Since venturing into the wine world with the same amateur enthusiasm as first brought me to start a music fanzine, I've tasted more good wine than most people would try in a lifetime. For this I credit an open mind as well as a thirsty palate. Me, I look at wine like I do music: If I haven't heard of it, I want to try it. This past year, I see as I look over my scribbled notes, I have tasted Pinot Noir from Slovenia, Rhône blends from California, Pinot Grigio from Virginia, Gewürztraminer from Rhode Island, Viognier from Argentina, Riesling from Chile, and Kerner from Italy. Some of these efforts were more successful than others, but I don't regret either trying or buying any of them.
At free in-store tastings by the mini-glass, and home dinners with bottles bought from local stores, I tasted a number of more geographically 'correct' wines. I salivated equally over a Riesling from the Rheingau and a Sauvignon Blanc from California. I swooned over the heady textures of soupy young Châteauneuf du Papes (from the Rhône, of course) and spicy young Zinfandels (from California, almost certainly). I marveled at near-forgotten grapes like a pure Counoise from southern France and, though it had to be drunk in isolation from other wines, a Petit d'Aunis from the Loire. I was knocked out by the ongoing quality of Rieslings from New York's Finger Lakes and Pinot Noirs from California's Russian River Valley. I made a serious attempt to get to know the Tempranillo grape of Spain, I fell for Nero d'Alvola from Sicily, and I was pleased to be introduced to the Blaufränkisch of Austria which I also came across as Hungary's Kékfrankos in a surprisingly high-quality rosé.
All of the above is available to all of us, and on a minimal budget you'd be amazed how much you can taste if you opt for variety over familiarity, and either buy by the glass or attend BYOB restaurants with several others for dinner. (And the funny thing about these notes is that I drank less or, should I say, there were more days when I had nothing to drink in 2004 than most preceding years.)
I was fortunate above and beyond all this to be invited to industry events where I got to taste lavishly expensive and seductively sexy wines from Burgundy, Bordeaux, Barolo and Barbaresco. (And a few places that didn't begin with a B, besides.) But such crowded, hectic tastings are not the same as relaxing with a glass or a bottle in the company of good friends and fine food. Without doubt, the best such wine dinner I attended was chez a fellow wine-and-music fanatic, who decided to open a number of mature Barolos together for comparison and the fun of it. He invited a dozen friends, cooked Barolo's trademark dinner lasagna with truffles and opened bottles by top producers Conterno and Giacosa dating as far back as 1967. By the time I got to his place (I was coming in from upstate on Memorial Day afternoon), the best had already been emptied, but what was left from the stellar vintages of 1985, '88 and '90 - was still beyond superb. My friend was not born into wealth he merely developed a smart nose for good wine at a precociously young age, bought them before they were trendy and stored them well. He also happens to be generous, understanding like all wine lovers that fine wine tastes best when shared.
My single greatest wine experience of the year was quite similar, in its own modest way. Back in 1999, the year I got totally bitten by the wine bug, I fell ever so slightly victim to the Millennium Champagne hype. I'm not the world's biggest champagne fan and no way was I going to go into triple digits just because the media warned that the fizz might sell out. But everywhere I turned among people that autumn, one champagne kept getting the nod: the 1990 Pol Roger Brut Chardonnay. It was so well-reviewed that it was perpetually sold out, even though at $60, it was not exactly cheap. Then again, don't tell me you haven't spent that sum on a meal you were unhappy with (especially in England) or indeed, a bottle of wine at some birthday celebration that you can barely now remember. This was the Millennium coming up, this was Champagne, and compared to the luxury cuvees the marketing men were trying to shift on us, the Brut Chardonnay was something of a bargain. When I finally came across it, I bought two.
