, but all are unique and in the $12-$25 range. Even the mainstream Bolla has updated its form with its Tufaie bottling (the 2000 vintage is $12), a richer and spicier style than its regular bottling.

Dolcetto woes

Dolcetto's problem is its reputation as a lightweight (dolcetto means "little sweet one"). This wine, produced entirely from the dolcetto grape, is from the Piedmont region of northwest Italy, where Barolo and Barbaresco reign supreme. These two wines, made solely from the nebbiolo grape, are meant for the long haul, often drinking beautifully 25 years after their release.

Dolcetto, though, with its scant tannin, is meant for immediate consumption. The lighter tannins also mean the wine can accompany a greater range of foods. (Polenta and risotto, two staples of northern Italian cuisine, are ideal matches.)

An admirer of dolcetto is Lynda Jo Shlaes, wine director for Convito Italiano in Wilmette. In addition to the inherent value of the wines (most are in the $10-$20 range), she loves their characteristics.

"The wines are much better today then they were 10 years ago," she said. "They are full of big, purple fruit that wine drinkers love. They are not jammy, sweet, one-dimensional wines but are ripe and loaded with flavor."

Dolcettos are named for the town in which the wines are made; the most widely available are those from Alba, labeled "dolcetto d'Alba," or "dolcetto di Dogliani." Those from Alba tend to be lighter than those from Dogliani, which are generally more expensive (costing as much as $25) and more full-bodied.

Piedmont is in the midst of several outstanding vintages. Depending on the producer, current releases include 1999, 2000 and 2001; all are excellent. The 1999s are more subtle with perfect acidity, good for 3 to 5 years' aging, while the 2000s are powerhouses for those looking to pair a dolcetto with duck.

The 2001 may be the best vintage, as most of these wines have the power and ripeness of the 2000s with the lively acidity of the 1999s. Only a few 2001s are available; look for the Pio Cesare Dolcetto d'Alba ($20), which has ripe plum, blackberry and mulberry fruit, or the Marchesi di Barolo ($16), which is more subdued. Other excellent bottlings of dolcetto d'Alba come from Maracarini, Clerico, Grimaldi and Marchesi di Gresy.

The 2000s from Dogliani also are exceptional. Two of the finest Dogliani estates available in this market are Boschis and Pecchenino. Both produce single-vineyard dolcettos, which makes these wines even more full-flavored and age-worthy. The Boschis Vigna del Prey and the Pecchenino San Luigi and Siri d'Jermu (all 2000s) are among the best dolcettos of the last decade. They are in the $18-$25 range.

Copyright 2002, Chicago Tribune