A yearend review of my most memorable wine experiences requires hours of scrolling through tasting notes.
It’s never easy to pick my annual 10 best of the best, and it was especially tough in 2019. I sampled more than 4 000 reds, whites, and bubblies in places as far flung as Japan.
What really marked this year were a host of surprise wines from new grapes, regions, and even countries. I also found new joy in rediscovered classics, including cabernets from California wineries celebrating their 40th and 50th anniversaries. Old vintages of fine Bordeaux vied with terrific 2018 barrel samples and a predictably amazing prerelease tasting at the NoMad of the Burgundy star Domaine de la Romanee-Conti’s wines.
All those wowed me, but the wines that linger most in my memory are the ones whose aromas, tastes, and stories made me see wine in a new light.
My 10 highlights range from a legendary Bordeaux, to a Champagne-quality sparkler from Japan, to an uber-historic Napa cabernet, to one of the best—and rarest—sweet wines I’ve ever swallowed. All reflect what’s new and important in today’s wine world and where it’s headed.
2015 Domaines Lupier La Dama ($42, R595)
I found my bargain of the year at a New York Matter of Taste event put on by Robertparker.com and its new sole owner, Michelin Guide. Elisa Ucar poured this velvety soft red garnacha (grenache) she makes with her husband in Spain’s Navarra region, where vineyards lie on the slopes of the Pyrenees. The couple assembled 27 tiny plots of old organic vines for their two cuvees, and this one has power and purity, as well the vibrancy of fresh ripe berries and intoxicating aromas of violets and herbs. Why is grenache so underrated?
2014 Grace Blanc de Blancs Extra Brut ($65, R920)
On a visit to Japan’s Yamanashi wine region, I sampled my surprise of the year: this impressive bubbly made by the traditional Champagne method. Although the area is known for native grape koshu, this fizz is all chardonnay. With its tiny bubbles, fresh-baked brioche and citrus aromas, and delicate mineral flavours, it resembles a fine grower Champagne. I tried it with owner Shigekazu Misawa and his winemaker daughter Ayana at their estate in Akeno.
2011 Tement Sudsteiermark Sauvignon Blanc Ried Zieregg GSTK ($71, R1 006)
I wasn’t familiar with wines from Steiermark, Austria’s dynamic wine region on the border with Slovenia, which is why a New York master class of 18 top wines was a revelation. This smoky sauvignon blanc, with lots of earthy character and volcanic overtones, is a grand cru (GSTK) in the region’s vineyard hierarchy—and is evidence Austria’s top sauvignon blancs are among the world’s best.
2017 Kistler “Kistler Vineyard” Chardonnay (about $160, R2 270, not yet released)
Kistler’s chardonnays have had a cult following since the winery’s founding in Sonoma in 1978. I savoured the 2017 vintage (all 11 single vineyard bottlings!) with winemaker Jason Kesner at the winery, shortly before this year’s horrific wildfires. Tasting them side by side revealed their different personalities. This one, from the first Kistler property in the Moon Mountain district, captivated me with its deep, subtle, mineral-and-crushed-rocks flavours and intense aromas of earth and white flowers. The best California chardonnays really can rival white Burgundy in terms of quality.
2011 Joseph Drouhin Montrachet Marquis de Laguiche ($700)
Every Burgundy lover knows the name Montrachet–it’s the Mt. Everest of chardonnay. The famed Drouhin family has made wine from the Marquis de Laguiche part of this grand cru vineyard since 1947. I’d never tasted the classic 2011 vintage, and it didn’t disappoint. The aromas of grilled almonds and lemon curd, rich texture, and powerful flavors were perfect with yellowfin tuna and foie gras at New York’s Le Bernardin.
2012 Georges Laval Les Longues Violes Champagne ($740, R9 927)
New York’s wine year is punctuated with lavish tastings, and La Fete du Champagne is always the chance to taste great bubblies from the hottest producers. This year I was seduced by the thrilling, incredibly pure cuvees of Georges Laval, a tiny grower-producer with only 2.5 certified organic hectares. Vivid, intense, creamy, complex, and sophisticated, this brut nature fizz is the first vintage of a brand-new single vineyard cuvee made from pinot noir and pinot meunier.
2016 Masseto ($790, R11 203)
The chance to compare five vintages of the opulent Tuscan merlot, known as Italy’s Petrus, with winemaker Axel Heinz was a don’t-miss occasion. After a preview taste at New York’s Per Se restaurant of the exciting 2017 Massetino, the new, less expensive second wine from Super Tuscan producer Masseto, we tackled vintages of the grand vin, one of Italy’s investment-grade wines. I was torn between the pure, vibrant 2010 and the fragrant, sumptuous 2016, and finally gave the edge to the latter, a modern classic.
2011 Egon Muller Scharzhofberger Riesling Trockenbeerenauslese (about $8 500, R120 543 for 750 ml)
Lush golden colour, seductive aromas of honey and Earl Grey tea, spicy apricot flavours, and enough zingy acidity to contrast unctuous sweetness: That’s my impression of this rare sweet wine from Germany’s Mosel region picked berry by berry. I asked for seconds. No problem—Egon Muller had brought magnums of it to share at a grand lunch with the Primum Familiae Vini, a group of 12 of Europe’s leading wine families, who all brought equally fabulous wines. Why don’t people drink more sweet wines?
1959 Chateau Lafite Rothschild ($24 000 to $27 000, R382 903 per bottle at recent auction)
Dinner in the chateau’s private dining room, with a marble bust of founder James Rothschild looking on, is a special experience. It’s even more memorable when one of the wines poured is the legendary 1959, the finest Lafite I’ve ever tasted. I reveled in its scents of cedar, mint, truffles, and tobacco that swirled into a mesmerizing mix. Add to that its deep layers of flavours and silky rich texture. This perfectly mature wine came straight from Lafite’s cellars, a reminder of how important provenance is to a great wine’s ageability.
1979 Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon (not available—priceless!)
Brothers Stu and Charlie Smith have been making wine in their rustic ivy-covered barn high on Spring Mountain since the early 1970s and never wavered from their commitment to structured, balanced cabernets at reasonable prices. Visiting them reminded me of an earlier era in the Napa Valley, before glitz, Ferraris, and $800 cult wines showed up. We tasted a 15-vintage retrospective of their savory mountain cabernets at a table set among barrels stacked four high. This 40-year-old wine, Smith-Madrone’s second vintage, is still delicious, with vivid aromas and flavor notes of licorice, spice, mint, and earth.
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