Unlike Chianti, Dolcetto is an Italian wine in dire need of an introduction. Although the name suggests sweetness, Dolcetto is a dry, hearty red. Though often mischaracterized as an Italian version of French Beaujolais, Dolcetto is a bona fide Piedmont red, a country cousin of the elite barolo, barbaresco and Gattinara wines of the same region.

While far less popular than Chianti, Dolcetto actually works better with many classic Chianti food accompaniments. Indeed, with pasta and simple light and dark meats, Dolcetto really comes into its own. Good Dolcetto bursts with enough fresh grapy fruit to stand up to tomato sauces and pungent herbs such as basil and oregano. Because Dolcetto is low in natural acidity, it marries better than does Chianti to cream sauces, which can be undone by excessive tartness. It also has more body and tannin than Chianti, is robust enough for game, and has a palate-refreshing bitter undertone on the finish.

Because the grapy fire of the Dolcetto grape fades with too much cellaring, Dolcetto should be drunk young. The 1988 vintage is excellent, and matches particularly well with pastas. The even more impressive '89 vintage, loaded with grapy extract, tannin and body, is perhaps better with dark meats. Avoid the lean, unripe '87s. The best Dolcettos are from the Piedmont towns of Alba and Dogliani, and will be labeled as such. Decent examples may also be found from Asti, Ovada and elsewhere.

Because of the weak dollar exchange rate, the price of good Dolcetto has, unfortunately, climbed to $12 or more per bottle. Given the high quality, however, Dolcetto still offers good value, better certainly than many other wines in that price range, particularly some other Piedmont wines.

The following Dolcettos are listed in order of preference without regard to price (prices approximate). District retailers may order from the distributor listed in brackets. Maryland and Virginia distribution may differ from that in D.C.

Outstanding Corino 1989 Dolcetto d'Alba "Vigna Giachini" ($13): Glorious bouquet of violets, black cherries, plums, with a hint of tar. Deep purple-black color. On the palate, lush, mouth-watering, grapy fruit; satiny finish calls to mind a ripe syrah from the Rhone. The key to success here may be specialization. At most Piedmont houses, Dolcetto is something of a sideline to the potent (and pricey) Barolo and Barbaresco. An up-and-coming producer, Corino intends to make its name on the strength of its moderately priced Dolcetto. (Marc de Grazia Selections, stocked in D.C. at MacArthur Beverages)

Aldo Conterno 1988 Dolcetto d'Alba "Bussia Soprana" ($14): Regarded as one of the top Barolo producers, Aldo Conterno produces his Dolcetto from less southerly -- and therefore less favored -- exposures of the Bussia Soprana vineyard. Much like the Bussia Soprana Barolo, the Dolcetto spews forth a stunning black cherry and herb bouquet. Equally impressive is the bright, impeccably clean, medium-weight grapy fruit on the palate. A touch of bitter almond makes for a classic Dolcetto finish. (Not available for tasting was the well-reputed Dolcetto of brother Giacomo Conterno, who makes an equally great, though much less supple style of wine.) (DOPS)

Luigi Einaudi 1988 Dolcetto di Dogliani ($12): The village of Dogliani claims to be the birthplace of Dolcetto, but its wines have long stood in the shadow of the more forward, accessible Dolcettos of Alba a few miles to the north. Einaudi's Dolcetto di Dogliani, along with that of Chionetti, below, strongly suggest that more equality of status is deserved. Though less lush and grapy than many Dolcettos d'Alba, this example shows unusual depth and complexity, and has excellent length on the finish. (Neil Empson Selections, Kronheim)

Chionetti 1989 Dolcetto di Dogliani "San Luigi"; Chionetti 1989 Dolcetto di Dogliani "Briccolero" (Both $16): Two of the densest Dolcettos tasted, both are packed with plummy, mineral, spicy fruit. I marginally preferred the more subtle San Luigi, but a good case could be made for the heftier Briccolero, with its gobs of husky fruit. (Bacchus)

Very Good

Beni di Batasiolo 1989 Dolcetto d'Alba ($13): Among the most Beaujolais-like Dolcettos, by a producer who has emphasized bright, airy fruit over lushness, achieving a fresh wine with much energy on the palate. (Wine Source)

Elio Altare 1988 Dolcetto d'Alba "Bricco Cascina Nuova"; Elio Altare 1989 Dolcetto d'Alba "Bricco Cascina Nuova" (Both $13): Another top Barolo producer, Altare also enjoys immense success with his Barbera and his Dolcetto. This is one case where the 1988 vintage outpoints the fine 1989, displaying a bit more length and depth of fruit. (Marc de Grazia Selections, stocked in D.C. at MacArthur Beverages)

Ceretto 1989 Dolcetto d'Alba "Rossana" ($15): A decade ago, owner Bruno Ceretto shocked the Piedmont establishment with his call for more accessible, earlier maturing Barolo. While that debate now seems almost irrelevant given the present day success of both styles, Ceretto's experience with more modern vinification has made him an especially successful producer of fruity, forward Dolcetto. Ceretto has not sacrificed the varietal distinctiveness of Dolcetto, however, but has retained the right hint of tarry, bitter almond on the finish. (Forman)

Roberto Voerzio 1989 Dolcetto d'Alba ($12): Closed in initially, this wine opened impressively after two hours of breathing. Less overtly grapy than most Dolcettos, this has an underlying tension of earthiness and fruit more often associated with the more serious Piedmont wines. (Bacchus)

Argusto 1983 Dolcetto d'Acqui ($13):

Tasting much like a good Rioja Riserva with lots of vanilla oak, Villa Banfi's Argusto proves that the sturdy Dolcettos of Acqui, to the east of Alba, can age gracefully in cask. While not typical of Dolcetto, this offers the silkiness of a fully mature wine at a fair price. (Kronheim)

Average Luigi Sandrone 1989 Dolcetto d'Alba ($15): Dense, chewy, a bit tart. (Marc de Grazia Selections, stocked in D.C. at MacArthur Beverages)

Clerico 1989 Dolcetto d'Alba ($13); Clerico 1988 Dolcetto d'Alba ($11.50): Clean, grapy and complex; somewhat lean. (Wine Source)

Azelia 1989 Dolcetto d'Alba "Bricco dell'Oriolo" ($11): Straightforward and competently made. (Wine Source)

Punset 1989 Dolcetto d'Alba ($10): Appealing fruit; somewhat simple. (Bacchus)

Bruno Giacosa 1989 Dolcetto d'Alba "Basarin di Neive" ($14): Musty nose, perhaps from oak cooperage; oaky style may not be well-suited to Dolcetto. (Bacchus)

Valfieri 1988 Dolcetto d'Alba ($10): Fruity, but slightly sharp. (Kronheim)

Wine Briefs Burton Anderson's just published "Wine Atlas of Italy" (Simon and Schuster, $40) is essential for anyone wishing to pursue the vast subject of Italian wines seriously. Though visually striking, this is no mere coffee table tome. Anderson is arguably the world's leading expert on Italian wines, and this volume is packed with dense, informative text. Quite simply, it is a treasure.