The Best Reds, Whites & Values of 2016

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Picture credit: Punjabigraphics.com

It’s January 3rd, 2017 and as a wine blogger it is my formulaic obligation to put together a list of the best wines I consumed in 2016. This isn’t a top-100 list compiled by an established wine blogger. Rather, it is a relatively short list and the pool from which they came is limited to the wines I sought out myself. Hence, I feel confident recommending them seeing as I put my own money into them. Click on the wines to see where they’re available.

The Ten Best Red Wines

1. 2000 Cameron Abbey Ridge pinot noir. I’ve written already in these pages that this is the most memorable wine I’ve ever had, and probably the best as well. I’m probably cheating Cameron by not also including the 2003 Abbey Ridge, which was barely one notch below the 2000, in the list but I don’t want to be redundant, especially since neither is likely to be available outside private cellar purchases and auctions. Full tasting note.

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Abbey Ridge Vineyard (picture credit: cameronwines.com)

2. 2007 Arns Melanson Vineyard syrah. The 2007 Arns Melanson syrah from California fleeced a group of wine collectors all in a blind tasting I participated in. We had a good number of syrahs from around the world lined up and paper bagged and the only unanimous guess was that this was Northern Rhone. It was also perfectly aged. Pure bliss, a top-5 all time wine for me. I didn’t take notes but it would’ve received at least a 95, and I just found another one to stash away for an important occasion in 2017.

3. 2009 Reynvaan The Contender syrah. Savory goodness, and this vintage is still around to be gobbled up if you look hard enough for it. A few Washington wineries are producing syrahs that balance classic Northern Rhone notes with Washington State’s dark fruit, iodine and graphite added it, and Reynvaan is as good as any. Full tasting note.

4. 1998 Chateau de Beaucastel Chateanuneuf-du-Pape. Proof that good CdP improves with extended cellaring, this delivered the best of what you find across the full range of CdPs all in one profile as smooth as a baby’s bottom. I’ve seen this up for auction and suggest you track one down. Full tasting note.

5. 2010 Clendenen Family Vineyards Nebbiolo Bricco Buon Natale. I’m not an avid drinker of nebbiolo but this one has me wanting to try more. Impressively complex profile that hits on flavors and aromas from quince to Allspice to watermelon (seriously). Changing with each passing hour, it is an adventure that becomes increasingly engaging and enjoyable with each sip. The value on this one is out of this world, too.

6. 2001 E. Guigal Cote-Rotie Chateau d’Ampuis. I’ve listed two American savory syrahs above this one, but there’s no getting around the fact that older Guigal like this, the stuff done before the winery embraced the Parker profile, is as good a savory profile comes. Old World brilliance. Full tasting note.

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The Chateau d’Ampuis (picture credit: guigal.com)

7. 2013 Gramercy Cellars Cabernet Franc (wine club only). This was unbelievably good. It isn’t Chinon-styled funky cabernet franc, but it isn’t big fruit and no Earth California cabernet franc, either. It’s a nice tweener that was one of the more satisfying wines I had in 2016. Full tasting note.

8. 2012 Psagot Winery Cabernet Sauvignon. As many Israeli wine as I’ve had, and I’ve had more than a few, this wine was a revelation for me. I’ve found a lot of good and a lot of bad Israeli wines, and my complaint throughout is that the country’s wine industry still hasn’t developed a signature style that people want to seek out. This bottle from Psagot doesn’t solve this problem for me, but it provided the best counter argument yet that I should just shut up and enjoy what’s in the glass. This is world class cabernet and it won’t set you back much. Full tasting note.

9. 2011 Lauren Ashton Cabernet Sauvignon. From a difficult vintage this one far surpassed many Washington cabernets from better years. I ended my tasting note with “exactly what I hope for when I open a cabernet sauvignon from Washington.” This producer consistently turns out fantastic wines but this may be the best executed yet. Full tasting note.

10. 2009 Delille Cellars Harrison Hill. Always one of my very favorite wines, though this vintage didn’t blow me away (is still too young). Nevertheless, it still delivered on the best aspect of the Harrison Hill blend: it’s a master blending job by winemaker Chris Upchurch in the sense that the profile is always somehow so much more than combination of the parts. Full tasting note.

