The Best Wines I Drank In 2015: The Reds

26 January 2016

Red wine from the Pfalz at the Schlosshotel im Grunewald's Vivaldi restaurantThis list, especially when taken together with my companion list of whites, illustrates how absolutely delicious wines are being made in all sorts of unexpected places all over the globe. Nowadays, there is simply no reason to confine your drinking to wines from two or three classic regions.

Taking a risk on something lesser-known can reap significant rewards, both in terms of saving money and broadening the palate.

The planet is encircled with tremendous wine-making talent. Fantastic wine makers can be found in just about every wine region on the map, and just as important, insightful wine growers are exploiting vineyard sites to their full potential, finding new terroir for classic grapes as well as resurrecting nearly forgotten ancient varieties rich in character and history.

We wine lovers have never had it better. Cheers to the vintners in far-flung places taking risks on unorthodox wines, hoping that we’ll notice their beauty, and cheers to the importers, restaurants and wine shops courageous enough to work with them. My life is much the richer for it.

The most memorable reds I tasted in 2015, in alphabetical order:


August Eser Spatburgunder

August Eser Spätburgunder at the Schlosshotel Burg Schlitz in Mecklenburg, Germany


First, a quick translation: This dry (trocken) Pinot Noir (Spätburgunder) from the Mittleheim section of the Rheingau is aged in small oak barrels (barriques). It had a surprisingly dark, almost porty aroma, full of red currant fruit. It felt deeply flavored but light-bodied, with some slow-building black-peppercorn spice and a woodsy note on the finish. An excellent pairing with some duck.


Alberto Buratto, CEO of Baglio di Pianetto

Alberto Buratto, CEO of Baglio di Pianetto


I’ve long enjoyed Sicilian Nero d’Avola, and this example ranks among the best I’ve tasted. The grapes come from 45-year-old vineyards and the wine sees nine months in barriques and 36 months in the bottle before it’s released. Although 2007 isn’t an especially new vintage, the wine still felt young. I could detect its aroma well beyond the rim of the glass: red fruit, fresh green herbs, spice. It had big, ripe fruit, focused green-peppercorn spice and a finish of wood and leather. Just beautiful.


Tasting straight from the barrel in Catena Zapata's experimental winery

Tasting straight from the barrel in Catena Zapata’s experimental winery


I tasted this remarkable wine, made from partially dried grapes in the Italian passito method, right from the barrel in the experimental section of Catena Zapata’s pyramid-shaped winery. The Adrianna Vineyard ranks among the very best in all of Argentina, and after sampling this Malbec, I could see why. The wine exhibited gorgeously rich, jammy fruit, with lots of plum and raisin flavors. Bright spice, which built to a blast at the finish, kept things well in balance. Sensational.


Oscar Ruiz, export manager of Cellers Unió

Oscar Ruiz, export manager of Cellers Unió


Catalonia has more to offer than just Cava — the Spanish region’s red wines can compete with the best Rioja has to offer. I felt particularly impressed at a recent tasting by the 2013 Cellers Unió “Perlat,” a blend of Garnacha (Grenache), Carignan and Syrah from Montsant. The wine exuded elegance with its well-integrated and notably supple tannins, and it had a striking purity of fruit. Its red fruit aroma was clean and clear, and the dark cherry flavor rang like a bell.


My wine flight at Bocanáriz in Santiago, Chile, with the Cono Sur Ocio at right

My wine flight at Bocanáriz in Santiago, Chile, with the Cono Sur “Ocio” at right


If this wine is any indication, Pinot Noir apparently grows exceedingly well in Chile’s cool-climate Casablanca Valley, just off the coast. Cono Sur (note the pun) made Chile’s first premium Pinot Noir, according to its website, and the Ocio certainly lives up to the “premium” designation. It had a rich aroma of deep red fruit along with a surprising mocha note. When I tasted the wine, ripe black-cherry fruit was quickly shoved aside by forceful spice, followed by some earth and a softly tannic finish. I loved it.


Element's oversize bottles were quite the hit at the Wine Bloggers Conference

Element’s oversize bottles were wine blogger catnip at this year’s Finger Lakes conference


Sommelier and winemaker Christopher Bates gave an excellent presentation at this year’s Wine Blogger’s Conference in New York’s Finger Lakes region, and his winery’s Lemberger (Blaufränkisch) proved just as memorable, if not more so. It had a seductive aroma of dark fruit and violets, and though it was light-bodied, it displayed big dark fruit offset by ample and refined spice. Riesling gets all the press in the Finger Lakes, but Lemberger is equally at home there.


Fred Merwath holding Hermann J Wiemer Cabernet Franc

Fred Merwath pouring his Cabernet Franc


Wiemer winemaker and co-owner Fred Merwath also knew how to impress a table of wine bloggers, pouring his Finger Lakes wine from a magnum. This Cabernet Franc has a sultry aroma of dark fruit, dark chocolate, violets and spice, and oo, what a lovely flavor. Lots of dark fruit, big white-pepper spice, mocha-inflected tannins… It had power, but it remained cheerful and light on its feet.



From Portugal’s Tejo region, this blend of Touriga Nacional, Aragónez, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah was an absolute joy. It had a wonderfully dark plummy aroma and it tasted big and full. I loved the journey from rich fruit to big spice to some mocha on the finish. This was a wine with some depth, and it paired perfectly with some pork cheeks. The price of about $25 is higher than many Portuguese reds on the shelf, but considering the very high quality, it’s still an excellent value.



