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Most unforgettable wines of 2018
IT'S A PRIVILEGE and necessity of my job to drink many wines over the course of a year. All have a story to tell, sometimes dull, other times fascinating. Some are simply unforgettable.
The wines that stay with me are not always the best or the most profound. Sometimes, the surprise of a discovery can transform the perception of a wine's potential. More often, it's a wine that so completely captures the spirit and emotion of a moment that it brands the memory with its scent and flavour. What follows, from young to old, are a dozen remarkable wines, with stories that endure.
1 Stefan Vetter Sylvaner Rosenrain, 2014
Sylvaner is the product of a workhorse Teutonic grape that has lost ground to more profitable varieties. But when made with care and appreciation, it can be a wonderfully fresh springtime wine and, as I learnt, much more.
Stefan Vetter obsessively tends a few acres of very old silvaner on steep, crumbling terraces in the Franken region of Germany. Rosenrain comes from ungrafted vines planted in 1934, and this wine was a revelation of how good silvaner can be: pure, textured, deep and intense, with lingering flavours so thoroughly mineral you can't help but visualize the stony, unyielding terrain and the winemaker's determination to push it to its extreme.
2 Comando G Sierra de Gredos Tumba del Rey Moro Valle de Alto Alberche, 2012
When Fernando Garcia and Daniel Gomez Jimenez-Landi found vineyards of old-vine garnacha that were languishing on granite hillsides in the Sierra de Gredos outside Madrid, they envisioned beauty. Under the Comando G label, they have redefined the possibilities of Spanish garnacha, better known by its French name grenache, and nowadays for making powerful, jammy wines. The winemakers at Comando G make graceful, harmonious yet insistent wines that I could not help but love.
This bottle - from a vineyard of almost pure granite, with ancient vines interspersed with trees - smelled like concentrated rose petals. It was likewise floral on the palate, yet strikingly saline, an unforgettable combination.
3 La Stoppa Emilia Macchiona, 2011
At Una Pizza Napoletana in October, I ordered a bottle of Macchiona 2011, from La Stoppa estate in north-west Emilia-Romagna. It's made of a combination of barbera and bonarda from a perhaps unremarkable terroir, yet I've always loved these wines for their purity and depth.
This wine was no different. It was a delight from the first, anticipatory sip to last wistful drop. Unaccountably, five minutes after the bottle was opened, Elena Pantaleoni, the passionate proprietor of La Stoppa, walked into the restaurant. It was a magical moment, like spotting on the subway the author of the book you can't put down. It was an opportunity to say hello, glass in hand, with unalloyed enthusiasm.
4 Ravines Finger Lakes Argetsinger Vineyard Riesling, 2009
Watching the Finger Lakes of New York arrive as a world-class wine region has been a joy for this New York native. Ravines, owned and operated by the husband-and-wife team Morten and Lisa Hallgren, is among the region's best producers. Their Argetsinger Vineyard riesling, from a gravel-and-limestone slope rising above the east side of Seneca Lake, may be the best of their wines. When I drank the 2009 in August, I was riveted by its depth, complexity and insistent intensity. Perhaps the best American riesling I've had, and, at nine years of age, it had miles to go.
5 Alain & Jerome Lenoir Chinon Les Roches, 2007
A few years ago, I bought a few bottles of this Chinon from Alain and Jerome Lenoir and fell in love with its pure, old-school rusticity, a combination of rough, complex flavours of red fruit, earth and a touch of green. This was Chinon for the ages: a direct, unmediated expression of people, place and culture. I have not been able to find the wine since. Then, in February, I saw it on the list at Scampi, in Chelsea. It was just as I remembered, more rugged than pretty but absolutely without artifice. I can't wait to see these wines again.
6 Bonny Doon Le Cigare Volant California, 2005
For years, Le Cigare Volant has been the flagship wine of Bonny Doon Vineyard. In May, at a 30-year retrospective tasting of Cigare, Bonny Doon's mercurial proprietor, Randall Grahm, described it as a Burgundy lover's take on Chateauneuf-du-Pape.
As a constantly shifting blend of grapes - generally some combination of grenache, mourvedre, syrah and cinsault, among others - from a constantly changing array of vineyards, Cigare has hardly been the expression of terroir to which Grahm has long aspired.
Nonetheless, it's been a consistently good, often excellent and always underrated wine.
