Sometimes a wine refuses to play to type. Take Dolcetto. Conventional wisdom has it that this classic Piedmont grape makes soft, round and fruity wines meant to be consumed young, while your Nebbiolo is in the cellar maturing. Even the best examples are measured against these modest expectations. Yet after tasting San Fereolo Dogliani, a Dolcetto of structure, aroma, texture, earth and dark austere fruit, this paradigm no longer rings true. Unmistakably a wine of Piedmont, it had little in common with the easy drinking wines normally associated with the variety. It demanded a broader view of the grape’s potential.
The manager at Eataly Vino told me that the San Fereolo needs to be appreciated in context of wines from the town of Dogliani, a DOCG just south of Barolo at the foot of the Alps, where Dolcetto vines are awarded pride of place alongside hazelnuts trees and untamed forests. As I tasted other bottles from Dogliani, it was clear that Dolcetto di Dogliani is a darker, deeper and more structured creature than Dolcetto from its neighbors to the north. Still, the San Fereolo stood out. There was something beyond a sense of place that informed its remarkable depth. So I wrote a fan letter to the estate’s importer, Rosenthal Wine Merchants, and arranged to speak with the owner, the passionate iconoclast and accidental winemaker Nicoletta Bocca.
Twenty-five years ago, Nicoletta was living in Milan and working in fashion and industrial design when her friend Alessandro Fantino, the owner and winemaker of the Barolo estate A&G Fantino, said, ‘I want to take you to one of the best places I have ever seen to live.’ He drove Nicoletta and her husband to Dogliani where at the crest of a hill covered with overgrown vineyards they saw a fantastic house in complete disrepair next to an octagonal church. ‘It was a dream place for people from Milano,’ she recalls.
Nicoletta's connection to the region ran deeper than agrarian fantasy. During WWII, her father fought as a partisan alongside the esteemed Barolo producer Bartolo Mascarello. The men stayed close and twice a year throughout her childhood she and her father would visit Bartolo to stock up on wine and food. For much of that time Alessandro Fantino was the Mascarello estate’s oenologist and vineyard manager, and the circle of friendship grew.
‘Promise me you won’t clear the Dolcetto vines,’ some of which dated back to 1936, Alessandro told her when she purchased the house. ‘We’ll take care of them the first year and then you can make a choice.’
Life in the vineyard changed Nicoletta. Viticulture became a kind of Zen discipline. ‘In Milano, if you want to work late into the night, you turn on the light and you work,’ she observes. ‘Here you are not your own master. You are part of nature. You have understand what is around you and work only when the light and the weather permits, on the timetable dictated by the vineyard.’
In 2004, she studied biodynamics to deepen her knowledge of grape cultivation and the vicissitudes of nature, and she now maintains her vineyards according to its strict principles. The practice is essential to her, but also only a starting point, a means to pristine raw materials. ‘If you are working organically or biodynamically and think that is the goal, you are on the wrong path,’ she stresses. ‘Biodynamics help you take character from your terroir. It is a tool for having a wine that speaks about the place, grape and vintage.’
When you ask Nicoletta what sets the San Fereolo apart from other Dogliani, she launches into a description of her winemaking practices. Picking the grapes when the tannins in the seeds ripen; fermenting in large wooden vats using ambient yeast; macerating the juice on the skins for at least twenty days; leaving the wine in barrel on its lees for two years; and then cellaring the individual bottles for another four years before releasing the wine to market, ready to drink.
The regime is grounded in the dual nature of the Dolcetto grape. Translated literally, Dolcetto means ‘little sweet one,’ but it has two faces: one is the fruity side you taste when you bite into it, the other is the polyphenols and tannins that come from the seeds when they ripen. Nicoletta's winemaking practices are dedicated to harvesting the spicy earthy aromas that come from the seeds when the grapes are ready to be picked.
‘You have a choice,’ she says. ‘You can have a short maceration and a fruity wine that tastes like everyone else’s, or you can behave like Dolcetto is a serous wine and focus on extraction. For me, it’s like being in the ocean. You can’t run away from the big wave, you have to dive through it. I dive into the wine and accept all of its characteristics, then I find a new balance.’ The long maceration is the deep dive. The new balance is achieved through the extended time the wine spends in the barrel and the cellar before release, this gives the tannins and polyphenols the opportunity to soften and integrate leading to an elegant wine with restrained dark fruit, structure and persistence.
'My colleagues complain that nobody understands Dolcetto,’ she elaborates. ‘But nobody is making the effort to show people that the wine can really be interesting. It’s like being in love with a woman you fear doesn’t know you exist and giving up instead of fighting to get her attention.’
