Yup! It’s that time of year again—it’s time to look back and see what has happened over the past 12 months. In 2017, I worked in Spain, Chile and Jura, but didn’t visit Argentina–at least not for tasting—which will come in 2018. These are my most outstanding new releases of the year from each of my countries, in no particular order.
Spain is so diverse that you’ll hardly ever see the same regions or vintages in my best-of-the-year. Some wines are released early, others quite late. The same year can be superb for one region and a disaster for others. Vintage generalizations are less and less important. We need to look at the details. Even within the same region, in a vintage like 2013 some will tell you it’s been a year to forget, while others would tell you they have produced their best wines ever.
That could be the case of Ribera del Duero, where the 2013 Canta la Perdiz single-vineyard bottling from Dominio del Águila is the first commercial release from a south-facing old vineyard in the village of La Aguilera planted at two different times, one in the early 1900s, but the older vines must be 150 years old and are therefore ungrafted. As with all of these old vineyards, it has a mixture of grapes, always dominated by Tempranillo (close to 80% in this case), but with many other varieties, maybe 10-15% of Cariñena and then a little Bruñal, Bobal and Albillo. The south-facing vineyard exposure might work best in a cooler year like this 2013, but what's important and different here is the soil, with a type of limestone in layers (slate-like) easily penetrable by the roots, and the wines from there are not as austere as those from hard limestone rock. The wine is extremely elegant, perfumed and transparent, crystalline, precise and focused, refined and harmonious.
After 15 years in the region, Descendientes de J. Palacios, the project between Ricardo ‘Titín’ Pérez Palacios and his uncle Álvaro Palacios, has produced a perfect wine in Bierzo with their 2014 La Faraona, their single vineyard bottling from the El Ferro zone of Corullón. This slope is planted with Mencía but there are always small quantities of other varieties in all the old vineyards—in this case Jerez, Godello, Alicante Bouschet, Gran Negro… 2014 is like an upgraded version of the 2013, deeper and with more complexity, and there are herbal nuances à la Cabernet Franc that took me to the Loire, dark spices, earthy hints, tobacco and flowers. The palate is symmetric, precise, textured and with a very long finish. There is some austerity here, but the ripeness felt just perfect. The issue is that only 597 bottles, 45 magnums, five double magnums and four Jeroboams were produced. Originally, half of the vines from La Faraona were white varieties; after regrafting for five years, the regrafted vines have produced grapes, so yields and production figures have been a lot higher from 2015 onwards.
In the meantime, they have built their new impressive gravity-operated winery in Chao do Pando in Corullón, between the Las Lamas and Moncerbal vineyards. Also, Ricardo Pérez Palacios, working within the Bierzo appellation, has promoted a new structure of categories for the wines following a similar structure to the one in Burgundy, village and cru wines, and is driving the change to approve all local grapes, remove limitations and include all vineyards in the region inside the appellation. Bierzo takes the lead in this.
Casa Castillo is the quality leader in the Mediterranean appellation of Jumilla in the province of Murcia. Their 2015 Pie Franco could very well be their finest wine to date since they started in 1992. This Monastrell vineyard was planted in 1942 by the grandfather of José María Vicente, third generation at Casa Castillo. Pie franco is the Spanish name for ungrafted, which is what this vines are, as the soil has a sandy texture that makes life hard for phylloxera. There is also a lot of limestone that makes wines very tasty. 2015 is a vintage that combines incredible finesse, floral notes of violets and even white flowers with the Mediterranean character of the zone. It’s structured and has the backbone to develop for a very long time in bottle. This single vineyard Monastrell seems to be going from strength to strength, so… where is the limit? This 2015 is the best they have produced so far, and I had already said that of the 2006 and 2013. They keep pushing themselves to the limit, restlessly looking for ways to improve. This is one of the greatest Monastrell wines in the world and among the elite from Spain. I also consider this a true bargain for the quality it delivers.
