Best of 2018: Luis Gutiérrez

2018 has been a very intense year. I started with Rioja, followed by a deep dive into Priorat where I tasted most of the wines produced in this small appellation southwest of Barcelona. I then crossed the Atlantic Ocean to taste over 1,000 wines from Argentina, where for the first time ever I found not one but two of them worth 100 points. Ribera del Duero and the rest of regions influenced by the Duero River followed as an interim between trips to South America, as I soon had to travel to Chile. The end of the year is just a top-of-the-pops of the best Garnacha wines from Aragón, Navarra and Sierra de Gredos. So the only country of my regions I didn’t visit in these past 12 months has been France, as I had published notes and an article on the wines from the Jura right at the end of 2017. That means no highlights from Jura this time, but they should be back next year. In the meantime, let’s take a look at what were the most outstanding new releases from Spain, Argentina and Chile.

Top 3 Most Outstanding New/Current Release Wines of the Year

Spain

Telmo Rodríguez showed me two vintages from the jewel of the crown, including the stellar 2015 Las Beatas. It’s definitely one of the finest wines I found in 2018, and the finest Telmo Rodríguez has ever produced. For those of you that have not followed the wines from this small plot first released in the 2011 vintage, I have to tell you that it’s one of those vineyards that, when you see them, you just know they have to produce great wine. 

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Las Beatas, one of those vineyards that when you see them you know they have to produce great wine.

The Las Beatas plot is an amphitheater in the village of Labastida, not far from Remelluri, Telmo’s family’s property. It was one of the first vineyards Telmo and his business partner and winemaker Pablo Eguzkiza bought when they first earned some money. It’s in a place called Las Beatas, where the soil is terraced and planted with mixed varieties. They have been buying all the surrounding plots, in some cases just the abandoned terraces, they restored the old walls and had to replant some vines, and seven to eight different grape varieties are co-planted there. They also purchased one of the old calados, a cave dug into the rock in the village of Ollauri, one of the most traditional villages in Rioja, in order to force themselves to work and really understand how everything was done in the past. The wine aged in this very cold cellar at a very low temperature.

2015 was an easier harvest in the zone than 2014. It seemed it was going to be a warm, dry year with risk of high ripeness, but it is turning out much better than anticipated, particularly in cooler places like this location in the Rioja Alavesa. They harvested earlier and the resulting wine had less alcohol, but also lower acidity, at least in theory. However, the wine was super balanced, with the elegance and freshness of the 2013 but one step up in depth and complexity. He also has new wines from Rioja, new single vineyard bottlings, of which I only tasted the 2014s. I was really impressed by the debut of Tabuerniga, but the 2015 from Las Beatas clearly stole the show. I later encountered the 2015 Tabuerniga, which I shall write about next time, as it’s almost as good.

The day I visited López de Heredia in December 2017, I found them bottling a wine with a manual machine that does one bottle at a time, like in the old times. As if entering the winery was not enough time travel on its own! The corks were all crooked and the bottles looked pretty awful. “We haven’t used this corking machine for ages!” the operator told me. I was intrigued. I later asked María José López de Heredia about it and she just told me “Oh! It’s a special order we have to do.” I left it at that and didn’t give it any more. But I connected the dots a few months later when I first heard about the 2001 Matador Parreno, a special bottling by López de Heredia for the Matador art magazine. All of a sudden I knew that this was the wine they were bottling that morning I was there!

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Some of the Viña Tondonia vines.

The Matador project goes beyond the release of an annual issue of its magazine, which is more of a book than a magazine. Very early on they decided to select a wine each year and offer it to their readers in a bottle labeled with a piece of art from a painter, designer or photographer. Much later they opened a private club in Madrid where some meetings were held and they drew up the Manifiesto Matador we published here back in August of 2016. The aim was to defend the great vineyards in Spain and make appellations of origin think about the current system that favors quantity rather than quality. 

Going back to the wines, they have released unique bottlings from the likes of Peter Sisseck, Dirk Niepoort or Álvaro Palacios among many others. Issue T (each issue has a letter of the alphabet and when the alphabet is finished, the magazine will be over), seemed quite appropriate to have a wine from Tondonia, the flagship vineyard from López de Heredia, the most classic among classical producers of Rioja. So, they found that 10 barrels from what should have been the 2001 Viña Tondonia Gran Reserva hadn’t been bottled in 2011 when the rest of the wine was. Those 10 barrels were put into 3,000 bottles some 16 years after the harvest and sold with an unusual label, a photograph of a fish (is it a piranha?) that is far removed from what you expect from such traditionalists. Oh, and I’m sure they finally adjusted the corking machine and changed all he corks that were no good, as all the bottles I have seen had perfect corks! As with the 1985 Castillo de Ygay Blanco Gran Reserva, I thought they didn’t make any magnums of this wine that will surely last 50+ years. Only last week I was told there are 50 them!

