THEY EXIST in every major winemaking region. Quality rather than quantity oriented, with great respect for their art, these artisans go about their business with a dedication and perseverance which usually results in smallish quantities of skillfully rendered wine.
Tucked away in a corner of Italy's Piedmont region is the tiny, medieval village of Castiglione Falletto. In this village, with the steep slopes of nebbiola vines below, is the Cantina Vietti, a small, high-quality producer of Piedmontese wines.
Vietti, a rugged and handsome man in his 40s, is driven to produce excellent wines. His approach to winemaking is eclectic, combining the best of the traditional Piedmontese winemaking styles with technological innovation. His best wines are his barolos and barbarescos, yet his barbera, nebbiolo d'alba and dolcetto are among the better values in red wines on the market.
Vietti favors aging his big, spicy, robust barolos for three to four years in large oak barrels before bottling. This is not nearly as long as the seven to nine years that traditional barolo winemakers like Giacomo Conterno and Pio Cesare keep their wines in wood, nor as short as the one to two years that growing numbers of barolo producers choose to allow. To my taste, Vietti's strategy is perfect. Barolo, like barbaresco, is made from a nebbiolo grape. The wine is big, spicy and full bodied, but sometimes too woody or volatile as a result of long storage in oak. On the other hand, barolo seems to lose much of its character if bottled after only a year or so of oak aging. Vietti's successful formula for barolo results in a deep and rich, multi-dimensional wine without excessive oak in evidence. In addition, his meticulous management of his wine cellar insures that all the casks are kept full and regularly "topped off." Consequently, one rarely ever detects any volatile elements or hints of oxidation in Vietti's fine barolos.
Vietti's barolos are from two superbly located vineyards in Castiglione Falletto. His barolo from the Rocche Vineyard is usually more robust, tannic and powerful than his other barolo from the Briacca Vineyard, which tends to have more finesse and a certain perfumed quality. His Rocche barolo has the intensity and strength of a big Amador County California zinfandel, whereas his Briacca barolo is more burgundian in style. Both are excellent wines which are only produced in the finest years. Among recent ones, the 1971, 1974, 1978 and 1979 are fine years for barolo. The 1978 Vietti barolos, from a year that many producers in that region compare to 1961 and 1947, are currently being offered as a "wine future" by Mayflower Wines and Spirits, at a very reasonable price of $84 a case. However, don't expect this wine to mature for at least seven to 10 years. Both of Vietti's barolos, the Rocche and Briacca, are extremely tannic and rich. Yet if you have the patience to wait for them, both wines will be outstanding.
While Vietti's barolos and barbarescos are his most sought-after wines, his dolcetto, barbera and nebbiolo d'alba are equally excellent and sell at less than half the price of his barolo. They also have the additional advantage of being drinkable upon their release.
Dolcetto is one of the most misunderstood wines. Often people labor under the illusion that the wine is sweet. It is, however, quite dry, although it does have less acidity than any other Piedmontese wine. When handled properly, the resulting wine is soft and round with deep berrylike fruit. It is similar in style to a fine French beaujolais, only fruitier and generally more reliable. It should be consumed within four to five years of its vintage.
Treated differently from his barolo and barbaresco, Vietti's dolcetto and barbera are fermented for much shorter periods; he is aiming for highly fruity, aromatic and supple wine. His dolcettos spend 10 to 12 months in large oak barrels prior to bottling, and his barberas spend 20 to 24 months in oak barrels before bottling.
The best Vietti dolcettos on the market include the deliciously soft, fruity and lush 1979 Dolcetto D'Alba from the Bussia Vineyard ($4.99), and the lighter-weight, plainer-scaled 1980 Dolcetto Del Piedmonte ($4.29). His best barbera, also from the Bussia Vineyard, is called 1979 Barbera D'Alba ($4.99). It is an ideal pasta wine with plenty of solid, meaty, plummy flavors. Drinkable now, the wine can be kept for another two years or so. Lastly, one can get a good idea of the taste of a Vietti barolo by trying Vietti's 1979 Nebbiolo D'Alba ($5.99) from the S. Michele Vineyard. It has much of the flavor and character of his barolo, yet is meant to be drunk at a much earlier age.
Fortunately for Washingtonians, all of Vietti's wines are available, primarily at Mayflower Wines and Spirits. However, A & A Liquors also carries several of the Vietti selections. The wines of Vietti are also distinguished by their artistic labels done by a Piedmontese artist, farmer and anarchist, Giovanni Gallo. Here is one example of a wine where the attractive and aesthetically pleasing labels are matched by the quality of wine in the bottle.
While I am on the subject, another excellent value in everyday Italian red wine is the 1978 Dolcetto D'Alba ($5.59) from the Dosio firm in La Morra, Piedmont. From an excellent vintage, it is a trifle bigger and richer than most dolcettos, but quite an enjoyable mouthful of wine. To me, dolcetto is the Italian equivalent of a French beaujolais, meaning it is meant to be drunk young, when it is fresh and vinous. However, the better dolcettos, like this Dosio and those of Vietti, are deeper, richer and more reliable than the majority of offerings from Beaujolais on the market.