“Oh my lord,” my tasting companion remarked about this wine. “That is sexy.” It really was. Rodney Strong’s first Malbec varietal (usually the grape appears in Bordeaux-style blends) had an aroma of old wood, vanilla and dark fruit, and it felt rich and voluptuous on the tongue. Ample, ripe fruit mixed with oak and vanilla, which could have been a rather flabby combination in lesser hands. But in spite of its lush richness, this wine kept itself together, with a shaft of focused spice. Indeed, it felt almost taut, and it had no trouble standing up to some pork loin. Sonoma isn’t known for its Malbec, but maybe it should be.


Pouring Salton wines at last year's Wine Blogger Conference

Pouring Salton wines at last year’s Wine Blogger Conference


The wine representative who poured this Brazilian wine promised me that it would be “light and elegant.” A light and elegant Tannat seemed about as likely as a light and elegant Arnold Schwarzenegger. I nearly spit this wine out in shock before I managed to spit it out with composure into the spit bucket. Where were the overpowering tannins? This Tannat tasted fruity and well-balanced, with some restrained spice and supple — supple! — tannins. Uruguay has got some Tannat competition.


Stella Bella Tempranillo at Jonah's restaurant in Whale Beach, Australia

Stella Bella Tempranillo at Jonah’s restaurant in Whale Beach, Australia


I mentioned to the sommelier how much I enjoyed this wine, and he nodded, saying, “It’s really hard to make bad wine in the Margaret River Valley,” a distant wine region set on the coast in the far southwestern corner of Australia. The aroma of this Tempranillo sold me right away, with its notes of dark fruit, earth, vanilla and violets. Powerful but classy, the wine moved from plummy fruit to big white-pepper spice to supple tannins to a savory finish. Some lamb made for a superb pairing.


Viña Vik's red blend

2010 VIK

A hotel’s “house red” doesn’t usually quicken the pulse, but Viña Vik, standing like an alien space base on a Chilean hilltop, is not your usual hotel. Its onsite winery makes just one wine, and it’s a doozy. I could tell from its enticing aroma of dark, rich fruit mixed with some meatiness and some vanilla that the wine was going to be memorable. It had notable structure, with dark fruit and big spice, which changed from green peppercorn to red paprika. Something fresh underneath kept the wine from being heavy, and the tannins were big enough to make me want to lay a bottle down for another few years. The finish went on and on.


Viña Peñalolén Cabernet Sauvignon at Casa Lastarria in Santiago, Chile

Viña Peñalolén Cabernet Sauvignon at Casa Lastarria in Santiago, Chile


This elegant and complex Chilean Cabernet impressed me most with the finesse with which it shifted gears from ripe red fruit to focused white-pepper spice to velvety tannins. It’s yet another illustration of Chile’s great success in developing its fine-wine industry.

You might also enjoy reading about my favorite whites and spirits from 2015. And you can see past red winners from 2014, 2013 and 2012

The Best Wines I Drank In 2015: White & Sparkling

14 January 2016

Barone Pizzini Saten and La Valle NaturalisFor this idiosyncratic list, I chose whites that surprised me one way or another, and whites that exhibited impressive balance. When a wine’s fruit, acids and other flavors are tautly in sync, it can be an absolutely thrilling experience. Don’t settle for white wines that are simply innocuous and bland. There are too many beautifully lively bottles out there to waste your time with anything that doesn’t make you sit up and take notice.

The wines below represent a tiny taste of what’s out there beyond the giant industrial-sized brands found in every grocery store. These are wines with heart. They have to be, since most of the companies making these wines have minimal marketing budgets.

You won’t find all of these particular wines with ease, but if you see one that sounds particularly enticing, bring the description to your local wine shop and ask for something similar. A good wine clerk will send you in the right direction.

And now, in alphabetical order, the 13 most memorable white wines I tried in 2015:



Franciacorta reserves the “Satèn” designation  for 100% Chardonnay wines (blanc de blancs) that have spent a minimum of 24 months aging on the lees. Barone Pizzini aged this Satèn between 30 and 40 months, giving this organic wine time to develop additional complexity. It had a nose of green apple and vanilla with a bit of toast, and I loved its classy bubbles, lemony acids and juicy, appley fruit.


Crociani Vin Santo di Montepulciano


The World Atlas of Wine calls Vin Santo “the forgotten luxury of many parts of Italy, Tuscany above all,” and with good reason. This example had an enticing aroma of taut, dark honey and wonderfully complex flavors: dates, figs, orange peel, walnuts. It had evident concentration, feeling rich until the finish, which took a wonderfully surprising turn towards dry, bright freshness.



TheWorld Atlas of Wine also has high praise for Chablis from the Valmur vineyard, calling it “some critics’ ideal: rich and fragrant.” I’m certainly not one to disagree with the Atlas — this wine was an absolute joy. It had a spicy aroma marked by notes of popcorn. Some Chablis can be almost austere, but this Grand Cru had real richness. With sublime balance, it started ripe and round and then focused into taut laser beam of white-pepper spice.


