I know several wine lovers who adore Italian red wines and have a pretty low regard for most other reds, especially Californian.
Most of these people get weak-kneed when they conjure up great Chianti, Brunello, Barolo, Barbera, and Aglianico — and they realize that most American wine lovers don’t match their passion for such wines.
Almost all Italian red wine lovers cherish older vintages, arguing that drinking them young is vinfanticide. They say such wines need time in bottle to develop secondary characteristics. Such wine lovers have the patience to wait for Father Time to magically create depth and personality.
One of the delights of mature wines is that — they deliver more character than any young wine ever could. Most Italian red lovers imply that New World wines are injected with a significant dose of simplicity.
Older Italian reds with their moderate alcohols (about 13 percent), higher acidity, and restrained varietal flavors are wise and quiet, and work brilliantly on the dinner table. Such wines know nothing of the Internet, Twitter, and hip-hop. They still use rotary phones.
Younger, brasher, more ostentatious and egotistical Americanized wines blare, are pierced, tattooed, and speak in a patois not yet in any dictionary. These wines are higher in alcohol (about 15 percent), oakier, softer, are best during cocktail time, and (chances are) will never deliver anything approaching what their Euro counterparts will over time.
In just a few short years, say Ital-ophiles, Americanized wines will be dull and lifeless.
This dichotomy hit me last week as one of the inevitable conclusions I always draw when I see other wine writers’ list of top wines of the year just past. I once wrote such year-end “top-10” lists, and found the concept too precious. And a waste of newsprint — and my readers’ time.
First off, saying that a syrah is “better than” a chardonnay is like saying a John Deere tractor is better than a Bosendorfer piano. They do different things and rely on the operator for great performances.
The Wine Spectator magazine annually publishes a list of the Top 100 Wines of the Year. It is always one of the most widely read and debated issues. This year, the Italian red wine analogy came to mind when I read that the magazine picked as its top wine of 2017 the 2014 Duckhorn Merlot from the Three Palms Vineyard in the heart of the Napa Valley.
I spoke with a few Italian wine lovers, and other wine people, about this choice. The most widely drawn reaction from most of them was, “You care what the Wine Spectator thinks about the best wines?!”
Frankly, no, I do not. But a lot of people read that august publication and honor its opinions, so the Italian red wine connection as it relates to the Duckhorn merlot made sense to me. I’d wager that those who collect Barolo or Brunello have no interest in the Duckhorn merlot, even if someone gave them a bottle of it.
This discussion is financially germane. The Duckhorn merlot was released to sell for a mere $98 — per bottle. Today because of the magazine’s rating, it is fetching $200 to $300 a bottle. The publicity with it being named “wine of the year” kicked demand into overdrive.
By comparison, one of the top Barolos every year is from Aldo Conterno. Called Bussia, it sells today for between $55 and $80. It is virtually guaranteed to be better in 5-10 years.
The Duckhorn? I doubt it will live a long and happy life, and will never give purchasers the joy a 20-year-old Barolo like the Conterno will. The Duckhorn Merlot’s alcohol (it is listed as 14.9 percent), lower acidity (.58 percent), and higher pH (3.79) all indicate it is a drink-soon deal.
Nothing wrong with that, of course. And many people will love this wine.
“People who buy it just want bragging rights,” said a Sonoma County winemaker last Friday.
So I was amused by the replies when I asked several Italian red wine lovers what their opinion was of top-100 wine lists written by American wine writers. Many just gave me an irritated stare. A few were far less kind.
Wine of the Week: 2015 Vallana Spanna, Colline Novaresi ($19): For those who’d like a red wine that will deliver real honest aged character in 5-10 years, but don’t want to risk at least $50 on a bottle of Barolo, several red wines from Piemonte in Northern Italy are moderately priced Nebbiolo alternatives. Among these are Ghemme, Gattinara, and Spanna. This wine displays a trace of the rustic, leathery aroma of Nebbiolo, with a load of dark berry fruit and a note tar. Just two hours of aeration shows its great potential. I remember when Spanna was so rustic (and rust-colored!) I couldn’t drink it. Today it is better than ever, and a terrific bargain in an age-worthy red.