It’s that time of year when we celebrate family, friends, and general good cheer. It’s also a time to look back and reflect on how the past 12 months have shaped our life, character, perspectives, and palates. As I looked back on the events of the past year, I realized it’s been a busy one for travel and wine experiences. This is a summary of how wines (and one spirit) have shaped my ever-curious palate.
January - Texas - 2015 William Chris Vineyards Pétillant Naturel Rosé, 94 Points
Everyone loves to ring in the New Year with a little sparkling wine, even in Texas. A couple of years ago, Chris Brundrett of William Chris Vineyards began playing with the ancestral wine style called pétillant naturel, a sparkling style made by stopping the normal winemaking fermentation process before all the yeast transforms the natural sugar into alcohol. The wine is bottled and quickly topped off with a wine cap, and the extra carbon dioxide produced as the yeast continues fermentation in the bottle gets trapped inside turns it into a sparkling wine. These limited “pet nat” releases have garnered a cult following among William Chris fans and I’m particularly a fan of the rosé. Rich with aromas of strawberry and raspberry, this wine also offers beautiful floral notes that lead to a refreshing palate that is balanced with a sweet and savory character. Delicious on its own, but also as a counterpart to the classic Highball cocktail with rye or bourbon.
February - New Zealand - No. 1 Family Estate Sparkling Rosé, 97 Points
Each February I head to Dallas for the Texsom International Wine Awards along with a distinguished assembly of wine professionals who judge the more than 3,000 international entries from around the world. During our meals and breaks, we’re often entertained by representatives of global wine regions. During one lunch in particular, we enjoyed a varied selection of some of the best wines from New Zealand. Having recently traveled to the Kiwi country, I’ve developed a fondness for New Zealand wines and am particularly interested in tracking their progress. One of my favorites from the lunch selection was the No. 1 Family Estate Sparkling Rosé. This particular wine venture is driven by the same quality standards as Champagne, and their resulting wines easily rival some of their French counterparts. This wine is made from 100% Pinot Noir and offers a dynamic interplay of berry character, autolytic nuance, and refined freshness and focus. Dry, yet fresh and elegant, this wine leaves a lasting impression of opulence and sheer deliciousness.
March - Mendoza, Argentina - 2015 Kaiken Ultra Malbec, 93 Points
In March I was invited to join Montes to visit their vineyards in Chile and their sibling vineyards for their Kaiken wines in Mendoza, Argentina. Sadly, the trip didn’t work out on my end, but it wasn’t a complete loss. A few samples from both the Montes and Kaiken portfolio made a compelling enough case for both these wines and these regions to hold my attention. As you may expect from a Malbec, this wine offers an inky indigo appearance, aromas of ripe plum, blackberry, and violets, followed by a faint hint of charcuterie. These elements extend onto the palate with lush, dense texture balanced with a refreshing vibrancy. The finish is rich and silken with dark fruit and a touch of baking spice. A great match for steak or other grilled meats.
April - Texas - 2016 Brennan Vineyards Roussanne, 95 Points
One of my favorite Texas Wine and Food Festivals takes place every April in the Western Texas town of Buffalo Gap--yes, it’s a town. Here, Tom and Lisa Perini of the Perini Ranch and Steakhouse host a weekend festival celebrating Texas cuisine and wine inviting some of the state’s best producers to showcase their wines. Pat and Trellise Brennan, longtime friends of the Perini’s and owners of Brennan Vineyards, one of the state’s top wine producers, often bring a few of their best releases each year. Particularly memorable this year was the 2016 Roussanne. This white Rhône variety has found quite a nice home in Texas, and this wine is a great example. Aromas of summer yellow flowers lead the nose with this wine, followed by a distinct lemon curd character. The palate is full, but balanced, with notes of apricot that make for a crisp finish.