The personable Steven Fulkerson, holding a bottle of his bright and fruity Pinot Noir/Dornfelder rosé

The personable Steven Fulkerson, holding a bottle of his bright and fruity Pinot Noir/Dornfelder rosé


The words “semi-dry” strike fear into the hearts of many a sugar-phobic wine drinker, but there’s nothing to be afraid of in this case. An attractive green-gold color, this Finger Lakes Riesling had a ripe and full aroma, and lush fruit perfectly balanced by orangey acids and gingery spice. Languid and very pretty.



Marsanne, a traditional Rhône white grape variety, doesn’t ordinarily spring to mind when one thinks of Australian wine. But perhaps it should — this example from Central Victoria, Australia’s southeasternmost state aside from Tasmania, had a delightfully fresh aroma of pear, and it tasted rather sexy, I must say. Delicious roasted peach fruit moved to a little wood and some dusky spice, and the finish lasted quite some time. A most pleasant surprise.



Piper-Heidsieck BrutThis Champagne activated all my sparkling-wine pleasure centers: It had a wonderfully yeasty aroma with some underlying freshness, rich flavors of toast and almond balanced by bright acids, and, of course, exquisitely fine bubbles. You may not feel very surprised to learn that a Champagne is delicious, especially one coming from a relatively well-known brand. What is surprising is the huge disparity between this richly flavorful Champagne (priced at about $40 a bottle) and the underwhelming but nevertheless ubiquitous Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label (priced at about $37  bottle). Those three extra dollars buy you a giant leap in character.



Most Vernaccia di San Gimignano (a Tuscan white) doesn’t see any time in oak, resulting in cheerful, fruity and spicy wines that tend to go well with food. But the “riserva” wines, which age for a spell in new oak barrels, achieve another level entirely. This example, a blend of 85% Vernaccia di San Gimignano and 15% Sauvignon Blanc, spent a year in used oak barrels aging on the lees, adding to its complexity. It had an appealing aroma of lime and popcorn, and flavors of creamy white fruit and pie crust. It felt beautifully balanced, with supple acids and a bit of minerality.



This blend of 50% Chardonnay and 50% Arinto from Portugal’s Tejo region paired wonderfully with some savory Parmesan crisps. I enjoyed its rich, dusky aroma marked by a touch of creaminess, and its focused peachy fruit and orange-peel acids. A fellow taster also detected “almost a lychee note.” Unique and delicious, and it’s a sensational value at $12.


The author and Alexandra Prinzessin zur Lippe in the Schloss Proschwitz vineyards overlooking Meissen

The author and Alexandra Prinzessin zur Lippe in the Schloss Proschwitz vineyards overlooking Meissen


I had already tasted a number of excellent wines with the Prinzessin zur Lippe, owner of Schloss Proschwitz in Germany’s little-known Sachsen region. But when we reached the 2013 Weissburgunder Grosses Gewächs, the Prinzessin became concerned. When I smelled this Pinot Blanc, I let out a laugh and a whoop and said “Yeah!” just a little too loudly. Her eyes widened, and she asked the woman behind the desk to bring bread.

“We’ll be having lunch soon…” she said, clearly convinced I was drunk (I was not). This wine, quite simply, was great. I would have guessed it was a white Burgundy, not a Pinot Blanc. The aroma had such richness, with ripe fruit and fresh butter and wood. And the flavor! Drinking it was like driving in a car with an expert at manual transmission — it shifted with incredible suppleness from ripe, ripe fruit to classy acids to focused spice. What a gorgeous, elegant wine.



I hadn’t planned on taking any tasting notes during the vacation when I tried this sparkling wine from Austria, but it proved to be so delicious I couldn’t resist. I loved its creamy, citrusy aroma, reminiscent of a dreamsicle. The elegantly fine, foamy bubbles were a testament to Szigeti’s successful use of bottle fermentation. It had ample fruit and a pleasant powdered candy note, all balanced by soft limey acids. It stood up well to some turkey, but it also would make a fine aperitif all on its own.



As I tasted this wine, Casey Squire, division manager of Banville Wine Merchants, told me that “The hallmark of Terlano wines is their ageability,” and went on to relate how he once tried a 1955 Terlaner Pinot Bianco (Pinot Blanc) that still retained some acidity and freshness. I’m not sure I’d hold this wine from the Vorberg section of Italy’s Alto Adige region that long, but who knows? It smelled of subtle spice and herbs and mellow white fruit, and the mouthfeel felt rich and full. Voluptuous fruit quickly gave way to tight, limey acids which moved into paprika-like spice. The wine was big and lively, but it held together firmly and exhibited great balance.


The tasting room at Vina Cobos

The tasting room at Viña Cobos


This single-vineyard Chardonnay from Mendoza had a very spicy aroma marked by dried herbs, belying the rich fruit I tasted. I also detected some vanilla and even a note of light caramel, but in spite of all this richness, bright acids kept the wine perfectly in balance. I liked it so much, I ended up buying a bottle for my boss for Christmas.



When I tasted this beautiful Finger Lakes wine, I wrote in my notebook, “If you think you don’t like sweet wines, try this!!” I loved it from start to finish. It had an enticingly spicy and rich aroma, and sumptuously rich fruit leavened by surprisingly zesty grapefruity acids and warm cinnamon spice. Sheer delight.

Up Next: My favorite reds of 2015.

