Vintage Year 

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I’ve always thought it a bit silly when the glossy wine magazines at year’s end proclaim a “Best Wine of the Year.” First, how could the experts possibly have tasted every wine produced in a year? But more important, is there ever really a “best” wine? I don’t think so.

To me, the best wine is the wine I’m drinking right now. I don’t sip low cost Australian Chardonnay longing for ritzy French Burgundy. And if I’m lucky enough to get my lips around a glass of Port from 1975, I don’t pine for the more prestigious ’63. Sure, I’ve had the good fortune to taste some of the world’s most sought-after wines on occasion. But none of them were any more satisfying than a lowly co-op white-wine blend I remember drinking on a patio in Provence once. It tasted at the time like God’s own grape juice.

Maybe for collectors it’s the wine that matters. For me, the wine is made worthy by the people, food and place accompanying it. I’d rather have a bottle of nonvintage white Zinfandel among good friends than a ’55 Lafite Rothschild alone. Well, let’s make that a good California Chardonnay with friends versus the Lafite solo. You get the idea.

So for me, 2005 was filled with an assortment of standout wines, most of them not very costly. Here are a few of the wines I found myself returning to frequently during the past year.

Made from the little-known Brachetto grapes of Italy, the pink sparkling wine called Banfi Rosa Regale ($22.75) graced my table more than a few times this year. It’s a luscious aperitif wine and even more spectacular served with chocolate. Imagine a fizzy low-alcohol (7 percent) pink drink that tastes like raspberry coulis over chocolate truffles'yes, sex in a bottle. Almost as seductive as Rosa Regale is Niebaum-Coppola’s Sophia Sparkling Blanc de Blanc ($15.95). To me this bubbly tastes like wedding cake in a bottle: sort of like kiwi, strawberry and rose-infused marzipan.

Boy, I sure did drink my share of Las Rocas de San Alejandro Garnacha ($7.85) from Spain this year. Cherry and blueberry flavors dominate this dense fruit-bomb wine. It’s wound pretty tight upon opening, but decant this baby and let it breathe a bit, and you’ll be richly rewarded. Also from Spain is a wonderful Rueda called Palacio de Menade, Cuevas de Castilla ($8.45). This Spanish white is brimming with ripe pear and peach flavors and bursting with herbal aromas.

Francis Coppola Diamond Pinot Noir ($17.95) is a plush, elegant, ruby-colored Pinot full of black-cherry flavors, and it had quite an impact on me in 2005. Ditto for two economical New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs I enjoyed throughout the year. Both Monkey Bay Sauvignon Blanc ($7.95) and Tohu Sauvignon Blanc ($12.95) are crisp, clean and loaded with tropical fruit flavors. They are good alternatives to the overpriced Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc everyone loves.

Maybe my most satisfying wine discovery of 2005 was learning of Willamette Valley’s Domaine Serene. Two of the most luscious wines I tasted this year came from this little-known vineyard: Domaine Serene Clos du Soleil ($41.95) Chardonnay and Domaine Serene Evenstad Reserve Willamette Valley Pinot Noir ($51.95).

Another happy discovery of 2005 was Norton Torrontes ($7.95), from Argentina. Bursting at the seams with tropical flavors of tangerine, guava, pineapple and grapefruit'not to mention a hint of Muscat-style sweetness'I found Torrontes to be a good alternative to the luscious but more pricey Conundrum, from Caymus winemaker Chuck Wagner.

With those winning wine memories, I can’t wait to get started sipping in 2006!

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