The Pirate of Dogliani

 The  San Fereolo Vineyards in Dogliani. (Photo by Joanie Bonfiglio)

The  San Fereolo Vineyards in Dogliani. (Photo by Joanie Bonfiglio)

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.

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‘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. 

A Room with a Barolo View

During the Middle Ages, the hilltop towns of La Morra and Barolo fiercely disputed who controlled the prime vineyard lands of Cerequio, one of the most prestigious of Barolo’s crus, or most important parcels of land. Today there is no doubt. Michele Chiarlo, along with his sons Stefano and Alberto, farm almost two-thirds of the nebbiolo vines planted in Cerequio’s calcareous Sant’ Agata marl – vines that yield Barolo wines of particular elegance and finesse with concentrated aromatics that lace ripe berries with dark chocolate and pleasing hints of eucalyptus.

A few short years ago, the Chiarlo family opened Palas Cerequio, a boutique hotel in the center of its eponymous vineyards. The hotel is a sanctuary for those who aspire to understand the wines of Barolo thoroughly. Consistent with the local architecture, from a distance it looks like a small cluster of houses. In the lobby are stones from each of region’s grand cru sites.

The rooms mirror the Chiarlo’s winemaking philosophy: balancing tradition and modernity, preserving the time-honored characteristics of Barolo while embracing practices that render the wines more sumptuous, less austere. Thus the whimsical Baroque style of the four suites in the historic manor nod to the past, while the remaining five suites, compositions in stone and oak with massive picture windows, look to the future. All are equipped with private spas, stacks of books and musical selections specifically chosen to prime guests for an expansive sensory experience once the wine is opened.

Which brings us to the Caveau of Cerequio, the hotel’s cellar where guests can sample the entire Chiarlo portfolio alongside Barolo from other regional luminaries such as Gaja, Boroli and Vietti. It is an ideal tasting environment: temperature controlled with a long table set above a floor lit to ensure a true reading of each wine’s hue.

The hotel will also arrange truffle hunts, castle tours and reservations at authentic Piedmontese restaurants such as the Michelin starred Antica Corona Reale and San Marco Ristorante. Short of renting a staffed villa, Palas Cerequio is perhaps the most exquisite way to experience what is like to live among Barolo’s vineyards.

Michele Chiarlo Barolo Cerequio is the perfect accompaniment to roasted or braised meats, such as this recipe for braised veal shanks.

The Wines of Boroli

Italy’s Piedmont region not only borders France and Switzerland, its food and wine embody many of the finest qualities of the three nations. “Piedmont” means foothills, specifically the lush green slopes beneath the Alps, where pastures yield world-class cheeses and veal so tender, crudo is a local staple. It is an epicure’s heaven: the fish is caught fresh in nearby Liguria, the roots of oak trees are a favorite hiding place for truffles, butter is used as liberally as olive oil, and the most important local grape variety, nebbiolo, is the foundation for Barolo, one of the most collectible wines in the world.

Nebbiolo is a thin-skinned red grape that, with enough time on the vine, develops ripe cherry flavors anchored by a bouquet of roses, violets, tar and forest floor. What sets the variety apart is its texture, the penetrating dry tannins accompanied by high acidity. It is the reason Barolo ages gracefully for decades, and why Barolo traditionally takes a good ten years to become approachable.

In the past, Barolo producers looking to quicken the process made wines in the “international style,” a shorthand for ample use of new oak barrels and intensely concentrated fruit. These Barolos were easy drinking in their youth but an anathema to purists, since flavors of toast and vanilla along with a perception of sweetness masked nebbiolo’s bewitching aromatics.

Today, a more modern approach to making accessible Barolo has taken hold. Wineries like Boroli are using contemporary fermentation techniques to soften tannins, while crafting wines with fresh fruit, clarity and precision. These wines, while not the classics, open a beautiful window into Barolo for nebbiolo lovers keen to enjoy a bottle upon release, pronto!

The Boroli Barolo 2008 is a particularly good value. The cool wet vintage meant fewer single-vineyard bottlings and more top lots of nebbiolo in the blended bottling. It goes beautifully with braised veal or wild mushroom risotto.

