After a quiet week at home with family and friends, I spent some time reflecting on the past year. In many ways, it was a very good year, particularly in the way of wine and spirits. It brought new horizons, discoveries, new friends, and quite a few flights—with no cancellations or delays. (I'm sure that streak won't last long.) As part of this reflection, I offer up six selections (five wines and one whiskey) from each of the stops I made in my travels, each with its unique significance.
2016 Biondi Santi Brunello di Montalcino, Italy (February):
It's hard to imagine Brunello di Montalcino without Biondi Santi. It's a name as rooted in the region's history as the vineyards of clone BBS 11 Sangiovese, growing deep beneath the rocky galestro and clay soils. Having a chance to walk the vineyards and stroll through the cellars of this iconic producer was an eye-opening experience. Led by winemaker Federico Radi, we learned of the winery's deep commitment to regenerative viticulture. Tasting through vintages older than myself through to the latest 2016 release solidified an uncompromising diligence toward an authentic expression of Sangiovese. I'm a little biased. It's one of my favorite grape varieties. Each vintage revealed a different complexity and ethereal character that made the entire experience a highlight of the year. And it was only February! The latest release, 2016, should be in the market now and is worth adding to any cellar collection.
2018 Cliff Lede Vineyards Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California (March):
In March, I paid a visit to Napa Valley, a region I hadn't visited in quite a while. The trip allowed me to refresh my appreciation for top-quality Cabernet from producers such as Cliff Lede. A few years ago, I tasted the 2018 High Fidelity, a Right-Bank-Bordeaux blend dominated by Merlot and Cabernet Franc. I felt the structure and generosity of the wine were a promising forecast of where this wine could go. I was excited to revisit the exact wine and find its evolution just as promising. Yes, Cabernet Sauvignon is king in Napa, but we shouldn't dismiss Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Winemaker Chris Tynan has done a remarkable job coaxing these varieties' strengths in the Stags Leap District.
Did it help that I was able to enjoy it from the cozy balcony of my room at the Poetry Inn—a luxe boutique inn nestled on a hillside overlooking Cliff Lede Vineyards and the rest of the valley? Yes, yes, it did. I could easily take up residence in the Robert Louis Stevenson room where sipping wine from the balcony and drifting off on a cloud-like bed are accented by mornings by the fire with an entire farm-fresh breakfast spread in the sitting room. After all, wine is just as much about where and how it is enjoyed as what is in the bottle. As Stevenson once said, "wine is bottled poetry," and the wines enjoyed in this setting are no exception.
2006 Familia Ferrer Can Sala, Penedés, Spain (May):
In May, I visited the Penedés region of Spain with the Cava D.O., the governing organization that sets growing and production standards and regulations. We based just outside of Barcelona in the oceanside town of Sitges. For Cava, quality is the name of the game. New rules introduced in January 2022 have helped to better define how grapes are grown, wines are aged, and bottles are labeled.
Cava is now divided into two categories: Cava de Guarda, the youngest offerings that must be aged for a minimum of nine months, and Cava de Guarda Superior, which includes three quality tiers—Reserva, Gran Reserva, and Paraje Calificado. Wines that fall under the Cava de Guarda Superior tier must comply with quality regulations that now require vintage dates and 100 percent organic grapes.
Though I discovered numerous impressive selections during the week, I was particularly enamored with a 2006 Familia Ferrer Can Sala. A 50/50 blend of Parellada and Xarello with more than 15 years on the lees, this wine showed remarkable longevity, complexity, and freshness with notes of marzipan, toasted nuts, and orange peel. Familia Ferrer has taken their wines in the direction of vintage expression, with a goal of showing the climatic differences each year.
Micil Distillery Earl's Island Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey, Galway, Ireland (June):
To date, there is no wine industry to speak of and Ireland. (Although, with climate change, you never know what could happen.) But what the Irish lack in vinous selections, they are generously blessed with beer and spirits. My family spent the month of June on the west coast of Ireland, just outside of Galway. During our stay, I developed a new appreciation for Irish whiskey. It's distinguished as a style of whiskey made from a mash of malted and un-malted barley (and up to 5% other grains) which is then triple distilled in copper pot stills within a single distillery.
I was particularly fond of a release from Micil, a distillery close to where we were living. The Earl's Island release is finished in ex-Bordeaux wine casks giving the whiskey a rich, berry fruit and baking spice character to offset a nutty sweetness on the finish. It soon became a favorite way to end each evening overlooking Galway Bay.
2020 Familia Torres Pirene, Penedés, Spain (September):
Familia Torres is a name synonymous with quality in Spain. Having produced wine in Penedès since 1870, the family has expanded to include wineries in Priorat, Rioja, Ribera del Duero, and Rías Baixas. With a commitment to sustainability and preserving regional heritage, the family has also gone to great lengths to recover and cultivate ancestral varieties, many of which are heat and drought-tolerant. Of the more than 50 varieties recovered, six, including Pirene, have caught the attention of Familia Torres as having potential for future viability. Named for the Pyrenees mountains from which it was found, this red, fleshy variety produces a wine that is rich in color with deep red fruit and spice aromas and firm tannins. The 2020 showed remarkable fullness of flavor with high-toned red fruit, mushroom, bright acidity, and elegant structure.
2017 Sadie Family "Mev Kirsten" Chenin Blanc, Stellenbosch, South Africa (October):
I enjoyed a wonderful opportunity to experience the Cape Wine Conference with the Wines of South Africa in October. It turned out to be a nearly two-week affair in which we visited numerous regions throughout the country Cape Winelands and sampled an innumerable list of wines from producers near and far. The experience was both immersive and transformative and, quite honestly, the best way to get a handle on the wines of South Africa.
I was fortunate to take a couple of extra weeks to travel the coastline and safari near Kruger National Park with my family. To say it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience is an understatement. But how do you narrow down four weeks in South Africa to just one wine? I'm not even going to try to pick the best. I tried everything from Pinotage and Pinot Noir to Cap Classique, Chardonnay, and Chenin Blanc…Oh, the Chenin Blanc. It stands out in my sensory memory. And when I close my eyes to conjure up a specific wine memory, one consistently pops into view—a hauntingly delicious Chenin Blanc from the Sadie Family, made from old-vine Chenin planted in 1905. With a little bit of age on it, this golden delight was rich with ripe peach, chamomile tea, and floral orange blossom. The palate was vibrant and fresh, with a delicious waxy viscosity that rolled into a slow finish.
Was it the wine itself or the fact that it was served to me as part of a special wine tasting on a granite outcrop of the Sabi River at Londolozi Game Reserve during our safari trip? Difficult to say, but does it really matter? I can still taste the honeyed, beeswax, and sunny lemon tones on that wine whilst watching the sunset over the South African bush. Those few days at Londolozi won't soon be forgotten. And neither will that wine.
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Indeed, 2022 was a year to savor. Having reflected upon it, I'm looking ahead to 2023 with anticipation and excitement. I feel renewed, recharged, and ready to go!