Dunne on Wine: Discovering Unti Vineyards

Published: Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2011 - 12:00 am | Page 3D

A quiz:

Dry Creek Valley in northern Sonoma County is

best known for consistently fine:

A. Cabernet sauvignon

B. Sauvignon blanc

C. Zinfandel

D. All of the above

If you answered "D. All of the above," give yourself 100 points.

When you stop by the small family winery Unti Vineyards in the middle of Dry Creek Valley, however, you don't find any cabernet sauvignon or sauvignon blanc, though their portfolio does include a zinfandel. (It may be against the law – of nature, at least – for wineries in Dry Creek Valley not to make a zinfandel.)

Mick Unti, who oversees winemaking, marketing and sales at the winery, took time out from the first day of harvest this fall to explain why the family prefers to concentrate on wines made with grapes customarily associated with France's Rhône Valley and Italy rather than Bordeaux.

"That's our own bias," he says. "We like wines of the Mediterranean."

Fortunately, he is quick to note, Dry Creek Valley's topography, weather and soils have proved ideal for turning out classy California wines based on such French and Italian grape varieties as montepulciano, sangiovese, barbera, grenache and syrah.

"We knew Dry Creek was good for zinfandel, and zin is grown in the same climate in Europe as grenache, syrah, sangiovese and montepulciano, to name only a few," says Unti in explaining how the family settled on gambling with the rather unorthodox varieties. "We love German riesling, but we wouldn't even think about planting it here."

For sure, Dry Creek Valley is one of California's more unusual appellations. For one, it's small and compact, stretching just 16 miles northwest from Healdsburg. At its widest, it's about two miles. Within that short and narrow enclave, however, is a remarkable range of soils, a variety of exposures provided by wrinkled hills and broad benches, and air currents that seem to be constantly moving gently.

The valley is close enough to both the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco Bay to benefit from a maritime influence that tempers the area's frequently hot days but not so close to keep grapes cloaked with prolonged fog.

That combination adds up to wines with vivid fruit, keen acidity and comfortable tannins, regardless of varietal. Even without extensive blending, wines from Dry Creek Valley often seem to bear an inherent complexity.

I repeatedly was reminded of this as I tasted through Unti's current lineup. It includes a dry, lean and zesty 2010 rosé made with grenache and mourvèdre (Unti's winemaker, Sebastien Pochan, is from Provence, the rosé capital of the world); an inky and earthy yet vivacious 2009 barbera; a beefy proprietary red from 2009 called "Segromigno," a blend of 92 percent sangiovese and 8 percent montepulciano; and an invitingly aromatic, substantial and long 2008 montepulciano. It will need five more years before its tannins back off enough to let its marvelously rich fruit shine through unobstructed.

I liked them all, but the most impressive for showing what both Dry Creek Valley and the Untis can produce was the Unti Vineyards 2008 Dry Creek Valley Grenache. This is the grape that in France's southern Rhône Valley provides the foundation for three styles of immensely popular and esteemed wines, the meaty and complex red Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the dry and angular rosés of Tavel and the tawny dessert wine Banyuls.

In California, vintners are producing mixed but encouraging results with grenache. At Unti Vineyards, the family models its interpretation more or less on Châteauneuf-du-Pape, blending in 13 percent mourvèdre and 12 percent syrah.

The result is an intensely colored, forthrightly aromatic and sweetly fruity wine. It's dry and medium-bodied, and just pops with fresh fruit, pepper spice, a touch of smoke and a suggestion of chalkiness. The overall impression is seamless. It's ready to drink now but should age gracefully for the next three years.

Undaunted by a challenging growing year – spring frost and a relatively long and cool summer punctuated with extreme high temperatures – the Untis had to work the fruit diligently to pull from it such a composed and clean wine.

Customarily, they drop around half of the maturing crop of grenache to concentrate flavors and better assure even ripening without sacrificing acidity in the remaining bunches. In 2008, however, recognizing that the harvest would commence later than usual, they dropped two-thirds of the bunches in hopes that surviving fruit would mature fully.

Other steps they took in hopes of producing a grenache that would measure up to their usual standards included draining off 10 percent to 15 percent of the initial juice to intensify color and structure in the juice that remained. As usual, the resulting wine was aged in 620-gallon foudres, unusually large barrels favored in the Rhône Valley for minimizing oak extraction and oxidation, explains Unti.

All that effort is paying off in a grenache that speaks loudly and clearly of a bright future for the variety in Dry Creek Valley, especially on the Unti estate.

Unti Vineyards

2008 Dry Creek Valley Grenache

By the numbers: 14.5 percent alcohol, 715 cases, $26

Context: While tannins in grenache generally are low to moderate, the wine can be full-bodied, in part for its alcohol. Thus, Unti recommends it be poured with dishes based on lamb, duck or game. For more everyday fare, he suggests that chicken seasoned fairly strongly with herbs be grilled and then served with the grenache.

Availability: Unti wines periodically have been available at wine shops in the Sacramento area, but not lately, though Mick Unti is hoping to correct that this winter. In the meantime, the wine can be ordered through Whole Foods Market or purchased at the winery and through its website, www.untivineyards.com.

Information: The tasting room at Unti Vineyards, 4202 Dry Creek Road, in Healdsburg is open daily 10 a.m.-4 p.m. by appointment only. To schedule a visit, call (707) 433-5590 or email gina@untivineyards.com. alex@untivineyards.com, mickunti@untivineyards

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