Happy Endings: Moscatao d'Asti and Rustic Fruit Tarts

Italians understand the true role of dessert. After anantipasti, primi and secondi, the dolci need not be a meal in itself, but a subtle shift from savory to sweet to linger over at the end of a meal. Think biscotti, panna cotta, dried figs and rustic fruit tarts. So it is not surprising that they invented Moscato d’Asti DOCG, what may be the perfect dessert wine. Made in Piedmont from ripe Moscato Bianco grapes, the pale gold, lightly effervescent, off-dry moscato d’Asti tends to be nimble on the palate and rich with fresh aromas of apricots, orange blossoms, honeysuckle and almonds. 

Moscato d’Asti is exceeding low in alcohol (5.5%)--less than half that of Champagne--which makes it a gentle final nip after a glass or two of wine earlier in the night. It is also an affordable luxury, usually for less than twenty dollars a bottle, and crafted by the same venerable Piedmont producers that make collectable Barolo and Barbaresco. But don’t let hallowed names like Vietti and Chiarlo trick you into cellaring these bottles. A mouthful of moscato d’Asti should offer the sensation of biting into a just picked perfectly ripe pear -- the younger, the fresher, the better. Also, be careful not to confuse moscato d’Asti with plain moscato, which is often made from bulk wine and lacks moscato d’Asti’s finesse and charm. 

Recommended wines include the Michele Chiarlo Nivole Moscato d’Asti, a delicately aromatic tribute to Michele’s father who used to filter Moscato d’Asti with Dutch sail cloth; the Tenimenti Ca’Bianca, a lovely frizzante wine with lingering notes of pine nuts and clementines; and the Vietti Moscato d’Asti Cascinetta, which is luscious and beautifully balanced.

Dalla Terra: A Guide to the Best of Italy

Brian Larky, Dalla Terra’s chairman and founder, is a pilot, deep powder skier, white water guide, and dive master. He is also a UC Davis trained winemaker who after five years at Ca’ del Bosco in Lombardy returned to the US to become a winery agent. In 1990 he started Dalla Terra (meaning from the earth) under a business model called Winery Direct, which foregoes the importer and sells directly to the distributers. None of this would matter if all eighteen producers in Larky’s portfolio of family-owned wineries weren’t superb representatives of the styles and traditions of their respective regions. But when you look at his list—Tenute Marchesi di Gresy in Barbaresco, Alois Lageder in Alto Adige, Casanova di Neri in Montalcino, Badia a Coltibuono Chianti Classico, La Valentina near Pescara, Masseria Li Veli in Puglia, to name a few—you realize that Dalla Terra is all about delivering the highest quality wine at the best value.

A standout in the Dalla Terra portfolio is the Vietti Nebbiolo Perbacco. Founded in 1873, Vietti is one of the oldest family owned estates in Barolo. Its winery, which is built into the hillside of Castiglione Falletto, contains dusty bottles originally intended to be rations for the commanders of Napoleon’s forces. While Vietti is famous for its single vineyard Barolo bottlings, their grand cru Nebbiolo can be sampled for a relative song with the Nebbiolo Perbacco, an entry-level wine made from a blend of their grand crus. “Perbacco,” fittingly, is an old-Italian expression for “Wow!”

Gaia Gaja on Barbaresco

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Gaia Gaja may be the world’s greatest ambassador for Barbaresco, Italy, the Piedmontese region renowned for its elegant wines made from one hundred percent nebbiolo grapes. Born and raised in the region, she is the fifth generation of her family to work at Gaja, the family’s celebrated estate. Tasting Barbaresco with her opened our eyes to what makes the wines so beguiling.

“For people who love Barbaresco, a lot of the enjoyment comes from forming a relationship with the wine while it is still in the glass. Nebbiolo (from Barbaresco) possesses ethereal perfumes. You can swirl the wine it and make it talk,” Gaia explains.

“When it is young, you can smell aromas of citrus zest -- oranges, tangerines, and bergamot. You can also detect aromas of plant roots. You will find hints of rhubarb, quinine and bitter herbs.”

Gaia emphasizes the special quality of the wine’s texture. “On the palate, Barbaresco is discreet in taste and bigger in texture,” she says. “There is this dryness that sweeps across your tongue and cleans everything up. It is best to pair Barbaresco with fatty foods. Most of the time we serve it with meat, but my favorite dinner when I go home and don't want to cook is Barbaresco and a cheese platter. In Japan, I like Barbaresco with sushi. The wine is delicate and does not overpower the fish, especially toro (fatty tuna belly), which is almost like raw meat.”