As with Argentina last year, I won’t reveal any of the scores from the wines I mention here from Jura, as the article which contains them will be published in just a few days time—I don’t want to spoil the end of the year surprise for our readers. I hadn’t visited Jura for a couple of years and the main difference I’ve noticed is the overall global interest for Jura wines. Producers cannot keep up with demand and some wines are being allocated and increasingly more difficult to find. I guess this will only increase, so stock your cellars with what you can find, especially with these three outstanding vins jaunes.
Jura is famous for vin jaune—yellow wine—for a reason. These rare Sherry-like wines, biologically aged under a veil of yeasts or flor in non-topped up barrels for six years, plus the remaining months of the year the grapes were harvested. In that time, one liter of wine will evaporate to 62 centiliters, which is the capacity of the special bottle, called clavelin, in which they are sold. The style represents no more than five per cent of the total volume of wine from the region, yet it's the unique and distinctive wine that created the reputation for Jura.
Château Chalon is a vin jaune-only appellation in the village of the same name in Jura. The leading producer there is Domaine Macle, which impressed me with a mini-vertical of wines from vintages ending in nine, as the current release is the 2009 Château Chalon. I used that as an excuse to write a short article about them, published at the end of December 2017. They are currently in the very able hands of Laurent Macle, fifth generation of the family making wine in the village, who told me: “According to my father, all vintages ending in nine have been great, except 1939.” After tasting 1979, 1989, 1999 and 2009 I can only agree with that statement. The 2009 seems destined for a brilliant future in bottle, and has to be one of the most powerful recent vintages at Château Chalon. It’s a year of great ripeness and marvelous concentration, and the Macle bottling had notes of aromatic herbs (it made me think of absinthe!) together with young aromas of the Jura twang of the voile, showing it in a subtle way, like the wine has power to take an even longer élevage, while still keeping fresh and floral notes. In fact, when I mentioned that to Laurent he confessed he had kept a barrel of 2009 to see how the wine continues aging under the veil of yeasts. The palate is powerful, but the alcohol is really integrated and unnoticeable. I think this could very well be the modern version of the 1989.
Emmanuel Houillon and Pierre Overnoy are already legends in their own time. Their wines are sought after throughout the world, and their 2000 Arbois Pupillin Vin Jaune, the current release of yellow wine, is especially difficult to track down. It was bottled 15 or 16 years after the harvest, much, much longer than the almost seven years required to be aged under a veil of yeast in order to obtain the official vin jaune status. The wine is thick, dense, concentrated, powerful, nuanced and very intense. The nose was open from minute one, with tons of curry, morel and other mushrooms, and an umami-like sensation that I often associate with very thick concentrated chicken broth. (Free-range chicken, that is!) The flavors are pungent and the taste remains in your mouth for a long time after you swallow it. This is a wine that can take a wide range of foods, and I had the chance to have it with some charcoal-grilled caviar (yes, you read that correctly!) and chanterelle mushrooms in a thick egg yolk sauce, and the wine seemed to multiply the flavors of the food. It was an extravagant wine for some extravagant dishes at the otherworldly Etxebarri restaurant (read about it later in my best meals of 2017). This is a unique, a coup de coeur wine if there ever was one.
Jacques Puffeney has been called the pope of Arbois, the appellation where he worked in Jura. Unfortunately, he retired after the 2014 harvest and sold his vineyards, so his wines are going to become scarce and expensive. Only his yellow wine will be released yearly as the vintages complete the mandatory time under flor yeast in barrel, the current of which is the 2009 Arbois Vin Jaune. It’s a prototype of vin jaune aged in a warm cellar with more volume and power, perhaps amplified by the character of the year. The nose is super intense with aromas reminiscent of concentrated meat broth, morel mushrooms and curry. The palate has pungent flavors, a sort of umami overdrive, very saline and tasty, with some mineral, diesel-like notes; it lingers in your mouth for a very long time after you swallow. It has volume, length and width, with power and acidity, as time in the very dry, warm cellars where he ages his flor-aged wines greatly concentrates all their components and the evaporation is higher. Get it while (or if) you can!
Early this year, I visited Chile after the terrible fires which devastated almost 600,000 hectares in the south-central part of the country, mainly in Maule, Itata and Bio-Bio. I wrote about it in what I consider one of my deepest articles so far. Besides that, I found more and more exciting wines being produced across the country, which is increasing in diversity, among which I’d like to single out the following three.