Nonetheless, Nicoletta’s uncompromising vision for Dolcetto is not fully rewarded in the market. Most consumers will pay more for a mediocre bottle of Nebbiolo fermented in stainless steel than the wine she dotes on, and will question why they should purchase her Dolcetto when examples from Alba can be had at at third of the price. Meanwhile, leading Barolo producers often sell fresh and fruity Dolcetto as entry-level offerings, at the same time they are buying prime Dogliani vineyards to make Langhe Nebbiolo, which is also more profitable that Dolcetto made under the Dogliani DOCG label.
‘Nobody in Barolo said, we are going to say that Dogliani is not an important wine so that the farmers will be so poor that we can come and buy their land,’ Nicoletta reflects. ‘But that is what happened. Whenever I can get in the car and turn my back to Barolo I feel relieved. When I can no longer see Monforte d’Alba, I am like a pirate in the Caribbean with my ship!’
That's not to say Nicoletta has limited her efforts to Dogliani. Last winter, she attended a conference in Rocca Ciglié, a town in the Piedmont’s Cuneo province near Liguria. Set at a higher elevation and closer to the sea than Dogliani, Rocca Ciglié has been touted as prime vineyard land for Dolcetto since the eighteen fifties. The event’s purpose was to begin to revive life in the village and to find people to lease the town’s ancient vineyards, because its population is aging and its young people are moving away. 'I bought land,’ Nicoletta admits. ‘I arrived just in time. One year later and the vineyard would not have been there anymore. The man who was farming it couldn't go on being old and without help.’
‘Old vineyards are treasures full of the wisdom of plants. Losing them is painful,’ she adds. ‘I hope to do my best for this place and for the people who worked there long before I was born.’
In the fall Nicoletta harvested the grapes for her debut Dolcetto di Rocca Ciglié. Given the high altitude and fresher temperatures, the tannins in the seeds were greener than she is accustomed to. Still, she made a long maceration after which she tasted the wine. The Rocca Ciglié had lower alcohol and more aromatics than her Dolcetto from Dogliani, yet showed no signs of bitterness. Beyond the local climate, she attributes the difference to the region's ancient soils coming from a place deeper down in the ocean.
It appears that the world of premium Dolcetto is about to have an important new reference point from Nicoletta Bocca, the Pirate of Dogliani.
10 Wines Dogliani
Pot Roasted Leg of Lamb with Garlic & Olives
The dark earthy fruit and integrated tannins of the San Fereolo Dogliani complement this fork-tender lamb with a rich savory sauce of olives and herbs.
Ingredients for 6-8 servings
- ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 whole leg of lamb, bone in and trimmed, 6-8 lb.
- salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1 large yellow onion, diced
- 1 cup tomatoes, peeled seeded and chopped
- 1 head garlic, cloves individually peeled and crushed
- 1 bunch thyme, tied with kitchen twine
- 2 cups dry white wine
- 1 cup niçois olives, pitted
- 1 cup chicken or vegetable stock, preferably homemade*
Place a large heavy-gauge roasting pan on the stovetop so that it stretches across two burners. Warm the pan over medium heat. Add the olive oil. Season the entire lamb with salt and pepper. Once the oil is warm, add the lamb to the pan and slowly sear the exterior, turning occasionally until the roast is golden brown on all sides, about 30 minutes.
Add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until they begin to take on a straw color, about 20 minutes. Reduce the heat to low and add the tomatoes, garlic, thyme and ¼ cup of white wine. Cover with a lid or heavy gauge aluminum foil and braise the lamb for 30 minutes, then turn the lamb, add another ¼ cup of wine, cover and continue cooking for another 30 minutes. Repeat this for two hours, until all the wine has been used. Add the olives, cover and braise for another 30 minutes.
Transfer the lamb to a cutting board tented with aluminum foil and let it rest for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, over a low flame, whisk t1/4 cup of chicken or vegetable stock at a time into the sauce that has accumulated at the bottom of the roasting pan, until it has the consistency of a thick gravy. Season to taste with salt and pepper and transfer to a small bowl.
Slice the lamb against the grain. Arrange on a warm platter. Ladle just enough of the garlic and olive sauce over the lamb to keep the meat moist, and then pass the remainder of the gravy around the table for guests to help themselves.
*If you don’t have homemade chicken stock on hand, while the lamb is cooking combine 3 cups of water, a peeled carrot, a celery stalk and one leek, onion or shallot. Bring the mixture to a boil, reduce the heat and let it simmer for 30 minutes. This stock will be far more flavorful then prepackaged chicken stock, unless you have access to fresh made stock from a specialty market.