It’s a privilege and necessity of my job to drink many wines over the course of a year. All have a story to tell, sometimes dull, other times fascinating. Some are simply unforgettable.
The wines that stay with me are not always the best or the most profound. Sometimes the surprise of a discovery can transform the perception of a wine’s potential. More often, it’s a wine that so completely captures the spirit and emotion of a moment that it brands the memory with its scent and flavor.
What follows, from young to old, are a dozen remarkable wines, with stories that endure.
1. Stefan Vetter Sylvaner Rosenrain 2014
Rediscovering wines I had taken for granted is perhaps the most gratifying part of my job. Such was the case with silvaner, sometimes spelled sylvaner, the product of a workhorse Teutonic grape that has lost ground to more profitable varieties. But when made with care and appreciation, it can be a wonderfully fresh springtime wine and, as I learned, much more.
Stefan Vetter obsessively tends a few acres of very old silvaner on steep, crumbling terraces in the Franken region of Germany. Rosenrain comes from ungrafted vines planted in 1934, and this wine was a revelation of how good silvaner can be: pure, textured, deep and intense, with lingering flavors so thoroughly mineral you can’t help but visualize the stony, unyielding terrain and the winemaker’s determination to push it to its extreme.
2. Comando G Sierra de Gredos Tumba del Rey Moro Valle de Alto Alberche 2012
Great producers see the potential that others overlook. When Fernando García and Daniel Gómez Jiménez-Landi found vineyards of old-vine garnacha that were languishing on granite hillsides in the Sierra de Gredos outside Madrid, they envisioned beauty.
Under the Comando G label, they have redefined the possibilities of Spanish garnacha, better known by its French name grenache, and nowadays, for making powerful, jammy wines. The winemakers at Comando G make graceful, harmonious yet insistent wines that I could not help but love.
This bottle — from a vineyard of almost pure granite, with ancient vines interspersed with trees — smelled like concentrated rose petals. It was likewise floral on the palate, yet strikingly saline, an unforgettable combination.
3. La Stoppa Emilia Macchiona 2011
At Una Pizza Napoletana in October, I ordered a bottle of Macchiona 2011, from the La Stoppa estate in northwest Emilia-Romagna. It’s made of a combination of barbera and bonarda from a perhaps unremarkable terroir, yet I’ve always loved these wines for their purity and depth.
This wine was no different. It was a delight from first, anticipatory sip to last wistful drop. Unaccountably, five minutes after the bottle was opened, Elena Pantaleoni, the passionate proprietor of La Stoppa, walked into the restaurant. It was a magical moment, like spotting on the subway the author of the book you can’t put down. It was an opportunity to say hello, glass in hand, with unalloyed enthusiasm.
4. Ravines Finger Lakes Argetsinger Vineyard Riesling 2009
Watching the Finger Lakes of New York arrive as a world-class wine region has been a joy for this New York native. Ravines, owned and operated by the husband-and-wife team Morten and Lisa Hallgren, is among the region’s best producers.
Of their excellent wines, their Argetsinger Vineyard riesling, from a gravel-and-limestone slope rising above the east side of Seneca Lake, may be the best. When I drank the 2009 in August, I was riveted by its depth, complexity and insistent intensity. This was a great wine, perhaps the best American riesling I’ve had, and, at nine years of age, it had miles to go.
5. Alain & Jérôme Lenoir Chinon Les Roches 2007
A few years ago, I bought a few bottles of this Chinon from Alain and Jérôme Lenoir and fell in love with its pure, old-school rusticity, a combination of rough, complex flavors of red fruit, earth and a touch of green. This was Chinon for the ages: a direct, unmediated expression of people, place and culture.
I have not been able to find the wine since, and have been driven occasionally to pestering the importers, Selection Massale, about when the next shipment would land. They are always maddeningly vague. Then, in February, I saw it on the list at Scampi, in Chelsea.
It was just as I remembered, more rugged than pretty but absolutely without artifice. I can’t wait to see these wines again.
6. Bonny Doon Le Cigare Volant California 2005
For years, Le Cigare Volant has been the flagship wine of Bonny Doon Vineyard. In May, at a 30-year retrospective tasting of Cigare, Bonny Doon’s mercurial proprietor, Randall Grahm, described it as a Burgundy lover’s take on Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
As a constantly shifting blend of grapes — generally some combination of grenache, mourvèdre, syrah and cinsault, among others — from a constantly changing array of vineyards, Cigare has hardly been the expression of terroir to which Mr. Grahm has long aspired. Nonetheless, it’s been a consistently good, often excellent and always underrated wine, of which he can rightfully be proud.
We tasted 21 wines, and I was particularly struck by the 2005, a lively, lovely grenache-dominant blend that was powerful, yet tense with aromas and flavors of black fruit, flowers and minerals. Mr. Grahm called it his “Platonic ideal of Cigareness.”
Sometime after the tasting, Mr. Grahm announced that Bonny Doon’s focus would shift to the wines of terroir he is trying to make at his Popelouchum Vineyard near San Juan Bautista, Calif. After several more unreleased vintages are sold, the Cigare Volant brand will transition to juicy, easygoing, thirst-quenching wines. Meanwhile, thanks for the memories.
7. Noël Verset Cornas 2004
The wines of Cornas are one of the world’s great expressions of the syrah grape. Yet if it hadn’t been for dedicated vignerons like Auguste Clape and Noël Verset, who persisted in the backbreaking labor required to tend the steep, hillside vineyards in the lean postwar years, Cornas might have been forgotten.
