It was with somber and heavy hearts that many of the wine industry gathered last Tuesday, October 10th, at the top of San Francisco’s Metreon. There to celebrate the achievement of winemakers around the world who secured a prestigious position on Wine & Spirits Magazine Top 100 Wineries of 2017, many’s minds couldn’t help but turn to those vineyards, wineries, and residents who’ve been impacted by the several fires that continue to devastate California’s beloved North Bay wine regions.
And yet, there was a consistent air of positivity that seemed to permeate the entirety of the evening. Tara Q. Thomas, Executive Editor of Wine & Spirits Magazine, expressed her deepest gratitude and appreciation to the number of caterers, sommeliers, and PR agencies who all offered to lend extra time and assistance to ensure the event went on. Indeed, the majority of Napa and Sonoma wineries scheduled to attend were able to pour and represent their hard work and beautiful wines.
It’s amazing how wine, a world-wide industry, is actually quite a tight-knit community — one that cares deeply for its members. It’s an industry I’m proud to be a part of and represent through my writing.
With the good spirit of friends and colleagues, it was my pleasure to taste from some of the top wineries of the world. Speaking with Tara, I became infected by her enthusiasm for the number of new names to this year’s list, specifically those who came from overseas. So I took myself on a trip “around the world” this year. Below are just a few of my personal highlights and recommendations.
Fratelli Alessandria – Piedmont, Italy
Verduno, found along Borolo’s northern borders, is not a region you’ll find on a lot of bottles. But the Alessandria family have been proud regional grape growers and wine producers since 1870 and have proved themselves a staple in the small community. Their Borolo, crafted in the traditional method using native yeasts and aging in large format barrels, expresses the perfect definition of the Nebbiolo grape. (Score: 94 points, Wine & Spirits Magazine).
But it’s the little-known, perhaps somewhat obscure, grape variety Pelaverga that piqued my interest. A red wine grape native to Verduno (and pretty much exclusively grown in this small portion of Piedmont), it produces a light-colored (almost pink) and light-bodied wine whose nose and initial palate is one that just sings of strawberries in an almost candy-like way. But hang on to that sip (or take another if you got too excited), and the wine actually develops a bit of white-pepper heat and a kind of sausage-perfume umaminess. (Score: 91 points, Wine & Spirits Magazine)
Visit Fratelli Alessandria website.
Champagne Dosnon – Champagne, France
If you think all Champagne houses in France are made up of wineries that are ancient of days — well, you’d be mostly correct. But Davy Dosnon, owner and winemaker of Champagne Dosnon, took all he’d learned working in traditional Champagne houses, along with a few acres of vines he inherited, to create his own label. According to the vintner, he “wanted to create a modern and ecologically stable Maison de Champagne […] to honor and celebrate the diversity of our terroir.”
Dosnon has three Champagnes awarded in the W&S Top 100, including his Brut Recolte Noire and Brut Rosé (Scores: 93 points Wine & Spirits Magazine), but my recommended wine to try is the Champagne Brut Recolte Blanche (Score: 93 points Wine & Spirits Magazine). Made from 100% Chardonnay grapes and crafted in the traditional methode chamenoise, this white brut is as dry as they come from start to finish, with a crisp, underlying acidity, and a finish that leaves just a touch of texture on the tongue and aroma of light-petaled flowers on the breath.
Visit Champagne Dosnan website.
Gaia – Santorini, Greece
Personally, I’ve only recently began studying wine from Greece, but W&S Executive Editor Tara Q. Thomas has not only an expertise, but also a passion for the ancient wine region. “Sontorini and Nemea compete for the honor of best wine regions in southern Greece,” says Thomas in her Top 100 review of Gaia, continuing to say that “Gaia’s wines from each region demonstrate why.” I may be no expert, but I certainly do agree with this statement.
Indeed, the somewhat boutique operation owns a winery in each of the two staple Greek wine regions, producing structurally sound white wines from Santorini, and rustic, but elegantly crafted reds from Nemea. The winemaking team is probably best know for their 1994 introduction of Thalassitis, a grape native to Santorini that produces a beautifully dry white wine.
Gaia’s 2016 Santorini Wild Ferment Assyrtiko (Score: 94 points, Wine & Spirits Magazine) is my personal recommended wine to try. After undergoing 12 hours of skin contact, the juices are left to ferment in small stainless steel tanks and large format French and American oak barrels. Of course it’s the slow, natural fermentation process, the wild yeast strains, that ultimately determine the resulting wine’s characteristics. It also means that every tank and barrel will be unique — the final bottle containing a blend of the best of the lot.
The 2016 Santorini Wild Ferment Assyrtiko has a wonderfully rich nose, reminiscent of citrus leaves and cold butter. The palate is round, full with that oak aging, but with an underlining acidity that keeps the white wine refreshing from beginning to end. The finish incorporates a bit of texture, making the overall experience quite similar to that of a red wine. In fact, speaking with proprietor Leon Karatsalos, he say the Assyrtiko, a white wine, can be treated much like a red wine — decanted, aerated, and paired with fatty red meats. Based on my tasting, I 100% agree and am eager to give this a go.
