In 2009, I spat out 5,000 wines in my quest for recommendable bottles. Far too many were boring or overpriced. So, in compiling my top 10 for this year, I picked those worth the bucks asked, whether legendary labels or exciting discoveries.
These 10, in order of price, show where value lurks in today's wine world and highlight what may be hot in 2010.
2007 Errazuriz Single Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon ($21)
Of the hundreds of cabs I tried this year, few svelte examples came with a $20 price tag. On a trip to Chile's warm, dry Aconcagua valley, I found a new smooth, chocolatey cabernet blended with dashes of cabernet franc, petit verdot and shiraz at this winery better known for its expensive wines.
2007 Schafer-Frohlich Riesling Spatlese Bockenauer Felseneck ($34)
The 2007 vintage in Germany, with the longest growing season anyone can remember, was textbook perfect for riesling. Dozens impressed me at a June tasting in New York of more than 150 bottlings. My standout was this lively example with succulent, pinpoint balance, made from a single vineyard in the Nahe region by boy-wonder winemaker Tim Frohlich.
2006 Luciano Sandrone Barbera d'Alba ($35)
At a gala dinner in Italy featuring truffles and braised mutton cheek glazed with Barolo, I was stunned by this vibrant, velvety barbera from famed Piemonte producer Luciano Sandrone. Like a few other top Barolo makers, he lavishes the same attention on his affordable barbera as he does on his age-worthy reds, and it shows. The wine stood up to reds served next to it costing 10 times more.
NV Laherte Freres Rose de Saignee Les Beaudiers Vieilles Vignes Champagne Extra Brut ($80)
This frothy pink Champagne from a small grower in the village of Chavot is all about gulp-me-now pleasure. Entirely from pinot meunier, the least-known Champagne grape, it's a subtle mix of spicy scents and bright berry tones. With wines like this, no wonder demand for grower Champagnes keeps rising.
2007 Moric Lutzmannsburg Alte Reben Blaufrankisch ($95)
Surprise of the year? That tongue-twisting blaufrankisch, known as the grape of simple quaffers, could make great wine. I was blown away by the spicy, exotic offerings of passionate Austrian winemaker Roland Velich, who tracks down patches of 100-year-old vines. This bottling (he makes five under his Moric label) displays fresh cherry and herb aromas, raspberry and chalk flavors, and a deep, intriguing personality.
1989 Ridge Vineyards Monte Bello ($240)
Made since 1962 from grapes grown in the Monte Bello vineyard high in the Santa Cruz mountains, this ageworthy cab blend is one of California's "first growths"—an American Chateau Latour. I savored the 1989, a vintage I'd never encountered, at the annual New York Wine Experience. Filled with lush cassis and earth flavors, this has an elegant balance (13.5 percent alcohol) that's all too rare in top California cabs.
NV Armand de Brignac 'Ace of Spades' Champagne Brut Gold ($300)
After rapper Jay-Z dumped Cristal (his previous fave Champagne), he gave this new luxe fizz a shout-out in his video "Show Me What You Got." I dismissed the garish golden bottle in a shiny black lacquer box as yet another celeb wine. When I sampled the latest release, though, I was sold. The sexy sparkler has plenty of flash and dash and the burnished tang of brioche and candied lemon peel. Its only drawback is that part of the price is surely for bling—the Yankees toasted their World Series win by popping bottles in the locker room.
1945 Marques de Riscal Rioja Reserva ($720)
At the Wine Future 2009 conference in Rioja, Spain, I sipped (and didn't spit) this silky 64-year-old blend of cabernet sauvignon and tempranillo, aged for years in oak barrels. The wine's tantalizing spice and cedar bouquet and layers of fruit and licorice flavors dramatically underscore how well the region's undervalued, traditionally made reds can age.
2006 Domaine de la Romanee-Conti La Tache ($995)
Not a chance I'd pass up the annual New York release tasting for Burgundy superstar-producer Domaine de la Romanee-Conti. Weather during 2006 was challenging compared with 2005's perfection, but a not-so-stellar vintage shows off the subtle terroir differences among the DRC's six vineyards. The powerful, intense always-in-demand La Tache was all crushed rose petals, blackcurrants and damp leaves in '06 and, hey, it costs one-third the price of the '05.
2008 Le Pin Pomerol ($1,495 in futures)
A lone pine tree shading a nondescript building in Bordeaux's Pomerol marks tiny Chateau Le Pin, the source of a merlot trophy wine (600 cases) that collectors pant for. Tasting the 2008 from the barrel in June with maker Jacques Thienpont, I found its sleek black fruit and seductive opulent character irresistible—slightly less sensational than nearby rival Petrus, but half the price.
(Elin McCoy writes on wine and spirits for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)