I think discoveries—of anything—should be as much about the sharing of journeys behind those discoveries as they are about unveiling that recently unearthed treasure. 2020 has not been a year of much physical travel, but that does not mean that I have not journeyed. Indeed, the greatest beauty of wine, for me, is how it transports you without even needing to leave your home. Nothing gives me more excitement than being able to share some of my recent journeys of discovery in the glass with our readership.
When I was putting together my list of 2020 Wine Discoveries, I realized that my first attempt heavily favored California and that Bordeaux didn’t have many entirely “new” wines at all, in the strictest sense of the word, particularly in a small vintage offering like 2017. But that’s not fair, because so much change and innovation is currently happening in regions around the world with a long history like Bordeaux. Even if the labels are not at all new, what’s happening behind those famous names and all that regional tradition is occasionally quite innovative. Therefore, my discoveries this year are not just the brand-new labels that leapt out at me, but some of equally thrilling, head-turning re-discoveries I’ve made.
Over the last year I have had the opportunity to re-discover some of the great châteaux that are very well known to me but which are making subtle, exciting changes—changes that take them to a whole new place. Château Palmer is a great example. Since trials began with biodynamic viticulture in 2008, the estate has been on a journey to better, more sustainably express their land and their philosophy. But as we all know, changes in the vineyards can be very slow to show in the wine. Meanwhile, winemaker Thomas Duroux has been working with the vineyard team and in the winery to fine-tune and ultimately to be able to do less, in order to make something more. The 2017 vintage marks the first time that the estate used all native yeasts for the fermentations. Duroux is also decreasing his sulfur additions, with his first addition of SO2 occurring relatively late in the processing this year—not until the end of blending, at the end of February 2018. This is a journey that has not come without a lot of soul-searching and sacrifice. Indeed, a critic or a consumer might question why? Why go to all this effort if the wine is already famously great and the methods are not necessarily going to improve the quality (score)? Tasting the 2017 Palmer, I began to understand why. There is a brightness to this wine, an energy, a kind of shimmer that is difficult to put into words. This change is so subtle but incredibly significant and well-worth highlighting. Even for those that know this château very well, this vintage truly offers a wine for you to re-discover.
Other Bordeaux discoveries for me included a brand new Pomerol château—Séraphine—breathing an exhilaratingly fresh take into this traditional region while staying true to the style. And I loved, loved, loved tasting Berenice Lurton’s new take on a dry white wine coming from her Sauternes plantings at Château Climens, called Château Asphodele, made in collaboration with Pascal Jolivet from Sancerre. La Gaffelière was hit hard by the 2017 frosts in Bordeaux, but a good portion of the vineyard is up on the hill by Château Ausone, and it is this unaffected section that was largely used to make the grand vin this year. This is one of the very finest La Gaffelières ever tasted—truly a “new” wine beneath an old label. Les Champs Libres is a relatively new Bordeaux Sauvignon Blanc (but from Sancerre clones) offering made by the forward-thinking, highly attuned and very talented Guinaudeau family of Château Lafleur fame. Meanwhile, Les Carmes Haut-Brion has become something of a Pessac renegade in recent years, in the best possible sense of this word. Made predominately from Cabernet Franc, fermented using 40% whole clusters, aged in a combination of oak, concrete and amphorae, this 2017 is a fabulous, classically styled/new-age paradox!
And California? Well, the state was practically made for wine discoveries. Welcome to the wild, wine west. California is the fine-wine world’s new frontier. With such a short winemaking history, it is sometimes hard to imagine how this state managed to forge so many highly sought-after, cutting edge, new classics in a remarkably short space of time. Home to such awe-inspiring names as Sine Qua Non, Harlan Estate, Hundred Acre and Screaming Eagle—who will the next icons be?
The hardest part of forging the list of Californian new wine discoveries was narrowing that list down to just a few names. I was limited to just five nominations for my California regions, and so I chose a wine coming from a newer, emerging area (Cervantes, coming from Napa’s Pope Valley). I also picked three that are made by the emerging generation of winemakers who firmly have a grasp on the history and future of Napa Valley (Troix Noix, Modus Operandi and Hertelendy). And the last is the latest in California Central Coast wine-artists (Fingers Crossed).