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Great Eight of 2008
By Robert Whitley
Dec 30, 2008
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My choice of Producer of the Year -- Nickel & Nickel of the Napa Valley -- would seem to have been a fairly decisive pick. Evaluating the 2005 vintage of Nickel & Nickel Cabernet Sauvignon was certainly a memorable tasting experience, one I will not soon forget. When I saw that I had rated each and every Nickel & Nickel Cab 95 points or higher, I knew I was on to something.

Yet, dazzling as the Nickel & Nickel wines were, they were hardly the only impressive performers over what I would have to describe as a very good year. The other wines and producers I considered before choosing Nickel & Nickel would do anyone proud. I've narrowed it down to what I deem to be the 'Great Eight of 2008', but even then I'm leaving out some very fine wines and incredibly dedicated winemakers.

But a list too large is rendered a list without meaning, so for better or worse, my Great Eight of 2008!

1. Nickel & Nickel -- This Napa Valley winery excelled at everything it released in 2008, particularly its series of Cabernets from the exceptional 2005 vintage. Nickel & Nickel produces vineyard-designated Cabernet, Syrah, Chardonnay and Merlot from about two-dozen carefully chosen vineyard sites, most of them located in the Napa Valley. Meticulous winemaking and attention to detail in the vineyard and the winery have made Nickel & Nickel a shining example for generations of winemakers and wineries to come. Its impeccably made wines are beautifully balanced, elegant and, most of all, true to their origins. The 2005 Stelling Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon was my lone 100-point wine from those tasted in '08. The Stelling Vineyard in Oakville also serves as the core vineyard for the very fine Far Niente Cabernet Sauvignon.

2. Domaine Pierre Morey -- Pierre Morey recently gave up his post as winemaker at Domaine Leflaive to devote more of his time to the family operation, which hopefully means he plans to expand the domain's holdings in Burgundy. It's hard to imagine the wines could be any better. Morey is a devotee of biodynamic and organic grape growing, and his exacting standards in both the vineyard and the cellar are legendary. I prize every bottle of Morey in my cellar, but in '08 I was particularly enamored of the Meursault, Monthelie and St. Aubin.

3. Freestone Vineyards -- What a welcome addition to the landscape of California wine. Freestone is owned by the Joseph Phelps family of the Napa Valley and specializes in Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from the Russian River Valley and Sonoma Coast. The wines are all about purity of expression and terroir, but more than that they hark to a style of winemaking that prizes balance and elegance over sheer power. The 2006 Chardonnay is simply stunning. Only a handful of California producers - Kistler, Sonoma Cutrer, Nickel & Nickel, Patz & Hall - play in this league. The '06 Pinot Noir is of the same ilk, although its competition at this level is broader and stiffer.

4. Truchard -- Truchard is the outlier in this group. Compared to my top three producers of '08, Truchard's prices are downright inexpensive, hovering between $20 and $30. That's no commentary on the quality. Virtually everything Truchard produces is exceptional and remarkably affordable. In 2008 I loved the Syrah, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and an intriguing and delicious Roussanne.

5. Henriot Champagne -- I drank my share of fabulous Champagne in 2008. From many of the top producers, too. Krug, Roederer, Pol Roger, Dom Perignon, Veuve Cliquot, Perrier-Jouet and on and on. Nothing impressed me more, however, that the Henriot 1998 Brut Millesime. This wine is a triumph from a vintage that was never mentioned with the reverential tones used to describe the two great vintages - 1995 and 1996 - from earlier in the decade. Henriot's '98 Brut Millesime can hang with any of them, and the multi-vintage Blanc Souverain wasn't too shabby either. The Blanc Souverain was Best of Show Sparkling at the 2008 San Diego International Wine Competition.

6. Ojai Vineyard -- The new releases from Ojai came to me late in the year and took me completely by surprise. Syrah (and other Rhone varieties) is the Ojai specialty and I remember lamenting recently that California Syrah had been something of a personal disappointment because I so seldom came across anything truly remarkable. Alban Vineyards has been consistently brilliant, but after that Syrah from California was hit-and-miss in my book. But the simply gorgeous new Syrahs from Ojai, especially the 2005 Roll Ranch and Melville vineyard releases, have given me pause. I am especially pleased with these wines since owner/winemaker Adam Tolmach has dialed back the alcohol levels to achieve wines of greater balance and longevity. More of this kind of wine, please!

7. Adami -- A Prosecco producer you ask as you raise one eyebrow? Indeed, for Adami is to Prosecco what Mondavi was to Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon -- an ambassador for the quality potential of this wine from this area, Valdobbiadene and Conegliano. Prosecco will never be Champagne, nor should it try. But that doesn't mean there aren't levels of the game played in this hilly part of the Veneto. Adami produces a cru Prosecco as well as vineyard-designated Prosecco from selected sites that one day might achieve cru status. These are serious sparkling wines with unique character and personality, and they are simply the best that Prosecco can be. And that's fairly impressive.

8. Veramonte -- The Chilean brainchild of Agustin Huneeus (Quintessa), whose roots in Chile go back to the days when he ran the vast Concha y Toro wine empire, Veramonte inexplicably remains one of the world's greatest values in fine wine. Its flagship, the red meritage Primus, retails for about $20 and has that rare combination of depth and finesse that separate the best red wines from the rest. And for considerably less you can enjoy some of the finest Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, sourced from exceptional vineyards in the cool Casablanca Valley, produced in South America.

Email Robert at whitleyonwine@yahoo.com.