The Five Best White Wines

1. 2010 Eric Morgat L’Enclos Savennieres. I didn’t take tasting notes, but my memories of it remain stronger than many wines for which I do have tasting notes, which is why it’s #1. Aged chenin blanc from Savennieres in the Loire Valley has been one of the more profound wine revelations I’ve had because of its deep complexity, it’s ability to improve with age, the evolution it goes through in the glass and the way it balances richness with streaky acidity. Morgat consistently makes complete wines Savennieres and shouldn’t be missed.

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Monsieur Morgat’s vines (picture credit: Le Figaro)

2. 2013 Cameron Winery Abbey Ridge chardonnay. This was my first introduction to Cameron’s whites and it led to a frantic effort to buy up as many as I could find. It’s revelation was how it brought everything good about chardonnay into one glass, including, most impressively, the richness and depth of fruit and nutty flavors of Cote de Beaune with the nervous, tense streaks of a Chablis. I keep adding Oregon chardonnay to my cellar. Full tasting note.

3. 2013 Latta Roussanne. Often times 100% roussanne is singularly dense, rich and sweet. Andrew Latta, formerly of Washington legends Dunham Cellars and K Vintners, avoids all that in this bottle of what roussanne can and should be: a wine that fills your mouth with lush flavors but slowly surprises you with flurries of zesty citrus and stone flavors that liven up the malo-like hangover of this full bodied varietal. Full tasting note.

4. 2015 Penner-Ash Viognier. Your eyes are seeing (nearly) double: often times 100% viognier is singulrarly dense, rich and sweet. Penner-Ash avoids all that in this bottle of what viognier can and should be: a wine that fills your mouth with lush flavors but slowly surprises you with flurries of zesty acidity and streaky tension that livens up the prototypical “tropicallity” of viognier. Give this another 1-2 years and it’ll be even better. Full tasting note.

5. 2008 Francois Chidaine Montlouis-sur-Loire Clos du Breuil. Between this wine and the Morgat my next trip to France will include a few days in the Loire. What made this one stand out is the incredible promise it still holds at age eight for the ability to evolve into something even better. Full tasting note.

The Five Best Values of 2016

1. 2014 Barkan Pinot Noir Classic. If I had tasted this blind I would’ve called expensive California pinot. Instead it’s from Israel and it’s roughly $12. Check out these tasting notes: “Nose: very expressive. Blueberries, blackberries and boysenberries. Big rose petals and Spring pollen. Smoke, iodine. Fruit punch. White pepper. Freshly tanned leather and young tobacco leaf. Licorice root. Beautiful bouquet. Palate: medium body, medium acidity. Integrated, modest tannin. Fruit is tart blueberries, huckleberries and red plums. Blood orange. Tar, hickory smoke. Herbs de Provence. Celery.” All that for $12; buy this for big events. Full tasting note.

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A Barkan vineyard in the Negev desert where the grapes for its 2014 Classic pinot noir are grown (picture credit: Barkan Winery)

2. 2010 Fausse Piste Garde Manger syrah. Sadly this vintage isn’t available anymore, but that won’t stop me from trying the current release in 2017. For ~$20 it’s hard to find a syrah with this much complexity. What’s more, 2010 wasn’t an easy year, making this all the more impressive. Full tasting note.

3. 2013 Two Vintners Make Haste (unavailable). This 100% Washington cinsault elicited the biggest smile induced by a single gulp of wine in 2016, it was just so much fun; I can’t even stop smiling when I just think about this wine (it is literally impossible to can stop smiling). Full tasting note.

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Two Vintners and the sun makin’ haste over Washington, D.C.

4. 2012 Bergstrom Old Stones chardonnay. It’s $22 Oregon chardonnay and I didn’t want to share it with my girlfriend’s family, which I was supposed to do, after I had m first sip. All this for twenty three bucks: limestone, saline, Meyer lemon, vanilla custard, Starfruit and Granny Smith apple tucked into finely balanced medium bodied wine. Full tasting note.

5. 2014 Galil Mountain Viognier. Another impressive value from Israel, this is a go-to medium bodied viognier for $15 that has enough acidity to please the refined palate and enough sweet tropical flavors to please the Millennial drinker. Huge recommendation as a wedding wine. Full tasting note.