Visit the Gaia Wines website.
Vadio – Bairrada, Portugal
I’ve started to see a rise in Portuguese wines here in the States. Perhaps its because of the growing number of Portuguese restaurants whose chefs and owners chose to serve wines from their native land in addition to the local offerings. Or perhaps its because there are groundbreaking winemakers like Luis Patrao of Vadio, whose pride in that native land and its production of heritage grapes has begun to turn the heads of US wine enthusiasts.
You have to love a guy that calls his winemaking business a “project.” A winemaking project is exactly what Luis Patrao began, starting with his family’s own vineyards in Bairrada and experimenting with the native grape baga. Traditional baga can result in densely structured, firmly tannic wines with fruit-forward aromatics and fantastic aging potential. Speaking to Patrao and his wife, Edwarda Dias, the couple likens baga to the more commonly understood borolo. I tend to agree when it comes to their 2012 Bairrada Grande (Score: 92 points, Wine & Spirits Magazine), which had an initial fruit-forward palate and a dry, but pleasantly smokey finish.
For me, the star of the show was the 2013 expression (Score: 93, Wine & Spirits Magazine), which showcased lighter fruits that carried through to the finish, softer tannins, and an appreciative amount of acidity that kept the overall palate alive. This modern baga was more reminiscent of a musky pinot noir or a traditional barbera — certainly ageable, but the kind of wine I enjoy in its youth.
Visit Vadio Bairrada website.
Craggy Range – New Zealand
There was only one Kiwi representative at this year’s Top 100 — Craggy Range, a family-owned winery hailing from the Gimblett Gravels wine-growing district of Hawke’s Bay where they produce Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. But it’s the wines of their second location in Te Muna Road of Martinborough that stole my (and the W&S tasters’) heart — specifically their 2014 Te Muna Road Pinot Noir. (Score: 93, Wine & Spirits Magazine) A beautiful bouquet of fresh fruits and dark floral notes on the nose, the wine itself is plush with silk-like, nearly negligible tannins, a mouthful of bursting berries, and a finish that leaves you both satisfied and craving more. I do believe, this was my personal Pinot of the day.
Visit Craggy Range website.
Giant Steps – Yarra Valley, Australia
There’s something wonderful happening in the world of Australian wines. Gone are the fruit-bomb Shiraz stereotypes, along with the association of flat and flabby Sauvignon Blancs. There’s a new wave of winemakers incorporating old world techniques, organic vineyard practices, and crafting wines worthy of, well, the Top 100. There’s no doubt that this transition has been in the works for years, but it seems the literal fruits of that labor have finally made its way to the wine enthusiasts of the States.
Giant Steps success is absolutely due to founder and owner Phil Sexton’s focus on cool-climate vineyards of the Yarra Valley in Victoria. Whether his Applejack, Sexton, or Tarraford vineyard, vines tend to be planted amongst rocky, thin and poor-draining soils along the slopes of the Yarra Yering and Coldstream Hills. This environment forces the vines to work for their water and nutrients, crafting even white wines with a certain earthy-rusticity.
Prime example: 2016 Sexton Vineyard Chardonnay ((Score: 92, Wine & Spirits Magazine). Can I describe a Chardonnay as dry? Well I am — because that’s what it was: a pure expression of the Chardonnay grape whose depth and complexity comes solely from the land as opposed to the production. No ML, limited oak aging, the palate was like a steady line of floral aromatics with bits of bursts of citrus fruits lightly highlighted in the background. And the finish, with its almost smokey minerality, left just a bit of texture on the tongue to remind you of the substance of terroir.
Not only was the 2016 Sexton Vineyard Chardonnay a stand out at the table, it has to be my Chardonnay of the day.
Visit Giant Steps website.
Radio-Coteau – Sonoma Coast, California
Radio Coteau, in my book, can do no wrong. Ever since I first tasted their Chardonnay about a year ago, I’ve been, well, a fan. If a restaurant has one of their wines on the menu, I order it just because I know I’ll enjoy it. So I was more than pleasantly surprised when my wines this evening were poured by winemaker and proprietor Eric Sussman.
There’s not much I can say to truly communicate the refined elegance of Sussman’s wines — they’re deep, but understated, not unlike the soft-spoken winemaker himself. Whether sipping on the richly Burgundian Savoy Vineyard Chardonnay or the funky fruit-meets-forest floor Terra Neuma Pinot Noir (Score: 95 points, Wine & Spirits Magazine), what you’ll taste are wines that will bring you to time and place of the coastal Sonoma land where the grapes were grown.
Visit Radio-Coteau website.
Lastly, Wine & Spirits Magazine was generous enough to contribute the proceeds of their silent auction toward the Napa/Sonoma fire relief efforts and the Red Cross. I put in my bid — crossing my fingers for a couple of bottles of Hirsch Vineyards Pinot Noir.
BriscoeBites officially accepts samples as well as conducts on-site and online interviews. Want to have your wine, winery or tasting room featured? Please visit the Sample Policy page where you can contact me directly. Cheers!