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The Piedmont region of northwest Italy is home to the unassuming dolcetto grape.Daniela Pelazza/Getty Images/iStockphoto

The Grape Glossary: A guide to hip varietals

If wines were emojis, dolcetto would be that one with the grinning teeth and open eyes. It's a cheerful red par excellence. A smile in a bottle.

In a world where serious, cellar-worthy reds tend to dominate discourse, simpler, lighter fare can struggle for attention. Yet there's fun and happy pleasure to be had in many wines that offer more modest refreshment. Dolcetto is those things, too: refreshing and fun.

Italians in the northwest region of Piedmont need little convincing. In the home of high-powered and cellar-worthy reds such as Barolo and Barbaresco, both made from the nebbiolo grape, dolcetto is the stuff of everyday imbibing. The same holds true of another Piedmontese variety, barbera. Yet where high-acid barbera tends to be gutsy, dolcetto comes across in a softer, fruitier way. It's a fine way to get the meal started (if you like your aperitif wines in a colour other than white), and pairs well with lighter foods, including lean meats, such as veal roasts or veal scallopini, and even fish.

In Italian, the name means "little sweet one," a reference to the dolcetto grape's low acidity. Despite its naturally sweet profile, though, wines made from the fruit are almost always dry. And while the grape itself is on the tannic side, fermentation techniques favoured by wineries usually soften that astringent edge, leaving behind only a gently bitter note that can suggest almonds.

Some dolcetto producers of late have been maturing their wines for longer periods in oak barrels as a way to add structure and flesh (and to justify higher prices), just as many have been doing with barbera. But there's a limit to how much oak dolcetto will take without losing the fruity character that is its hallmark and charm. Generally, you won't find many vanilla-scented spice bombs out there. And don't plan to stash one in your cellar in anticipation of your newborn's 21st birthday; most dolcettos are best consumed within three or four years of the vintage date.

Often you'll find local place names appended to "dolcetto" on the label, as in Dogliani (considered by some experts to be the grape's finest source), Alba and Acqui. Top producers include Aldo Conterno and Massolino, though their wines are hard to come by in Canada. More widely available, and respectable, are those of Beni di Batasiolo, Fontanafredda and Pio Cesare.

The grape has migrated outside Italy, too, notably to such places as California, Oregon, Australia and British Columbia. Moon Curser in B.C.'s Okanagan Valley has begun making one, and Stag's Hollow, also in the valley, has turned out impressive results with the grape. I'd append a smiley-face emoji to that last sentence, but my crusty, old-school editor prefers me to type in words rather than pictures. Ugh.

The Flavour Principle by Lucy Waverman and Beppi Crosariol (HarperCollins) won top prize for best general English cookbook at the 2014 Taste Canada Food Writing Awards.

E-mail your wine and spirits questions to Beppi Crosariol. Look for answers to select questions to appear in the Wine & Spirits newsletter and on The Globe and Mail website.

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