Best of lists are common running from this time of year (just in time for shopping!), until the New Year. Mostly they are attempts at telling you what to buy, at reviewing the year gone past and the achievements accomplished over it. Inevitably they focus on things that you can readily grab at the store.
I’m not all that into such lists, although I do admit to a morbid curiosity at Wine Spectator’s Yearly top 100, which has such a large impact on wine sales and winery reputations. However, I do like the idea of thoughtful contemplation over a year’s past experiences and both what made them so interesting and how they informed your choices and opinions in the future. And, really, there’s something inherently fun about geeky lists, as we all learned in High Fidelity. Right?
Well my top wines of 2009 list focuses on the wines that made the most personal impact on me in my wine drinking experience. Wines that challenged my perceptions, made me think twice, or just stopped me in my tracks. Each of these wines has had a significant impact on the way I think of wine and has accordingly enriched my relationship to this ancient fermented beverage. And, considering this year I tasted well over 1000 wines, lived in California for 5 months, and attended a great many tastings, making this list has become a lot harder than it used to be. Here we go…
10. Movia Ribolla 2005
Movia, a Slovenian wine producer close to Italy’s Friuli, not only plays with well-known grapes in ways I found exceptional (taste their Pinot Grigio), but have also brought this rare variety to new heights. Ribolla, a white grape, originated in Greece, but over the centuries found its way to Italy, where it now sees its most well known renditions, through trading. Movia is also a biodynamic winery, and that’s something I started exploring quite a bit this year. Biodynamics certainly can seem hokey, with agricultural practices linked to lunar cycles and crazy formulas for creating fertalizer such as aging compost in bull’s horns. I was pretty skeptical when I first heard about this practice. However, tasting wines like Movia’s Ribolla show the sort of stunning results that keep coming from the best biodynamic producers. I don’t have science to back this up, but experience has been showing me that biodynamics is producing wines to watch. This Ribolla was also just so unique and interesting with all sorts of cool flavours like bark, cardamom, stone, mineral and lavender. And, it had all this complexity along with oak aging and the vanilla flavours that go along with this. Kind of a mad-scientist wine, and oh ya, I loved it. $35 at Kits Wine Cellar.
9. Mastroberardino Radici Taurasi Riserva 1999
I grabbed this off the shelf just because I wanted to try a really old Aglianico. Little did I expect this wine to completely transform my perceptions of the Aglianico grape and turn my fledgling curiosity with Southern Italy into a full blown passion. This is the sort of wine I want to drink all the time. It’s got amazing acidity – something I find myself driving towards more and more – but also tons of red fruits and stunningly dense secondary flavours like cigar and spice. The acidity makes this great with all sorts of foods, but I think that such a stunning wine as this pairs most beautifully with a simple pizza made in the Napoli tradition. It’s a pairing that reconfirmed to me the simple beauty of regional pairings. I also think this is the perfect wine for when you feel both like old world and new world and you just want something really tasty with your dinner. One of the coolest reds I had this year hands down. $82 at Kitsilano Wine Cellars.
8. Domaine de la Noblaie Chenin Blanc Chinon 2007
Graham brought this to the YVR Wine group’s Loire tasting and I was immediately blown away by its uniqueness and sheer vibrancy. This had great acid without cutting your gums, but it also brought incredible notes of apricot – almost like a purer expression of that flavour than the fruit itself. And, given that Chinon is known for Cabernet Franc, the quality of this white wine was even more exciting. I also chose this wine because this year is the year that the Loire Valley has become one of my favourite wine regions in the world, thanks, in part, to wines like this. And, ya, look at the price – this kills wines coming in at 3x as much. I bought another bottle of this when I went down to Seattle recently because it blew mw away so much. Thanks Graham. $20 at Esquin.
7. Pascal Cotat La Grande Cote Sancerre 2006
Another wine from the Loire? That’s right. Sancerre is, of course, the big boy in the Loire and the wines tend to be more expensive than normal. But that didn’t stop this Sauvignon Blanc from being an utter masterpiece of the genre. This had probably one of the most complex mineral driven palates I have ever experienced with Sauvignon Blanc and it had an otherworldly ability to pair with one of my favourite, and signature, dishes: lemon, asparagus, chevre, sage, rosemary risotto. Somehow this wine picked up every element of that dish while maintaining its profundity and expressive capacity. It, somehow, made me even more obsessed with the Loire than I was after the YVR tasting. $70 at BCLDB and Kits (I got this for $45 on sale at BCLDB)
6. Beckmen Purisima 2005
The Purisima is Beckmen’s top red blend, made with 60% Grenache and 40% Syrah and picked from the best blocks of Beckmen’s Purisima Mountain Vineyards. So why is this special? Well, in a year where I spent a good 5 months exploring the terrain of Californian wine, and taking my first trip to Santa Barbara County, where I tried (and bought) this wine at the winery, this was one of the very few that stood out to me as something distinct. It’s amazing, really, considering how many wines I had in California that I liked, that upon reflection it was hard to choose any for this top 10 list. Beckmen made it because of this wine’s honesty and ability to show a distinct style for the region without worrying about pleasing the masses. I’m sure many would enjoy this wine, but it has such tremendous structure underneath all its flavour that this will be a stunning Grenache heavy wine to taste in 10 years. You can’t say that for most wines from central California. An extremely solid top 10 pick and one of the best wines I have yet had from California. $75 at the Winery.