There are still many terroirs to be discovered in Chile. An example is the slate vineyards that tend to be near the coast, as until now the majority of fine wines came from vines planted on granite soils. An outstanding wine produced from slate is the 2015 Chardonnay Pizarras from Errázuriz, sourced from a vineyard in the Aconcagua Costa appellation. 2015 was a warm dry year, but they still managed to bottle a white with 13% alcohol, a low pH of 3.1 and with almost nine grams of acidity! The figures talk about an extreme wine, yet it's wonderfully balanced and pleasant. This has an incredible texture and sharp, pungent acidity more often found in a Riesling than a Chardonnay. It also has stunning minerality and salinity. It was a matter of matching the place to the grape and reading the conditions of the year; they implemented harvesting and winemaking decisions that allowed for a much fresher wine in a considerably warmer year, and it resulted in a better wine only in its second vintage. There is always room for improvement, but in two years they have achieved so much it’s almost unbelievable. And yes, pizarra is the Spanish word for slate!
Pinot Noir can produce great wines in Chile. The problem is that many vineyards had been planted with productive clones of the variety that did not deliver very high quality. The secret of the 2014 Ocio Pinot Noir from Cono Sur in the Casablanca Valley is that it’s sourced from vineyards planted with material sourced from the oldest known Pinot Noir vineyard in Colchagua, a quality selection. The bottled wine is the result of a blending exercise they carry out after malolactic with the help of Burgundian consultant Martin Prieur of Domaine Jacques Prieur. In previous vintages, most of the wine matured in new barriques, but now 10% is kept in cement eggs and the oak feels subtler and better integrated. I found the wine extraordinary, with elegance, depth and complexity, perfect ripeness and integrated oak. It's subtle and fresh, with a mixture of sour cherries, blood oranges and oriental spices. It has a perfectly harmonious palate with a velvety texture, but as the proverbial iron fist in a velvet glove, it's more powerful than you might think. This is a superb Pinot Noir, among the best from Chile.
Traveling south in Chile, I loved the wines produced with dry-farmed Cariñena and País from the day I discovered them. They are not your stereotype of Carménère or Cabernet Sauvignon that many might have in mind. One wine that stands out among those was the 2014 Truquilemu Vineyard produced by Garage Wine Co., the project belonging to Derek Mossman Knapp, Pilar Miranda and Alvaro Peña in the Secano Interior part of Maule, close to Empedrado. It’s one of nine single vineyard bottlings they produce, from an old plot belonging to the Orellana family. Truquilemu is perhaps the freshest corner of the Maule Secano, where reds just manage to ripen on the coastal mountain range that is much older than the Andes. Soils are granitic and sub-soils have cracked granite that allows roots to get deep into cracks. They use ancestral farming methods, cultivating vineyards by hand and horse. It’s mostly Cariñena (which they call Carignan) and a little Monastrell (or Mataró) produced in a very simple way, fermented with natural yeasts and aged in used barrels over two winters. It has incredible freshness with notes of blood orange peel and wild herbs—floral, suggestive, harmonious and elegant. The palate is elegant—an elegant rusticity, I used to say—and shows vibrant acidity, it’s very balanced and incredibly tasty. They also selected a number of barrels from this same vineyard to make their Vigno bottling.
Top 3 Greatest Value Wines
There are lots of good value wines in Spain, Chile and even the Jura. We often overlook white wines, but if I have to tell you the truth, I found more value white wines than reds, as for some reason some people always expect to pay less for white than for red wine, and many producers are forced to lower their prices if they want to sell their whites.
So I’ll start with an amazing Sauvignon Blanc, but it’s a very special one, as it’s not only a real bargain (it retails for just over $22), but it’s also among the best whites from the country! I’m talking about the 2016 Talinay Sauvignon Blanc from Viña Tabalí in the Limarí Valley in the north of Chile. It is a vertical, mineral, fresh version from limestone soils from the Talinay vineyard, from the north-facing plots of a large vineyard, in theory a riper exposure in the southern hemisphere, that results in a slow ripening in a place like Talinay. It has an unusual harmony between freshness and power that makes the wine very balanced. It’s sharp, focused, symmetric and clean, while it also fills your mouth and is very long, with a tasty, mineral/chalky aftertaste. This is always one of the best Sauvignon Blancs from Chile.
