The Vinguard’s Most Memorable Wines of 2017
Every year I make a list of the most memorable wines I’ve had over the past 12 months. I started this when I was writing for the San Francisco Examiner and have kept the tradition going. It’s fun. I write about the first ten wines that come to mind. Usually, the wines are memorable first because of the quality and enjoyment, but sometimes there are other reasons why they make it onto the list. Here’s 2017. No sparkling, only three reds and seven whites, of which several are skin-fermented. Seven countries, two states, nothing from France. No chemicals, nor additives (except a little SO2)…you know the drill.
I fell for this wine with the first sip and every time since my affection has grown deeper. I brought it to La Dolce Vida, an old-school Italian joint in Beverly Hills when I was out to dinner with my partner Cami, who drinks all things white, our brother-in-law, who drinks all things wine, and my sister, who is very picky. Cami was sure that my sister wouldn’t like it but like Mikey from the old Life cereal commercials, she liked it! It has a crisp, saline minerality that was perfect with the baked clams I had that night. Made from volcanic soil, you can really get a sense of terroir in this wine with its linear richness that envelops an acidic core. The food was actually quite good, the ambiance is a blast from the past and since my sister was the designated driver, we went through another bottle afterward.
Oakstone Vineyard, Rough and Ready, Nevada County, California
When my friend Jake Halper from Field Blend Selections was visiting over the summer, we paid Noel Diaz a visit before he moved Purity from his enclave on Treasure Island to the new natural winery co-op in Richmond. We tasted though a lot of barrels and bottles and at some point Noel mentioned this orange wine he made without SO2. You can’t bring something like that up without letting us try it, so he uncorked one and generously sent me home with what we didn’t drink. Suffice it to say I talked him into selling me half a case. I brought a bottle out to a friend’s house over Halloween weekend and he too was blown away and now wants to try more orange wines. When a bottle has the power to open up a completely different door, that says something.
Sierra Foothills, California
I can see where Hank Beckmeyer and Caroline Hoël of La Clarine Farm will become as influential as Randall Grahm was in the 1990’s. Grahm was very experimental and widely followed during a time when there was significantly less risk taking. While winemakers, in general, are more audacious now, La Clarine is without question a leader both in vision and execution. Nearly all of the wines from the last couple of vintages have been on point and this skin-fermented Albariño excels. A moderately tannic orange wine, with citrus and stone fruit aromas and slightly salty fruit on the palate, even a few sips creates a lasting impression.
I’d wanted to try these wines for a while and finally had the opportunity at a Blue Danube Wine tasting over the summer. Josep Brkić is, from what I’ve heard, the only natural winemaker in Bosnia Herzegovina. Using biodynamic practices and indigenous grapes, he’s making very pure and effusive wines and Mjesecar, a skin-fermented white wine made from Zilavka, is exceptional. You can read more about it here. I hope his efforts will inspire other growers in BH to go down a more natural path. This year I’ve had a number of wines from the Balkans that have been on par with great wines from the rest of the continent, and hope this is just a glimpse of what the future holds. The former Yugoslav countries went through a horrendous period in the 90’s, and if the winemaking is one sign that things continue to improve for people in this part of the world, I’ll drink to that.
Spata, PGI Attica, Greece
Georgas is a small, family-run winery in Spata (as opposed to Sparta), which is best known as the epicenter of Retsina. The Georgas family has been growing grapes in the area since at least the 17th century. Dimitris Georgas, a geologist with degrees in oceanography and environmental science, is the winemaker as well as the owner. I tried this ‘Old Barrel’ at Rawfair in Los Angeles and out of hundreds of wines tasted over a two-day period, it stood out. I tasted it again a couple of weeks ago and doubled down on my initial impression – this wine is fucking great and unlike nearly anything else I’ve tasted. It is made in a solera though 2010 served as the base wine. The closest thing it reminds me of is a very good, dry oloroso. Nutty, with butter sautéed mushrooms, fantastic acidity and a great finish you can drink it with or without food and from a pairing point of view it is extremely versatile. If you keep the bottle open for a week you won’t notice much difference in the flavor. I had to basically hide the one bottle I had it so that it would not disappear the night it was opened. It’s that good…maybe the best wine I tasted all year.
Rizling Vlassky (Welschriesling)
Strekov is composed of 30 acres in the town of Strekov in southwestern Slovakia. Working with a variety of white and red grapes, Zsolt Sütó makes natural wines without sulfur additions. This probably is the wine at the Jenny & Francois tasting in New York in October that I’ve thought about and wanted to retaste the most for months. That says a lot since the place was swimming in great juice – Jenny Lefcourt’s portfolio is stacked with incredible wine. Minerally and floral with fresh melon and citrus, you could easily just think of this as a delicious wine for drinking now, but it also has the structure and complexity to age for at least another five years.
Willamette Valley, Oregon
Gouges (Pinot Noir of sorts)
Dan Polsby, the wine buyer at Vintage Berkeley on College Avenue, sent me a text several months ago letting me know that Chad Stock the owner and winemaker of Craft Wine Co. was going to be pouring at his store that night. Since I was in the East Bay anyway, I went over. Prior to this, I had maybe a half-dozen of his Minimus wines over the last few years and have always found them to be at least intriguing. While tasting through the wines at Vintage Berkeley I chatted Chad up and discovered he was a thoroughly intelligent maverick whose persona was embedded in his wines. We’ve since had a few conversations and he sent me a bunch of other bottles to try. If someone told me I could drink nothing but Omero Cellars, Origin and Minimus Wines, the labels under Craft, for the next month of my life I’d be okay. (Actually, as a rule I don’t drink in January but you get the idea.) The one that I kept going back to was the Gouges, a white-skinned mutation of Pinot Noir. Fleshy but not fat, with ample acidity, a textured minerality and subtly perfumed fruit, this is a wine that is not only immediately gratifying but also has substance and staying power.
Jaen (50%), Touriga Nacional (50%)
I’ve long suspected that Dão could make wines that rival Barolo, Burgundy and Rioja, and João Tavares de Pina is the winemaker who has risen to the occasion. It’s been only 20 years since Quinta da Boavista bottled its first wine but they are already classics. I’ve tried the ’06 on a few occasions since the spring and it keeps getting better. Silky, with dried mushrooms, savory berry fruit, spice and cola, it has secondary and tertiary characteristics but is still fruity and fresh.
I’ve written about my experience with this wine already but it bears a brief repeating. I opened the bottle at about 4 pm and it was fine. None too exciting but not bad. Then I went to meet up with Nadia Dmytriw of Floraison Selections at 20 Spot and brought the rest of the bottle for her and Bodhi Freedom – who owns the place – to try. By the time we got to it, probably around 6:30 or so, it went from being skin-deep glou glou to a dynamic mosaic of flavor and depth with heart and soul. I wish I could get my hands on another bottle of the 2015 but am also looking forward to the release of the 2016 to see how this wine changes from vintage to vintage.
People say that Taurasi is Barolo of the south. I have mixed feelings about that comparison because while both can be multi-faceted and age-worthy, I’ve had many more great bottles of Barolo than I have of Taurasi. There is about 25 times more Barolo made annually so all things are not equal. All that said, this 2011 Nero Né affirms Taurasi’s potential for greatness with its vivid matrix of frankincense, tar and leather, a rich, chewy core of licorice and black cherries, mineral underpinnings and loads of acidity. Prior to this the best Taurasi I ever tried was the ’68 Mastroberardino, probably about 15 years ago. I would not be surprised if this wine ages as well.