Our working years are always very intense, and 2019 was no exception. For me, it started in Bierzo and Galicia, and then moved to Central and Mediterranean Spain with a stint to check on the Canary Islands Renaissance. Our End Of June issue was the busiest for me, as I visited Jura, Jerez and Rioja with a special report on the Telmo Rodríguez portfolio. I then proceeded to visit Priorat and the rest of the appellations of Cataluña with a particular focus on the new association of sparkling wines producers Corpinnat who left Cava to pursue their own path. October was dedicated to Argentina with a mammoth article referencing close to 1,200 wines. In 2019, I didn’t cover Chile, which should be published in February 2020, and I will finish the year now with the superb 2016s and more than promising 2018s from the appellations around the Duero River. So I covered most of Spain, save for the Garnacha regions that will come back in 2020 right after Chile.
And if you could summarize 12 months of travel, tasting and writing in a few lines, this is my attempt to do so in these highlights of 2019.
Wines of the Year
I can’t say I have many new discoveries among my top three in Argentina, as all three wineries have featured in previous years. It’s not easy to have other than subtle movements at the very top of the hierarchy…
But I can report that the Familia Zuccardi have released their best wines ever from the 2016 vintage, and their 2016 Finca Piedra Infinita merited a three digit score after a journey of improvement and consistency that has taken them to the helm of quality wine from Argentina. They have made the most remarkable progress in quality since I started reviewing the wines from the country in 2014. They have taken away the layers of ripeness, oak and human intervention from their wines that have showed increasingly better with each vintage until they arrived at this remarkable 2016.
2016 was a cool, wet year when they learned a lot: the wines have less alcohol and are better in the Valle de Uco than in the classical zone of Mendoza. The wine has reached a stratospheric level of precision, symmetry and elegance. It’s really captivating and everything seems to be in its place—great harmony and clean, pure aromatics with a liquid chalk-like texture. It seems to summarize the work carried out at Zuccardi in the last few years, coming through as powerful and elegant, combining energy and finesse.
Per Se is also a well-known name to our readers, although their wines are produced in very small quantities and can be difficult to find. But they are certainly among the best in the country and deserve all the praise they get. I usually like their La Craie bottling but in the warmer 2017 vintage, things were a little different. They have finally linked specific terroirs to each of their bottlings, and in this warmer year my impression was that the 2017 Iubileus shone especially brightly. All of their wines now come from vineyards in the Gualtallary Monastery, which was not the case in the past, and the range is becoming more place-oriented.
Iubileus comes from a part of the vineyard that has a little more topsoil, which I think can behave better in a warmer year such as 2017. It's very expressive and open, and it felt fresher and more floral than La Craie from this same vintage. The good news is that they produced 1,180 bottles of it!
There are two single vineyard whites from the Adrianna vineyard from Gualtallary produced by Catena Zapata, and these tend to be among the best wines from Argentina. This time, I was blown away by the 2018 White Stones Chardonnay, a wine that seems to epitomize the expression of the grape in the cooler-climate and high-altitude location. People often compare the White Stones with the other single vineyard Chardonnay also from Adrianna, the White Bones. White Stones is sourced from small plots where the soil is rich in chalk-covered stones all the way to the surface, hence the name. The vines that produce the White Bones are planted on similar limestone-covered stones soils, but there are about 40 centimeters of topsoil, which protects the vines from the heat. So perhaps the White Stones works best in cooler years and White Bones might take warmer years better.
In any case, we are talking about whites with freshness and electricity, with moderate alcohol levels and incredible freshness. They also have a very low pH, defined by rectitude, austerity and elegance, that in 2018 I have found closer to the style of Roulot than Coche-Dury.