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If you ever see this label, grab it! The 2001 Matador Parreno is a super Gran Reserva from Viña Tondonia, bottled 16 years after its harvest.

What about the wine itself? Well, the wine is simply outstanding, so I had to publish a special article to let readers know about it before it was all sold. It has the Tondonia character but feels extremely young, it’s not oaky—quite remarkable after five years in those large oak vats followed by 11 years in well-seasoned, neutral American oak barrels. 2001 was one of the finest vintages in Rioja in the last 40 years, and I cannot wait for the release of the 2015 Viña Tondonia Gran Reserva in 2021 to be able to compare the Matador bottling with the regular Gran Reserva. 

Last but not least, the 2016 Rumbo al Norte from Comando G in the Sierra de Gredos was another wine that made my heart beat faster. I’ve been following their wines right from the beginning, see them grow and improve, from the initial 2008 La Bruja Averías to this heart-stopping plot-designated Garnacha bottling from one of the most stunning vineyards I know. As I mentioned with Las Beatas, this is one of those places that when you see them, you know they have to make great wine. 

The transformation of the vineyards since they first started working them until today is incredible. Traditional, organic and biodynamic farming methods are followed. They have improved the pruning, cleaned the surroundings and rebuilt walls and terraces where they exist, and all these improvements are also reflected in the wines. The work in the winery hasn’t stopped for a minute either. The way they vinify is adapted to the conditions of the vintage, and in fact in 2015 they started implementing some new stuff inspired by wines they like, the reds from Jean-François Ganevat in Jura, Arianna Occhipinti in Sicily or Dirk Niepoort in the Douro. Depending on the conditions of the year, they might ferment some of the red grapes without skins or stems (just the juice, like a white) or carry out a very short but more extractive vinification. These techniques are quite well adapted to the conditions of Mediterranean, warmer vintages. This meticulous work seems to have paid off, and the 2015s, the warmest vintage they have seen in their ten vintages in Gredos, have great freshness, which is even more noticeable in 2017, also a warm vintage. In the meantime, 2016 has to be the finest year they have produced so far, a harvest that delivers both quantity (relative) and quality (extremely high!).

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The breathtaking Rumbo Al Norte vineyard from Comando G.

In past vintages Rumbo al Norte might have been challenged by other vineyards like Tumba del Rey Moro or Umbrías, but not in 2016. This wine has a rare combination of perfume, subtleness, lightness, power and energy that was very captivating. It has the texture of a wine from Leroy and the intoxicating aromatics of Rayas. If you cannot get hold of any of the scarce bottles (only 1,361 bottles and 30 magnums were produced, even if it was one of the most generous years), I’d recommend buying some of the 2018 when it’s offered en primeur, as even if it’s still very early it looks like another great vintage, somehow similar to this 2016. 

Argentina

I have to admit that I knew very little about Argentinean wines when I first started reviewing them. But in the five years I’ve been doing it, I’ve discovered than there’s a lot more than the stereotype—yes, the ripe Malbec from Mendoza—and I’ve seen some zones and producers grow to world-class levels. 

La Craie from Per Se, the personal project of David Bonomi (Norton) and Edgardo 'Edy' del Popolo's (Dominio del Plata), was for me love at first sight. The 2016 La Craie follows the style of previous vintages, where I’ve compared this Malbec and Cabernet Franc blend to some of my favorite wines from Bordeaux, especially Lafleur. This wine has consistently ranked among the best from Argentina, and it reaches a new high in the cooler 2016 vintage. It’s a blend of Malbec with some 15% Cabernet Franc from one of the cooler zones of Valle de Uco within Mendoza: Gualtallary. 

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Per Se’s vineyards in Gualtallary.

