Some people may find this hard to believe, but I began to buy wines that I did not like or understand based on the passion of three people who did not know each other, but were really persuasive.
It was the early 1970s, and after chatting with these people several times, it was pretty evident that I was missing an opportunity if I didn’t buy a bunch of this stuff, and simply put them away in my “cellar.”
Since I had hollowed out a small cave under the house I bought in late 1973, and since I had only about three cases of wine at that point, I began buying young red Italian wines.
And relatively expensive wines at that. Even though the best California cabernet sauvignons were $7 at the time, I was paying $9 and $10 for some of these wines.
I honestly don’t know why I did this because I didn’t like or understand the wines. But the passion of the gentlemen I chatted with was such that I could see no real downside to this. They were insistent that I would figure out what the game was all about.
In a way, the pinnacle experience in this journey occurred last Thursday night when we went to an Italian café in Healdsburg and opened a bottle of 1986 Gaja Barbaresco, a monumentally great wine, which reminded me that our cellar still has a number of classic Italian wines from that era.
What makes this story so mystical is that I had been assured I would understand what was going on, and I was waiting for a moment of revelation. It never occurred, as far as I know, but as time went by I began to understand the passion for great, old, perfectly matured wines from Italian grapes.
In his book “Native Wine Grapes of Italy,” author Ian d’Agata doesn’t wax poetic about even the greatest of Italian wines, such as Barolo. He simply makes clear that he believes the greatest red wines in the world are made from them and that the pinnacle of wine greatness is in a perfectly stored bottle.
As such, the book ignores pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon, two of the best-known grapes that make age-worthy reds. This might surprise most wine lovers, but it is almost exactly what I had been told by the three gentlemen I knew in the 1970s, who I ultimately thanked for their perspicacity.
(One of them said a mere thank-you wasn’t enough, so I opened for us a great bottle of a 12-year-old Barbera from Giacomo Bologna.)
Many wine lovers know what the game is about: you buy some wine purely on faith, with no particular intention of opening it any time soon. Patience often is rewarded, and it’s usually unnecessary to wait 20 years to get to that point.
Take, for instance, high-quality Chianti. This is a wine that will fade at some point in the bottle. We still have some from the great 1985 vintage, and most are tired.
Chianti is usually best between 10 and 15 years of age. What you get with time in the cellar is so much more than young Chianti delivers.
The richness of today’s cabernets with their higher alcohols and obvious oak, can be tasty as youngsters, but Chianti rarely is aged in new barrels, so it doesn’t have an additional flavor layer, and it’s alcohol typically is fairly low.
But the key to most Italian red wine is the acid, which is typically high enough to obviate drinking them alone. Food is a mandate, and when paired with the right stuff, the combination of flavors is not only compelling, but it is hard to see how the food can be eaten without the wine.
Mick Unti, a Dry Creek wine grapegrower, has a passion for Italian wine grapes. He makes a number of wines from them for his Unti brand, and does so with a style that is respected when he pours the wines in Italy.
When his father, George, planted Italian grape varieties in 1991 in Dry Creek, “back then, I don’t think any of us thought we would be in the place we are today, making more serious varietal wines.”
He said that by 1991, “we were already obsessed with Italian wines.”
He said that 60 or 70 years ago, many Italian wines were still being made so rustically that some were spoiled when they arrived in this country.
But good wines from reputable producers “made us absolutely aware of the quality revolution taking place in Italy.”
That was an eye-opening experience, and led to Unti developing a style of wine that was far more respectful of the acid-leaning modern Italians than of California.
“I wasn’t aware Italian grapes had this level of complexity, and such higher levels of acidity,” he said, so he developed a style of wine that respects the old world.
Unti admits that his Italianate style can be a surprise to those who anticipate more richness, body, and weight, but the way he makes his wines relies upon acid, and thus he seeks a consumer willing to age the wines until they develop secondary characteristics.
Tasting through many of the Unti wines, including a phenomenal (Primitivo) Zinfandel ($38) and Sangiovese ($50), is quite an experience, and shows why Italian grapes are so difficult to understand on first sip.
But time in the cellar, based on wonderful structure, is a near guarantee of enjoyment in a few years.
Wine of the Week: 2014 Unti Segromigno, Dry Creek Valley ($28): This most serious 85 percent sangiovese, 15 percent Montepuliciano has the perfect structure to age for a decade. It has wonderful citrus-y, dark cherry fruit and tomato leaf/tar aroma and classic tartness to go with pasta in tomato sauces. Italian wine purists will love this wine in 2-5 years — and will be amazed in 10.