May - Franciacorta, Italy - Il Mosnel Brut (NV), 96 Points
In May, I had a chance to revisit one of my favorite Italian spots, Franciacorta. While most people would think the area is strictly about sparkling wine--and they wouldn’t be completely wrong--this northern Lake region has a landscape that’s quite captivating. I’ll make a general statement that I haven't met a Franciacorta wine that I didn’t love. These traditional-method sparkling wines are made at the highest standard of quality, primarily from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes. But I’m particularly fond of Il Mosnel, for their use of a little Pinot Bianco (a.k.a. Pinot Blanc). This fifth-generation winery has been in the Barboglio family since 1836 and its name is Italian for “rockpile,” an indicator of the mix of morainic, rocky soils surrounding the 40-hectare property. The Franciacorta Brut is a blend of 60% Chardonnay, 30% Pinot Bianco and 10% Pinot Nero and delivers a wonderfully bright and refreshing wine with notes of white flowers, stonefruit and a particular nuttiness on the finish.
June - Chianti Classico, Italy - 2013 Barone Ricasoli Colledilà Chianti Classico, 97 Points
In June, I spent a week driving around the windy roads of Tuscany--and managed to live to tell about it. During that time, I stopped in for a tour of the historic Brolio Castle, which is also home to Barone Ricasoli, the largest winery in Chianti Classico, and reportedly the “inventor” of the Chianti wine formula. After a tour of the expansive castle grounds, an experience I highly recommend if you find yourself in the area, we sat down for a tasting of the winery’s portfolio. The wines were pristine, including a few red Chianti, but also a delicious Sauvignon Blanc and Sangiovese rosé. But the wine of memory was the 2013 Barone Ricasoli Colledilà Chianti Classico. Made from 100% Sangiovese, this elegant wine offers a complex structure that’s evident from its powerful aromatics of dark dried cherry, violet, dried herbs and pepper. This wine has a beautiful velvety mouthfeel that is warm and inviting, brimming with earth-dusted red fruit and offering a persistent, peppery finish. A wine to imprint Tuscan memories for years to come.
July - St. Joseph, Rhône Valley, France - 1998 Domaine Gonon St. Joseph Rouge, 98 points
I spent the last part of June, leading into July in the Rhône Valley of France, soaking in as much about each region from as far south as the Costières de Nîmes to the sub-baked slopes of Côte Rotie. It would be impossible to catalog all of the wines that turned my head during this whirlwind week-long tour, but perhaps my favorite was from premiere St. Joseph producer Pierre Gonon. This family-owned producer, run by brothers Jean and Pierre Gonon define beautiful artisan handiwork in each of their Syrah-dominant wines. A particular wine of memory was the 1998 Domaine Gonon St. Joseph Rouge. Though in bottle for nearly 20 years, this wine virtually leapt from its slumber with rich notes of dried fig and red fruit, ripe blueberry, and lingering gamey aromas laced with dried herbs and anise seed. On the palate, plum and black pepper play a heavier roll with a soft, lingering finish that begged for another sip.
August - Nemea, Greece - 2015 Palivou Estate Agiorgitko, Nemea, 94 Points
Each August, I head to Dallas to the annual Texsom conference, a beverage education conference for industry professionals. Each year, I usually try to populate my schedule to optimize learning what I can about wine regions I’m less familiar with. In this case, during the usual mix-and-mingle afternoon tasting sessions, I wondered into a ballroom hosted by the Wines of Greece where I found myself transported to a country I’ve not yet visited simply by sampling a range of grape varieties I’m embarrassed to try and pronounce from the country’s historic wine growing regions. Thankfully, my friend, Peter Weltman, an ambassador for the association, was able to guide me through the wines I sampled giving me a deeper appreciation with each new sip.
A couple months later, I received a sampling Greek wines including the 2015 Palivou Estate Agiorgitko dry red wine from Nemea (one of Greece’s prized appellations). It’s a voluptuous red wine brimming with notes of deep red cherry and lush plum, framed by black pepper and hints of cinnamon. Full-bodied, yet beautifully finessed, this wine is ushered in by soft tannins and elegant structure. A definite standout that certainly piques my interest to learn more about Greek wines.