If I had to select one great value red from what I tasted in 2017 it would be the 2015 Ultreia St Jacques from Raúl Pérez in Bierzo. It’s the entry-level red bottling from the Ultreia range and it’s amazingly good for the price. Produced from old Mencía vines, it is a serious wine, with juicy fruit, a fine palate and good freshness for the conditions of the year. They have included new vineyards that they have been working for the last four or five years, so they are now able to bottle a little bit more wine. This is a great value and 24,000 bottles were produced, so it shouldn’t be that difficult to find.
The Envínate team is producing very good and very affordable wines in many different regions of Spain, Ribeira Sacra, Almansa, Extremadura and the Canary Islands. One of their best values is the white 2016 Táganan Blanco, from the north west of Tenerife, from an astonishing looking region called Taganana. This is their village white, produced with grapes, mostly Listán Blanco, from different vineyards ranging from 75 to 400 meters altitude and 50 to 150 years of age! 2016 saw a mild summer in the zone, which can be very different from other parts of the island, cooler and with great influence from the Atlantic Ocean, which resulted in wines with less alcohol and very good acidity. They now have whites from three different zones within the island of Tenerife and this is by far the most austere, mineral, closed and saline. This has to be one of the greatest bargains in Spain!
Three Greatest Wine Drinking Experiences
More than 4,000 wines must have passed my lips during 2017, some better than others. But I’m lucky to not only taste current releases from my regions (which I do big time!), but I also drink a lot of diverse and sometimes unique, old wines from throughout the world, often thanks to the generosity of many friends. I have restrained myself to three wines in all the other categories, but… how can you single out only three of them when you drink so many great wines from all over the world? Well this time I’m going to do it, because I don’t want anyone to think that I’m bragging too much…
If there’s one wine that has made my head explode in 2017, it has been a Champagne from Jacques Lassaigne. What’s special about it? Well, the 2010 Autour de Minuit was fermented in a vin jaune barrel from Ganevat—yes, you read that correctly. Lassaigne makes a lot of experimental wines, and I was lucky to cross paths with this beauty and got obsessed with it. It was super expressive, sharp, in the house style, but with incredible salty notes that made it addictive (umami?) and a nose of curry that drove me crazy. I had a mission—to find and drink as many bottles as possible!
I must say I’ve had it again, and this 2010, produced from his Clos Sainte-Sophie vineyard, was followed by a 2011 that was produced from a different vineyard, Le Cotet. It was similar but different, and I though it was a matter of being from a different year and a different vineyard. I was lucky to find odd bottles on different restaurant wine lists, so I had the chance to drink some bottles of it, although I’d love to see how this wine ages. I finally contacted Emmanuel Lassaigne, and he provided some more information about it. The 2010 was fermented in a vin jaune barrel from Jean-François Ganevat, only one, a 228-liter barrel, so he only made around 300 bottles. And the 2011 was fermented in a barrique of the Les Vignes de Mon Père, the Ouillé Savagnin from Ganevat aged for 11 years with no flor, but not a 600 liter cask as I had expected, but again a small 228-liter barrique. So there are only 300 bottles from each vintage!
Lassaigne bottles a number of these experimental wines, numbered like scenes from a film or a theater play. The Ganevat one is called Acte III (Acte II is a rosé fermented in an old red Burgundy barrel) and the 2010 was subtitled Scène I, the 2011 Scène II and so on. Very geeky…
I now know that there will be no 2012 of this bottling, but there will be some 2013 (he discarded some barrels and I believe in the end he only bottled one!). He then produced it again in 2014, but didn’t in 2015, and it will be bottled again from the 2016 vintage. And 2017? Ah, 2017! I’ll tell you about 2017 in the following years, because something happened in 2017… Maybe Acte VI?