Sweet Fear And Tasmanian Riesling

20 July 2015

Pressing Matters R69 RieslinsWhen I conferred last night with the sommelier of Jonah’s, a fancy restaurant just north of Sydney, Australia, something all-too-familiar occurred. I read over the list of wines by the glass and decided that the 2014 Pressing Matters “R69” Riesling from cool-climate Tasmania sounded like a good pairing for my first course of tagliatelle with spanner crab, lemon and chilies. The sommelier agreed, and as custom dictates, he poured a small sample for me to try before filling my glass.

Now, sommeliers often respond with concern when I test a wine. Perhaps it’s because I take too long to taste it before speaking, or perhaps my face goes all scrunchy when I concentrate on a wine’s progression of flavor. Usually a concerned sommelier just says something like, “What do you think?” But this time, the sommelier went further, asking, “How is it? Is it too much? Is it too much?” It’s like he had “kick me” sign on his chest, and he expected my foot to hit his stomach at any second. Why? Sugar.

The R69 was a rather sweet wine, the name referring to the number of grams of residual sugar, and sugar in wine is not currently fashionable. People who like sweet wines are often apologetic about the fact, believing their palates to be too unsophisticated for dry wines. Insecure wine snobs agree, their refusal to touch sweet wines ostensibly proving the superiority of their taste. Fiddlesticks. If you like sweet wines, good for you! They’re delicious. And if you don’t like sweet wines, that’s a valid preference, but nothing more. It’s not evidence of sophistication.

It was this sort of judgmental attitude that the sommelier at Jonah’s feared, of course. He worried I would say something like, “Ugh, oh no, that’s far too sweet for me,” with one eyebrow raised in condemnation of his decision to put the wine on the list. I’ve seen restaurant patrons do it more than once. That kind of response pains me, because the R69, like any high-quality wine that dares to include some sugar, was an absolute delight.

The wine smelled of sweet white flower and white peach, leavened with a bit of (varietally correct) plastic shower curtain. It had lush fruit, zesty orangey acids and some vanilla on the finish. I loved the exciting interplay of the acids and sweet fruit — this wine demanded attention, and it worked beautifully with the tagliatelle. The acids absolutely blossomed with its sweet and savory flavors.

There surely are those who can’t abide any wine containing sugar, whatever its quality. But the rest of us have no reason to deny ourselves the pleasures of wines with a touch of sweetness. When acids and spice balance out the sugar, the results can be nothing short of electrifying (consider Sauternes and Tokaj).

If some wine connoisseur judges you for ordering a sweet wine, they’re no connoisseur. They’re just a snob.

Unusual Australian Shiraz

31 October 2014

Domaine Terlato & Chapoutier L Block ShirazMy first instinct, when offered two complimentary samples of some Australian Shiraz, was to decline them. Australian Shiraz is one of the least unusual wines I can think of, right up there with Napa Cabernet. But these were from Domaine Terlato & Chapoutier, and that winery’s 2012 Shiraz-Viognier ranked among my Top Red Wines of 2013. Just as important in my decision to write about the samples, these Shirazes weren’t from one of Australia’s more well-known wine regions. They came from Pyrenees.

I think of “the Pyrenees” as the rugged mountain range dividing Spain and France, but it is also “the (ironic?) name of the rolling landscape to the east of the Grampians” in Victoria not far from Melbourne, as The World Atlas of Wine explains. “Formerly known as the Avoca district,” according to The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, Pyrenees is “…red-wine country, making wines of a distinctive and attractive minty character.” The Oxford Companion to Wine is even more complimentary of the region, arguing that “The Pyrenees on the eastern side can provide Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon every bit as sumptuous as that of Heathcote or Bendigo…”

Acclaimed Rhône winemaker Michel Chapoutier visited the area in 1998, and he was immediately taken with a certain undeveloped stretch of land that received ample sunlight mitigated by cool breezes. Already in a beneficial business relationship with Anthony Terlato, Chapoutier telephoned him, exclaimed something to the effect of, “You gotta see this!” and exhorted Mr. Terlato to get on the next plane to Australia, as Liz Barrett, Terlato’s Vice President of PR, related to me over a recent dinner. Anthony’s son Bill flew down, and Domaine Terlato & Chapoutier was born.

Over the next two years, they planted mostly Shiraz in what became known as the Malakoff vineyard. Notably, these vines grow on their own ungrafted rootstock, since Pyrenees is unafflicted by phylloxera. This destructive louse requires most of the world’s vineyards to be planted on American rootstocks, making the Malakoff vineyard unusual indeed.

Barrett and I tasted two of Domaine Terlato & Chapoutier’s wines over a delicious steak dinner at Chicago’s Tango Sur, and they proved to be an excellent accompaniment to the beef. First, we tried the 2011 Lieu Dit Malakoff Shiraz which runs about $50 a bottle. It smelled of deeply dark fruit, and there was a meatiness to the aroma. Barrett exclaimed, “Raisinettes!” and she was quite right. This is a masculine, muscular wine with ample ripe fruit, lots of black pepper spice and some underlying freshness, all under very tight control. That control is what elevates this wine above many other Australian Shirazes I’ve tasted, and justifies the price tag.