Terroir Al Limit‘s wines from Priorat have been flirting with the maximum score for years. It was only a matter of time until all the circumstances were right to get a wine like the 2016 Les Manyes, to me the best wine they have produced to date. Les Manyes is an unusual terroir in Priorat, as it’s limestone-based rather than slate, and one could argue it should belong to Montsant rather than Priorat. It’s located at 800 meters altitude on clay and limestone soils, close to the Mas Deu vineyard belonging to Scala Dei. The combination of altitude and soils has to be the secret why it produces more elegant and fresher wines than your average Priorat.
For pure Garnacha reds, the benchmark is always Château Rayas, but there is also something reminiscent of a great traditional Nebbiolo from Piamonte here. And there is no room for sweetness; it’s a salty wine, a wine for food, a wine for gastronomy. I think this represents a more approachable style of Priorat.
De La Riva may be an old brand but it’s a brand new project in Jerez, resurrected by Willy Pérez and Ramiro Ibáñez. The wine I want to highlight here, the 2017 De La Riva Macharnudo Vino Blanco, also has a component of something old that is new. It’s the finest non-fortified white from the Jerez zone that I've tasted, a style brought back by the first Navazos-Niepoort, but a style that was traditionally produced in the zone.
Grapes that were sun-dried for six to eight hours from the El Majuelo plot in Pago Macharnudo in Jerez are used here. The bunches were pressed in full, using a small vertical press and the juice was put in old Domecq Fino casks to ferment with all the lees. They are looking for the character of the wines from the past (the model being the wines from the 1940s), with some rusticity but plenty of energy. The wine was then kept in the bota for some 18 months. The barrels were not topped up, but the veil of flor was quite thin, more like the ones in Jura than the normal one in Jerez, and it was also darker. It's 14% natural alcohol—from concentration—that feels very integrated and balanced in an XL way. It has the nose of a Fino, with a lot of flor character; it's still young (the spices should grow with time in bottle) and has the clout of Macharnudo in the palate.
I cannot help but highlight the ungrafted Monastrell red 2017 Pie Franco from Casa Castillo in Jumilla, a wine that has featured on my top of the year list previously. I tasted the current range with proprietor and winemaker José María Vicente on a typical Mediterranean morning, cold early on but with lots of sunshine and light, and the wines showed particularly floral and elegant to the point that even Vicente seemed surprised.
This vineyard was planted ungrafted (pie franco means ungrafted in Spanish) in 1942 by Vicente’s grandfather on very poor soils, in a place where there is no water and therefore no possibility to irrigate, which means low plantation density and extremely low yields. The challenge is to tame the power of this Mediterranean wine and make something elegant, as power comes naturally. In the typical Mediterranean year of 2017, which in the zone is a much better vintage than in central and northern Spain, they had a lot more rain during the winter so the plants got enough water. It didn’t rain between April and July, and then 70 liters of rain in late August slowed down the harvest that had started very early. The plants got rehydrated and completed the ripening cycle perfectly. For José María Vicente, the medium- to low-yielding year is the perfect Mediterranean year, with freshness added by those rains, and he considers it the best vintage since Casa Castillo started in 1991, to which I can only agree.
The Jura is a 2,000-hectare region of France that has become incredibly trendy in the last few years. I started covering the wines from there in 2015, because I liked them, had good contacts in the region and the flor-aged wines could be considered relatives of the biologically-aged wines from Jerez. Demand for Jura wines has skyrocketed, and some producers like Ganevat or Overnoy are true cult figures around the globe besides the fact that all sommeliers now want to have wines from Jura on their wine lists!
My coup de coeur during my adventures in the Jura were the wines from Domaine des Miroirs, and in particular the 2012 Entre Deux Bleus Savagnin. They are one of the hidden names from Jura, whose wines are very difficult to find…outside Japan! Let me explain, because this is the project belonging to Japanese winemaker, Kenjiro Kagami, who arrived in France after a career in engineering. He worked with Bruno Schueller in Alsace and with Thierry Allemand in Cornas, after which he arrived in the Jura as a protégé of Jean-François Ganevat. He produced his first Jura wines in 2011, and until 2017 he only worked three hectares of very low yielding vines, even lower in recent years due to frost, which meant he hardly made enough wine to make a living.
