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Best of 2016, Part II
By Michael Franz
Jan 10, 2017
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As the happy occupant of the World’s Best Job, I believe it is good karma to tip my hat to outstanding performances, wines and accessories that I’ve encountered each year.  Having logged more than 70,000 air miles in 2016 and tasted over 9,000 wines, it is fair to say that I’ve been around the block, and here’s a second set of observations concerning the best things I encountered along the way.  I’ll be tacking new items onto this column every day this week, so stay tuned:


Top Category on the Rise:  New Zealand Chardonnay

Among the highlights of my 2016 was an opportunity to return as a senior international judge for the Air New Zealand Wine Awards in Auckland.  Judging this competition in 1999 was one of the most illuminating early experiences in my work in wine, one that disclosed a breadth of excellence and potential that was simply impossible to appreciate fully based on the relatively limited selection of New Zealand wines available for tasting in the USA.  Equally illuminating in 1999 was the professionalism of the judges and the judging, and the caliber of the Awards in 2016 was even more impressive in 2016 under the direction of Michael Brajkovich MW, the Chair of Judges.

In 1999, I was struck by the promise shown by Pinot Gris and the sheer quality of Pinot Noir being crafted in Martinborough, Central Otago and Marlborough.  In 2016, the big surprise was Chardonnay.  The flights I tasted during the Awards demonstrated New Zealand’s producers are consistently turning out renditions that combine depth of flavor with superb acidic structure and accents from oak that are restrained in keeping with the brightness of the wines’ fruit.  Naturally, I was tasting “blind” during the Awards judging, but two wines that bookended my trip--and that I purchased and flew back to the USA with me--are worthy of special note:

Kumeu River Chardonnay Hunting Hill Vineyard 2014 ($50, Imported by Wilson Daniels):  Michael Brajkovich MW is the winemaker behind this wine, but his entire family is involved in the Kumeu River enterprise, which makes a range of excellent wines but specializes in Chardonnay.  The “Village” and “Estate” bottlings are reasonably priced and both very good, but quality really gets striking at the single vineyard level.  Coddington is quite impressive, and Mate’s remains the flagship of the line, but Hunting Hill is very close to Mate’s in quality and notably easier to find while also being a bit less expensive.  This 2014 shows full ripeness, with engaging substance and depth, yet the acidity energizes the wine from the first impression on the palate to the very end of the extremely long, symmetrical finish.  Spice and toast notes from oak are beautifully tuned to the weight and character of the fruit, and the overall impression is already one of exceptional proportionality and harmoniousness.  One taste would tempt you to drink this now, but if you had an opportunity to taste the sensationally complex 2010 Hunting Hill (which I scored conservatively at 98), you’d know that patience with this will be rewarded handsomely.  95

Felton Road Wines, Central Otago Chardonnay “Block 2” 2014 ($65, imported by Young’s Market):  When I visited Felton Road last October, the plan was to show me the Chardonnays from 2015, and I was very fortunate to taste this wine…by mistake.  To be sure, the 2015s are excellent (both the Block 2 and the Block 6), but both are now notably more tense than this 2014, which has unwound enough to show wonderful flinty mineral complexities along with very subtle oak accents while still showing acidic tension that brings to mind the profile of the finest Chardonnays from Chablis or Puligny-Montrachet.  Although this is really just medium-bodied, it seems very generous on account of its exceptional complexity, and there’s no doubt that it has five years of positive development ahead of it…at an absolute minimum.  95


Best Glass:  Zalto Denk`Art Universal Glass

I first encountered this glass two years ago when tasting in southern France, and it was pretty clearly the most arresting vessel I’d ever been handed for sampling a wine.  It is beautiful to behold and even more amazing to handle, as it seems almost weightless.  Moreover, the balance from the base to the top of the bowl is so perfect that, when loaded with an appropriately-sized pour and swirled, it produces an uncanny sensory impression that the only weight in one’s hand is derived from the rotation of the wine itself.

I deliberately put the glass out of my mind after our first meeting, as it didn’t take a genius to determine that it would be expensive and pretty breakable, as it is an almost impossibly thin, mouth-blown item.  I recall my thought at the moment being something like, “I need another expensive obsession like I need a hole in the head.”

That worked well enough for about 18 months, but then I sat in on a seminar on Austrian Pinot Blancs in Vienna last summer, and 8 of the damned things had me surrounded.  Noted writer David Schildknecht, who conducted the seminar, felt the need to tell the attendees (all journalists) not to walk off with the glasses afterward.  Had he not done so, I’ve no doubt that the count would have been diminished significantly.  That’s how striking this glass is.

Anyway, I finally sprung for a couple of them last fall, with the result that I’ve now officially fallen out of love with every other glass that I own…and I own a lot of them.

Zalto is an Austrian company, and this line is dedicated to a certain priest named Hans Denk, who is apparently a quite influential student of wine in Austria. Regarding the design of the entire line of glasses, Zalto’s website offers the following account, which I quote verbatim:

“The development of the Denk`Art series was as influenced by the earth as by the universe beyond.  The curve of the bowls are tilted at the angles of 24°, 48° and 72°, which are in accordance to the tilt angles of the Earth.  The ancient Romans utilized this triumvirate of angles with their supply repositories, finding that produce stayed fresh for a longer time, and that it also showed improved taste.  Due to these cosmic parallels, we believe that a wine can reach its utmost potential in a Denk`Art glass, developing everything that is possible in the nose as well as on palate, due to these cosmic parallels.”

To be clear, this looks like total mumbo-jumbo to me, and I don’t put a dime’s worth of stock into the business about cosmic parallels.  But with that noted, the design of the glass is undeniably marvelous.  As for the word “Universal” in the name of the glass, that apparently refers not to the cosmos, but rather to its all-purpose design.  Other glasses in the line include stems dedicated to Burgundy, Bordeaux, Sweet Wine, White Wine, Champagne, Digestifs, Beer and Water. 

Have I tried these types?  Absolutely not.  Why not?  Because I need 8 more expensive obsessions like I need 8 holes in my head.

As for expense, the best online prices hover around $60.  Wine Enthusiast will personalize your glass with a single initial for an additional $20, but in my humble opinion, only a jackass would mar this beautiful object with a giant letter.  As for durability, Zalto’s website says the glasses, “…may be washed in a dishwasher,” but that seems like exceedingly bad advice.  After all, dishwashers don’t break glasses; dishwasher loaders break glasses.

Although the reservations I’ve expressed here about Zalto’s usage recommendations and cosmic design principles should make it clear that I haven’t quite drunk the cool-aid, I confess that I’m madly in love with this glass.  Try one at your own risk!