Wine of the Year, I always feel like I should use quotation marks when we use grand statements, or proclamations about something, wine or otherwise, that is “The Best”. I don’t know, just always hear that slightly argumentative voice in the back of my head asking, “The best for what?” I mean a wine “Best” for sipping while nuzzled beneath a blanket binge watching back episodes of Orange County Housewives, or “Best” to pair with a thick New York Strip that has been deeply seared and heavily salted or a plate of briny oysters? “The Best” for each of those are going to be profoundly different wines. For me there are so many pieces that factor into what makes a wine “The Best” that I struggle each year with narrowing down my list.
Sure I’ve had wines that blew me away, fed my inner wine geek, seduced me and revived me at times when exhaustion or the sameness of my daily grind weigh heavy on me. Lots of wines struck me and created a spark that lit me up and had me pushing through the front door of The Wine Country ready to be shocked again and vibrating with “You have to try this!” energy. Are those “The Best”? The tiny 2 case allocated wines of Patrick Piuze, Francois Chidaine, Marcel Lapierre or Clos Rougeard? The super rare and unattainable for most, are those “The Best”? Well if they are, or were, they’re long gone so telling you about them is meaner than it is helpful or useful, plus it’s a bit like saying caviar is better than French fries and frankly, that ain’t at all true amigos.
The Wine Country celebrated our 20 year anniversary last month, and as someone that has been here for over 19 of those 20 years I’ve watched trends drive and destroy sales, seen winemaking styles swing this way and back again, in some cases and back again, watched people chase highly scored wines and witnessed the rather dramatic back turning on that kind of wine chasing, people now trusting their own palates, curiosity and often, (and thank you for this) us to pick wines for them. Been an amazing ride to be on and observe and the one thing I have always loved about Randy and how he taught us is that we have never strayed from our vision or purpose, to bring you wines made by real people, for real people that taste and feel like where they come from, in every price range. We’ve had buyers come and go, well aside from me, pretty sure I’m a lifer, but each one of us has always bought wines for you, the end customer, and not for a randomly affixed magical numerical score, glossy ads in publications or because it’s trending. There’s no heart in that kind of “The Best” which is likely another reason I wrestle with this seemingly award giving process each year. Best for what, for who?
I slowly walked the aisles of my beloved French department the other day, touched labels, smiled as I remembered nights I’d spent with this wine or that, drew inspiration from all the times our customers, you lovely folks, came back to tell how that Muscadet worked with your meal or how much your friends swooned over the Meursault you splurged on. Felt very proud that our unrelenting dedication to Randy’s original model has earned your trust and loyalty. It is the tradition of The Wine Country to serve our community as best we can and as that thought rolled through my head it hit me, the best wines for me, this year specifically, the classics.
Red Wine of the Year
2013 Chateau de la Font du Loup Chateauneuf-du-Pape $42.99
Whew, that’s a mouthful no? You might just need me if for no other reason than to help you pronounce all that. Randy and I first sat with the feisty Anne-Charlotte Mella, a young-ish mother of three that makes the wines and owns Chateau de la Font du Loup, a couple of years ago. Randy and I had both nearly given up on our once adored southern Rhone Chateauneuf-du-Papes because the style of winemaking in the region had taken a stark shift. The once racy, layered and complex wines grown in deep pebbly soils had gone right off the deep score seeking end and landed in a syrupy backwash of high alcohol and mouth burning extraction. In an effort to garner high scores from influential American wine writers, winemakers in the region opted for longer hang time, (read higher sugar and alcohols) and intense saturation in small oak barrels, all of which stripped the wines of any and all accent or flavor of place. Sitting across from the wild-haired Anne-Charlotte and hearing her thick accent say, “I don’t know what has happened to my Chateauneuf-du-Pape, as a region. I can’t recognize the wines anymore” and we both knew we were in for a treat.
The Domaine is located in a cooler, higher altitude, so later ripening part of Chateauneuf-du-Pape and is named for the natural spring it sits atop, Font meaning fountain and Loup, the French word for wolves, they were legend to come drink from the spring. Due to the location of the vineyards the grapes for Chateau de la Font du Loup are harvested a little later than many in the region but, because of the cooler climate, they have lower natural sugars so the wines retain an unbelievable amount of freshness and purity. 65% Grenache, 20% Syrah, 10% Mourvedre and 5% Cinsault and all about purity. Bright red fruit comes leaping from the glass with this sultry but playful wisp of spice that runs right up the middle. The aromatics are so much fun you almost don’t want to take a sip but, well once you do you will want a second, a third and a fourth. Deep flavors but hardly heavy handed, this wine dances across the palate looking for food to play with. Gentle, graceful and beyond civil. Get reacquainted with Rhone. Start here.