His wines from organically farmed vines are produced in the most natural way possible, without any additives, and they are super-precise, clean, focused and elegant. He pays painstaking attention to detail, as only the Japanese seem to be able to do, and this is reflected in the wines. I was floored by this 2012, but I’d buy any bottle and any color I find, as all his wines merit a recommendation.
He had a little more wine in 2018, and I tasted the Poulsard and Trousseau separately while the whites were still slowly bubbling away in mid-May. There is no room for rushing things at Kenjiro’s cellar. He made some Savagnin aged under a veil of yeast in 2015, 2016 and 2018, and we might see some of that in the market around 2022…Patience should be rewarded.
A winery that deserves to be better known in Jura is the Domaine Montbourgeau, the leading producer in the small village and appellation of l'Étoile, and to me a source of some of the most elegant wines from Jura.
2011 seems to be an exceptional year for Vin Jaune, a much better vintage than 2010, which was superb for ouillé whites. The 2011 Vins Jaunes seem to have the necessary components for a long aging in bottle, but they are also approachable when young; so, they can be drunk now or laid down in the cellar, and I suspect they should drink nicely throughout their lives as there is good freshness as well as very good balance. Montbourgeau’s 2011 L'Étoile Vin Jaune comes from slightly higher yields than the 2009, and epitomizes the character of the vintage, which combines power with elegance, when even the wine from Jacques Puffeney showed elegant and subtle, with a wonderfully tender and delicate nose.
I want to highlight an ouillé white, most of you should know about the incredible Vignes de Mon Père from Ganevat, that shows again very strong in 2008, but I don’t want to sound like a scratched record. So this time I’m going to focus on an exceptional Chardonnay from Bénédicte and Stéphane Tissot, the 2016 Arbois Chardonnay Clos de la Tour de Curon, from a vineyard he planted at 12,000 plants per hectare. Stéphane and his wife Bénédicte have nine hectares in the Tour de Curon, a historical site in Jura that was said to be the best vineyard in the commune of Arbois, where legends like Camille Loye that the Tissots started working in 2002. They had to replant part of the vineyard, including one plot at 26,000 plants per hectare! But this wine is made from the walled part, the Clos surrounding the tower.
They do own the old vines that used to belong to Camille Loye there, but those grapes, from vines outside the wall, are used for the Gravières bottling. This Clos de la Tour de Curon is elegant and mineral, restrained, shy and austere.
Value Wines of the Year
There are plenty of value wines to select from my regions, so I’m going for diversity here choosing one from each of the three countries I visited in 2019, Spain, Argentina and the Jura.
Almost any wine from Ponce, the quality leaders in Manchuela in Central/Mediterranean Spain, could qualify as value wine from Spain year in and year out. They champion the local red grape Bobal, but I’ve selected their white 2018 Ponce Reto from the more obscure Albilla grape because it’s really surprising to find such fresh and mineral white from a warm climate region, a wine that is perfect for food, can be drunk young or age beautifully…and I wanted to have a white wine in my value wines of the year!
They usually refer to their grape in the feminine form, Albilla, and it’s a mysterious grape only grown in the village of Villamalea in Manchuela. It’s different from the other Albillo grapes from other regions of Spain, the Albillo Real from Gredos, Albillo Mayor in Ribera del Duero or the Albillo Criollo from La Palma and other places in the Canary Islands.
Albilla is a grape that has not been planted recently, so all of the existing vines are pretty old, head-pruned and dry-farmed. The profile of the wine is sharp, with great acidity and a faint bitterness in the finish, which is a signature of the variety, very tasty, almost salty and with a stony/mineral character that can be compared with a Bairrada from Quinta das Bagéiras, a Sancerre from Vatan or Agua de Roca from Matías Michelini.