I don’t want to imply that Gualtallary is the best place to make quality wines in Argentina, or that all wines from Gualtallary are great. There’s high variability in the soils as happens in these alluvial places, and there are also differences in altitude and orientation that make it heterogeneous. But it’s clear that the best places in the area are truly great. It’s a matter of identifying these grand crus and treating them as such, to try to transfer the potential they have into the bottle and that often only happens after a few years working and improving the knowledge of one specific vineyard. You also need the help of Mother Nature with a great growing season and perfect conditions during the harvest. I actually saw it happen with two wines that come from Gualtallary—and from the same vineyard!

Furthermore, they are both the responsibility of the same person, Alejandro Vigil. He’s the technical director of Catena Zapata, where he crafted the 2016 Adrianna Vineyard River Stones. The Malbec Adrianna Vineyard in Gualtallary was split into three separate bottlings starting with 2013, making separations by soil type. The most austere of the three is the one they call River Stones, sourced from a stonier part of the vineyard, close to a dry river, which could be seen as the red equivalent to their white called White Stones. This plot has a north-facing exposure, the warmest one in the southern hemisphere, which in cooler years like 2013 or this 2016, works nicely. There was a jump in quality and precision right from 2013, and it was only a matter of time until they got to know those vines better and the weather provided the natural conditions for a first coup de coeur wine that deserved the highest score. 

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Alejandro Vigil is behind the Adrianna Vineyard River Stones from Catena and the Gran Enemigo Single Vineyard Gualtallary from his project with Catena’s daughter.

Vigil also has a side project with Doctor Catena’s youngest daughter, Adrianna, after whom the Gualtallary vineyard is named. Alejandro Vigil and Adrianna Catena used the contraction of their names to call their project, Aleanna. Even if it’s a small venture, at least compared with Catena, it seems to be quite prolific. There are a number of single vineyard wines, many in small volumes, Bonarda, Malbec…or not! Because the 2013 Gran Enemigo Single Vineyard Gualtallary, which was also sourced from a different plot within the Adrianna Vineyard (you have to realize that the vineyard is over 120 hectares!), is mostly Cabernet Franc. It might contain some 15% Malbec and even if the label mentions Cabernet Franc today, they will remove it in the near future, as they want to talk about the place rather than the grape variety. As with River Stones, it took some time to get the perfect conditions: I first tasted a 2009 bottling of this wine, and in 2013 it reached a level of precision, elegance, balance and inner strength that made it irresistible. This wine is released much later, almost three years later than the Catena one, as it’s more austere and needs more time. Both wines feel young and with lots of potential, but the one from Catena seem more approachable early on, and this is more reticent. What a great couple of wines!
Chile

No, my highest scoring wine from Chile was not a Carmenere. It wasn’t even a red. Yes, it was a white, and it was not Sauvignon Blanc either, the grape most people will think of if we say ‘white from Chile.’ It wasn’t an obscure varietal either, as it was nothing other than a Chardonnay. But it wasn’t your regular Chardonnay. It was one that comes from a very specific terroir, from the coastal part of a valley, a new way of seeing the vineyard regions from Chile. In a way it makes more sense to talk about vertical slices of the country than the traditional valleys. The coastal zone is close and provides an ocean influence, but the central part and the mountain vineyards at higher altitude are closer to the Andes. This specific Aconcagua area is quite different, as it has slate or schist soils, which I’ll call slate for simplification. I think perhaps over 90% of Chile’s greatest vineyards are planted on granite soils. Slate is related to granite, as it is a transformation of granite by pressure and where there is granite, there’s usually also some slate. But slate soils have not been thoroughly explored in Chile, and they are not as abundant as granite ones are. 

This Chardonnay from slate soils produced by Errázuriz got my attention right from the first vintage, 2014. The latest release is the 2017 Aconcagua Costa "Las Pizarras" Chardonnay, named after the slate soils where the grapes are grown, as pizarra means slate in Spanish. It’s their finest to date against all odds, as 2017 was one of the most challenging years of recent times. Winemaker Francisco ‘Pancho’ Baetting, who has taken Errázuriz to the top of the Chilean wine quality hierarchy, explained how he was able to harvest earlier achieving more concentration and structure through lower yields, which provides depth, complexity and incredible freshness and precision. It shone even when it was tasted next to the 2016, which in principle had been a much cooler year. 

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Unusual slate soils in the coastal part of Aconcagua.

This is an austere, crisp and precise Chardonnay I compared to a Chablis, or even better, one of the incredibly elegant Meursault wines from Jean-Marc Roulot. It made me think of that because even if it’s sharp and citrusy, its palate has more volume and depth and some nutty notes. In only four vintages it has climbed all the way to the top of the hierarchy. 

