May 26, 2006
10 Best Wines of the Year, So Far

At the Pacific Coast Oyster Wine Competition in San Francisco not long ago I had a chance to ask veteran Napa Valley wine writer Bob Thompson if I could appropriate for this here blog one of his fun approaches to winedom.

Back in the days when Bob was doing a regular wine column, he’d periodically update a feature called The 10 Best Wines of the Year, So Far.

I liked it then, and I like the idea now, and Bob said have at it. He also suggested I look back over my tasting notes since the start of the century and consider a feature to be called The 10 Best Wines of the Millenium, So Far.

I like that, too, and at the end of the year just may do it, but in the meantime, here’s my 10 Best Wines of the Year, So Far:

C.G. Di Arie Vineyard & Winery 2003 Shenandoah Valley Zinfandel ($25): Zinfandels out of the Sierra foothills typically are intensely ripe, chewy and warm, and while this interpretation doesn’t back down from that kind of muscularity it is packaged with unusual balance and even elegance for the region.

Clos du Val 2000 Napa Valley Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ($95): Just tasted this wine Monday evening, when California wineries that participated in a celebrated showdown with French wines in Paris 30 years ago were formally recognized by legislators at a reception at the Capitol. In the 1976 tasting, the Clos du Val 1972 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon finished eighth in the 10-wine field. Leap to the winery’s 2000 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, which is a classic Napa Valley take on the varietal – extravagant with sweet cherry fruit, eucalyptus, cocoa, cedar and mint, with tannins that while obvious nonetheless don't erect a barrier to enjoying the wine today, though it should age handsomely for many years to come.

Louis M. Martini 2002 Sonoma Valley Monte Rosso Vineyard Gnarly Vines Zinfandel ($40): A porty, oaky and sweet-fruit smell at the outset suggests that this is going to be one weighty zinfandel, but on the palate it’s surprisingly lean and lithe, quivering like the string of a bow that just has released an arrow. Here’s a zinfandel that keeps inviting you back for its concentrated raspberry fruit and dash of pepper. It isn’t distributed much beyond the winery’s tasting room in the Napa Valley.

Merry Edwards 2003 Sonoma Coast Meredith Estate Pinot Noir ($48): I had a hunch this wine would be special, so I opened it for dinner on Valentine’s Day, and it delivered with an amplitude rare for California, even though the state is producing more and more pinot noirs of complexity and resonance. This one had a kind of papal richness about it – authority, tradition, grandeur – starting with alluring berry, cherry and deli-case aromas, swaggering with assurance in its bloodline, finishing with flavors that seemed as if they would last all year, and so far they have, at least in memory.

Mumm Napa 2001 Blanc de Blancs ($25): Sparkling wines rarely win the sweepstakes award at a major wine judging. They may be perfectly fine wines, but they tend to be too light against what generally is pretty heavy competition. At the final round of the Pacific Rim International Wine Competition in San Bernardino this spring, however, the Mumm Napa 2001 Blanc de Blancs, which has the classic dry fruitiness and trademark toastiness of Champagne, won the top honor. An unusual blend of two-thirds chardonnay and one-third pinot gris, the wine offers a stony foundation topped with feathery bubbles, crisp acidity and refreshing fruit.

Peter Lehmann 2003 Barossa Valley Semillon ($11): Easily the best buy of the year, so far, this semillon pulls you in with its complicated smells of shrubbery and figs, and then won’t let you go because of its round yet tangy fruit flavors that evoke images of a nicely done still life involving a basket of lemons and a jar of honey.

Philip Shaw Wines No. 89 2004 Orange Shiraz Viognier ($45): Legendary Australian winemaker Philip Shaw finally is starting to show up in the American market with his own label. His lineup includes this exceptionally rich, juicy and complex interpretation of Australia’s flagship varietal. Only one percent of the wine is viognier, added to help tone down shiraz’s striking white-pepper spiciness when the grape is grown in a cool area like Orange.

Rancho Zabaco 2003 Sonoma Valley Monte Rosso Vineyard Toreador Zinfandel ($50): OK, so it has a whopping 15.9 percent alcohol, but it also has the fruit, oak and body to balance it all out, showing that even high-alcohol table wines can be elegant. It’s a monster, all right, but lovable for its ripe and spicy raspberry and blackberry flavors, punctuated with licorice and rhubarb. Just 174 cases were made.

Robert Pecota Winery 2005 Napa Valley L’Artiste Sauvignon Blanc ($15): I taste a lot of sauvignon blanc, and am especially keen on examples of the varietal from New Zealand. This sauvignon blanc, however, shows that California can produce a style that doesn’t just mimic the grapefruit and lime zestiness of the New Zealanders. The Pecota is equally as aromatic, vivacious and refreshing, but it has more structure and sinew, and a fruitiness that says peaches more than citrus.

Spring Mountain Vineyard 2002 Napa Valley Estate Caberent Sauvignon ($50): Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon is muscular; that’s a given. Rarely is that power presented as gracefully as it is here, however. Think the weather is too warm for a hefty red? Not when it is as lithe and lively as this one, with its lip-smacking flavor of ripe and dewy Bing cherries and blackberries, with hints of chocolate and eucalyptus.

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