Wine Rating: 92
One of my memories of growing up in an Italian home in New Jersey is seeing wine on the table at every dinner. I especially remember Sunday nights. As far back as I can recall, every Thursday, my mother would start to prep for the big Sunday dinner. Sometimes this included relatives, neighbors, and family friends, and other times just my father, sister, mother and me. No matter what size the gathering, there was enough food for a small army. My mother learned size portioning from her father, who would make family meals that could feed a small city.
By Friday night, the house would begin to smell of my mother’s gravy, which non-Italians call sauce. In Italy, it’s called ragù, but a bottled “spaghetti sauce” company took over that name years ago and ruined it, both as a reference and as a connotation. By Saturday morning, I’d wake up to the smell of fresh tomatoes and basil that had made its way through the entire house. When she added her secret ingredients of beef, pork, and veal, the entire block would comment on the aroma. And, by Saturday afternoon, my father and I would secretly sneak into the kitchen, and we’d dunk pieces of bread into the gravy, close our eyes and smile. It was that good! But if Mom caught us sneaking a taste, we’d better be ready to run. No one was allowed in her kitchen.
Every now and again, my dad would pull out the pasta machine and make fresh macaroni. This was a treat, because it wasn’t something he did very often. Having fresh-made pasta with Mom’s gravy was awe-inspiring. Along with the gravy, Mom would make cue-ball sized meatballs that she’d spike with fresh garlic, secret herbs and the three meats she used in her gravy. By dinner time, the table was lined with large bowls of pasta, gravy, oven-hot bread, antipasti salad and, of course, many bottles of wine.
In my family, I’m the wine aficionado. Unfortunately, neither my passion nor my palate, have been gleaned from my parents’ love or appreciation for great wine. Not even close. Like the Italian peasants in Tuscany, my parents, for most of my life (and all of theirs), drank Italian jug wine, also known as Dago Red, which is a cheap wine, and was then (and probably still is) more often than not, homemade. Known for making their own wine, these amateur winemakers found that it usually came out more robust when better grapes were used in the process. Think of it like this: the vino version of moonshine—cheap, strong and drunk by the time dessert was on the table.
I had my first sip of wine when I was about 9 years old. The sour taste made my whole face pucker. Expecting it to taste more like Concord grape juice, I was surprised to find it tasted just the opposite. Ack! I think somehow my parents knew that I’d react with complete disdain and that’s why a wine glass was always set in front of me at the dinner table. They figured I wouldn’t ask for a second pouring, at least not for many, many years. Not until I learned about “the good stuff.”
To this day, almost every time I raise a glass, I’m reminded of that first sip of my first glass of wine, and I still wince. The truth is that my parents drank terrible wine. My father has been dead now for nearly 10 years, and when I visit my mother on the weekends and look in her small wine refrigerator, I still see bottles of awful wine. Occasionally, I’ll bring a couple of really nice bottles for us both to share and she’ll comment on how enjoyable it was. She doesn’t get the nuances the way I do, but she does appreciate it. My mother grew up drinking wine in a traditional Italian home, in the typical Italian way, either as table wine or for her Catholic rituals, so it just became commonplace in her life. Wine for her, unlike for me, is NOT a passion. It’s simply something you drink with dinner.
This month, in honor of my childhood, my first glass of wine, and my Italian parents, I’m going to dive into my family roots and appreciate a great Italian wine that is deep and rich in family tradition. For such a wine, we must travel to the Italian region of Piedmont and open a bottle of Renato Ratti’s legendary Barolo, a varietal that has been made for centuries in Italy. It was favored by nobility and has now become coveted by collectors. This wine has incredible aging potential because the Nebbiolo grape from which Barolo is made is high in acidity and tannin levels. It ages very well.
For nearly 50 years, this winery has been making outstanding Italian varietals. In 1965, Renato Ratti purchased a small parcel of land in Piedmont and began the first production. A few years later his nephew, Massimo Martinelli, joined the winery and together they refined the production methods by which Barolo was made. They did this by reducing the fermentation and maceration process and also by reducing the oak barrel aging to two years, and this process led to a more robust Barolo.
Over the next 10 years, they purchased more vineyards and expanded the varietals, which they still bottle today. This period in Italy is known as “The Barolo Wars.” The process that Ratti, along with a few other Barolo winemakers, progressed to during the 1970s & 1980, was in an effort to make the wine more palatable and in so doing, extend the taste for it to a wider reaching audience. What they achieved with this new process was a wine that was fruitier and less tannic and could actually be enjoyed at a younger age than what was usual for a Barolo. However, regardless of the perceived benefits, for old school wine drinkers, this process was and is considered blasphemous.
During the expansion of the vineyards, Renato became an important part of Italy’s wine region and designation. The best way to explain it is straight from their website: Between the middle of the Seventies and the end of the Eighties, Renato Ratti becomes an important point of reference for Langhe wines and Italian wines in general. He is elected president of the Barolo Consortium and subsequently General Director of the Asti Consortium. He directly participates in the drafting of the rules and regulations governing the appellations of Alba wines and is particularly active in those regarding the coveted “DOCG” (guaranteed) label. He writes numerous books about the wines of Piedmont and Italy. For the Ratti Museum, he produces a guide to the Barolo vintages as well as one to the historical Barolo and Barbaresco sub zones, the result of a painstaking field research effort throughout the myriad of relevant territories. Topnotch enologist, writer, historian, communicator, Renato Ratti becomes one of the prime movers of the cultural and technical revolution that eventually brings the wines of Piedmont and Italy into the international limelight. [Courtesy of renatoratti.com]
In 1988, Pietro Ratti, the son of Renato, took over the family business when Renato Ratti died at the young age of 55, a premature death to say the least. Pietro quickly filled his father’s shoes, not by sourcing grapes, but instead by purchasing more land and by growing their own productions. He took the wine from 80% purchased grapes to today’s 20% purchased grapes, and also expanded the varietals and price points of each label produced.
Renato Ratti makes bold wines with price points from $20 to $100, depending on the vintage and varietal. But for this review, I’m enjoying a 2008 Barolo, the Rocche label, a softer form of the Nebbiolo grape. I know this is young for a Barolo, but the 2005 (one of their best reviewed years) I ordered was shipped incorrectly and I’m left holding a 2008. Although the wine process by Ratti has been streamlined, so a younger wine can be enjoyed, a Barolo should age at least 8 – 10 years before it can truly be fully enjoyed, with a full maturity date of around 20 – 25 years. If you are ever at a restaurant and they have a Barolo on their wine list that is less than 10 years old, remember this. A younger wine will still be palatable, but it should not be on the menu of any notable place of dining. If you do have a younger Barolo, be sure to decant it for at least 2 hours, giving it time to fully open up, which is not feasible while dining out. I’m basing this review on the current flavor and its full potential, how I feel it will mature and taste in 10 to 15 years.
Produced by: Renato Ratti
Winemaker: Pietro Ratti
Winery: Renato Ratti
Appearance (Color): Ruby
Aroma (Complexity): Refined yeast, pear, molasses
Body (Texture and Weight): medium, mild tannins
Taste (Balance of Flavor): Strong tobacco, forest floor, molasses
Finish (What lingers): Tobacco, bubble gum
Food Pairing: Meat, Italian Red Sauce Dishes
Serving Temperature: 64°
Drink: 2018 to 2038