Going from something very young to an extremely old wine now, as I was lucky enough to share a bottle of the 1795 Barbeito Madeira Terrantez brought by my friend, Ignacio. Wines like this are to be shared and nothing better than a good group of wine nutters at the end of a glorious meal. This used to be widely available 15 years ago, but now that old Madeira is fashionable and sought after, it’s very rare. I believe there are around 20 liters of this at Barbeito, and the odd bottle shows up at auction from time to time. What comes into my head when I have a very old wine is not only what was going on in the world at the time, but how the people who made the wine lived, how they made the wine, and what they would think if someone had told them it was going to be drunk in Spain 220 years later… Bragging mode ON: Yes, I’ve had it before, and no, it’s not the oldest wine I’ve had…
My friend Paul was so generous as to bring a bottle of the outstanding 1988 Gentaz-Dervieux Côte-Rôtie Côte Brune to the BYO dinner part of our Matter of Taste event in London at 67 Pall Mall. There were so many great wines at that dinner, but this elegant, Burgundian Syrah—delicate, elegant, mature, and intense stood head and shoulders above the rest, and was so long that I can almost still taste it. For me it really outshone all the rest. Unfortunately Gentaz bottles are becoming really scarce and more expensive, so each one you have is a real treat. Thanks, Paul!
And I’ll say no more… If you like, next year I can also comment on the 20 or 30 runners up. Just let me know!
Best Dinner of the Year
I have to confess that I’ve been to Celler de Can Roca more than once in 2017. They could probably qualify as dinner (or lunch!) of the year every year, but it would become boring for you readers. So I’ll tell you about others…
I was trying to decide on one meal, but, one? In all the other categories, deciding on three wines was hard enough, but I just couldn’t select only one dinner! So I decided to give the honors ex aequo to three, just like in the rest of categories!
I’ve already spoken to you extensively about the rice with snails and rabbit from Elías in Xinorlet (Alicante) in a piece I penned for our Hedonist’s Gazette, but I couldn’t miss it here, as I still daydream about this rice every other day. To make a long story short, they cook the classical rice from the region, which is only one grain thick and only has snails and rabbit, over a very lively fire from vine cuttings, which makes the rice deliciously crunchy… Oh, dear! That got me salivating again!
The one three-Michelin-starred restaurant in Madrid is DiverXO. The young chef there is David ‘Dabiz’ Muñoz, who started his own restaurant with a small dining room a decade ago after working at Viridiana in Madrid and Hakkasan in London. He started a unique Asian-Spanish fusion cuisine (XO is the name of an Asian spicy sauce) that has only improved with time. I’ve had many great meals at DiverXO (early on it was a lot easier, getting a table now is a lot more problematic as you need to book months in advance), and two meals in 2017 were probably the best ever, and perhaps the second better than the first! DiverXO is on fire! You can preview Muñoz’s cuisine without booking at StreetXO in Madrid or London, but it’s not exactly the same; StreetXO is street food and DiverXO is really haute cuisine. If they only allowed BYO wines…
One of my favorite restaurants in Spain is Etxebarri, a small place in the middle of nowhere in the Basque Country that is famous because its chef, Bittor Arginzoniz, grills everything, from the milk to make butter and mozzarella, caviar, chorizo, seafood, meat and everything in between. The first time I was a bit skeptical, as I thought everything was going to have a similar smoky/barbecued taste, but it didn’t! In fact, you soon forget everything is grilled, as the food is simply lip-smacking.
Arginzoniz sources only the very best ingredients; I think I’ve had the best percebes (goose barnacles) there, and I’ve eaten my share in some of the best seafood restaurants of Galicia! He also uses different woods and techniques, he has invented a number of pans and utensils to use for different ingredients and the food is placed at varying precise distances from the ashes depending on the ingredient and wood using a simple pulley system. He now has the help of sommelier Agustí Peris, one of the historical names from El Bulli, and the wine selection has improved a lot. This is one of the places where I would like to go back over and over again, as it’s comfort food you never get tired of. World-class comfort food, that is!