September - High Plains, Texas - 2012 Lewis Wines Cabernet Sauvignon-Tempranillo
From one of the state’s most respected grape growers, Neal Newsom, comes an iconic release from one of the state’s most promising up-and-coming winemakers. Cabernet Sauvignon isn’t likely to be the champion grape in Texas, but every few years, the right conditions yield some beautiful wines. When added with Tempranillo, a grape that does have an exciting future in the Lone Star state, the two are a marriage made in heaven. This wine is a perfect representation of that with rich with notes of tart cherry and cranberry intermingled with aromas of Kalamata olives, black licorice, and cocoa. These elements transfer to a broad palate with tart blackberry and cassis along with eucalyptus and tobacco. The finish lingers with a hint of savoriness. This wine is drinking well now, but could hold on for another few years.
October - Bouzeron, Burgundy, France - 2016 Domaine Chanzy Bouzeron Clos de La Fortune - Monopole, 94 Points
In the fall, I made a trek out to Burgundy, just as the vineyard foliage was fading to a golden yellows and vibrant reds. I don’t think I’ll ever experience something quite so memorable. It was a broad tour of the region that I’m sure could have been more comprehensive had we at least four or five weeks to really dig in to the various micro-regions. Alas, we didn’t. There were a few things I expected to encounter, including a substantial sampling of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. And my expectations were happily met. But I wasn’t expecting to encounter the bright array of Aligoté offerings we tasted through. And I have to admit I was wonderfully surprised. I particularly loved this Domaine Chanzy Bouzeron Clos de La Fortune. This beautiful expression of a classically vibrant grape reveals both its playfulness and seriousness. While 60 percent of the wine is fermented in steel, 40 percent is produced in oak, giving a nice, round mouthfeel to a wine that offers brilliant floral and stone fruit aromatics, along with a distinctive mineral-driven palate. Delicious wine for summer sipping.
November- Texas - C.L. Butaud 2015 Tempranillo, 97 Points
A newcomer to the Texas wine scene, this producer, Randy Hester, spent a decade honing his winemaking skills in Napa Valley before returning to Texas to make wine. In Napa, he not only spent time in the cellar with producers such as Cakebread Cellars and with his own brand, Lightning Wines, but he has also developed a deep understanding for viticulture. It’s an education the C.L. Butaud 2015 Texas Tempranillo reveals the second it’s poured into the glass. Initial notes of blueberries and salted caramel evolve to reveal tart black cherry, raspberry, rosemary, and fennel seed. The palate is full with dried figs and tart cherry, and leads to a lingering dusty finish of dried Kalamata olive and velvety tannin. As a producer focused solely on Texas Tempranillo for the moment, this wine is one that raises the bar for the Lone Star state.
December - Kentucky - Four Roses Single Barrel Bourbon, 98 Points
I can’t spend the whole time talking about wine, especially after just paying a visit to Bourbon country. Just last week, I had a chance to spend time with Four Roses, one of the country’s longest running bourbon distilleries. Originally founded in the 1880s, it managed to get a bit of a hall pass during Prohibition dispensing its whiskey for “medicinal” purposes. Four Roses has maintained its unique appeal by using a recipe of two different mashbills and five different yeast strains to create 10 individual bourbon recipes that comprise their standard yellow-label brand. But for their single barrel, consumers get a chance to see how one particular recipe expresses itself over time in barrel and in the bottle. Their standard 100 proof single barrel always uses the “OBSV” recipe.
(“O” for “old,” a standard part of the distillery’s naming convention; “B” for the mashbill using a higher percentage (35%) of rye; “S” for “straight,” which means the bourbon is always aged for a minimum of 2 years--in this case a minimum of 7, and “V” to signify the yeast strain, which in this case tends to offer a delicate fruitiness to the whiskey.)
The Four Roses Single Barrel is released at 100 proof, making it a little heftier than than its average whiskey compatriots and perfect for sipping neat. Aromas of pear and apple blossom mingle with floral honey and hints of vanilla transition to a palate rich with fruity character, but powered by a spicy cinnamon note brought on by the higher rye content. Delicious.