White Wine of the Year
2013 Domaine Rene Lamy Les Pucelles Saint-Aubin $49.99
Behind Champagne it was Burgundy that stole my heart, like hard and fast and once bitten by such a sensual and ache inducing taste of that place, well it’s nearly if not totally impossible to look back. I called Randy while on my first trip ever to France, way back in 2003, (gulp, feeling old now people) it was 3:00 in the morning and I had just spent one of the grandest nights of my life falling madly, deeply and unapologetically in love with Burgundy. My mouth soaked and bubbling with effusive passion as I shared with him the wines I’d tasted and the ones that made my heart beat so hard it felt like it was pounding its fists against my ribcage, Randy instantly handed over the Burgundy department to me. I guess even from like 6,000 miles and a few time zones away Randy could tell, this was true love.
Since 2003 however there have been some serious hard times befallen upon my beloved region of Burgundy. First of all the dollar sent prices of these already limited and sought after wines right through the roof, and then, just as things were correcting themselves with the whole euro to dollar matter the weather tossed its ugly hat in the ring and poor Burgundians have had several vintages now that have suffered from traumatic loss of fruit due to hail, frost and rain. Kind of tragic actually as the Burgundians aren’t like the uber wealthy folks in Bordeaux. These are farmers for the most part and having to raise their prices came from necessity and not from greed. That said, wow, not only have the allocations dried up, the prices keep creeping up too. Crushing for those of us that simply cannot live without at least a little whisper of those specific vines from time to time. Enter wines from lesser known villages and the wicked smart importers that find them.
Rene Lamy’s winery is right in the heart of the famed village of Chassagne-Montrachet and trust me, their wines from the more famous villages are simply stunning, but the art and testament to great, like truly great, winemaking is being able to elevate a wine from a “lesser” area, like Saint-Aubin in such a way as it could easily be confused with a much more noble wine. When I tasted this Les Pucelles Saint-Aubin from Lamy I would have sworn it was either Meursault or Chassagne-Montrachet.
This is classic white Burgundy and while not inexpensive I’ve had a hard time keeping it in stock because of how much it offers at this price. This is an incredibly sexy wine on the nose. Dripping with moist white flowers, ground spice and roasted nuts. Wonderfully silky as the wine enters the palate with all that luscious fruit but it’s followed by a scrape of firm acidity that keeps the palate vibrating and wanting more. Chardonnay that wears a thick accent of where it came from and we love it for that.
Champagne of the Year
N.V. Suenen MBDA Extra Brut $81.99
“Sam, should we go and visit him?” the sweet French tinged voice of Aline Thiebaut of Aliane Wines, one of our favorite French wine importers pouring me a glass of Champagne she had been sent. Aline had earlier in the year payed us a tremendous compliment, she asked that I join her in Champagne to help her taste and maybe select some new grower Champagnes, for her portfolio and for us, as in you and me, to drink. Our steadfast dedication to supporting traditional and real wines rather than copy and paste has, luckily for us, earned us some respect with importers too. They want to have their wines placed in our shop because they know, we are hell bent on making sure they end up in the hand, on the tables and forever in the hearts of the people that will adore them. I took a few deep sniffs from the glass, spun away the frothy bubbles to try and discover the base wine, took a tiny sip and felt that tingle that assures me, this is a wine that has been crafted from soil to bottle, “Yeah, I think we most definitely meet with whomever made this” I told her.
The second Aline and I got out of the car at the Suenen Domaine it was palpable, there were changes afoot. We were met by Aurelien Suenen, a tall, quite handsome and very young winemaker. Aurelien is the youngest of three children born to the Domaine. He was a basketball player by trade until his father became ill unexpectedly after an accident. Normally it would fall upon the eldest of the family but Aurelien came home in a pinch and found himself madly in love with the entire process of winemaking. He was in his very early twenties when his father passed away and Aurelien proudly took the reins of family estate and brought about the changes that are just now showing themselves in the absolute power and complexity of the wines. Mentored by Pascal Agrapart and Jacques Selosse, this young man is bucking to take the world of Champagne by storm.
MBDA is a tribute cuvee, named to honor the four generations of Suenen to farm their land in Champagne: Marcel, Bernard, Daniel and the current winemaker, Aurelien. Nearly equal parts Pinot Noir and Chardonnay all of which with an average vine age of 45 years, this is a wine of extreme depth, complexity and character. One that we are sure would make the generations before very, very proud.
Lemon custard with vanilla bean on the nose, from there it plunges into a sweet but savory note that reminds you of great charcuterie, that sweet cure or smoke if you will. Sexy in the mouth, the wine unveils itself little by little. It makes you wait, dig deeper and has enough beguiling flavor that you find pleasure in the hunt. Truly stunning wine that just so happens to have a tiny bead of delicate bubbles. (Only 20 cases brought to California and be sure to keep checking the calendar at the beginning of the year, we are trying to get Aurelien out of the vineyards and to California and we’ve been assured, we are atop the list of places he will visit and do a tasting)
So there you have it, my Wines of the Year, or “The Best” wines for to explain why I do what I do, and why I still love it.