Efímero restaurant in Madrid, Copenhagen wine bars, cocktails and more are my Top 10 of 2018

A few of our Instagram Best Nine for 2018 also made my Top 10 list for the year, starting with the great gin tonic I had at Tweed cocktail bar in Stockholm, Sweden (top left).

A few of our Instagram Best Nine for 2018 also made my Top 10 list for the year, starting with the great gin tonic I had at Tweed cocktail bar in Stockholm, Sweden (top left).

What a year. I’ve been blogging much less because I’ve devoted more writing energy to my book, which still lacks a title (though there is a short list). It’s rather tricky to mode switch from blogging in short form to writing more long form.

The past year has held other oddities, too. At one point, for example, I experienced the longest stretch of crossing international borders in my entire lifetime without any of those borders being that of Spain. Seventeen borders crossed in that stretch. My previous record was eight... before I first came to Spain as a child. In fairness, I’m now writing this while sipping café con leche at El Diario at the corner of Calle de las Huertas and Calle de Jesus in Madrid. I came here from Sweden, by way of the Amsterdam, so the world has returned to its rightful balance.

We’ve written up our top 10 wines of the year the last several Decembers, though this year I’ve decided to go with a more expansive top 10 list that I hope will inform your wine and travel aspirations in the year ahead.

Further reading: Our top ten wines of 2017: Powerfully good bottles that tell richly compelling stories

1. Idea of the Year: The world needs more wine 🌏🌍🌎

This year ends nearly where it began, with the idea that the world needs more wine. I wrote last January...

“Anchoring oneself is terrifically difficult when the currents of technology, politics, and world events seem so determined to unmoor us. The long arc of history is difficult to discern when the days and weeks move so quickly. Yet here in my recent past I have memories of stones clicking along the ground of a vineyard in Spain, in which is grown the same grapes we found in those grey and green Texas hills. One of my childhood best friends joined me that night in Prague, where we drank wines celebrated on a map of a country that hasn't existed in four generations. Grape vines are old creatures that produce new and beautiful things each year.”

Why the world needs wine in 2018, more than ever

Den Vandrette wine bar in Copenhagen served me a glass of natural wine from Georgia (the country).

Den Vandrette wine bar in Copenhagen served me a glass of natural wine from Georgia (the country).

2. Best City for Wine: Copenhagen, Denmark 🇩🇰

 Visiting a new city? Seek out the wine. Do.

A tough choice thanks to the fabulous new wine bars that are sprouting up in in cities across Europe and North America. (And the world? I’m sticking with what I know here.) New York, Madrid, Paris are obvious. Stockholm and Washington were incredibly strong contenders in my view. But there is a magic in Copenhagen right now, particularly around the natural wine scene, that makes it my current go-to place for city dwelling wine culture. Specifically consider the lively atmosphere opening through big windows out to the street at Falernum, the quiet mood just down the street at Ancestrale, the wine bar as dock bar at Den Vandrette near Nyhavn. Then there is Ved Stranden, which Four Square rates #1 for wine in the city. These guys are crazy knowledgeable about wine. Crazy. Knowledgeable. The place hums with the life of a Byzantine café talking issues of the day, blended with the excitement of happy hour, the promise of the weekend, the warmth of summer in May (when I visited), and the passion of sharing wine — and all the world — with everyone who darkens the door.

3. Best City Otherwise: Stockholm, Sweden 🇸🇪

I love cities, and visited some great ones in 2018: Dublin, Riga, my home in Washington, my long-adored Madrid. But Stockholm, capital of Sweden, has stolen my heart. It is truly the most beautiful city in which I’ve ever spent time. There is great wine at Gaston and The Burgundy in Gamla Stan (Stockholm’s old town). Find the best cocktails you’ve ever had at Tweed in the back of The Burgundy. The Collector’s Victory Hotel, my favorite hotel on Earth, is (conveniently) just upstairs from both. Otherwise its canals and harbor that surround both the palace and the Riksdag’s Parliament House are quite possibly the most pristine seat of government in the world. There seem to be more museums than people. And, as I said a moment ago, great new wine bars are opening all over the city. Try Grus Grus, just across from the Odenplan metro station.

Madrid’s Efímero is offering one of the most incredible wine experiences we know.

Madrid’s Efímero is offering one of the most incredible wine experiences we know.

4. Best New (to me) Wine Bar: Efímero in Madrid, Spain 🇪🇸

By far the toughest choice on this list, 2018 was a truly great year of discovering wine serving establishments to which I had never visited. The incredible wine lists at aforementioned Grus Grus in Stockholm and at Taste in Boston, my introduction to English sparkling wine at Lady of the Grapes — along with the great atmosphere just down the street at Terroirs in London, even a wine bar called Brix27 in Martinsburg, West Virginia, USA of all places top the list. But none are more compelling than the truly incredible experience on offer at Efímero in Madrid. Luis Baselga, the sommelier, is one of the most talented new wine minds (and tastes) we know. His always-unique pairings to match the ever-changing chef’s tasting are beyond compare. And the setting itself, just off of Plaza de Colón in the Justicia neighborhood, manages to be trendy yet elegant, with service that is off the charts polished. Great as every other establishment on this list might be, it is impossible to not admin that Madrid’s Efímero is one of the most sublime wine experiences we’ve ever encountered.

