If you’re looking to taste an unusual grape variety or a wine from a lesser-known region, then a good place to start is Italy – it grows more different grape varieties than any other country and has countless local DOCs (the Italian equivalent of the French Appellation Contrôlée) – many of which are hardly seen beyond the local area.
Not everything different is good – sometimes there’s a reason why a wine is obscure – but a bottle I opened recently reminded me of the grape variety Arneis and why it really should be much better known.
Cristina Ascheri makes a particularly attractive example (Great Western Wine, £13.95): a lightly perfumed white wine, full bodied but not overpowering and with delicious ripe pear and peach flavours and a hint of almonds on the finish. A pleasant glassful on its own but even better alongside some fish or pasta in a creamy sauce.
Perhaps one reason why Arneis is not so well known is that it is native to Piedmont, a region in north-west Italy with more than its fair share of high quality and famous wines. Among the reds, Barolo and Barbaresco, both made with the local Nebbiolo grape, stand out, although the Barbera and Dolcetto varieties can also produce very attractive wines – often ready to drink much sooner and more easily approachable. Among the local whites, I often wonder why Gavi is so much better known than Arneis – I’ve had as many disappointing examples as great ones. And then there’s the local sparkling wines: sadly, Asti (formerly known as Asti Spumanti) rarely shines these days but the delicately sweet Moscato d’Asti, often with only 5 or 6% alcohol, can be a real delight accompanying a Panna Cotta or Zabaglione dessert.
I started by suggesting you look to Italy for interesting and different wines, but you might not even want to cast your net so wide when the single region, Piedmont, can offer so much choice.
Anyone who has ever enjoyed a meal in an Italian restaurant (haven’t we all?) will be familiar with the word ‘dolce’ – the dessert or pudding course. But you might also find a ‘dolce’ on the cheese board: dolcelatte (“sweet milk”). And who of a certain age could ever forget Fellini’s famous film, ‘La Dolce Vita’ (The Sweet Life)? There’s that word again. But there’s a ‘dolce’ for wine lovers to look out for, too: dolcetto – a delicious and under-rated red grape variety native to the Piedmont region in Italy’s north-west.
Mention Piedmont and red wine and most will immediately think of Barolo or Barbaresco and there’s little doubt that the Nebbiolo grape that goes to make these wonderful, powerful, age-worthy wines is Piedmont’s most respected variety. But 2 other high quality red grapes are also widely grown in the region: Barbera, that I blogged about some months ago, and Dolcetto.
Dolcetto – the ‘little sweet one’ takes its name from the small size of its grapes and their lovely flavour, yet, despite the ‘dolce’, the wines made from it are almost invariably dry. And, happily for those who find Italian wine complicated, you’ll usually see the grape name on the label as Dolcetto d’Alba or Dolcetto d’Asti (Alba and Asti being the areas from which the wines come).
Long established producer Ascheri makes 2 Dolcettos from different vineyards (as well as a selection of Barolos, Barberas and other interesting bottles). I opened an example from the Nirane vineyard in Alba recently (Great Western Wine, £13.95): a lovely summer wine; not too heavy – you could even lightly chill it if you wanted and the fresh, clean fruit of this unoaked red shines through – delightful bitter cherries to perfectly cut through rich food. We enjoyed it with a spicy chicken dish but duck or, as the label suggests, fresh water fish would be other good matches.
And, of course, ideal to share with your own ‘sweet one’!