We also sampled the 2009 L Block Shiraz, named for a certain L-shaped section of the vineyard with more slate and iron in the soil. It smelled big, deep and juicy, with notes of hearty black cherries. Barrett took a sip and remarked, “It’s a he-wine,” and indeed, there was something masculine about this Shiraz as well. It had ripe raspberry-jam fruit, black pepper spice, strong but supple tannins and raisins on the finish. It was big and ripe but wonderfully light on its feet, with a lively mouthfeel. I could see why this wine fetches around $60 a bottle.

If you’re planning a special dinner for your partner, or just want a really beautiful wine to cozy up with on a chilly autumn evening, either of these unusual Shirazes would be an excellent choice. If $50 is beyond your budget, opt for the Domaine Terlato & Chapoutier Shiraz-Viognier instead. For about $18, it’s one of the best red-wine values available anywhere.

Unfashionable Sparkling Shiraz

29 March 2014

Paringa Sparkling ShirazLately the trend has shifted to wines with a sense of terroir, a sense of the specific site where the grapes were grown. This encompasses not just the soil but all factors affecting the particular vineyard, yet the soil tends to be the most tangible influence. A fashion for earthy-flavored wines has gone hand in hand with the increasing interest in terroir-focused wines, with more and more wineries seeking to emulate the Burgundian style: earthy reds specifically reflective of their vineyards.

Overtly fruity Australian Sparkling Shiraz is nothing like that. In fact, it’s so unfashionable (except perhaps in Australia itself) that I could barely find a passing mention of it in The Oxford Companion to Wine, The World Atlas of Wine or The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia. The most I found was in Sotheby’s, which described Seppelt’s Show Sparkling Shiraz as “the biggest, brashest and most brilliant” of Sparkling Shirazes, “even though its massive, concentrated black-currant-syrup fruit is too much for many to swallow more than half a glass.” Burgundian style that is not. You won’t find any sommeliers in Brooklyn clamoring to pour you a flute, not even ironically.

But just because a wine is deeply unfashionable doesn’t mean it’s unworthy of consideration. I may have my wine blogger license revoked for what I’m about to write, but I quite like a glass of Sparkling Shiraz from time to time. In fact, I was feeling particularly unstylish just yesterday evening, and I opened up a bottle to serve as an apéritif before a dinner party. I love how incongruous the purplish wine looks in a champagne flute.

The 2012 Paringa Sparkling Shiraz I served is much lighter than the Seppelt described above, which is aged for 10 years before it’s released. With 36 grams of residual (unfermented) sugar per liter, the Paringa tastes sweet but not syrupy. I quite liked its aroma of dark grape jelly and its ripe, openly grapey fruit. Some lemony acids kept things in balance, aided in that effort by tight, frothy bubbles and some light tannins on the finish. It’s fun and surprising, both in terms of color and flavor, which makes it an ideal party wine.

I could find nothing about Paringa’s South Australian Sparkling Shiraz on its website other than an image of the bottle. Fortunately the importer, Quintessential Wines, is a bit more forthcoming: “The grapes come from 14 year-old vines grown in a sub-surface limestone layer beneath a sandy loam topsoil. The 2012 vintage was an outstanding year… The wine is matured in French oak for a short period of time prior to bottling.” The tannins on the end were at least partially the result of this brief stint in oak.

Neither the bottle nor the website mention whether the wine is bottle fermented in the manner of Champagne, which leads me to believe it’s tank fermented instead. Certainly the reasonable price of $14 or $15 a bottle points to tank fermentation. Nevertheless, the bubbles aren’t too large or aggressive, as is sometimes the case with tank-fermented sparklers.

I wouldn’t necessarily recommend serving Sparkling Shiraz to any wine snob friends — they might raise an eyebrow, or worse, surreptitiously research the wine on their smart phone and discover that Paringa is “Great with your favorite chocolate dessert or with bacon and eggs in the morning,” according to Quintessential Wines. Those pairings don’t exactly inspire confidence. An austere Crémant d’Alsace might be a better choice, assuming you don’t want to splash out on a Grower Champagne, currently the most fashionable of bubblies.

If, on the other hand, your friends don’t give a brix about wine fashion and just like to have a good time, a Sparkling Shiraz would be a fun and memorable way to kick off your next party.

Top Red Wines Of 2013

30 December 2013

August Kesseler SpätburgunderThis list, especially when taken together with my companion list of whites, illustrates how absolutely delicious wines are being made in all sorts of unexpected places all over the globe. Nowadays, there is simply no reason to confine your drinking to wines from two or three classic regions.

You’ll note that nary a wine from France made the list below, for example. Everyone knows top Bordeaux and Burgundy taste great, and the prices reflect that fame. Taking a risk on something lesser-known can reap significant rewards, both in terms of saving money and broadening the palate.

The planet is encircled with tremendous wine-making talent. Fantastic wine makers can be found in just about every wine region on the map, and just as important, insightful wine growers are exploiting vineyard sites to their full potential, finding new terroir for classic grapes as well as resurrecting nearly forgotten ancient varieties rich in character and history.

We wine lovers have never had it better, whether we’re in California, Italy, Uruguay or British Columbia.  Cheers to the vintners in far-flung places taking risks on unorthodox wines, hoping that we’ll notice their beauty, and cheers to the importers, restaurants and wine shops courageous enough to work with them. My life is much the richer for it.