Best Vertical/Retrospective Tasting of the Year
Truth is that I don’t do that many verticals, and maybe I should do more… It wasn’t a large vertical, but the best I can remember in 2017 happened at Château Chalon, in the cellars of the Macle family. I had asked Laurent Macle to taste some back vintages of Château Chalon and Côtes du Jura, the only two wines traditionally produced at their domaine in the Jura. He came up with a selection of years ending in nine and three, as the current vintages are 2009 for the Château Chalon and 2013 for the Côtes du Jura.
I had an incredible visit with him; he was very happy and we tasted some astonishing wines, including some barrels samples and the current release 2009 Château Chalon that made it to the top three of the year in the region. For Château Chalon, on top of the 2009 we also had 1999, 1989 and 1979. Vintages ending in nine seem to be very consistent. As the year they are currently selling of the Côtes du Jura is 2013 we also tasted the 2003, 1993, 1983 and 1973, where the star was the 1983. But years ending in three were a lot more uneven…
Best Get-a-Life Outside of Wine Things of 2017
2017 has been a very good year. No, it’s not a vintage report, because oenologically speaking it was an annus horribilis in most of Europe, with frost, hail and maladies that decimated the vintage crop. I’m talking about my personal life. Wine is so imbued in my life that it’s almost impossible to separate it. Wine is a way of life rather than a job. Whenever I drink a wine, is it work or just life?
So many of my get-a-life outside of wine are still somehow wine related, such as the achievement of winning the 10th edition of a blind tasting competition organized by Barcelona’s wine merchant Vila Viniteca with my friend Ignacio Villalgordo, the Premio Vila Viniteca de cata por parejas. This blind tasting competition has generated a lot of interest in Spain, and tickets for it sell out in a matter of minutes. It’s partly because the prizes are great, and also because it’s a lot of fun and you get to taste some world-class wines in a fun environment. Tasting blind on your own is like an exam, while tasting with a friend is more of a party. And even more so if you win! It was held on a Sunday, and we made it to the news of most of the Spanish TV channels on prime time that night, so all my mum’s friends were calling her to tell her that I was on the telly.
I’ve written some books before, but not on my own. In 2017 I published my first solo book, in Spanish at the end of May under the title Los Nuevos Viñadores, and later in English as The New Vignerons. I’m just so proud of the achievement, a joint effort with my friend the photographer Estanis Núñez, who I’ve known for some 35 years. This gave us the opportunity to travel together around Spain to bring you breathtaking photos from 14 different wine regions and the personal story behind some of the most exciting wines in the country. Just for the record, these are the people profiled in the book: Envínate, Comando G, Equipo Navazos, Malus Mama, Dominio del Águila, Casa Castillo, Celler del Roure, Guímaro, Raventós i Blanc, Rafa Bernabé Viñedos Culturales, Descendientes de J. Palacios, Forjas del Salnés, Sara i René Viticultors and Telmo Rodríguez.
Most of them should be well known to our readers, but there are also some up-and-coming names, like Malus Mama. Linked to the book, I’ve been able to do some presentations and tastings, mostly in Spain, but also abroad, the last of which was at our Matter of Taste event in New York where we presented the English edition of the book. One of the nicest moments was when I was invited to debate wine and my book at a TV show in Spain with people like Álvaro Palacios or Josep Roca of Celler de Can Roca. TV is a very important media, which reaches a lot of people, and I think we should definitely have more (or at least some!) wine on TV.
I’ve traveled quite a lot this year, and not only to wine destinations! Even though we have family in Ireland, I had never visited the country before, and we decided 2017 was the year to fix that. We had a big family reunion (from my wife’s side) and we traveled around the country for a few days. Ireland is a beautiful place, and I was probably most impressed by the hair-raising cliffs of Moher on the west coast.
Last, but not least, rock music has always been a passion of mine. I’ve been messing around with a group of friends, The Winedrinkers, playing a little, drinking some wine, and we even went into a studio to record a cover of Whitesnake’s Wine Women and Song. Just for fun. We all just enjoy ourselves thoroughly. Until next year… rock and wine!