In 2015, I sampled about 3,500 wines from every continent but Antarctica in my never-ending search for the recommendable. My 10 most memorable bottles range from a great vintage of a rare riesling, to a pet-nat bargain from the Hamptons, to California’s über-classic cabernet. Taken as a whole, they communicate what’s important in the world of wine today (the rise of traditional winemaking styles and unfamiliar grapes, the new appeal of old champagne) and what might happen next (more hot young things out of Australia, among others).
Arranged by price, my top picks of 2015:
2012 Kiralyudvar Tokaji Furmint Sec ($20)
Over lunch at Gramercy Tavern, I fell in love with this spicy, full-bodied Hungarian white that was on the by-the-glass list. Made from the furmint grape, it has chardonnay-like richness and riesling-like zing and minerality. Wines like this are why dry furmint is having its moment. For centuries the grape went only into the country’s expensive sweet aszu wines; this elegant dry version proves you don’t have to spend big bucks to drink great wine. It’s my bargain of the year.
2015 Channing Daughters Pet-Nat Rosato ($27)
Frothy pink, this slightly sweet pétillant naturel fizz from a Long Island winery in the Hamptons is all gulp-me-now pleasure. The growing popularity of pet-nat wines inspired the ever-experimental winemaker Christopher Tracy at Channing Daughters to jump on the trend. Last year was his first vintage, but I think he hit his stride in 2015 with an all-merlot rosé that’s fresh, fun, and irresistible.
2012 Ben Haines Malakoff Vineyard Syrah ($50)
I was blown away by this pure, lavender-scented Australian syrah, made in the country’s cool-climate Pyrenees region, when I tasted it in New York with winemaker Ben Haines. Haines is a vineyard hunter, tracking down top spots for his own eponymous label (he also has another winemaking day job). This single vineyard syrah recalls a deep earthy-spicy northern Rhône wine and is a brilliant reminder of how young winemakers are reshaping the image of Australian wine.
1999 Williams Selyem Sonoma County Pinot Noir ($60)
A big part of what makes a wine memorable is savoring it at the right time, in the right place, with the right people. This regional pinot from a famously cool vintage surprised me: It’s still juicy, but its mellow cherry, earth, and savory flavors and smooth, silky texture show how well California pinots can age. I shared it with close friends over dinner in Restaurant Daniel’s tiny Skybox, surely the most fabulous table in New York, where we watched the chefs through a big window.
1961 Cuvée de la Commanderie du Bontemps Bordeaux Rouge ($135)
This highly unusual Bordeaux one-off was made by blending barrels of wine from one of the 20th century’s greatest vintages, contributed by famous Medoc chateaux belonging to the Commanderie du Bontemps trade association. It was poured at a dinner in the vat room at Château Lafite Rothschild. Its aromas of truffles and licorice, cassis and spice flavors delivered a taste of history.
2012 Ridge Vineyards Monte Bello ($180)
Comparing three vintages—1992, 2002, and 2012—of America’s greatest cabernet-based blends over lunch with winemaker Paul Draper was a huge treat. All three reds showed the kind of powerful structure, layered earth and fruit flavors, and elegant balance that Draper has pursued for decades at the rustic winery in the Santa Cruz mountains. The 1992 and 2002 show just how brilliantly this American “first growth” evolves as it ages, but the just-released 2012 was the highlight for me: It’s the 50th anniversary vintage of this classic cab.
1996 Château Pichon Lalande ($240)
At my first dinner at London’s posh, paneled Vintner’s Hall, rebuilt in 1668, I drank this delicious, silky-textured Bordeaux while sitting at a long table under a sparkly chandelier and eating Stilton Welsh Rarebit. The wine had developed all the cedary and tobacco notes you find in a perfectly aged example of what the British wine trade, well represented in black tie, still call claret. My impression failed to be dislodged by the vintage port, chocolates in the shape of swans, or the brass quintet that played “What shall we do with a drunken sailor.”
1990 Trimbach Clos Ste. Hune Riesling ($450–$600)
One of the world’s great white wines, this Alsace riesling comes from a tiny 3-acre walled vineyard that has belonged to the Trimbach family for more than two centuries. I was thrilled to sample five vintages going back to 1975 with Jean Trimbach over lunch at New York’s Bouley. The famous 1990 got my top mark; it looks like warm gold and has such intense, layered flavors of apricots, smoke, and stones that they linger in your mouth for what seems like minutes.
Sandeman Very Old Tawny, Cask 33 ($600)
Heady aromas of allspice, toasted almonds, and sandalwood are only half the appeal of this amber-colored tawny port made from a single 50-year old cask. Luxurious flavors of curry, nutmeg, and marmalade kept my palate engaged, too. Unlike vintage port, tawnies mellow for decades in oak “pipes” before being bottled. Very old tawnies are now a thing, and this one was launched this year to celebrate Sandeman’s 225-year history.
1966 Dom Pérignon P3 Champagne magnum ($8,540 at auction)
Serious tastings can be taxing work (I'm not kidding), but some are pure bliss and remind me why I love my job. At the Dom Pérignon Collectors Dinner at the Modern, held during this year’s Fête du Champagne in New York, I sucked down every drop in my glass of this rare 1966 DP. Deep, complex, toasty, and almost smoky, it was one of the evening’s 12 stellar vintages. The 1966 stood out as the most perfect Dom Pérignon I’ve ever drunk.
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