7 Noel Verset Cornas, 2004
The wines of Cornas are one of the world's great expressions of the syrah grape. Yet if it hadn't been for dedicated vignerons like Auguste Clape and Noel Verset, who persisted in the backbreaking labour required to tend the steep, hillside vineyards in the lean postwar years, Cornas might have been forgotten.
By Verset's last vintage in 2006, Cornas had come to be prized around the world. The 2004, consumed at a dinner party in June, was deep, pure and rustic in the best sense of the word, alive with the flavours of olives and bacon, a wonderful tribute to the life's work of an unassuming man.
8 Mount Eden Vineyards Santa Cruz Mountains Cabernet Sauvignon, 2001
With all due respect to Napa Valley, I think my favourite region in California for cabernet sauvignon is the Santa Cruz Mountains. It's tiny, and better known for pinot noir and chardonnay than cabernet, but it's the source for two great American cabernets, Ridge Monte Bello and Mount Eden's estate cabernet, grown on Franciscan shale.
The 2001 was gorgeous, and still a baby, with flavours of graphite, violets and a signature savoury spiciness. I can only hope I will encounter it again.
9 Pierre Morey Bâtard-Montrachet Grand Cru, 2001
Domaine Pierre Morey is one of the Cote de Beaune's most underrated producers. The wines are not flashy. They are refreshingly modest and understated, yet exquisite.
The Batard-Montrachet, a grand cru white poured by Pierre Morey, was both pure Batard and pure Morey. It did not leap out of the glass, yet rewarded close observation with its deep, stony, mineral aroma. It smelled so good that for a while I could not bring myself to drink it. When I did finally taste it, the wine was sublime.
10 Green Chartreuse Tarragona, (circa 1940s?)
At the same dinner party at which the Noel Verset was poured, a collector opened an old half-bottle of Chartreuse, the legendary liqueur produced by Carthusian monks, who are so secretive that nobody outside the monastery is entrusted with the recipe.
Dating information on the label was no longer legible, but Jeff Joseph, the collector who brought it, and others who knew far more about Chartreuse than I, estimated it was from the late 1940s. It was produced in Tarragona, Spain, where the monks built a distillery during an exile from eastern France after the French government seized their distillery in 1903.
Whenever it was made, this Chartreuse was stunning, unlocking for me the reason so many people cherish these liqueurs. It was a bit sweet, profoundly bitter, complex and fascinating. Above all, it was refreshing, a welcome digestif after a long and bibulous meal.
11 Chateau Lafite Rothschild Pauillac, 1868
I was extraordinarily fortunate to attend a dinner party in May at Chateau Lafite Rothschild's estate to mark the 150th anniversary of Lafite's acquisition by the Rothschild family.
Aside from 16 vintages of one of the world's greatest wines, the party included a fascinating array of personalities, such as the director and winery owner Francis Ford Coppola and his son, filmmaker Roman Coppola; actor Dominic West; wine writer Neal Martin; chef and author Mimi Thorisson; and the hosts, Baron Eric de Rothschild and his daughter, Saskia de Rothschild, who now directs the estate.
We drank a handful of old bottles that might qualify as the wines of a lifetime: vintages such as 1961, 1945 and 1905. The gorgeous flavours, unlocked after so long, testified to the producers' devotion to their craft. The most memorable was the 1868, a wine that survived 150 years of joys and catastrophes to tell its story.
12 Madeira Sercial, 1846
Astonishingly, the 1868 Lafite was not the oldest wine I tasted this year. In 2015, during a renovation of the Liberty Hall Museum at Kean University in Union, New Jersey, workers found three cases of Madeira dating from 1796 behind a sealed wall in the cellar, and 40 more demijohns from the early 19th century in the attic, buried under straw. These wines were auctioned off by Christies last week.
Madeira, beloved of early Americans, is a virtually indestructible wine, capable of withstanding long journeys on sailing ships and, as I learnt at a tasting held by Christie's in October to publicise the auction, almost two centuries in an attic.
The amber-coloured 1846 was remarkable. The aromas were complex: dried fruits, flowers, vanilla. The flavours were intense and penetrating, underscored by Madeira's characteristic bright acidity: more fruit and flowers, a touch of caramel and a refreshing salinity.
It was just a taste of history, but the memory it left was indelible. NYTIMES