5. Best Returning Wine Bar: Gaston + The Burgundy in Stockholm 🇸🇪

There’s always room for old favorites. I’m cheating in this case, awarding the honor to the block-away-from-one-another pair of Gaston and The Burgundy in Stockholm. I first found the latter a while back while drinking far too much wine with my mother of all people. Gaston is a small place with a thoughtful yet approachable wine list. Burgundy is a rollicking place with the coziest physical space that doesn’t end until it becomes a high-end cocktail bar called “Tweed” in the back. Visit late night on Wednesday for creative sandwiches served to a standing room only crowd.

6. Best Winery: Delaplane Cellars + Greenhill Winery and Vineyards in Virginia, USA 🇺🇸

Virginia’s Delaplane Cellars continues to be our favorite winery for its combination of lovely people, great atmosphere (views, too), and world-class wine. We were also introduced this year to Greenhill Winery and Vineyards just twenty minutes down the road, which is a better choice for a warm afternoon spent with a larger group of your family and friends. Greenhill also offers up the best sparkling wine we’ve found in Virginia.

Further reading: Middleburg's Greenhill Winery & Vineyards is the next great Virginia winery

I’ve not found a better long-haul economy class experience than that which is offered up aboard Finnair.

I’ve not found a better long-haul economy class experience than that which is offered up aboard Finnair.

7. Best Airline: Finnair (honorable mention to jetBlue) 🇫🇮

jetBlue carries on its reign as the hands-down best airline in North America, but hasn’t yet gone ahead launching service to Europe (that would be a game changer). Finnair, though, offers up the unequivocally best economy class service I’ve ever flown. The feat is even more impressive given how abysmal the trans-Atlantic economy is aboard its partner British Airways. Oh, and Finnair’s status as the most on-time airline in the world makes it our best airline of 2018. A layover in Helsinki is the best way to cross the Atlantic in economy class.

8. Best Credit Card for Winos and Travelers: Chase Sapphire Reserve

American Express has relaunched both its Gold and Platinum models to mount a pretty compelling challenge to the Chase combination of Chase Sapphire Reserve and Chase Freedom Unlimited cards when used together in tandem, but the AMEX benefits — while more generous in some key ways — are a bit more difficult to use. The combination of the Chase Sapphire Reserve, Freedom Unlimited, and Ink Business thus remain the best way to get the most reward from your wine + dining and travel spend. It’s still been years since I paid actual money to cross the ocean.

I must caveat this with a mention of the changes rolling out for the Citi Prestige card in 2019 (One Mile at a Time sums these up here), but since those don’t begin to kick in until January (tomorrow). I’ll write separately about this.

Further reading: Our five favorite credit cards to save big and have a great experience while traveling

9. Best Travel Gear: Cotopaxi Allpa 35L Travel Pack

 I’ve gone round and round trying to find the perfect travel bag over the years. I still love my Tumi Alpha 2 International carry on, and use it whenever my roaming is mostly confined to the smooth floors of airports and hotels. When travel calls for subway stairs, cobblestone streets, and other terrain where rolling suitcases just aren’t practical, though, I’ve finally settled on the Allpa 35 liter Travel Pack (backpack) from Cotopaxi. It’s well-thought, incredibly durable, and perfectly manages my usual kit for a ten to fourteen day trip: four days worth of clothes, extra pair of jeans, laundry bag and soap, pajama pants and sweatshirt, slippers (yes), backup glasses / sunglasses, laptop, iPad, requisite chargers and electronics gear, and a few random items thrown in based on the destination. Use it with these excellent packing cubes. Pair it with a pair (see that?) of Allbirds or something waterproof from Johnston and Murphy on your feet, and you’re set.

10. Wine of the Year: Mencía 🍷🇪🇸

I found myself sipping a lot of Mencía in 2018, even before Meghan and I visited Galicia. Copenhagen proved to be a magical land of natural wine, which I think has finally gone mainstream-ish. The dark horse here isn’t a wine at all; could we really declare “cocktails” to be the wine of the year, anyway? We did try a lot of great cocktails this year. No matter - I’m going with Mencía as my wine of the year. In March I wrote:

This (often) cooler feeling red grape hails from Spain’s somewhat cooler climate northwest, in several wine regions of Galicia and the far western reaches of Castile and León. If you’re conscious of having tried it before, you might think of it as the leading grape produced in the Bierzo region, though we’ve enjoyed lovely examples from nearby Ribeira Sacra as well. We think this is an ideal bottle to keep your red drinking ways alive for a few more months, while typically cool enough to be able to carry you straight through into summer. Mencias are often profoundly interesting, commonly conjuring notes of green peppers that distinguish them from many reds grown elsewhere in Spain. Incidentally, these wines are also somewhat unique among Spanish wines in that they are often referred to by the name of their grape (Mencia) rather than their region (e.g. Bierzo or Ribeira Sacra). This stands in contrast to the norm among the country’s other wines, typically referred to by their region (i.e. calling the wine a “Ribera del Duero” or a “Rioja”) rather than by grape varietal (generally “Tempranillo” for both).

I intend to carry on drinking them in 2019. You should, too. Cheers!