Posted on 01.01.21 #190

Farewell 2020: my top wines of the year

Every year, at this time, The Buyer commissions me to write about my top wines of the past year. At first, I feared it might be a struggle, but it turned out to be cathartic, leaving me profoundly grateful that I had the opportunities I did, amidst the challenges of 2020.

Ordinarily, this commission for The Buyer rivals War and Peace for length, Around the World in Eighty Days for destinations, and Scoop for the number of press trips taken, but not this year. 

That said, I appreciate that I am one of the lucky few. I managed some wine travel early in the year; survived Covid 19 in late March, recovering my sense of taste and smell after an unnerving ten days; somehow kept myself in work; and even managed a couple of wine-fuelled holidays over the summer months, as the first wave receded.

Harbinger perhaps, 2020 got off to rather a rocky start – literally – with an invitation to France for Vinora, the world’s first wine fair dedicated to volcanic wines in Clermont-Ferrand, under the shadow of the stunning Puy-de-Dôme.

Happily, one of our hosts, Pierre Desprat, was also responsible for my favourite wine: La Légendaire 2017, Desprat Saint-Verny, Côtes d’Auvergne AOC (imported by ABS Wines who may be able to help with a stockist). Chardonnay, matured for 12 months in oak, then bottle-aged in a ‘buron’ – a mountain shelter – at an altitude of 1,200 metres, offers a glacial purity to the fruit, the oak is well-integrated, delivering a wine that’s rich, honeyed and harmonious.

Sicily rocks

Vinora showcased other volcanic regions including Sicily’s Mount Etna, where self-taught polymath Filippo Mangione is working wonders with ancient non-grafted bush vines. Ayunta, Etna Rosso, Calderara Sottana 2015 (imported by Graft Wine Company who may be able to help with a stockist) explodes out of the glass with a thrilling nervous energy, there’s wonderful concentration, with blueberry, smoked red cherry, a hint of iodine and damp espresso grounds.

Etna’s draw came to the fore later in the year too, a holiday to Sicily presenting the opportunity for a portfolio tasting at Planeta, a producer that has done more than most to put the island on the world wine map. Eruzione Bianco 1614 Carricante Planeta 2018 (£29, stocked by Great Wine Co), an Etna Bianco, named in awe of a ten-year eruption 400 years ago, adds a little Riesling to the Carricante you’d expect to find, and it’s genius. Limpid, it belies the extravagant citrus and exotic fruit aromas, with the mineral richness and savoury depth transporting you to its roots. It was a privilege to enjoy a bottle from the first vintage, 2009, over dinner at Planeta’s luxurious hotel, La Foresteria, that night – an absolute must if you’re visiting Sicily.

Though he hails from Italy’s north, Stefano Girelli found “organic heaven” in Sicily, where his Santa Tresa and Cortese wines artfully combine ambition with affordability. An orange twist on a Sicilian classic, Cortese Vanedda Bianco 2017 (£17 at Thorne Wines), combines Cataratto and Grillo, fermented on skins for two days, aged on fine lees in Slovenian oak botti for a year, then bottled aged for a further six months. Rich, golden and a bit nutty, in both senses of the word, this fascinating wine offers flashes of citrus zest, marmalade and tropical fruit, held in check by bright acidity, the finish long and slightly savoury.

Oh to be in Aotearoa

God knows when us Covid-puffing Poms will be allowed back into New Zealand, so I’m really grateful that, in February, I finally had the chance to show my partner Mike the country that I have been raving about for years. A stay in Auckland always means a trip across to Waiheke, for lunch at Stonyridge. Having cut his teeth at Chateau Angludet, under Peter Sichel, proprietor Stephen White’s elegant Bordeaux blends might seem slightly at odds with Waiheke’s hippy chic, but they always deliver. Stonyridge LaRose 2004 (negociant traded, so very hard to find) offers refined floral notes leading into concentrated cassis, cedar and leather, notes of graphite and spearmint. There’s proper grip to the tannins and the evolution is enchanting.

To Hawke’s Bay, and a chance to enjoy sensational – and still underrated – Syrah from the Gimblett Gravels. Craggy Range ‘Le Sol’, Syrah, 2016 (£65 at Specialist Cellars) with its inviting inky hues, brooding blueberry and foraged blackberry, cracked black pepper, crispy bacon and fine-grained tannins outshines many a more expensive Northern Rhône rival.

Graceful Grüner

With impressive hygiene measures, one of the rare events to happen as planned this year, the launch of the Österreichischer Traditionsweingüter (ÖTW) 2019s at Schloss Grafenegg in early September, offered an opportunity for some time travel, to reassess the 2010 vintage a decade on. Anyone who doubted the ageing potential of Grüner Veltliner needed to experience that flight, most especially Schloss Gobelsburg, Reid Grub, 2010 Grüner Veltliner, Kamptal (imported by Clark Foyster, but vintage Austrian wines are hard to find), rich gold like a bauble, still fresh, with honeyed apricot, mandarin, white pepper and delicate layers of texture floating around a firm spine of acidity.

Epic tantrums

If Fred Flintstone had kept a vineyard, it would almost certainly resemble the home of T Oinos, high on windswept Tinos, to which I holidayed in August and where, according to Greek mythology, a giant with a temper to rival Donald Trump threw an epic tantrum that resulted in boulders being strewn across the island.

Clos Stegasta 2019 Assyrtiko ‘Rare’, T Oinos (£88 at Berkmann Wine Cellars) from select plots amidst the granite stones, combines the invigorating zip of lime and green apple with the sea-dog-salinity that could only come from a Cycladic Assyrtiko. The fruit is plump, but there’s pointed tension and a lovely boulder-lick of minerality supporting the savoury finish.

Send me to Siberia

A delicious detour from February’s inaugural Barcelona Wine Week to the city’s two-starred Cocina Hermanos Torres made for both a memorable meal and a rousing reminder that Cava can still cut it. Juvé & Camps, ‘La Siberia’ Cava Gran Reserva, Brut Nature (around £90, but alas, not currently imported to the UK) is a beautiful pale pink Cava, from the highest, coldest corner of the Espiells vineyard, incredibly fresh, with delicate beads of Alpine strawberry, red cherry and nutty puff pastry around an invigorating mountain stream core.

A last hurrah for the Harrow

Finally, as 2020 began, The Buyer’s Michelin man Roger Jones and his better half Sue announced they were closing their much-loved restaurant. A booking stampede followed, meaning there was probably more chance of finding a Covid test than a table at the Harrow before it closed in March.

Thankfully, James Smith at Vranken Pommery had already bagged the front room for a last hurrah, featuring a compilation of Roger’s greatest hits that I dubbed ‘Now that’s what I call delicious’. Orkney scallop with foie gras and black pudding made a magical pairing with Pommery Les Clos Pompadour 2002, en magnum (negociant traded). A nose like the delicate crust of a lemon drizzle cake, hawthorn hedgerow and yellow apple, opened into dreamy layers of rich, expansive fruit, it was probably the best thing I drank this year.

The Harrow lives on of course, in its new guise as a Friday night upmarket takeaway – a kind of KFC on steroids – so there is a happy postscript to that opulent occasion, a relatively rare positive from a year that challenged everyone.

*Where possible, I have added a link to the stockist. These are not sponsored links.

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