I really liked the 2016 Cuesta Chica Garnacha from Alcohuaz, one of the most extreme vineyards in Chile, up in the Andes part of the Elqui Valley. Elqui is a relatively new region for quality wine, better known for the production of Pisco until recently. What’s amazing is that the vines are very young, only planted between 2009 and 2010, and 2016 is only the second harvest. 2016 was a very cold year when snow affected the vineyards and they lost 82% of the crop. However, the Garnacha is planted at even higher altitude than most of the other varieties, at 2,200 meters, where they didn't have snow, but the ripening was very late. In 2016 they started using stems in the fermentation, some 40% of them, trying to improve the mouthfeel and show less fruit than in 2015. 

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High altitude vineyards at Alcohuaz in Elqui.

The 2016 is subtle and aromatic, very balanced and elegant. I was even more impressed when I had it in the context of a blind tasting that included some of the best Garnacha wines from all over the world. I was not the only one to be impressed, as it was one of the group’s favorite wines, and for sure one of the big surprises of the tasting, as most people didn’t know it and it was one of the best wines of the evening.

Even if I try to rotate the wines I mention in this ‘the best of,‘ I cannot help but come back to a label I’ve loved since I first arrived in Chile in 2013. I feel like I need to tell you over and over again, as it’s one of the finest wines from the country. One of the most exciting categories Chile is delivering are reds made from Cariñena, or Carignan as they call it in French, even though they speak Spanish. De Martino produces it and it’s part of the VIGNO association or Carignan producers from Maule. 

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The La Aguada vineyard in Maule, source for De Martino’s VIGNO bottling.

Once again, the cool character of year comes through in the 2016 VIGNO from the La Aguada single vineyard in Sauzal (Maule), even though label does not mention the vineyard anymore to comply with the VIGNO rules. The vineyard is planted following the contour lines with ungrafted and head-pruned vines, mostly Cariñena, but as most old vineyards, it really contains a field blend of different varieties. It has a complex nose intermixing aromas of smoked bacon, wild flowers and berries, earth and tree bark, in a rare combination of power and elegance that gives it a completely different profile from the rest of the Vigno wines from other producers.

Your Top 3 Greatest Value Wines of the Year

There are lots of good value wines in Spain, Argentina and Chile. In previous years I focused quite a lot on white wines, as they tend to be overlooked in the category because everybody expects white wines to be cheaper. Also they often represent very good value, perhaps because of the reluctance of the market to pay higher prices for them. But I’m coming back to reds this time. 

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This is one of the Garnacha vineyards from the village of Las Rozas de Puerto Real that contributes to Comando G’s La Bruja de Rozas.

2016 La Bruja de Rozas from Comando G in Gredos has to be the bargain of the year in Spain. 2016 is the best vintage Comando G has produced, and their entry level Garnacha from different vineyards in the village of Las Rozas de Puerto Real achieved a new height. The portfolio shines from start to end, and their top bottling is the best in its category, and so is this entry level. I first had it at a restaurant and I was simply blown away and ran to buy two cases for my cellar. It’s ethereal and seems weightless but it’s powerful, intense and transparent, with beautiful aromatics, a silky texture and the grainy minerality of the granite soils. It should be readily available, as they produced 62,000 bottles of it, a large quantity compared with the number of bottles they make from their single vineyards.

The Pinot Noir 2017 Refugio from Montsecano in Casablanca has to be one of the best values in Chile. 2017 was a challenging year, but they managed to produce an amazing wine, perhaps thanks to the many changes they introduced that year. For those of you who might not know Montsecano, it’s the joint venture between Chilean photographer Julio Donoso, Alsace superstar André Ostertag and some other financial partners and friends. 

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The entry-level Pinot Noir Refugio from Montsecano in Casablanca shines in 2017.

Ostertag's son, Arthur, is now involved in the winemaking and as a result, they made a lot of changes in 2017, such as including about 25% full clusters in the fermentation. They use no sulphur and no oak in this wine, and it has some of the character from the full clusters. However, the palate is very relaxed and harmonious as well as being minerally, with plenty of finesse and perfectly ripe fruit but without any excess. It is subtle, elegant and simply amazing; it has depth yet is approachable and very drinkable. I love the style and I consider it the best vintage they have ever produced at the domaine. It's a real bargain with some aging potential. 