A Wine Adventure: Donkey & Goat Winery

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Donkey and Goat is a cerebral winery. By design and by default, it has to be because D&G is a natural wine producer. As Tracey Brandt, the wife of the husband and wife team behind the winery told me, D&G uses only one of the 350 chemicals and additives that are legally permissible in making wine. One is a small number, but it’s also unusual in this regard. Many of these chemicals and additives are used because they prevent or correct problems. Remove them and winemakers don’t have as much control over their wine. This increases the chance of problems – wine-wise and economic – but also increases the amount of nature’s intent that comes through in the glass. This kind of wine, the one that eschews chemicals, additives and certain processes, has been termed “natural.”

The effects of the non-natural process on the final product and the consumer’s health have been deemed unacceptable by D&G. That’s fine in theory, but it makes every decision made throughout the entire wine-making process, from the vineyard to bottling, more important because if something goes wrong, the winemaker doesn’t have a chemical toolkit to draw from. This, in turn, means Tracy and Jared must, because they want to make good wine and pay the bills, pay a lot of attention to what they’re doing and put a lot of thought into it, especially the cleaning process (a good chunk of the legally permissible chemicals are ones that sanitize).

Natural winemaking has received a fair amount of press, and it would be wasteful to focus too much on what “natural wine” is because there isn’t a set definition (a criticism routinely levied against it). Natural wine, according to my own thinking, is wine with as little influence as possible from chemicals/additives and processes that are by definition and science not necessary to produce wine. Tracey and Jared use their own words, and they aren’t exactly mine, so I won’t meditate anymore on it.

What I will do is talk more about how D&G does it because it’s quite interesting, and because it works. I walked away from my visit to D&G – a tasting and a conversation with Tracey and Jared – with two pieces of information etched in my mind: first, the natural process is fundamental to their ethos, and second, they are laser-focused on making wine for the table (food friendly wines). For the winemaker or astute wine drinker, you know that these two things are fundamental to the decisions made from cradle to grave.

The outcomes are medium-bodied wines on the acidic end of wine’s sweet spot in the potential of Hydrogen (pH) spectrum. To get there, the grapes are picked with relatively high acidic levels, closely but not obsessively sorted, crushed under light pressure, fermented with native yeasts, neither cold nor hot stabilized, and aged mostly in used oak (sometimes stainless or cement is used, but new oak is forbidden). Some whites get skin contact during fermentation. And, wines get blended by the barrel to achieve the same outcomes that some chemicals or additives achieve. For example, the high acid barrels are blended with low acid barrels to achieve the right level of acidity. While many non-natural wineries follow the practice of mixing barrels to achieve a specific profile, this kind of blending, I was told, is nothing short of critical to D&G’s success because they do not call on chemicals, additives or processes often used in the blending process to deter or accentuate certain properties in the wine.

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Tracey and Jared Brant. Picture from donkeyandgoat.com

I asked Tracey whether being a natural producer was good for the bottom line, and it turns out: not necessarily. Yes, it’s true that people who seek out natural wines come to know D&G, and so that crowd is an important part of their customer base. And while it’s also true that many people who drink D&G do so without the knowledge of its ethos, there is hope in Tracey and Jared when they talk that as the natural wine movement becomes more successful there will be new converts that widen that base. Either way, though, they’ll stay true to their code, and people will enjoy their wine regardless of whether they know it’s natural.

This last point is one that I find pretty interesting because D&G has a signature style that isn’t mainstream American (though apparently it is signature Norwegian where D&G is in hot demand). Those who drink D&G are consuming medium bodied, acidic wines with apparent skin tannin, bright fruit and Earthy flavors – a far cry from the New World style of Californian wine and America’s general palate preferences. The natural wine movement holds an appeal to its adherents that one might call “healthy” in that it reflects nature’s intent without adulteration, but I can’t imagine many natural wine followers consume wine they dislike simply because it’s natural; D&G isn’t expensive, but it isn’t cheap either, and wine is an elective, luxury product. As for D&G’s fans who aren’t inclined to seek out natural wines, or simply don’t care, they are drawn to the profile. All of this leads me to believe that the America’s palate isn’t as singular as it once was. The popularity of Washington’s savory syrahs and Oregon’s Burgundy-styled pinot noirs offer additional evidence of this.

