Posted on 03.01.19 #68

Pick of the bunch: My top wines in 2018

This is my top ten of 2018, as written for The Buyer, in the premium UK on trade. All the wines, bar one, are available in the UK and the piece has been amended to add stockists and explanations (in brackets) where I get ‘techie’.

Trying to whittle this list down to a final ten has been almost painful. Thank God Peter Dean (the drinks editor of The Buyer) didn’t ask for one winning wine. I don’t know how the Nobel Prize committee do it.

Like most writers, in 2018 I have been privileged enough to enjoy some unforgettable cellar samples, rare vintages, freshly-disgorged Vintage Champagne and Cognac considerably older than I am, but I’ve tried to keep this to stuff you can actually get your hands on, albeit at a price.

Like the best occasions, we start with Champagne.

I tend to love the idea of Brut Nature (which has no/extremely low added sugar) more than the reality of it, so Gosset’s Grand Blanc de Noirs, Extra Brut (Master of Malt, £65), with it’s marginally more generous ‘dosage’ (the process of adding a sugar-based syrup after the disgorgement of the yeast, to balance the Champagne) of 5 grammes per litre, hit my own personal sweet spot.

Streams of fine bubbles and complex layers of citrus, apricot, beeswax and amaretti biscuit unfurl on the palate like the peel of a clementine, all wrapped around a crisp mineral core. Like Mary Poppins, this Pinot is pure, precise and practically perfect.

… none of us were aware just how special this exquisite occasion would become …

I used to give pink bubbles a wide berth. That was until I visited the Hotel du Marc earlier this year for a celebration of Madame Cliquot’s great ‘discovery’ 200 years ago.

Thanks to the legendary Joël Robuchon, we enjoyed a treatise on the food pairing potential of rosé Champagne. Stunned to realise he had actually cooked our lunch, none of us were aware how special this exquisite occasion would become. He died just four months later.

Veuve Clicquot, La Grande Dame Rosé 2004 (The Finest Bubble, £150) is like the finest shortbread dipped in Kirsch; elegant, complex and long enough to rival one of my  anecdotes.

2018 began with an unforgettable press trip to New Zealand.

In Hawkes Bay, Elephant Hill’s winemaker Steve Skinner, showed me two examples of Syrah, Earth and Stone from the Element Series, which speak of the terroir in the Bridge Pa Triangle and Gimblett Gravels respectively.

Like non-identical twins, these beautiful wines have so much in common, but also subtle, yet discernible differences. Elephant Hill Element Series Stone 2015 Syrah edged it for me, with its juicy fresh bilberry, blackberry, smooth, velvety tannins and sense of something wild.

Michael Seresin’s biodynamic wines made Marlborough really memorable for me. The single vineyard Pinot Noirs all have a different personality and, sadly, my favourite, Tatou, will disappear as the plot is changing hands.

Cropped to a bottle per vine, Seresin Tatou 2013 Pinot Noir (pictured above, and sold by Wine Direct for £30) is an intense, slightly earthy experience that makes perfect sense when you see the ‘shabby chic’ sheds in which it begins its journey from grape to wine. Layers of generous black cherry, perfect pinchy tannins and cool, crisp acidity all support this fine, very adult wine.

Kiwis seem to have the midas touch wherever they end up. Winemaker Matt Dumayne is doing some fantastic experimental winemaking at the Okanagan Crush Pad, in British Columbia, a place so immaculate that you could eat off the floor. Matt brings a profound sense of elegance to his wines, primarily using concrete eggs, with some steel and not much oak.

Narrative Cabernet Franc 2016, Okanagan (tricky to find, but try Red Squirrel wines) is wonderfully expressive of both grape and terroir, with crunchy red cherries and foraged blackberries, this was the star in a really impressive line up.

Gamay also works really well in BC, but my favourite example of that great grape came from its home in Beaujolais.

Henry Fessy, Régnié, Chateau des Reyssiers 2016 (Fareham Wine Cellar, £12) has that mystical mix of elegance and energy that makes Gamay so special. Fresh, floral, light but not lacking substance, all delivering a thrilling red fruit rush. This is what Bojo’s all about.

I love altitude wines, so it’s little surprise that Kaiken Obertura 2014 Cabernet Franc (quite difficult to find, but a good independent may stock it) features in my Top 10. Smooth and spicy, layer after layer of pure fresh fruits – redcurrants, blueberries, juicy black plums – gently pop in the mouth, like bubbles blown through a hoop. Delicious.

Winemaker Stefano Girelli featured in a piece back in November as he launched his latest acquisition in Sicily, ‘Cortese’.

Of the six new wines, Vanedda Bianco 2016 (available from Slurp very soon, at around £16) was the most remarkable. A blend of Catarrato and Grillo this was all about texture. Fermented on skins for a couple of days, with seven months on fine lees, this wine was a layered feast of slightly smoky tropical fruit and minerality, with lovely length.

It’s not just the Sicilians reinventing themselves. Having dismissed them for years, I was really wowed by the wines of Soave on a press trip in October. The region is working hard to rebuild its image after years of expansion, overproduction and a race to the bottom on price.

Inama Vigneti di Foscarino Soave Classico 2014 (Waitrose Cellar, £20) is helping drive the region’s reputation upmarket, with its ripe, grainy orchard fruit, fresh citrus and delicious wet stone mineral character, this is a wine with such purity that it still has a way to go, if you can wait.

Finally, a wine that will surprise some.

Oak in Chardonnay is firmly out of fashion but, as is always the case, the pendulum has swung too far. The greatest of grapes has always has a wonderful affinity with wood, in the right hands. It’s all about balance, which means expert winemaking.

Rombauer Carneros Chardonnay 2015 (if you’re in the USA, Whole Foods stock it at around $40) has a real wow factor. Plump, generous, big, but never overblown, with vibrant citrus, apple crumble and toasted peach all beautifully balanced by mouth-watering acidity. In the best possible way, this is a meal in itself. I love this wine. It sells out every year in the US and it’s madness that no-one sells it here. A New Year resolution for a good vintner?

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