Chacra’s Pinot Noirs are the benchmark for this grape in Argentina. The project is the brainchild of Piero Incisa della Roccheta, from the Sassicaia family in Italy. Encouraged by Hans Vinding Diers from Noemía in the Argentinian Patagonia, Incisa discovered the region and realized the potential of the finicky Burgundian grape in the zone. I have selected the 2018 Chacra Barda as one of the best values of the year.
In this wine he favors approachability and drinkability, which means in 2018, 60% of the wine matured in concrete to keep the freshness and crunchiness of the Pinot Noir fruit, and the rest was in barrels for eight months. The good news is that they produced 100,000 bottles of the 2018 Barda, so it shouldn’t be too difficult to find.
Chacra’s wines are all about harmony, purity and energy. And of course, the big news in the last couple of years is that they are now producing whites from Chardonnay in a joint venture with Jean-Marc Roulot! And Roulot is not a consultant here, he's a co-owner, and they are building a new winery dedicated exclusively to the production of white wines, where the idea is to never exceed the 60,000-bottle mark. As you can imagine because of the style of the reds from Chacra and Roulot’s whites, I find myself using the words precision and purity over and over again when talking about their wines!
It’s not easy to know how much the wines from Lucien Aviet might cost, because it depends a lot on where and when you buy them (like many wines produced by small French vignerons), as a large percentage of their production is sold directly to private customers at the winery. They might not be easy to find, and when you do find them, it might not be easy to know exactly what you bought. The reason for this is that the labels do not always contain the information about the grape or vineyard, and are often named with fancy names, Cuvée des Docteurs, Réserve du Caveau or Cuvée del Géologues. But I want to direct you towards his Trousseau, as they have some of the best know terroirs for this Jurassic red grape in the world. And to me Lucien Aviet & Fils are one of the best producers of red Jura wine, so I want to put them in the spotlight for you.
Their village, Montigny les Arsures, a stone’s throw from Arbois (the wines usually carry the appellation Arbois) is known as ‘the Trousseau world capital,’ where some of the best growers of the grape are or were located, such as Jacques Puffeney, Stéphane Tissot or Lucien Aviet himself.
I was highly impressed by the 2015 Lucien Aviet Trousseau 229 Monceau, whose name means it was produced with grapes from their Monceau vineyard and it macerated with skins and pips for 229 days, which is a remarkably long time. They have realized an extended maceration does not bring more power to the wine, but rather brings finesse.
Lucien Aviet is a Jura old-timer who went to school with Pierre Overnoy and even though now officially retired, he’s in the cellar every day helping his son Vincent who is now in charge of vinification and élevage. The approach is very traditional, natural fermentation in oak foudres and aging in used barrels that were never topped up; they have only started to experiment with ouillé whites (topped up without flor). They make up to four different Trousseaus, from different terroirs and now some extended maceration cuvées like this one or even another one that lasted for 313 days!
Of course, wine is meant to be drunk, not tasted, and I like to drink as widely as possible—enjoying wines from different styles, colors and regions. But inevitably names like Niepoort, López de Heredia, Roumier or Domaine de la Romanée-Conti could feature among the best every year (when I manage to drink some), so for the sake of diversity, I’m going to select some lesser-known names this time, and use the occasion to tell you a little bit about their history.
Noël Verset was one of the true old timers from Cornas. He was born in 1919, started working with his father in 1931 (at age 12!), produced his first wine in 1943 and continued working in the Cornas vineyards until 2007 (although it’s a little unclear to me whether his last commercial release was the 2003 or 2006). Anyway, I deeply I regret never visiting Verset who died in 2015 aged 95, but I was lucky enough to purchase some of his wines before prices become prohibitive (take a look at Wine-Searcher if you want to have a heart attack!).
He was classical to the point of only producing one Cornas, a blend of the wines from all his vineyards (now in the hands of producers like Thierry Allemand or Clape). I was lucky enough to drink a bottle of that 1985 which a friend was kind enough to uncork in February, and then I uncorked my last of that same vintage with him last month! You can still read Bob Parker’s enthusiastic note written back in 1997 on his 1985 Noël Verset Cornas in our database. (If I had to review this wine today I tell you my score would be much higher.)