I could also have chosen many others from Chile, like the 2017 Santa Cruz de Coya, a varietal País from Bio Bio produced by Roberto Henríquez or the incredibly priced 2018 EQ Coastal Sauvignon Blanc from Matetic in Casablanca. I just wanted to mention them here as runners-up.

Mediterranean grapes are still scarce in Argentina, but my guess is that they have a brilliant future there, and that we will see a lot more Garnacha, Monastrell and Cariñena coming from the vineyards. For now, a project dedicated mostly to Mediterranean grapes, Ver Sacrum, has already released some great examples at very competitive prices. 

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Ver Sacrum, one of the few Garnacha wines from Argentina.

Their 2016 Garnacha deserves to be my Argentina value wine of 2018. It was produced with grapes from an old vineyard planted in 1947 in the classical zone of Mendoza with intoxicating notes of rose water and so easy to drink that it could almost be dangerous. It fermented in an egg-shaped concrete vat, didn’t go through malolactic to keep extra freshness and it then spent six months in neutral oak barrels before being bottled. It has high acidity that makes you salivate and comes through as super tasty, with an electric mouthfeel. It retails for just under $20, a bargain price for such quality. 

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2016 La Bruja de Rozas from Comando G in Gredos. One to buy by the case!

Your Greatest Wine Drinking Experiences of 2015

I’m very sorry, but this is the one category where I cannot restrain myself to just three wines. It could be that I drink much wider than I taste, and the world of wine is so diverse and fascinating that I always encounter a number of exceptional wines that I feel need to be explained. These come in no particular order, simply as they came to mind.

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The simple Wendouree label showcases the simplicity of their approach to wine.

Yes, I’m going to start with a wine from Australia, for those that think I’m too much of a Francophile. I was introduced to cult producer Wendouree thanks to a good friend from Europe who’s living there. It’s not easy to get their wines in Australia, and it’s virtually impossible to find them in the rest of the world. They are in the Clare Valley where they work with extremely old vines, the oldest of which were planted in 1893, and produce their wines in a very traditional and hand-crafted style in a winery built in 1914. The problem is that they only sell to a list of private customers and have no distribution or importers anywhere. Furthermore, they don’t want wine writers to talk about them. (I hope they don’t get too annoyed with me.) This time it was the 2011 Malbec-Shiraz, but every time I get blown away by the sheer power, intensity and character of all their wines, concentrated and powerful but not brash or alcoholic. They are built for the long haul, with plenty of lovely rusticity and personality. 

Martin Ray was a pioneer in California. But he retired so long ago that most people don’t remember him nor have ever had one of his wines. He planted the original Mount Eden vineyard and inspired people the way Henry Jayer did in Burgundy. His wines are virtually impossible to find, and some people tell me the bottles are not always great. But I was extremely lucky with a bottle of 1968 Private Reserve of Martin Ray Cabernet Sauvignon. It had varietal character, it was still lively, complex and nuanced, polished but with life ahead. Let’s pray for another bottle…

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This rare bottle of Martin Ray has to be one of the finest Cabernets from California I’ve ever had.

Many might think the 2010 La Tâche, the largest production wine from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, has nothing special other than its price. Also, it’s not very original to name La Tâche one of the best wines you’ve had in a given year. But I think this 2010 has to be among the finest vintages of the last 30 years. I had a bottle of it in the particularly happy context of friends celebrating something big, and it really blew me away. There is something emotional, often not rational, about a bottle of La Tâche, but I’m sure this would rank among the best wines in the world even without its fame and label.

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Many would argue the Gonon brothers might be the finest producers working in the northern Rhône. I’m not talking about Saint-Joseph, where they live and work, I’ve said the whole of the northern Rhone! The 2009 St Joseph Vielles Vignes is only the third vintage after 2006 and 2007 they have released of this bottling that comes from a parcel of very old vines that was worked before by old-timer Raymond Trollat. If their wines aged slowly, this one is going at a truly glacial pace. It feels so young you could easily guess it was a 2015. And there is no heat in the wine even if the year was warm and ripe. This can certainly age for 50 years. 

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Notice the Vieilles Vignes words on this bottle of Gonon.