The evidence of growing American wine sophistication aside, D&G offers wine worthy of your table. I visited three wineries while in California (Jaffurs and Au Bon Climat in Santa Barbara, plus D&G in Berkley), and I found several commonalities: they all offer superb values with most of their wines in the $25-40 range, and they all hold strong immediate appeal while offering evidence that they’ll evolve with short-term cellaring. These are wines you can drink now and over the five years following release.

As with my short trip to Santa Barbara, my experience at D&G doesn’t lend itself to full reviews. Erin was generous with her pours in the D&G tasting room but the situation wasn’t right for fair assessments. What follows are my tasting notes minus scores and value ratings. If you like wines that hit on the high end of the acid spectrum, are ready made for food pairings, and offer good balance and pure expressions then D&G may well be for you. Their tasting room and winery are located in an old warehouse in Berkley and is worth a stop if you’re in the area. Their wines are also decently distributed around the United States, and if you live in the Washington D.C. area you can find them at Weygandt’s.

2014 Stone Crusher Roussanne: very tropical palate with cocktail fruit flavors. Hefty skin tannin adds weight and texture making it a really complete wine. Strong white pepper, tropical fruits and a bit of mustiness. This was probably the most impressive of the lineup for me.

2013 Untended Chardonnay: prototypical chardonnay nose of vanilla, grass and citrus. Medium bodied and very smooth, high viscosity mouthfeel. Medium acidity. Little bit of butterscotch on the palate along with honey and green tea.

Mou-Rou Nouveu: 36 bottles produced (yes, bottles, not a misprint), it’s 50/50 mourvedre and roussanne, lightly pressed and bottled following fermentation in the style of Beaujolais Nouveu. Really flesh with a very interesting hoppy flavor and a ton of strawberries.

2013 Broken Leg Vineyard Pinot Noir: very bright raspberry, strawberry and cherry medley on the nose. Medium bodied, light skin tannin. Bright, bursting red fruit and tangerine. White pepper, mushroom and a little bit of greenness. Acid really kicks in on the finish and cleans the palate.

2013 El Dorado Syrah: savory nose with smoked meat, tar and cigar tobacco leaf. Medium bodied with fine grain tannin. Salty plums, smoke and blackberries are apparent along with black pepper beef jerky. Will evolve nicely over the next five years.

2013 Perli Vineyards Syrah: kept in bottle for an additional year prior to release. Pretty, floral nose with big violets, rose and burnt orange rind. Medium plus body with bursting red fruits, forest floor, black pepper, saline and iodine. Over time a healthy meatiness developed.

Thanksgiving Wines

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Illustration by Guy Shield, published in the Wall Street Journal on 11/18/2016

Every wine blog does the obligatory how-to post on picking out Thanksgiving meal wines. These posts usually includes the following:

  1. Make sure it’s wine you like
  2. Don’t buy expensive wine
  3. Go with light to medium body, medium to high acid, and low to medium alcohol
  4. Have a wine array of options so everyone can find something they like

I agree with all of this, so I’m just going to jump to the wines I’ll be pouring. As always, however, the most important pairing are the friends and family you spend the holiday with. Focus on that.

Whites

2015 Domaine LeFage Cuvee Centenaire Blanc (80% grenache blanc, 20% roussanne from Langeudoc-Roussillon in France)

2012 Bergstrom Chardonnay Old Stones (100% chardonnay from Oregon)

Reds

2015 Borsao Garnacha Tinto (light bodied grenache from Spain and the best sub-$10 red there is)

2013 Melville Pinot Noir Estate Sta. Rita Hills (100% pinot noir from the Santa Rita Hills in California and one of the state’s best pinot values)

A Quick Trip to Santa Barbara

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Good Santa Barbara vitis. Picture: http://www.santabarbaracountywines.com

Taking advantage of a work trip to California, I made a quick jaunt from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara to squeeze in two tasting room visits. I had had one bottle from Jaffurs Winery eight or nine years ago and was interested in revisiting, and had never tried but was eager to explore the strongly reputed Au Bon Climat. Neither disappointed, and I didn’t even tell them I was coming. I strongly recommend trying wines from both wineries who also represent off-the-charts value. My tasting notes are at the end of the post.