The most memorable reds I tasted in 2013, in alphabetical order:



This is one complicated blend. No fewer than 11 different Californian wines made their way into the mix, including Cabernets from Lake County and Napa, Merlots from Napa and Sonoma, Malbecs from Napa and Dry Creek, Cabernet Franc from Napa and Montepulciano from the Shenandoah Valley.

After reading the list above, you might be wondering what a Montepulciano is doing in a blend that’s otherwise all standard Bordeaux varieties. According to winemaker Kat McDonald, just 12% of Montepulciano “completely changes the texture and color of this wine. As one of my fellow tasters astutely noted, “It’s dark, but not heavy.” I loved the aromas of mocha and dark fruit, and indeed, it tasted dark and dusky but lively as well, with well-balanced black-pepper spice. Paired with some dried blueberries, additional floral notes came to the fore, and the tannins became even more pronounced. This is one sexy blend, and a fantastic value at $18.



According to The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, the best wines in Italy’s Salice Salentino DOC are its Negroamaro-based reds, and the Cantele certainly did not disappoint. This 100% Negroamaro had tight, powdery red-fruit aroma and ample fruit on the palate. I got a blast of cherries, and others in the group also tasted currants and raisins. Rich but bright, this full-bodied wine had well-balanced, rustic acids and some serious tannins on the finish. Binny’s sells this red beauty for $11,  which is a steal.



This wine was crafted by viticulturalist Emmanuel Lescombes and winemakers Florent and Herve Lescombes under the umbrella of St. Clair Winery, New Mexico’s largest. I sampled their Cabernet Franc in St. Clair’s Albuquerque tasting room and bistro, but the grapes were grown near Deming along the border with Mexico, at an elevation of about 4,500 feet. What a delight — it had an aroma of rich raspberry jam, and dark fruit balanced by bright, broad acids. The wine resolved into some tannins and focused spice on the finish, without a hint of anything vegetal. This wine has the richness and power to justify its rather steep $36 price tag.


Lake Okanagan, British Columbia, Canada

Lake Okanagan, British Columbia, Canada


This British Columbian blend contains all five of the classic Bordeaux varieties, grown on just eight acres of vineyards. It smells red and surprisingly minerally, and wow, that flavor. It has bright red fruit, focused acids, well-finessed tannins and some metallic earth on the finish. It’s a delight to drink, and a very fine value for $25.



An appellation of the northern Rhône which never fails to quicken my heart is Côte Rôtie, which produces some of the world’s most coveted Syrah-based wines. These generally unaffordable wines were the inspiration for this Australian collaboration between Anthony Terlato and Rhône-based winemaker Michel Chapoutier. Together, they purchased some land north of Melbourne in the Pyrenees Hills, which is about as far from the Rhône as you can get. Nevertheless, the terroir must be similar, because this Côte Rôtie-style blend of 95% Shiraz (Syrah) and 5% Viognier is an absolute delight to drink. Shiraz, of course, is known to do very well in Australia, and it only makes sense that aromatic Viognier, another variety from the Rhône, would also flourish.

This wine had a startlingly beautiful aroma — jammy and redolent of violets. I loved its rich texture, extravagant fruit, and perfectly balanced spice and tannins. Gorgeously lush, without becoming overblown. Averaging about $17 according to Wine Searcher, this is one of the best red-wine values I’ve tasted all year.



I had a devil of a time finding a website for this single-vineyard Merlot (Markelsheimer Probstberg is the vineyard name), but I have a sneaking suspicion it’s produced by the same Geisel family which owns the hotel where I tried it, the Königshof in Munich. The restaurant’s adventurous sommelier, Stephane Thuriot, selected this wine from northern Württemberg in Germany to pair with a main course of rabbit with artichokes, spinach and saffron, and it was startlingly delicious. I knew I was in for a treat when I gave the wine a first sniff, enjoying the aroma of ripe red fruit and earth. It had a velvety texture, rich fruit and big but firmly controlled spice. Absolutely excellent.



Matt and Joe at Palumbo

Matt and Joe at Palumbo

On a quiet side road away from the big wineries in Temecula, this winery was recommended by almost every local I spoke with. All the fruit for its wines comes from Palumbo’s 13 acres of vineyards, because owner Nicholas Palumbo “believes in producing only what he grows himself,” according to the winery website.

This single-vineyard Sangiovese was brick-red, with an earthy, jammy nose that had me itching to give this wine a taste. I was not disappointed. It was wonderfully lush, with jammy fruit, a luxurious mouthfeel and a tannic finish. Temecula is on few people’s fine-wine radar, but if it can produce wines like this Sangiovese, it’s a region worth keeping an eye on.



The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia speaks very highly of the Pisano winery, noting that Eduardo Pisano “has produced some of Uruguay’s best wines in recent years.” I also discovered that this particular Licor de Tannat, a fortified wine made in the manner of port, merited inclusion in The World Atlas of Wine. The original Tannat vines in Uruguay, called “Harriague” by the Basque settlers who brought them, almost all died off over the years. “However,” the Atlas notes, “Gabriel Pisano, a member of the youngest generation of this winemaking family, has developed a liqueur Tannat of rare intensity from surviving old-vine Harriague.” This wine (the name of which means “from the house of a good family” or “the best of the house,” according to Daniel Pisano) blew me away with its richly sweet, jammy fruit and impressively balanced acids. These were followed, as you might expect, by a big bang of tannins. Not only is this wine spectacularly delicious, it’s a taste of history. If you see it on your wine store’s shelf, it’s worth the splurge.



