We've tasted some extraordinary wine together with you, Wine:Thirty Flight readers and writers, in 2016. Today, the second-to-last Wine Wednesday in December, we're sharing our top ten wine picks for the year. These are the best that we've reviewed the last twelve months, and we hope you'll move meticulously-terraced mountains upon which vineyards grow (and wine shops) to find them yourself!
All told, this top ten list gives us four whites, five reds, and one rosé; two sparklers; six Americans (thanks Arizona, California, Oregon, and Virginia) and four Europeans (thanks France, Portugal, and Spain). We've tried to select a diverse lineup, which means that some bottles in highly competitive genres just didn't make it, and that bottles 11 to 20 are stunning of their own accord. Our focus is exclusively on bottles that we've reviewed in 2016, which means there are a few really great wines that we've tasted recently -- but not yet reviewed -- that we'll consider for next year's Top 10 of 2017 list. Finally, these wines are not listed in rank order, but rather in the order we'd taste them if we were doing a lineup. Enjoy, and Happy New Year!
2013 Penada Vinho Regional Trás-os-Montes Ensaio Branco (Trás-os-Montes, Portugal)
Also featured in our Top five wines for August, this lightly colored white blend of Fernão Pires, Malvasia Fina, and Moscatel-Galego-Branco grapes is truly summer in a bottle. The nose of apple and pineapple sticks with you in the palate, where distinct lavender notes mix with an absolutely luscious honey quality. There's a bit of a sour bite in the finish of your first sips, but after just a few minutes it mellows into something very smooth. This wine is all about pineapple, lavender, and honey. Learn more about this winery and its other great wines in Penada Wines from Portugal's Trás-os-Montes exude character and delight the senses.
2013 The Prisoner Wine Company "Blindfold" (California, USA)
Blindfold is one of our perennial favorite white blends. Meghan and I drank it on our anniversary, having kept it in a wooden box given to us by Kathleen (of How to Get a Second Date with Kathleen fame). From the same folks who bring you creepily-labeled "The Prisoner" red wine each fall, Blindfold pours from a bottle featuring an equally creepy label. But it's so delicious! The nose manages to be woody, grassy, and floral (a really odd trio), and I picked up some buttered popcorn notes (though Meghan did not). It's extremely creamy and oaky, slightly grassy in the finish. The creaminess of the wine made this a beautiful pairing with the sharpness of the Manchego Cheese we drank it with, accompanied by Pan Catalana, of course. This white blend is interesting in that its component grape varietals are sourced from various vineyards in California, so we can't ascribe a single appellation (geographic source) to it.
2012 Caduceus Cellars Merkin Vineyards "The Diddler" (Arizona, USA)
You don't find many wines from states like Arizona, and we don't find many wines that we love as much as The Diddler -- another white blend -- from Caduceus Cellars and Merkin Vineyards. Casual drinkers will delight at the floral nose accompanied by melon and honey on the palate. Wine geeks will love the geographic novelty and the blending partners of this Chenin Blanc driven white in which the winemaker seems to swap out various percentages of Sauvignon Blanc, Malvasia, Chardonnay, and Albarino grapes depending on the year. A real crowd pleaser, most of us can find something to like in The Diddler. It manages to be sweet but not sugary, similar in character to a well done Gewurtztraminer. We also loved the optics: a beautiful gold wine in a crystal clear bottle etched with Leonardo da Vinci's Vitruvian Man. The Grand Canyon State suddenly has an open invitation to our wine glasses!
2008 Bérêche et Fils Champagne Côte Millésime Premier Cru (Champagne, France)
We love sparkling wine! We also find it silly when we see folks get particular about when they drink their sparklers: is it a before, during, or after dinner beverage? Our vote goes to "all three". This excellent Champagne worked very well for us before dinner with friends, giving us a delectable palate of green apple, peach, and almond before we broke into bourbon glazed salmon (with which we drank the always-amazing Eisold Smith Pinot Noir) for our main course. We admit this to be more of a special occasion wine at $72.99 per bottle (we indeed drank it on a special occasion). In looking for an alternative, remember that not all sparkling wine is Champagne. Champagne comes from a very specific French region named, you guessed it, Champagne. Actual Champagne tends to run a bit pricier than some (also very good) non-Champagne alternatives from around the world, but we recommend you talk with your local wine merchant about bottles of true Champagne that are in your price range. For a bit of added uniqueness, avoid some of the big Champagne houses like Moët & Chandon or Veuve Clicquot; they make delicious wine, but we're going for sometime you haven't tried before!
