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Nebbiolo is the great red grape of Barolo, Barbaresco and other singular wines in northern Italy. It rarely flourishes outside its home. In the Yarra Valley, (above) however, more than a few producers were trying their best with the grape.

Some of the best wine moments of 2019

The best bottles don't necessarily meet some objective standard. Instead, they tell stories
Dec 13, 2019 5:50 AM

New York

LIKE sublime meals and glorious journeys, great wines create great memories. They leave impressions to be pondered and stories to be told. I have the privilege of tasting many wines over the course of a year. In 2019, these are the 12 that left the most lasting memories, in chronological order.

La Violetta Great Southern Riesling Das Sakrileg 2017

In January, at the extraordinary Carlton Wine Room in Melbourne, I ordered a 2017 riesling with the curious name Das Sakrileg. It came from La Violetta in the Great Southern region, and from the first sip I was entranced. The texture was rich yet delicate at the same time. It was tense and energetic, stony, succulent and absolutely delicious.

Later, in the town of Denmark, I visited La Violetta and its proprietor, Andrew Hoadley, who explained how he fermented the riesling in barrels without clarifying or filtering.

"When I started, it was a radical thing not to fine or filter a riesling," he said. "Not to protect a wine at every step along the way was considered unthinkable." Hence the name, Das Sakrileg.

Luke Lambert Yarra Valley Nebbiolo 2017

On the same trip to Australia, I visited Luke Lambert in the Yarra Valley. Mr Lambert is an excellent producer whose gorgeous chardonnays and savoury syrahs have turned the heads of those who disparaged Australian wines as fruit bombs. Yet Mr Lambert was focused on nebbiolo. Nebbiolo is the great red grape of Barolo, Barbaresco and other singular wines in northern Italy.

It rarely flourishes outside its home. In the Yarra Valley, however, more than a few producers were trying their best with the grape. I was not particularly impressed until I tried Mr Lambert's, particularly his 2017 vintage, which in January had not been released.

It was nuanced and complex, with a lovely, fine texture and classic flavours of dark fruit, menthol, flowers, tar and earthy minerals. It was the truest combination of nebbiolo and place that I'd ever had outside northern Italy.

Tiberio Trebbiano d'Abruzzo Fonte Canale 2015

In late March, Cristiana Tiberio of Agricola Tiberio in Abruzzo, Italy, visited New York to offer a tasting of six vintages of Fonte Canale, a single-vineyard wine made from an 80- to-90-year-old vineyard of trebbiano Abruzzese.

Trebbiano is a ubiquitous white grape in Italy, and generally makes unmemorable wine. But trebbiano Abruzzese is distinct, relatively rare and potentially superior.

From this old vineyard, planted in limestone, sand and marl, the wines were exceptional. I especially loved the 2015 Fonte Canale, a gorgeous, intense wine with salty, minerally flavours.

This wine is hard to find and costs US$65 or so. Luckily, Tiberio also makes a US$20 Trebbiano d'Abruzzo that, if it doesn't have the depth, intensity or complexity of the Fonte Canale, at least suggests the potential of the trebbiano Abruzzese grape when done right.

Bodegas Riojanas Rioja Monte Real Gran Reserva 1942

Classic old Rioja has been one of wine's best-kept secrets. It has the capacity to age gracefully and evolve with complexity and nuance over time. Until recently, it was even possible to find it at affordable prices.

Nowadays, old Rioja has its superstars like R. López de Heredia. But little-known gems are out there, like Monte Real Gran Reserva from Bodegas Riojanas. This was reinforced in April at a tasting of a dozen different vintages stretching back to 1942.

Among more recent vintages, I loved the young, pure, complex 2001.

Familia Torres Costers del Segre Pirene 2018

Early in May, I headed to Catalonia to visit Familia Torres, a large Spanish winery that had become an industry leader in fighting climate change. In pursuit of greater freshness, it has planted vineyards at higher altitudes. And it is experimenting with ancestral Catalan grapes that had largely been abandoned because they ripened so late and were so acidic, traits Torres now seeks.

Among those grapes was one called pirene (say "pea-RENN-ay"), a red variety that Torres had planted in its Sant Miquel vineyard, 3,000 feet high in the foothills of the Pyrenees near the town of Tremp.

I sampled the 2018 pirene. It was bright and lively, fresh, floral and herbal, a delicious, refreshing drink.

Chateau Climens Barsac 2005

Sweet wines like Sauternes have fallen out of fashion. Yet they can be mind-blowingly complex and wonderful. In May on Nantucket, a dinner of old Bordeaux finished up with Château Climens 2005 from Barsac, a region within the greater Sauternes appellation.

This wine, made entirely from semillon grown on limestone, was gorgeous, luscious with flavours of oranges and cream and the complexity that comes from grapes infected with Botrytis cinerea, the "noble rot". Best of all, it was resolutely fresh, with lively acidity, which made the wine entirely refreshing, unlike some Sauternes, which can seem cloying because they lack balancing acidity.

Castellinuzza e Piuca Chianti Classico 2016

Chianti Classico has been one of my favourite wines for years. I love the sangiovese grape and its graceful red fruit flavours, tempered by a refreshing bitterness and dusty tannins, which come from growing sangiovese in the hills of the Classico region.

I wrote about the wine in June not only because I love it, but also because it seemed to me that Chianti Classico was widely underestimated, even written off, by those who had found newer, shinier objects in wine.

Of many excellent Chiantis, none of the wines made as strong an impression on me as a 2016 Chianti Classico from Castellinuzza e Piuca, a tiny property just outside Greve in Chianti.

The wine, made of 90 per cent sangiovese and 10 per cent canaiolo, was stunningly pure and fresh, with flavours of bitter cherry and earth, refreshing with just a touch of mystery, compelling sip after sip in an effort to unravel it.

Luis Seabra Douro Xisto Cru Branco 2018

In late June, I visited the Douro Valley of Portugal, the land of port and, increasingly over the last few decades, unfortified table wines.

At first, many of those wines were heavy and flamboyantly fruity, not unlike port. Nowadays, producers have learnt how to make lighter, more graceful and elegant wines.

Among the best of these new-wave Douro producers is Luis Seabra. His reds are terrific, and his whites are eye-opening.

I was particularly impressed with his Xisto Cru Branco 2018, a wine that, even though tasted from a large old barrel, caught the essence of what producers like Mr Seabra and the Douro region have to offer.

La Garagista Vermont Loups-Garoux 2016

In August when I drank a 2016 La Garagista Loups-Garoux, from the wife-and-husband team of Deirdre Heekin and Caleb Barber. The wine was made from frontenac noir, a hybrid red grape.

The wine was astounding, pure, minerally and soulful with flavours that reminded me of iron and blood. Ms Heekin and Mr Barber are pioneers, demonstrating the potential of hybrid grapes, which have been dismissed for so long, and of terroirs like Vermont, from where great wine was once unimaginable. This wine was visionary.

Heitz Cellar Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon Martha's Vineyard 1985

Later in August, I went to a tasting and dinner featuring old vintages of Heitz Cellar cabernet sauvignons with the new leadership team at Heitz.

The most memorable was an affirmation of a long celebrated wine, the 1985 Heitz Martha's Vineyard.

The '85 Martha's Vineyard was balanced, long, complete and delicious, with the prominent minty herbal aromas that are characteristic of wines from that vineyard.

It was a demonstration that great wines are a lot more than a crowd-approved recipe. NYTIMES