Three South African Bordeaux BlendsThis Stellenbosch estate in the shadow of the Helderberg has produced wine off and on for three centuries, though it took its present form only after 1977, when the Engelbrecht family purchased and restored it. The Rust en Vrede Estate wine blends Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot in a “hermitaged” style of wine popular in Bordeaux in the 19th century, when producers would sometimes beef up their blends with Syrah from the Rhône’s Hermitage region.

The deep red-fruit aroma was very enticing, marked by additional meaty and floral notes (a fellow taster at the table also detected “man musk,” which led Jean Engelbrecht to half-joke that she was forbidden from sampling any more of his wines). I loved the wine’s silky texture, rich red fruit, firmly controlled white-pepper spice and raisiny finish. The Estate felt very supple, yet it still cut right through the richness of my beef filet. I lamented that I hadn’t tried it with my appetizer of mussels, but Engelbrecht assured me I hadn’t missed anything: “I’m more of a main course kind of wine,” he quipped. But I was rather startled to discover that the Estate also paired well with a side of roasted asparagus, a notoriously difficult vegetable to match.



The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia calls Greece’s Nemea appellation “relatively reliable,” and the Skouros Agiorgitiko I tasted at the Wine Bloggers Conference more than supports that rather tepid assertion. It was memorably delicious, with a beautiful aroma of tobacco and cherries, plenty of bright acids, ample fruit and luscious notes of mocha. Anyone who still thinks Greece is nothing but a sea of Retsina should taste this.


And this concludes my awards for 2013! You can read about my picks for top white wines here, and my favorite spirits and cocktails here. Happy New Year, everyone!

Unusual Reds At Tangley Oaks

7 August 2013

Red wines at Tangley OaksOf course, the tasting at Tangley Oaks with Anthony Terlato didn’t stop with the white wines. We tasted quite a few delicious reds as well, including an earthy and richly fruity Rutherford Hill Bordeaux-style blend from Napa, an elegant and forcefully focused Terlato Pinot Noir from the Russian River Valley, and a powerful Chimney Rock Cabernet Sauvignon from Stags Leap in Napa.

But you don’t need me to tell you how good a Napa Valley Cabernet can be. If you’re reading this blog, you’re likely looking for some new discoveries, and I certainly made some. These are the reds we tried that were not only delicious but unusual:

2012 Cusumano “Benuara”: This Sicilian blend of 70% Nero d’Avola and 30% Syrah comes from Presti e Pegni, a set of hilly vineyards west of Palermo near the town of Alcamo (see a beautiful photo of the vineyards here). Nero d’Avola is an “increasingly reputable red grape,” according to The Oxford Companion to Wine, never a book to shy away from a back-handed compliment. This variety indigenous to southern Italy (originating centuries ago in either southeastern Sicily or Calabria — its history is murky) has taken Sicily by storm, and it is now the island’s most widely planted red grape. I love it — I think Nero d’Avola tends to be an excellent value for the money.

Readers of The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia might shy away from a Nero d’Avola from Alcamo, a region it dismisses as unable to produce wines “of any real quality or character” due to fertile soils and high yields. But the Cusumano “Benuara” blend proves that assertion false. It had a mysterious aroma of dark fruit along with something aromatic — fellow taster Liz Barrett (Terlato’s Vice President of Corporate Communications and PR) detected an underlying salinity in the nose. It tasted big and beefy, with plenty of ripe, dark fruit and big spice, yet it managed to not overheat, avoiding a problem I’ve noticed with the occasional Sicilian. I can see why Mr. Terlato called Cusumano “the most important producer of quality wines of Sicily right now.”

2011 Lapostolle “Canto de Apalta”: Founded in 1994 by the well-funded owners of Grand Marnier, Lapostolle has rapidly become one of Chile’s top wineries. Admirably, all of its vineyards have been certified as organic and biodynamic since 2011, making Lapostolle wines a good choice for eco-conscious drinkers. The Oxford Companion notes that Apalta “has a reputation for fine Merlot, Carmenère and Syrah” due in large part to the efforts of Casa Lapostolle. And wouldn’t you know it, the Canto de Apalta is a blend of all three, with the addition of some Cabernet Sauvignon. As such, this wine resembles the much sought-after “hermitaged” Bordeaux wines of the 19th century, which blended local varieties (such as Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Carmenère) with powerful Syrah from Hermitage in the northern Rhône. It’s still a winning combination. This wine from the Rapel Valley had gorgeous color and a subtle, deep red-fruit aroma. With big fruit, big tannins and spicy acids, it struck me as a fantastic value for a $20 wine.