2012 Brandborg Vineyard and Winery "Bench Lands" Pinot Noir (Oregon, USA)
We briefly profiled the Umpqua Valley as one of four places whose great wine hasn't been on your list (until now). You'll find Umpqua Valley about three hours southwest of Portland, OR, south of the Willamette Valley. It's less well known than its northern neighbor, but produces beautiful and food friendly cool climate wine that is just as good. The self-taught wine making couple of Sue and Terry Brandborg have built their Brandborg Vineyard and Winery in the tiny town of Elkton, OR, specializing in Pinot Noir and a lineup of other stunners whose food pairings and tasting notes we shared in our post Brandborg Vineyard and Winery: Great Pinot Noir and other wines from Oregon's Umpqua Valley. At 4000 cases, Brandborg produces more Bench Lands than any other wine. Our chef at Northside Social in Arlington, VA paired this with tea smoked duck breast, cauliflower puree, kumquats, and hazelnuts. The tea smoked qualities worked exceedingly well with this super-smooth-with-food wine. The nose reminded us of balsam wood, black tea, and a hint of fig while the palate continued the tea notion alongside some big cherry. Drink the 2012 Bench Lands anytime from 2016 to 2021.
2014 Delaplane Cellars "Benevino" Cabernet Franc (Virginia, USA)
We were surprised by how quickly this 2014 Cabernet Franc from our favorite Virginia winery found its way into our glass in early 2016, having only been bottled in mid-December 2015 after being blended with about 2% Petit Verdot. An elegant wine with a soft nose, there is more vanilla here, with a little pepper so characteristic in a Cab Franc. That vanilla makes for a smooth drinker, giving it a velvety texture throughout. We are impressed by a number of Virginia's vineyards and wineries. But among the impressive stand out the world class: an elite few whose wine we'd consider when choosing from the very best in our collection, who have really driven Virginia's emergence as a (under appreciated) wine making region to be reckoned with. Delaplane Cellars is one of them. Situated in the Middleburg AVA (American Viticultural Area) on Lost Mountain along U.S. Route 17 in Delaplane, VA, the immediate locality is home to a number of other wineries of which several rise to what we'd think of as cream of the crop status. The winery itself seems almost cut into the hillside, its big windows towering above the vineyard and the road below to boast spectacular mountain views from its patio and tasting room. In the distance you'll notice three mountain peaks that inspire the elegant labels that adorn each bottle.
2012 Bodegas Elias Mora Crianza (Toro, Spain)
Blended from wine aged in both French and American oak barrels, this is an excellent example of Crianza (that’s a Spanish red aged a year in oak barrel and a year in bottle) from the Toro winemaking region in north-central (ish) Spain. The town of San Román de Hornija, where Bodegas Elias Mora is located, sits just on the Valladolid side of the border between the provinces of Zamora and Valladolid in the autonomous community of Castile and León, in the stretch of wine regions that (roughly) begins with Toro in the west, and ends (again, roughly) with Rioja, Navarra, and Campo de Borja in the east. The wine itself offers us delicious black currant, with some purple jamminess on the tongue. There are firm, but not overwhelming tannins in the finish. This Crianza is a versatile wine suitable for both drinking alone and well-prepared meat dishes such as lamb or pork. We chose this wine for this specific lineup in part for its regional representation, but also because we know for a fact that it is imported and thus gettable in the United States. We recently opened a bottle at SER Restaurant (a favorite) in Arlington, VA. If you struggle finding this specific wine, seek out a moderately priced Crianza from Toro, and let us know what you think!
2005 Barboursville Vineyards "Octagon" (Virginia, USA)
Incredibly, as it turns out, Thomas Jefferson's quixotic belief that Virginia could make great wine turned out to be correct. Virginia makes great wine. Barboursville Vineyards shines behind its closed doors. Their higher end tasting room, Library 1821, is a true temple to great Virginia wine that manages to simultaneously be both elegant and cozy. They've maintained an extensive library of past vintages of their signature red Bordeaux-style, Octagon, (and others) which is not available in the initial tasting. The 2005 edition was our favorite in the lineup. The delightful aged-book nose of the 2005 opened up with raspberry notes and vanilla throughout, finishing with cranberry and vanilla on the swallow.
2007 Hesperian "Tom's Vineyard" Cabernet Sauvignon (California, USA)
A good friend pulled this phenomenal Napa Cabernet out of his private stock while we stopped off on a difficult blizzard-tested journey. Napa is known for its big, bold, amazing Cabs, and Hesperian's offering from Tom's Vineyard was no disappointment. We found brilliant, jammy red fruit and currant. It was amazingly smooth and well balanced between big fruit and subtle, smoky wood. Truly irresistible, this bottle was one of the best in its genre that we've had in a long time. Also, at least from the perspective of your two coast-guarding nautical chart geek wine tasters, the bottle itself is beautiful!
NV Patrick Bottex Vin du Bugey-Cerdon La Cueille (Bugey, France)
This beautifully colored, deep pink and red sparkling wine from the Bugey region of eastern France serves as our house bubbles year round. It's crowd pleasing qualities combined with its great holiday color make it the perfect sparkler to serve in December (or just after midnight on the first of January). The nose throws up a medley of raspberries and cream, pomegranate (the juice, like cracking into a fresh pomegranate), and cranberry that continues through the palate and into the fresh aftertaste (like drinking a good cranberry juice). There's also tart raspberry sweetness in the palate. We love how this wine manages to be delectably sweet without being sugary, making it something that (should) please drinkers of drier and sweeter bubbles alike.