This is their latest release, as the 2010 is already bottled, but they don’t know what they are going to do with it. Because this is reaching cult status which reminds me of the Cuvée Cathelin from Chave, and as with the Chaves, they believe this wine is not better than their regular bottling. Their St. Joseph, a blend of different plots, represents the essence of what they do, and they feel there is too much focus on this rare cuvée that is only one 600-liter barrel, so scarcely 900 bottles. But I tell you, if you see one, irrespective of vintage (and I was tempted to say price), grab it!

A friend’s 50th birthday provided a great opportunity to meet with a bunch of friends from different countries and drink some truly unbelievable bottles, like the ultra-rare 1988 Bonnes Mares Vieilles Vignes from Roumier. Christophe Roumier has turned into one of the biggest stars from Burgundy, and rightly so, as I feel his winemaking has been fine tuned in the last 20 years or so, and his wines have a lot more finesse than they used to. Unfortunately prices have gone through the roof, and it’s not easy to find older vintages. As far as I know, this bottling of the older vines from the different plots he works in Bonnes Mares has only been released in 1988. The wine is usually a blend of grapes from both the red and white soils in the cru as well as the younger and older vines. This had great power and finesse, and it had evolved beautifully in bottle. 

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The old vines from Roumier’s Bonnes Mares were only bottled separately in 1988.

Dirk Niepoort is an old wine friend, who I’ve known for 20 years now. With him I’ve drunk some of the greatest wines in the world, and most of the incredible Ports his family have produced for five generations. The 1940 Garrafeira Port was something very special this year and I didn’t drink it with him. Garrafeira is a style of Port only Niepoort continues bottling today. It almost disappeared from the regulations and they had to fight to keep it as an official category of Port proving that it was traditionally produced in the past. 

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Garrafeira Port ages in oak, glass demijohn and bottle. It’s a style only Niepoort continues producing today.

They age the wine for a short-ish time in oak, and then put it to age for a long time in glass demijohns until it’s finally bottled. The labels have three dates, the vintage year, 1940 in this case, the year it was but in demijohn, 1945 in this case, and the year in which it was put into bottle, 1979. A long time in bottle makes the wine very fine and elegant, and I think it’s the most Burgundian of all Ports. Niepoort often talks about a ‘glass taste,’ which is a very fine reduction that keeps the wine very focused and long rather than round and wide and without any nutty notes you find in the oak aged styles. 

Your Best Dinner of the Year 

I’m almost sure my best meal every year could be at El Celler de Can Roca, and this year I had a crazy lunch with some 50 different wines! But this time I’ll go for something unexpected and different: Kiro Sushi, an ultra-traditional sushi bar in Logroño, in the heart of Rioja! How surprising is that? I wrote extensively about the experience, as I was really impressed with a dinner there when I was tasting in the region.

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The battlefield at El Celler de Can Roca.

It’s a 10-seat sushi bar that follow the most strict edomae sushi traditions in a way that could make you believe you are seated in one of the starred places in Tokyo. I couldn’t believe the quality of the fish and the rice, but also the attention to detail. Chef Félix Jiménez, from Alfaro, the village with most land under vine in Rioja, received a Michelin star at the end of 2017 and he surely deserves it. What’s more, I wouldn’t be surprised if he got the second one in a few more years! I’m just dying to go back with some of my more sushi-savvy friends so they can confirm that I was not dreaming. We have a new super-star in Rioja!

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Kiro Sushi, an unexpected sushi place in the heart of Rioja!

I also have to mention the Tegui en SuperUco dinner experience in Mendoza during the 2018 harvest of the southern hemisphere. Germán Martitegui is one of the most renowned chefs from Buenos Aires, where his restaurant is considered one of the top addresses for contemporary cuisine in Argentina. In 2018, he decided to temporarily close the doors of Tegui restaurant and take the restaurant, the kitchen and the whole team, to the winery of the Michelini brothers in the Valle de Uco. 

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Tegui in SuperUco, one of Buenos Aires’ finest restaurants in the middle of the Mendoza vineyards.

For 40 days they did just one service a day, starting quite early for Argentina, sometime between lunch and dinner, which surprised most people, so you could view the sunset over the Andes mountains while you ate seated on a wooden platform built in the vineyard that surrounds the winery! All of a sudden, the whole country wanted to get a seat, which sold like hot cakes. I have to admit that I modified the dates of my trip to Mendoza a bit to be able to eat there, as I never really go to Buenos Aires and its restaurants. But this time Buenos Aires and one of its leading restaurants was going to Mendoza, and I could be there! The Michelinis organized one evening of winemakers and friends and I went that day. It really was an experience—more than just the food, it was the place, the landscape, the people and some wines we all brought in an evening of wine, food and sharing.