Jaffurs is a warehouse winery that hosts its tasting room in the middle of the crush pad. I love these set ups for a host of reasons, the main one being that it smells, well, like a crush pad, and I love that smell because it reminds of the joys and challenges of making wine. It also removes any of the ultimately damaging air of aristocratic pomposity many tasting rooms, unfortunately, achieve.

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Jaffurs Winery

I was the first customer of the day, and a man named David saddled me up to the tasting bar and poured five wines for me while discussing the winery’s approach and impressive array of vineyard relationships. Jaffurs has been around for over 20 years and seem to be a local legend. They focus on Rhone varietals, and offer multi-vineyard blends plus a lineup of single vineyard syrahs, and the wines are evidence enough of why Jaffurs has such a good reputation among the industry.

Au Bon Climat’s tasting room is in downtown Santa Barbara, an almost idyllic setting that no doubt influences customers’ experience. I was also their first visitor of their day and Emily, the assistant tasting room manager, poured me a very good flight of six wines that mostly exceed my expectations. Emily’s personable nature and obvious zeal for the winery and industry was a great compliment to the wine. The tasting room, as Emily explained, was really a showroom for Jim Clendenen, the man behind Au Bon Climat and a number of other efforts. Clendenen focus is on taking what is clearly fantastic fruit and making the more refined, Burgundian and Italian styles of wine.

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Clendenen Family Estate Vineyard

It isn’t fair to offer scores of wines tasted in a tasting room – the pours are too small to fully analyze the wine, and often times the wines haven’t received sufficient aeration. Therefore, I’m going to relay the notes on the wines that I scribbled down while tasting, but leave out scores are values. That said, I imagine all the wines I tasted would likely score at or above 90 points and receive values of at least a “B” based on my process.

Jaffurs Winery (click for wine-searcher.com listings)

2015 Roussane: really classic representation of roussane’s tropical characteristics, and a really cool juxtaposition of above-average acidity and a slightly oily mouthfeel. I took a bottle with me.

2013 Enticer Pinot Noir: separate label made by Craig Jaffurs. Really pretty nose, very floral and bright. Leaner palate for a California pinot, Burgundian. Great acidity with tar, cranberries and huckleberries. Touch of sweetness balances the tart fruit.

2013 Grenache: muted nose but a really cool, dirty palate. 30% whole cluster press and a very herbal profile with gorgeous fruit. Bought one of these, too.

2014 Syrah: blend from several vineyards, meant to be a consistent profile from vintage to vintage. A bit chewy, full bodied but with good acidity. Dark fruits with some fungal funk and a nice black pepper kick.

2012 Verna’s syrah: vineyard designate. 50% whole cluster. Very meaty, funky nose and palate. Very nice harmony between bloody, smoky and salty elements. My kind of syrah.

Au Bon Climat (click for wine-searcher.com listings)

2013 Nuit Blances chardonnay: some new oak. Cote de Beaune-esque nose, palate lighter than expected but still full bodied. Nice acid and tension on the finish. Green fruits.

2011 Santa Maria Valley Bien Nacido Vineyard chardonnay: nice juxtaposition of butter and lemon, with white pepper and banana leaf. Strong oak vanillin is a bit distracting, but might integrate with more aeration.

2013 Aubaine pinot noir: funky pinot nose with baking spices, cherries, lavender and rose. Palate is restrained, dark and herbal. Dark cherries and raspberries. Smoke, thyme and tar. Round and full bodied with a robust grainy tannin structure.

2012 Talley Vineyard pinot noir: big, bold and fruit nose with some florals. Body is framed with significant oak, smoke and salty red fruits. Big mushroom on the finish. This could be great in 5-10 years.

2008 Nielson pinot noir: meaty, savory nose with cherries. Complex, deep palate. Beautiful smoked meats, cherries, strawberries and blood orange. The fruit is really deep and bright. Nice salinity with a touch of smoke. Will continue to develop. World class wine. I bought several.

2010 Nebbiolo Bricco Buon Natale: very perfumed and tropical nose with a dose of kerosene. Palate is really nice and soft, but the body is substantial. Spiced red berries and beautiful candied plums with black pepper. Gorgeous, also world class. I’ll be enjoying the several bottles I purchased.