5. Domaine Courbis Les Eygats Cornas 2004
Syrah is one of my three great passions in wine, the other two being Loire whites and white Burgundy, and amazingly, this was the only Syrah to make the list this year. Why is that? Well I have a lot of great syrah, and there are many I would recommend as fantastic that I had this year other than this wine. However, to me this exemplified a few important realizations in wine. First, that a “lesser” year can produce wines that far outclass “great” years (compare this to 2005), especially if you are looking for restraint in your wines. Second, that a region can be reinvented with the proper vineyard management and wine making practices. Cornas has been known for a long time as the kingdom of gamey and brett infused syrah. No longer. Domaine Courbis’s Cornas are elegant, structured, beautifully rendered and filled with superb syrah flavours like bacon fat, olives, violets, and plum. This is the kind of wine that proves to me that Syrah is the greatest grape in the world and the one that best expresses its terroir. $60 at Marquis.
4. Russian River Temptation
That’s right, this is not a wine, but rather, a beer. I had the most recent batch of this down in Sonoma during the Wine Blogger’s Conference. Sean, Graham and I hit up the Russian River Brew Pub (an absolute mecca for beer lovers), and had $3 pints of some of the best beers being brewed in the world today. The Temptation is insane – so much so that all three of us were blown away. First off, it is aged in wine barrels. Second, this is made with wild brettanomyces yeasts that would turn most wines into unquaffable nightmares, but turned this beer into a sour masterpiece of the brewer’s art. The brewer’s father was in the wine business and so I think he understands a level of complexity in the art of fine alcohol that many brewers are still trying to accomplish. I also think this is the sort of beer you could and should give a wine geek to make them realize that a great beer blows away so many wines that cost a ton more money. Russian River is, I think, the best brewery in the world today. $25 a 750ml bottle at the brewery (also available at fine beer stores in the U.S.).
3. Brown Estate Chiles Valley Zinfandel 2007
I knew that a Brown Estate wine had to make it on this list. My experiences there this year showed me the humanity behind the wine industry and exposed me to a winery where everyone involved was authentic, sincere, and incredibly kind. Given my recent posts on honesty in wine, I think Brown Estate is the exemplar of what honesty can be in the Napa Valley. They also have an incedible estate well off the beaten track in the cooler Chiles Valley AVA. So, why did I choose this wine over their incredible chardonnay or other single vineyard zins? Well, because I tasted the 2007 Chiles Valley zinfandel on three separate occasions and on each occasion I was completely floored by this wine. This changed my preconceptions about zinfandel and this is the kind of wine that will make many confront any biases they have towards this grape. Absolutely insane acidity, one of the brightest and freshest palates I’ve ever experienced in California amongst all varietals, and a level of sheer mind-blowing pleasure that almost no wine achieves for me these days. Zinfandel is not a jammy flabby beast. No, when done as well as this it can hold its 15%+ ABV with the deftness and finesse of a tightrope walker, and yet deliver a level of fruit that other grapes could only dream of. Brown Estate, thanks for restoring my faith in both integrity and in the sheer joy of wine. $45 at the winery.
2. Tissot Chardonnay “Les Graviers” 2006
Jura wines are starting to get a lot of hype in the blogosphere and the wine geek community. I first had a Jacques Puffeney Trousseau down in San Francisco early in the year and it really impressed me with its fruit forwardness, but also profound delicacy, something sadly missing in most California wines. But it wasn’t that wine that made the list, or even Tissot’s own Trousseau, which is great. No, it was this single vineyard chardonnay with a touch of age on it. This is unlike any chardonnay I had ever tasted up to this point. In fact, I would even go so far as to call this genre-busting chardonnay. When is the last time you tasted carrots and celery in a chard, along with grass and licorice, and have it still blow your mind? This is not green, not over oaked, not like anything else out there. And yet, even with all its weirdness, it has a fundamental approachability that makes it utterly compelling. Hands down one of the best chardonnays I have ever tasted and a confirmation of the greatness of Jura. All in all, a wine well deserving of the second highest spot on the list. $60 at Kits Wine Cellars.
1. Didier Dagueneau Buisson Renard 2005
Writing down the number one wine on the list reminds me of when I took my first sip of this wine with my really good friend Martin – a white wine fanatic. We each sniffed, took a sip, turned to each other and said “Holy Shit”. I didn’t think wine could taste this good? And I already think wine is the tastiest stuff on earth. Is this really Sauvignon Blanc? Can it really have this absolutely insane depth of concentration and yet such profound acidity? Can it be light and full at the same time? Can this pair with the richest and creamiest of dishes but also just as perfectly with the waning summer air? I didn’t even realize wine could be this balanced. Needless to say, I went to great lengths to secure myself an allocation of Dagueneau’s last vintage (the 2007’s) before he sadly passed away. But, I’m sure that will only add to the legend. This was the easiest wine for me to pick on this list, and the most clearly deserving of the top wine of the year. This is the third Loire wine on this year’s list, coming from Pouilly Fumé – and damn it’s even better than the other two. If you can get your hands on anything by Dagueneau, you owe it to yourself to move the earth to make it happen. $70 at Marquis.
And that’s my top 10 wines of the year. I hope that my experiences can add to yours and if anyone has tried any of these wines I would love to hear your perspective on them. Cheers, and good drinking over the holiday period!