Dolcetto and barbera, two red wines from Italy's Piedmont, are misunderstood in America. Or so say their importers. Well, it's not surprising when the wines are called "ugly ducklings," "workhorses" and the "proletariat of the Piedmont." We wine drinkers, being human, follow and swallow the swans, thoroughbreds and aristocrats of our world. In the Piedmont, the noble nebbiolo grape has overshadowed its lowlier compatriots.

Nebbiolo is responsible for the finest wines of a Piedmontese stable: barolo and barbaresco, carema and ghemme. Dolcetto and barbera are the workhorses; the wines for the grower's own everyday drinking and the wines he sells for a quicker, if lower-priced, return. Different horses for different courses. A pricey nebbiolo would be wasted on Monday night's stew. An inexpensive barbera or dolcetto would not.

Of the two, I'm partial to the dolcetto. Despite a name that implies sweetness, the wine is dry. Light to medium bodied, often astringent and slightly bitter, it matures early. In fact, with a few exceptions, there's not much point in aging a dolcetto. Drink it fresh and lively.

The zones of Alba and Asti supply most, and generally the best, those of the DOC Alba being more widely available in Washington. In a lightish, fruity style, try the '80 Vietti, $4; and '81 Barale, $5. And for a medium bodied wine, the '79 Mauro Osvaldo, $6, which has a pleasantly fruity finish; '80 Pio Cesare, $8, fuller, rounder than most; and '79 and '80 d'Alba, Dosio, $5.50, the former now showing some earthiness in the nose. An Asti, the '78 Cascina La Traversa, $6, is on the fruity side. Prunotto and Gaja also make dolcettos, but in a stronger, tannic style. They are the exceptions to the drink-it-young rule and, with five or six years, become supple enough to rival many a nebbiolo.

Barbera grapes are grown throughout Italy. Their wine, best described as honest, simple, sometimes coarse, rather rather than distinguished, is at its best in the Piedmont. There, it's usually fuller, stronger and longer living than the dolcetto, although styles and flavors vary, depending on zone and producer. Those of Alba and Asti are, again, the best known.

Pio Boffa of Pio Cesare says that we can expect many more barberas in the near future. With the exception of the Alba zone, there's been overproduction and the regional authorities are encouraging the bottling of such variations as barbera bianco and barbera frizzante. The internationally popular solution for unwanted red grapes?

Pio Cesare's own well-balanced '79 d'Alba sells for $7. Others of interest are the '79 Dosio, $5; '78 d'Asti, Cascina La Traversa, $6, lighter, softer than most; '79 d'Alba, Barale, $5, pleasant, if one-dimensional.

A wider range of both wines will be here by late spring. For now, you can find a selection in most of the wine shops around Washington, including A & A, Calvert-Woodley, Georgetown Wine & Cheese, Harry's, Mayflower, Morris-Miller and Pearson's.