The origin of Domaine Leroy was the purchase of the holdings of Charles Noëllat back in 1988. In fact, that was the last transaction to date from vineyards in Richebourg. A few years before they had produced the 1976 Charles Noëllat Richebourg that I found in a shop in Lyon and purchased with the idea of drinking it with two specific friends. The domaine doesn’t have a good reputation and most people say their vineyards were superb (they had Richebourg, Romanée-St-Vivant, Clos Vougeot and 1er crus in Vosne and Nuits) but the wines were poor. Forty-something years later, that bottle of 1976 Richebourg proved the magnificence of the vineyard, as the wine was sublime. It had the Vosne spice and the Richebourg power, fully mature and still lively.
Quinta do Noval is a historic property in the Portuguese Douro, dating from the 18th Century. It was then purchased around 1880 by a Port producer named Antonio José Da Silva. But it wasn’t until years later that the wines started carrying the name of the property, so a bottle of a 1880 A. J. Silva Colheita Port, although not explicit on the labels, has to be one of the oldest Quinta do Noval wines in existence today. I have no idea when this wine was bottled, but I’m sure it matured in oak for at least 40 years, possibly more. I have no idea when this wine was first sold, but some bottles have resurfaced at auction and in some specialist shops in Portugal.
Drinking a wine like this is always like time traveling, and almost only fortified wines are able to age for so long (although some red and white wines are still glorious at age 140!). This wine is still full of energy, and feels 100 years younger than it is. The tawny Ports are always nuttier than the rubies, and this is also spicy and smoky but in a subtle way. Wines like this last forever, especially in your memory…
To me wine is an intrinsic part of gastronomy, and I don’t understand food without wine or wine without food. With wine, there are many great moments of sharing and enjoying around a table so here are some of the things worth mentioning from 2019.
I visited Champagne a couple of times this year and one of the discoveries was the caves and restaurant Aux Crieurs du Vin in Troyes where you can eat, drink and buy bottles to take back home, all three of which I did. It’s very informal and relaxed, and the food was based on the best products and the best artisans. When you went to the toilet one of the decorations was a list of their suppliers, who sold them bread, butter, charcuterie, meat—it was basically a list of who’s who of the best artisans in France (a list you can also find on their web page).
If there is a French gastronomical product that is linked to Troyes is andouillette, a sausage made with pork intestines that can range from sublime to disgusting, as often happens with offal. And I’m happy to report that the one served at Crieurs du Vin is the finest I have had in my life!
One road trip that I was fortunate to take this year was a visit to Fäviken, a heralded restaurant in the north of Sweden. I had wanted to go there for a while, but it’s so far away and difficult to get to that I had never found the right time. But some friends pushed for it, and we secured a booking just a few weeks before chef Magnus Nilsson announced he was going to close the restaurant forever.
More than the dinner there, which was good and fun and included many great wines, or the superb breakfast, the best thing was the whole trip itself. Spending a night in Stockholm on the way there and on the way back, finding local restaurants with great wines, sharing, meeting other friends there and sharing more great bottles, shopping at the Fäviken charcuterie, driving there, visiting the wild surroundings (the restaurant is literally in the middle of nowhere) and the fun conversations with my friends, coming up with crazy ideas for tastings and future dinners. That’s what life is about.
And how about the best salad of your life? Salad is rarely memorable, and if it comes pre-washed, pre-cut (soon pre-chewed?) from a plastic bag, it can be awful. But, as is the case with lots of foods today, when you get pristine, first class ingredients, it can be amazing. Which is what happened when some Irish relatives were visiting us at our home in Madrid. A friend had hand-delivered a selection of mini-vegetables, leafs, sprouts and edible flowers that looked incredible.
