Posted by: tomciocco | January 2, 2013

NO “LITTLE SWEET ONE” HERE – A DOLCETTO LIKE NO OTHER

First things first. I don’t typically write about wines that are not in commerce, but as a sort of offering to Bacchus (or whomever) for a good year, I decided to pull something out of the cellar (quite literally – it was in the basement). To be fair to myself, despite that this wine is better than 13 years old, it’s made from a well-known grape, by a well known and well distributed producer, and it’s not going to gravely wound your checking account despite the fact that it’s in a class by itself.

So who ever heard of a 13-year-old bottle of Dolcetto that wasn’t a bottle of Dolcetto vinegar, anyway? Dolcetto roughly means “little sweet one” in Italian, which clearly describes a wide swath of the garden variety Dolcettos: low in acid, with moderate tannins, a full, round, easy structure, and a “sweet” dark fruit profile. Along with its Piedmontese brother Barbera, it is the region’s most popular quaffing red.

Though this one ain’t any one of those…No, this wine “makes history” if you will, because it is made from history…In as few words as possible…Beginning in the 1880s through the early years of the 20th century, Europe’s vineyards were truly ravaged – nearly destroyed, in fact – by a now famously named American root-eating vine louse called Phylloxera. Native American Vitis genuses  – like the most famous of them all, Concord, which is a Vitis labrusca cultivar – had long ago developed natural repellents for the Phylloxera louse. Unfortunately, Europe’s Vitis vinifera wine grapes had no such natural defenses when the pest was unintentionally exported to Europe in shipments of decorative plants, and as a result were eaten nearly to extinction. But just short of the snuffing out of a huge chunk of world food culture, some clever botanist discovered that grafting Vitis vinifera vines onto the “feet” or roots of American Vitis vines provided a powerful repellent effect against the lousy louse. The work of grafting and replanting was taken up with great urgency, and Phylloxera was more or less vanquished. And they lived happily ever after, right? Well, mostly but not quite…

Within only a few vintages after the salvation of the European vine from the Phylloxera scourge, it became clear that these newly grafted vines were missing something – vine “X” tasted like it once had – more or less – but with a still notable loss of overall quality and ability to age. It just produced great laments at the time, but it was the “new normal” for most – at least those who still even had any of his or her vines left – so life went on. But you’ll note that I said “most”…While Phylloxera spread fairly slowly, it was an extremely thorough killer, but not absolutely perfect…Certain very isolated vineyard sites, often on high, isolated hills, and always with very sandy soil, had never been afflicted by Phylloxera, and therefore never needed to be grafted onto American feet. As it turns out, for whatever reason, the Phylloxera louse cannot survive in very sandy conditions, and Marcarini’s small Boschi di Berri vineyard is nothing less than a very high, remote, steep sandy hill full of completely ungrafted Dolcetto vines. What makes this story even more remarkable is that it is estimated that most of the vines in the vineyard range between 120 and 150 years of age (!) (old vines yield fewer bunches of higher quality fruit), making it the oldest plantation of Dolcetto anywhere in the world, and one of the oldest vineyards in all of Italy.

Drinking history. And not only that glib intellectual construct, but an absolutely transcendent yet still very palpable example of the highest level of quality and sophistication for the Dolcetto variety, consistently producing a wine like some darker-fruited cousin of the great Beaune Burgundies, and the ability to age effortlessly for 13 years and beyond  – this bottle showed no sign of failing any time soon.

While the best match for this bottle might have been some sort of super fancy roast duck and black truffle thing, but I went distinctly in the opposite direction with a pizza, albeit a top-shelf everything, entirely homemade pizza with two toppings Dolcetto loves to mingle with: mushrooms and arugula.

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Poderi Marcarini Dolcetto d’Alba “Boschi di Berri” 1999

Only slightly browned deep purple/garnet color. Very expressive and elegant aromas of damp earth, white pepper, Bing cherry, blackberry, and fig fruit aromas, with very sophisticated notes of coal smoke, licorice, brown sugar, and black walnuts developing. In the mouth the wine is exceptionally well balanced, deep, muscular, and intense with a chewy texture, velvety smooth tannins, and clean, juicy acidity, bursting with flavors of plum nectar, fresh raspberry, black currant jelly, rosemary, violet, and cocoa. Very long, soft finish of bitter almond and a touch of rosewater. Still an archetype.

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