As it turned out, I went to Australia for the celebration, and the Champagne stayed at home. Then it went in the cellar where it took up residence as experts assured me it would mature nicely for another few years. Posie and I took one of the bottles to Blue Ribbon on 5th Avenue in Brooklyn for our 10th Wedding Anniversary in June 2003, but it got warmed up on the way over and never quite chilled again sufficiently. At that slightly high temperature, its age showed more profoundly than its maturity. I kept the other bottle for my 40th birthday celebration this spring, held at home where I could control (freak) the whole event. Poured just as and when I wanted, this Pol Roger Brut Chardonnay was, simply, sublime. The rich, refined fizz was straight out of the patisserie - all toast and biscuits, almonds and pistachios, cream and butter. It was, I can see I wrote here, "scrumptious." Best of all, it was perfectly balanced a wine in complete harmony with itself and everything around it. I don't think I'm a great wine reviewer I'm better at production details than taste descriptions and I was hard put to eulogize this wine even as we finished it off. But there was no doubt about it this was the greatest Champagne I had ever tasted. And it is, therefore, my wine of the year.
There were so many other great experiences it's really hard to list them all. The ones I've reviewed are generally those either readily available or at least not too costly. The Babcock Pinot Noir Tri-Counties Cuvée 2002 may me the best example of this grape's delicacies, in this price range, from anywhere in the world. And though I occasionally frown on the Californian wine industry, there's substance to the Napa Valley's claim to greatness. This year, I opened up a 1998 Cabernet Sauvignon (at left) from the environmentally-friendly Honig Winery (whose Sauvignon Blanc and web site I profiled back in the early days of this site). It's from a poor vintage, but you wouldn't know it: the wine exploded with the region and varietal's typical blackcurrant and cedar oak flavors though absent the eucalyptus/mint textures often associated with Napa. Instead, the ripe attack led into a slightly sweet palate and then a deliciously chewy finish. It may be that the cooler year helped tame the grapes: this was a big wine, but not the kind of bully that often gives Americans a bad name abroad. Napa Cabs don't come cheap - but the Honig was barely $20 on release four years ago. Another reason to love this winery.
As you know, I'm not a snob. Several of my greatest wine experiences this past year were from the inexpensive French region I like to call home the Rhône. Besides the Image Du Sud (right), the various Chateauneuf du Papes, Gigondas' and Vacqueryas' and several wines from the better Côtes du Rhône Villages, two bargains stood out as proof that quality wine is not about money - though it might be about maturity. This past summer, I took an $11 1999 Le Roc Epine from Lirac essentially a glorified Côtes du Rhône Village to a friend's for dinner; he swooned over this wine, which I'd kept at home, maturing nicely these last three years, as if I'd bought him the finest Bordeaux. And indeed, the wine had those dusty textures you get with a well-aged Cabernet Sauvignon, but with a gentle floral nose, soft tannins, plenty juice and the soupy combination of spice and herbs that comes with all good southern Rhône wines. Later in the year, I was equally popular for bringing to a friend's for dinner an even cheaper ($9) Côtes du Rhône 1998 from Domaine Le Grand Veneur that I'd stored 'till what I now worried was the end of its tether. But then 1998 was such a strong vintage that even these basic Côtes du Rhônes are still showing well. The Grand Veneur had moved way beyond its youthful stage to a secondary set of flavors that included cloves and olives, with some currants on the palate to balance out the ripe raspberries, and it finished long and smooth. I likened it to wearing a warm winter coat.
These Southern Rhône reds are the kind of wines I rely on for everyday pleasure. When I want to step up a grade, without getting stupid about it, I invariably head to St-Joseph in the Northern Rhône. The Domaine Vallet Blanc 2001 a blend of Marsanne and Roussanne (left) - was one of the finest white wines I tasted all year. I took my perennial favourite, the Domaine Louis Chèze "Cuvée Ro-Rée" Saint-Joseph 2001 red (100% Syrah by definition) to a BYO one night where three of us sipped it in wonderment. Also this year, I bought for around $16 and eventually opened up a 1996 Saint-Joseph Les Coteaux from Eric & Joel Durand, which had matured delightfully over these several years into a classically medium-bodied, meaty, spicy, peppery red wine at its very peak of fruit and structure. Neither a blockbuster nor a lightweight, but full of flavor, multi-dimensional, subtle and supple, it was a pleasure to make acquaintance with. And an even greater pleasure to say goodbye to. That's the thing with wine. You only truly know it's good by the fact that it's gone.