Your Best Get-a-Life Outside of Wine Things of the Year

Do I have time for stuff other than wine? Well, not much, but I try to make the most out of it. There’s always time to read and listen to music. Playing an instrument and traveling is more challenging, but I managed a little bit of everything in 2018. These are some of the highlights that come to mind. 

I have very much enjoyed an AOR album called Unum by an unknown Portuguese artist called Rocha. It’s like a trip back to the 1980s, with a sleek, polished production from cult producer Keith Olsen and tracks recorded by studio musicians like Vinnie Colaiuta, Jeff Paris, Michael Thompson or Matt Bisonette. How is that possible nowadays? 

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Unum by Rocha: a record Journey could be proud of.

Nobody knows, but I have a friend who is friends with Rocha, so he told me. The explanation is simple: it’s the brainchild of Portuguese music lover, musician and concert promoter Rui Rocha who dreamt of having a luxury record of his own with the best production and top musicians. How do you do that? Well, pretty simple, with (lots of) your own money! So it’s a self-published record, which he sells directly, and the aim was not to make money, he did it for the love of music. If you miss Journey, Toto or Foreigner, you’re going to love this!

There are always enough wine books to write a whole article about them (I think we should do it) and I don’t want to miss quickly mentioning Peter Liem’s Champagne: The Essential Guide to the Wines, Producers, and Terroirs of the Iconic Region (even if it was technically published at the end of 2017), as it’s the first book on Champagne written from the point of view of the land rather than the producers, or The Sommelier’s Atlas of Taste by Jordan Mackay and Rajat Parr. 

But the one gastronomy book that is unique this year is a cheese book called Reinventing the Wheel: Milk, Microbes, and the Fight for Real Cheese, by husband and wife, Francis and Bronwen Percival. He’s a wine writer and it shows in the text, as it has a very wine-like approach to explaining real cheese, the one produced using unpasteurized milk. She’s the buyer for one of the leading British cheese merchants, Neal’s Yard, whose shops you shouldn’t miss next time you’re in London. They definitely know what they’re talking about, and I think it’s a cheese book that will appeal to wine nuts in a bit of a geeky way. 

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As with wine, there is no need to reinvent the wheel in cheese. One of my favorite books of 2018.

Music and books done…What about movies? Well, if I had to tell you about a film that I’ve enjoyed, Queen’s biographical movie Bohemian Rhapsody quickly comes to mind, also because it was very recently. And a surprise was a TV series produced in Spain named Money Heist you can get from Netflix. 

When it comes to doing and traveling, lack of time is a real constraint, as we spend most of it chasing wines. I hadn’t been to Scotland for 24 years, so a visit was long overdue. We had a family celebration in Glasgow in the summer, so the timing couldn’t have been better. Scotland has some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world, and driving around the country is not that difficult, as it’s pretty small. You can easily combine castles and whisky distilleries and do a round trip in a week. A highlight was the Isle of Skye, of which I had a completely different recollection, making for a pleasant surprise. I don’t know what we saw the previous time, but what we discovered there was amazing, and it deserves a good two or three full days next time, as the winding, narrow roads make moving from one place to the next quite slow even if distances are short.

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Some of the scenery in Scotland looks custom-built for a movie. But it’s real!

I believe the best wine event in Spain in 2018 was the Fiesta de la Floración organized by the Comando G and Marañones wineries in the Gredos Mountains. And it’s not only my opinion, as that was THE event where everybody wanted to be, punters and producers, as you had people like Jean-Marc Roulot, Raphaël Bérêche, Piero Incisa della Rocchetta or Rajat Parr behind a table pouring their wines in a spectacular vineyard close to Madrid on a beautiful spring day. It was a huge wine party and the day ended with a few live rock bands, one of them being The Winedrinkers, where I play bass guitar. We had Chilean soil expert Pedro Parra playing sax on two songs and we had a blast. And so did everyone else, as they sipped their 1948 Niepoort Garrafeira Port straight from the demijohn while we played! I’m sure people will talk about this event for years.

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La Fiesta de la Floración. Left to right, Dirk Niepoort, yours truly and Pedro Parra. (Photo © Estanis Nuñez.)

Now let me get back to chasing more wines for the forthcoming Wine Advocate issues. Until next year!

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