It goes without saying that I don’t have the beverage budget of, say, Wine Spectator, nor do trucks back up to my door to drop off caseloads of first-growth Bordeaux and Grand Cru Burgundies from France. And it’s doubtful that I’ll ever be afforded the opportunity to review many of the sought-after wines of California’s boutique wineries.
Still, I do manage to get my lips around some pretty good juice now and then—and, most of it is priced to appeal to the common, everyday wine drinker, not collectors. So, here are some of my favorite wine discoveries of 2011—wines that might not be worthy of cellaring for decades, but which are ripe and ready to enjoy now.
One can’t-miss wine is Atrea Old Soul Red ($19.99), which Spencer’s sommelier Louis Koppel turned me on to. “This hand-crafted, unfiltered, inky-colored Mendocino gem flexes with dark fruit that delivers gracefully and reiterates its layers of fruit with notes of spice blending in on the lengthy finish,” said Koppel. He’s right. Another good tip came from Snowbird’s assistant food and beverage director, Frederic Barbier, who recommended Paul Jaboulet Parallele 45 ($13.99), an easy-to-drink Grenache/Syrah blend with spicy notes that would be great with steak au poivre or a hearty beef daube. In pretty much the same price range, Zucca Trattoria chef/owner suggested Navarro Correas Private Collection Malbec ($10.99), with fruit and flower aromas; flavors of strawberry, blackberry and cherry; and hints of vanilla and smoke. All three of these wines turned out to be excellent recommends.
A couple of especially sexy wines got my attention this year, including a Cotes du Rhone Villages called LePlan-Vermeersch GT-G ($22.77). The winemakers for LePlan describe their wines as “full-throttle, pedal-to-the-metal wines.” They all carry “GT” on the label; this one is GT-G, which indicates Grand Terroir-Grenache. But the GT connotes a double meaning, since LePlan’s owner is Dirk Vermeersch, a Belgian race-car-driver-turned-winemaker. This is a racy but well-rounded wine, brimming with cherry flavors and hints of vanilla from French and American oak.
While definitely not presented in a sexy package—it comes in a moonshine-style jug—Sherman & Hooker’s Shebang! ($10.53) is a serious wine made by a serious winemaker—Morgan Peterson. His Bedrock Wine Company produces wines mostly way out of my price range, except for Shebang, a blend of declassified North Coast fruit: old vine Zinfandel, Syrah, Petite Syrah, Mourvedre and Cinsault, aged in new French oak. There is pepper and blueberry on the nose from the Syrah and very deep flavors, although this is an easy-drinking wine. Pour Shebang into Riedel stemware, hide the bottle and let your guests think they’re sipping something expensive.
When it comes to Zinfandel, nobody does it better than Will Bucklin. His Glen Ellen vines date back to the Civil War, possibly the oldest planted in North America. And, the Bucklin vineyard is dry-farmed, sustainable and certified organic. The fields are scattered with rosemary, lavender and eucalyptus, and the latter, especially, subtly flavors the fruit. Then there is Bucklin himself, a conjurer who makes small-production, otherworldly wines in a barn. Best of all, his Bucklin Old Hill Ranch Zinfandel ($24.99) is actually cheaper in Utah than in Sonoma, where it’s made.
Finally, my favorite white wine discovery of the year was Bump Sauvignon Blanc ($16.99). It has a wonderfully fleshy mouthfeel—more body than expected with SB—yet it’s crisp and bone-dry, with rich tropical-fruit flavors and gorgeous aromas. There is 5 percent Chardonnay added to 95 percent Sauvignon Blanc Musque grapes, which helps lend a bit more body and roundness to the wine. Get some to sip in the spring of 2012.