So using these ingredients, we prepared a highly visual but also incredibly tasty salad that included ice plant, which is crunchy and salty, leaves with different flavors, tiny cabbages and lots of unusual stuff that I cannot name, and it was an explosion of flavors and textures to the point that we all named it “the best salad of our life!"
Life Beyond Wine
I’m running out of time, so I’ll give you a couple of cool things beyond wine, travel and music…
Last year I spent little more than 24 hours in the island of Skye in Scotland and the place was so captivating and had so much to discover (and seemed to me so different from what I had seen there 25 years ago), that I decided to go back this year, spend a little more time on the island and explore it in more depth. Besides the Talisker distillery, the great food at The Three Chimneys or some of the finest smoked salmon I remember, hot smoked with alder wood (Isle of Skye Smokehouse), Skye is about nature. Wild, raw nature to die for, cliffs and lakes, mountains, bridges, waterfalls...I need to go back!
Looking at my music purchases over the last 12 months, it’s been mostly old stuff, oddities or the casual record that had flown completely under the radar, like the album Under Cover from Ozzy Osbourne, stuffed with amazing cover versions of classics with the Osbourne twist from 1997. I cannot help but laugh when I imagine him recording "Woman" from John Lennon. But thanks to my rock music advisor Alberto, I discovered some of the best 2019 releases in a last minute attempt to not miss what happened in rock albums this year. And I have to agree with him that My Criminal Record from Australian Jimmy Barnes is superb. It even includes a couple of versions, "Tougher Than The Rest" by Springsteen and again Lennon’s "Working Class Hero" that is also included in Osbourne’s mentioned album.
We had The Pink Floyd Exhibition Their Mortal Remains in Madrid that came from The Victoria and Albert Museum in London, Rome and Dortmund that might be traveling to other cities in the world. It was very much in the style of the previous David Bowie exhibition that I had seen in Barcelona in 2017, a chronological walk through the history of the band, their records and members, showing original artwork, music, interviews, instruments and paraphernalia from shows like The Wall or The Division Bell. If this comes to your town and you’re into Pink Floyd you should not miss it.
Music has always been a very important part of my life. I still play a little with a group of wine-loving friends and we call ourselves The Winedrinkers. Of course, some of them are proper professional musicians, and some of us just make noise and provide wine for the rehearsals! Last Christmas we did a gig in Madrid, and we were joined on stage by a true legend, the Blues Brother’s sax player Lou Marini!
I know how people love lists and rankings, so for a quick reference here is a summary of my 2018 and 2017 best of the year.
Best of 2018
2015 Telmo Rodrígues Las Beatas
2001 López de Heredia Parreno
2016 Comando G Rumbo al Norte
2016 Per Se La Craie
2016 Catena Zapata Adrianna Vineyard River Stones
2013 Aleanna Gran Enemigo Single Vineyard Gualtallary
2017 Errázuriz Aconcagua Costa Las Pizarras Chardonnay
2016 Alcohuaz Cuesta Chica Garnacha
2016 De Martino VIGNO
2016 Comando G LA Bruja de Rozas
2017 Montsecano Refugio
2016 Ver Sacrum Garnacha
Best of 2017
2013 Domino del Águila Canta La Perdiz
2014 Descendientes de J. Palacios La Faraona
2015 Casa Castillo Pie Franco
2009 Domaine Macle Château Chalon
2000 Emmanuel Houillon and Pierre Overnoy Arbois Pupillin Vin Jaune
2009 Jacques Puffeney Arbois Vin Jaune
2015 Errázuriz Aconcagua Costa Las Pizarras Chardonnay
2014 Cono Sur Ocio Pinot Noir
2014 Garage Wine Co Truquilemu Vineyard
2016 Viña Tabalí Talinay Sauvignon Blanc
2015 Raúl Pérez Ultreia St Jacques
2016 Envínate Táganan Blanco
See you during the year, and back for the best of 2020 next December! Cheers!