2012 Domaine Terlato & Chapoutier Shiraz-Viognier: Another appellation of the northern Rhône which quickens my heart is Côte Rôtie, a 555-acre region producing some of the world’s most coveted Syrah-based wines. These generally unaffordable wines were the inspiration for this Australian collaboration between Anthony Terlato and Rhône-based winemaker Michel Chapoutier. Together, they purchased some land north of Melbourne in the Pyrenees Hills, which is about as far from the Rhône as you can get. Nevertheless, the terroir must be similar, because this Côte Rôtie-style blend of 95% Shiraz (Syrah) and 5% Viognier is an absolute delight to drink. Shiraz, of course, is known to do very well in Australia, and it only makes sense that aromatic Viognier, another variety from the Rhône, would also flourish. This wine had a startlingly beautiful aroma — jammy and redolent of violets. I loved its rich texture, extravagant fruit, and perfectly balanced spice and tannins. Gorgeously lush, without becoming overblown. Averaging about $17 according to Wine Searcher, this is one of the best red-wine values I’ve tasted all year.

Goretti Sagrantino di Montefalco2007 Goretti Sagrantino di Montefalco: Indigenous to Umbria, Italy, the Sagrantino variety almost died out at one point, but it’s gained ground in recent years, especially since Sagrantino di Montefalco gained DOCG status in the 1990s (Montefalco is an Umbrian hill town). Now, I wouldn’t buy just any Sagrantino di Montefalco — the Oxford Companion complains that “the overall level of viticultural and oenological sophistication in the production zone is not high…” But the family-owned Goretti winery proves to be a notable exception, if this wine is any indication. It tasted darkly fruity, with a rustic texture, a fun zing of spice and a satisfyingly raisiny finish. It had no trouble standing up to a plate of Piave, English Cheddar and aged Gouda.

2009 GALAXY: At first glance, it doesn’t seem there’s anything all that unusual about this blend of 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 35% Syrah and 15% Merlot from California. But the process used to arrive at this combination is unorthodox indeed. Each component of the blend is produced by a different winemaker (Elizabeth Vianna, Bryan Parker and Marisa Huffaker, respectively). The three of them gather each year in a hotel room, where essentially they’re locked in until they agree on a blend. It would be fun to be a fly on that wall, I have to think! Whatever happened in that hotel room, this year’s blend tastes huge. It’s a big, spicy wine with dark fruit and some meaty notes. Lusty, gutsy, and altogether delicious.

Note: These wines were sampled free of charge as part of a complimentary tasting organized by Terlato Wines.

Australia Reconsidered

13 October 2012

I find myself avoiding most Australian wines. Many are inexpensive, to be sure, but most cheap Australian wine turns out to be a poor value for the money. As I’ve said before, just because a bottle of wine costs $7 or $8 doesn’t mean you’ll get $7 or $8 worth of flavor out of it. Inexpensive Shiraz, Australia’s most famous export, can frequently be quite crude and overblown, and a poor value at almost any price. I have no doubt that it’s possible to find bargains, but I don’t know enough about the Australian wine scene to ferret them out.

If you find yourself inexplicably in the mood for something Australian, go for one of the lesser-known grape varieties. You’ll likely get more bang for your buck with something like a Semillon or a Sangiovese. It’s just not safe to pick up a random bottle of Australian Shiraz or Chardonnay these days.

A bottle of 2008 Oxford Landing Viognier from South Australia had been languishing on my wine rack for years, I have no idea how it got there, and I must admit I’d been avoiding it. Even Viognier seems a little too fashionable to be trusted in Australian hands, and the fact that Oxford Landing is one of Australia’s most famous wineries did not inspire confidence (although the Oxford Landing website reassuringly describes its Viognier as “suitable for vegans and vegetarians”).

But I tend to prefer younger Viogniers, which have the best chance of retaining their trademark perfume intact. Already, this wine had likely passed its prime.

I decided to take my own advice and just open the stuff, and some Thai delivery provided the perfect opportunity: Low stakes, and numerous alternative bottles within easy reach, should the Viognier have to go down the drain. Fortunately, the wine still had a heady honeysuckle aroma, and my goodness, it was tasty and rich. A buttery start gave way to pears, flowers, some pointy acids and even a touch of flintiness at the end. The acids ensured balance, and its exotic flavors paired just fine with the Thai food.

I ended up quite enjoying this inexpensive Australian wine! I have no idea what I paid (perhaps it was a gift), but other Oxford Landing wines cost about $8 at Binny’s. Quite a fine value indeed. I may have to reconsider my ban on wines from Down Under. I would love to hear if you’ve made any exciting Australian discoveries lately — feel free to write me an e-mail or post in the comments. In the meantime, I’ll see if I can scare up some more unusual and inexpensive varietals from Australia. Who knows? Maybe I’ve been missing out!


2008 Oxford Landing Viognier: Intact perfumy, honeysuckle aroma. Rich, fruity and flowery, with tart balancing acids and a touch of flint. A very good value. Pairs well with Asian dishes, and probably most pork recipes. Chill well in the refrigerator before serving.

Grade: B

Find It: I have no idea where I got it, but Oxford Landing is a major exporter, and it’s likely a well-stocked wine shop will carry its wines, which run about $8 to $10.

What You Should Like

6 April 2011

I recently popped into In Fine Spirits to pick up another bottle of Jović Vranac, and I noticed two bottles of wine, labels hidden, standing on the tasting table.

“Would you like to try them and see which you like better? It’s for our own ‘Sweet Sixteen’ contest.” Each year, In Fine Spirits makes a bracket of wines in honor of March Madness. Customers vote on their favorites, and the field of wines narrows in concert with the basketball tournament.

Never able to resist a blind tasting, or really any tasting, I sipped Mystery Wine A.