Posted on 31.12.19 #121

A year in wine: my top picks of 2019

From a Champagne produced as the First World War began, to another aged under the Atlantic Ocean, a Damascene conversion to (admittedly top notch) Prosecco, an unforgettable visit to the world’s highest vineyard and a surprising hit rate for Sauvignon Blanc, here are my thoughts on the wines that won my heart in 2019.

Never mind Dry January, my 2019 got off to the wettest start, with a Champagne aged on the ocean floor, thanks to Berry Brothers and Rudd and the biodynamic veteran Hervé Jestin, chef de cave at Leclerc Bryant. 

“What is important for me is not the reason why. It is the results. I can know the reality without the necessity to understand why”, he said, as he began a brilliant, sometimes baffling pep talk on the importance of biodynamic winemaking, still something of a rarity in Champagne.

Adding chalk to a ferment, slowly easing wine into bottles to avoid stressing it, these are all a given at Leclerc Bryant, but 2013 Leclerc Briant Cuvée Abyss, Brut Zero goes a step further, spending 15 months ageing in bottle, 60 metres under the Atlantic, just off the Breton island of Ouessant. Jestin explains that this “permanent dynamisation” gives it a unique quality (read more here).

It’s fair to say that there were some sceptical faces at the tasting and dinner, including an estimable figure in the wine press, a veteran, who asked a series of searching questions whilst occasionally shaking her head, especially when she saw the (genuine) barnacles on the bottle.

Then we tasted it.

I can still recall it now.  Precise, structured, with sensational salinity, Abyss achieves an ethereal quality that is best described as so much more than the sum of its parts. Layers of the purest, brightest fruit disguised the lack of dosage, meaning there was not even a hint of austerity to it. I cannot wait to try this again, to see how it ages.

Champagne will always, please God, feature highly on my (ice) bucket list and a trip to Pol Roger was an absolute highlight of 2019, chiefly because it is something money cannot buy – Pol don’t go in for guided tours, gift shops and the like, choosing instead to entertain intimately, in style.

Our host, the company’s President, Laurent D’Harcourt, disappeared to the cellars midway through a delicious dinner to retrieve the ‘vin surprise’ listed on the menu. It was Pol Roger 1914 vintage Champagne, harvested by women and children, to the sound of not-so-distant gunfire, as the men of Epernay took to the trenches (read more about my visit here).

Did it fizz? Yes, a little, retaining a delicate bead of bubbles that fairly rapidly faded, a nod to the passage of time. Toffee coloured, with mahogany and notes of sherry on the nose, the palate  surprisingly rich and nutty, with orange peel and honeycomb, retaining extraordinary structure and depth for its hundred plus years in bottle. An unforgettable experience.

If you had told me this time last year that I would be featuring a Cava in my list for 2019, you’d have seen my special doubting face.

To accompany an outstanding amuse bouche at 3-Michelin-starred Akelare, near San Sebastián, we were served Raventós i Blanc De La Finca 2015. With the front label boasting of its source, the Vinya dels Fòssils vineyard, the nose delivered a tantalising mineral freshness.

With vibrant acidity, zingy lime, notes of fennel frond and a stunning saline finish, this was the best wine of a brilliant night. The fact that this is not particularly expensive, certainly when compared to Champagne, speaks volumes about the challenges facing Spanish sparklers.

This time last year, I was reflecting on my complete reappraisal of Soave, inspired by the infectious enthusiasm of Sarah Abbot MW, so an autumn invitation from her friend and colleague Michele Shah to the DOCG ‘Superiore’ towns of Conegliano and Valdobbiadene promised a repeat performance.

It didn’t disappoint. The absolute highlight was organic producer L’Antica Quercia, where Claudio Francavilla works closely with nature to produce wines that are a million miles away from those cloying sticky bubbles loved only by office party planners.  Matiu Conegliano Prosecco Superiore DOCG Brut offers aromas of honeysuckle, bright citrus and summer herb garden. There is 6 grammes per litre of residual sugar, striking just the right balance. This is not an ‘alternative’ to Prosecco, it’s just very, very good Prosecco.