By Mr. Verset’s last vintage in 2006, Cornas had come to be prized around the world. The supply of Verset wines was dwindling by the time Mr. Verset died, at age 95, in 2015. The 2004, consumed at a dinner party in June, was deep, pure and rustic in the best sense of the word, alive with the flavors of olives and bacon, a wonderful tribute to the life’s work of an unassuming man.
8. Mount Eden Vineyards Santa Cruz Mountains Cabernet Sauvignon 2001
With all due respect to Napa Valley, I think my favorite region in California for cabernet sauvignon is the Santa Cruz Mountains. It’s tiny, and better known for pinot noir and chardonnay than cabernet, but it’s the source for two great American cabernets, Ridge Monte Bello and Mount Eden’s estate cabernet, grown on Franciscan shale.
Mount Eden was purchased and planted in the early 1940s by Martin Ray, an iconoclastic, pioneering winemaker whose name, like his mentor Paul Masson's, lives on in brands under different owners. The property, now owned by Jeffrey and Ellie Patterson, is also better known for its pinot noir and chardonnay. The 2001 was gorgeous, and still a baby, with flavors of graphite, violets and a signature savory spiciness. I can only hope I will encounter it again.
9. Pierre Morey Bâtard-Montrachet Grand Cru 2001
La Paulée de Meursault is a glorious celebration of Burgundy held every November in Meursault. Based on the informal parties traditionally held after the harvest, it has evolved into a 700-person extravaganza of local Meursault producers, their families, friends and guests, and a lot of wine, often poured by the winemakers.
I was lucky enough to attend this year, for the second time, and even more luckier still to be seated near Pierre Morey and his daughter, Anne Morey. Their estate, Domaine Pierre Morey, is one of the Côte de Beaune’s most underrated producers. The wines are not flashy. They are refreshingly modest and understated, yet exquisite.
The Bâtard-Montrachet, a grand cru white poured by Mr. Morey, was both pure Bâtard and pure Morey. It did not leap out of the glass, yet rewarded close observation with its deep, stony, mineral aroma. It smelled so good that for a while I could not bring myself to drink it. When I did finally taste it, the wine was sublime.
10. Green Chartreuse Tarragona Circa 1940s?
At the same dinner party at which the Noël Verset was poured, a collector opened an old half-bottle of Chartreuse, the legendary liqueur produced by Carthusian monks, who are so secretive that nobody outside the monastery is entrusted with the recipe.
The vintage date on the label was no longer legible, but Jeff Joseph, the collector who brought it, and others who knew far more about Chartreuse than I, estimated it was from the late 1940s. It was produced in Tarragona, Spain, where the monks built a distillery during an exile from eastern France after the French government nationalized their distillery in 1903. The Tarragona distillery operated from 1903 to 1989, so the production window for the bottle is wide.
Whenever it was made, this Chartreuse was stunning, unlocking for me the reason so many people cherish these liqueurs. It was a bit sweet, profoundly bitter, complex and fascinating. Above all, it was refreshing, a welcome digestif after a long and bibulous meal.
11. Château Lafite Rothschild Pauillac 1868
I was extraordinarily fortunate to attend a dinner party in May at Château Lafite Rothschild’s estate to mark the 150th anniversary of Lafite’s acquisition by the Rothschild family.
Aside from 16 vintages of one of the world’s greatest wines, the party included a fascinating array of personalities, like the director and winery owner Francis Ford Coppola and his son the filmmaker Roman Coppola; the actor Dominic West; the wine writer Neal Martin; the chef and author Mimi Thorisson; and the hosts, Baron Éric de Rothschild and his daughter, Saskia de Rothschild, who now directs the estate.
We drank a handful of old bottles that might qualify as the wines of a lifetime: vintages like 1961, 1945 and 1905. Connoisseurs may quibble over the relative merits of these wines relative to their Bordeaux peers (Haut-Brion, Latour, Margaux and Mouton-Rothschild), but for me each was an emotional experience. The gorgeous flavors, unlocked after so long, testified to the producers’ devotion to their craft and to the piece of land that has entranced its audience since well before the age of Thomas Jefferson, one of its fans.
The most memorable — simply for its profound age and the history it conjures up — was the 1868, a wine that survived 150 years of joys and catastrophes to tell its story, with delicate yet indistinguishable energy. Unforgettable.
12. Madeira Sercial 1846 (From Unlabeled Demijohn)
Astonishingly, the 1868 Lafite was not the oldest wine I tasted this year. In 2015, during a renovation of the Liberty Museum in Jersey City, N.J., workers found three cases of Madeira dating from 1796 behind a sealed wall in the cellar, and another 40 demijohns from the early 19th century in the attic, buried under straw. These wines will be auctioned off by Christies on Dec. 7.
Madeira, beloved by early Americans, is a virtually indestructible wine, capable of withstanding long journeys on sailing ships and, as I learned at a tasting held by Christie’s in October to publicize the auction, almost two centuries in an attic.
The amber-colored 1846, made from the sercial grape, one of the drier varieties of Madeira, was remarkable. The aromas were complex: dried fruits, flowers, vanilla. The flavors were intense and penetrating, underscored by Madeira’s characteristic bright acidity: more fruit and flowers, a touch of caramel and a refreshing salinity.
It was just a taste of history, but the memory it left was indelible.
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Eric Asimov is The Times’s wine critic. @EricAsimov
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