A Year In Wine: My Ten Most Memorable Wine Experiences of 2012
Yep, it’s time for this old list again. I spend most of the year steering clear of journalistic cliches, but the top 10 list around the end of the year is a hackneyed concept I cannot resist. It is my seasonal guilty indulgence.
Such indulgence can serve an important purpose when used to reflect on past experiences and to take stock on life. Thus, while preparing this list I realized that I have been writing and blogging on wine for 5 years now. Much has changed in that time both in my personal life and in my wine world. These top 10 lists have been a tradition each year and show the significant growth and perspective shifting my palate has endured over five years. As example, my number 1 wine of 2008 was a Nicolas Catena Zapata cab blend. This is still a good wine but these days it would have no hope of reaching my top 10 wine experiences, as my palate and perception of wine has changed markedly, looking not just for pleasure but also for uniqueness, character, distinction and philosophical coherence.
But that’s enough philosophizing. Here are my top 10 wine experiences of 2012.
10. D&P Belluard “Le Feu” 2009
Making wine with the nearly extinct and certainly unknown variety Gringet, Belluard is a ‘naturalist’ with a fetish for concrete eggs. This wine tastes of the alpine terrain in which it is made: sweet herbs, crystal minerality and an incense quality I have never experienced in any other wine. Located in Ayse in the foothills of the French Alps, this is a game changing wine that will astonish any jaded palate.
9. Jean-Michele Stephan Cote-Rotie 2008
It is no secret that I love Cote-Rotie, a love that entenched itself considerably in my soul after I visited the region in 2011. That said, it now takes something pretty remarkable for a Cote-Rotie to get on my top 10 wine experiences list since I have indulged in so much of it. Jean-Michele Stephan’s counterintuitive approach to wine-making hit all the right notes with this ‘off-vintage’ wine. Stephan uses no sulphur, embraces (at least partial) carbonic maceration and has a goal to make wine with 100% massale selected vines. This wine was so astonishingly fresh, light and expressive, particularly given the vintage and age that I immediately sought out more and other vintages. As I wrote in my original review, “The long, pure finish and wonderful texture make this amongst both the best and most “typicité” challenging wines of Cote-Rotie.”
8. Teobaldo Cappellano “Pie Rupestris” Barolos
I tasted four vintages of this remarkable under the radar traditionalist’s wines this year and each proffered the ethereal joy that only great Nebbiolo can bring. Fusing sensual pleasure and intellectual engagement, Cappellano’s Barolos are amongst the very best in the region, and they are anything but ‘old fashioned’.
7. Leon Barral Faugeres Valiniere 2008
I’ve been trying to get my hands on Barral’s wines for several years. This year proved the winner. These are unlike almost anything else being made in the Languedoc-Roussillon, avoiding all rusticity, heavy extracted flavours, and oak. This wine is extremely pure of fruit, highly aromatic and silky on the palate. Biodynamic, naturalist, yadda yadda. This is stunning wine worth well above what they are charging. And, it made me appreciate the terroir of Faugeres (and Languedoc-Roussillon more broadly) more than any other producer (perhaps besides Gauby).
6. Teutonic Wine Company – anything
Right when I thought I had Oregon pegged, along came Barnaby and Olga Tuttle and their Teutonic Wine Company, making lean, low-alcohol German influenced wines at obscure very cool, high elevation sites in Oregon. His Laurel Vineyard Chehalem Mountain Pinot Noir, at about 12% ABV, was a revelation for what is possible in Oregon. Not because it is better than what everyone else is doing, but because it shows that Oregon Pinot Noir from certain sites can possess the freshness and vivacity of German Spatburgunder. His whites are even more impressive, with the white blend being my favourite for its life affirming, mouth watering acidity and texture. Oh, and the prices are in the human realm, generally sitting between $17-$24 a bottle.
5. Ridge Monte Bello Chardonnay 2004
Drawn from my cellar after a few years of aging, this was a revelation for California Chardonnay. This may be the best Chardonnay being made in the new world, and if not, it is in the top 5. Ridge is also one of the greatest, most reliable, and yet under-hyped wineries in the United States. Having that reaffirmed with their rare top bottling of Chardonnay (which could go toe to toe with the best of Burgundy) was a reaffirmation of the principle that philosophical consistency is a rare, but essential, quality that is yet common with all the greatest producers.
4. E&E Black Pepper Sparkling Shiraz Vertical (‘93, ‘95, ‘03, ‘05)
No one talks about sparkling Shiraz in North America. Much of the Aussie bubble that does make it to these shores is unremarkable, further cementing an unfair reputation. So it was that I tasted through a vertical of this Grand Cru Sparkling Shiraz (a first in North America, poured at the 2012 Hospice du Rhone). Who thought traditional Shiraz fruit could become tobacco, smoke, earth and mushrooms with a little age and a little sparkle. These are profound wines, worth seeking out and laying down.
3. Marc Sorrel Le Greal Hermitage 2001
For many, Hermitage has become lost in a typhoon of modernity that has overwhelmed the great terroir of this diminutive hill in eastern France. The wine store owner of a little shop in Tain l’Hermitage I bought this bottle from (rightly or wrongly) lay the blame at the feet of M. Chapoutier, who he disdained for his modernist take on Hermitage. Instead, he sold me this 2001 Marc Sorrel – a style of wine that is becoming lost, even at the Sorrel domaine itself, which has increased its use of new oak and extraction. The 2001 was a piece of history. It helped that it was also one of the most complete wines I drank (and thankfully shared with friends) this year: mineral drive, but a deeply, profoundly fruity core and perfect balance between acid, alcohol and texture. Oh Hermitage, please come back.
2. Giacomo Conterno Cascina Francia Barolo 1990
This pick is almost unfair. Of course, a 1990 Conterno Barolo is going to be mind blowing. One of the best vintages of the last 30 years and a top producer? Ok, yes it’s unfair. But, this Conterno taught me something about luxury wine and expectations that no other bottle has. It is easier to quote from my original article: “After 22 years, the tannins were still firm. In fact, it is unlikely they would soften up much more. Yet, the texture of the wine was as perfect and silky as the greatest of Burgundies. The aromas are immediately pleasurable, but the flavours of the wine can be off-putting: beauty with ugliness. A pretty wine that is as mottled and tobacco-stained as an old drifter’s coat. And yet, somehow, it all makes sense.”
1. Jimenez-Landi Ataulfos Garnacha (2009 and 2010)
I am on a crusade for this wine. Never before in my five years of blogging and loving wine have I encountered a wine that has made me believe this much in a daring set of beliefs made reality. Jimenez-Landi is making some of the greatest wines in the world, with Grenache. These guys will one day be as legendary as Rayas for making such a difficult (and, frankly, unpoetic) grape speak in quatrains of human cultural achievement. Located in the unknown region of Mentrida, just south of Madrid, Jimenez-Landi holds the highest Grenache vineyards in the world sitting at 700-1000m above sea level on both granitic and slate and clay soils. The vines are upwards of 70 years old. Winemaker Daniel Gomez Jiménez-Landi explains that he actually seeks vineyards that are not south facing to ensure the grapes do not ripen too quickly or too far. High elevation, old vines, and less hot sun exposure ensure that the wines have minerality, which Daniel views as essential for any great Grenache. These guys are biodynamic and naturalist, fermenting in amfora and using almost no sulphur.
While the Ataulfos is my personal favourite, all the single vineyard Garnachas are very serious, very important wines that exude more terroir than any other wine being made in Spain. This is the face of what Spanish wine is truly capable of. And, if my personal passion means anything, these are the only wines I will buy without hesitation by the case, whenever I see them (which is essentially never).