I hadn’t expected to be writing about Pinot Grigio in my highlights of 2019 either, until I tasted the latest creation from one of Italy’s most accomplished co-operatives, Cavit.

Rulendis Pinot Grigio 2017 comes from low-yielding vines on selected sites at the foot of the Dolomites, at around 500 metres, close to the shores of Lake Garda. Ripe, plump citrus and squidgy stone fruit lead the charge in this thrillingly complex yet easy to drink wine, which is rounded off with a delicious mouth-puckering lick of minerality.

Back in April, I attended one of the more illuminating tasting events I have been to, courtesy of a joint venture between Wines of New Zealand and Sopexa, representing the Loire, hosted by the well-paired double act of Dr Jamie Goode and Rebecca Gibb MW (Phillip Schofield and Holly Willoughby you better watch out, these guys have got it…). The focus was Sauvignon Blanc and the challenge was to taste blind and guess the provenance. As you would expect, it started to feel obvious… until it wasn’t at all obvious. Among the notables scratching their heads were Jancis Robinson, Stephen Spurrier and the Buyer’s Peter Dean.

The standout was a wine that I got completely wrong, assuming it to be 100% Kiwi.  Domaine Benjamin Delobel ‘Exponentielle’ Sauvignon Blanc 2017 is, in fact, from Touraine and has apparently been causing quite a stir amongst the critics.  A quirky, rich, tropical take on Savvy Blanc, this offered delicious layers of mango, papaya and peach.

Talking of Kiwis, I would recommend that anyone who thinks the Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc bubble might be about to burst takes a trial sip of the ‘State of Flux’ wines from Yealands. Innovative chief winemaker Natalie Christensen is not one to rest on her laurels and alongside the day job, overseeing the sizeable Yealands range, she has been experimenting.

The results are really exciting, with a range of low/no added sulphur wines, fermented in concrete egg, resulting in convection currents that keep the lees on the move (hence the name). State of Flux Yealands Estate 2018 Awatere Valley Sauvignon Blanc makes my top 10 for the sheer purity and expression of its bright, juicy tropical fruit.

We’re going to hear a lot more about the wines of Washington State in the coming years and there is still some debate about what constitutes its signature grape. Many say Cabernet Sauvignon, but the wines that most enchanted me on a visit there in the spring were made from the Rhône varieties, most significantly Syrah.

Reynvaan ‘In the Rocks’ Syrah 2016, from winemaker, Matt Reynvaan was a revelation. From a dried-up river bed with big rocks reminiscent of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, this is 95% Syrah and 5% Viognier, brimming with foraged blackberry, cracked black pepper, notes of burnt orange and smoky bacon, with a delicious mineral streak through to the finish.

For more on my Washington trip, click here.

A miserable London day and a queue in driving rain at the hulking (some would say ‘Trumpian’, although in fairness he had nothing to do with it) new US Embassy in London offered an inauspicious start to the ‘Collectible Napa’ tasting. Thoughts of dampness soon dissipated however, thanks to Emma Wellings and a hot ticket for the exclusive ‘Covetable’ showcase (read more here).

I was a Harlan virgin, having heard a lot about, but never tasted, the wines, so here was my chance, with the disarmingly friendly estate director Don Weaver on hand to answer questions. Harlan Estate Napa Valley 2005 was a thing of great beauty, with delicate violets, foraged blackberries, gentle spice, graphite and a note of forest floor, combined with an assured mineral streak, to deliver wild fruit in a velvet glove.

There are few words that can do justice to the outstanding beauty and exhilarating fresh air of Salta, Argentina’s northernmost province, home to the world’s highest commercial vineyard, Colomé’s Altura Maxima. I was fortunate enough to be invited by Liberty Wines, its importer, to see grapes growing at 3000 metres above sea level. As you’ll know if you’ve been anywhere really high, the light is different, it feels purer, it looks brighter above the clouds.

Bodega Colomé `Altura Máxima`, Salta Malbec 2015 offers vivid black cherry, gentle spice and cracked black pepper, with a wonderful length and depth of the purest black fruit, all of it in check, never too heavy. Just like the Andean scenery, there is freshness, elegance and, well… just wow. 

Thank you 2019!

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