A Year of Treats for the Palate, by the Sip and the Barrel

New York Times

I couldn’t begin to count the bottles of wine I opened or drank in 2006, though I have no doubt I could give those mice in the resveratrol experiments a run for their money. Honestly, I don’t drink wine for my health. That’s what carrots and broccoli are for. I drink it because I love it, because it’s a never-ending pleasure, and because meals with wine always beat meals without wine.

From whichever direction I look at 2006, what stands out is the joy of wine. Sure, thorny issues confront the larger wine world. But the questions now are no different from what they were in 2005 and what they most likely will be a year from now. Global warming, high levels of alcohol, the tension between international styles and indigenous traditions, the rising importance of what Jacqueline Friedrich calls hyper-natural wines, counterfeit wines – these concerns are much easier to list then they are to allay. But most important, they do not take away from the fundamental enjoyment found in a good glass of wine. And 2006 saw more good wine from more places than ever before.

Forget the specter of a monochromatic world of taste-the-same wines. For me, the greatest moments of 2006 involved immersing myself in wines that are utterly distinctive.

Sure, the world buzzed this past spring about the fantastic 2005 vintage in Bordeaux. I’m mighty glad about that. But I was even happier to spend time in the Jura, a secluded region of rolling hills in eastern France that is home to wines unlike those anywhere else in the world. A pungent, briny vin jaune, tangy, complex and deep, may not be for everyone. But it is heaven with an aged Comté cheese. It’s made of the savagnin grape, which you won’t find anywhere else, nor will you find pretty reds made from the Jura’s delicate, fragrant poulsard.

Spain has been behind France and Italy in modernizing its wine industry, but it is catching up in a hurry. Each year another Spanish region comes to the fore, and for me 2006 was the year of Bierzo, featuring the menc’a grape. The best reds from this ancient wine region in the northwest have an almost haunting, exotic quality, with aromas of wildflowers, earth and raspberries. You won’t find menc’a wines made anywhere else, either.

You will find pinot noir just about everywhere. Americans continued to embrace pinot noirs, and I enjoyed a few exceptional ones, particularly from Sonoma Coast producers like Peay Vineyards and Littorai, and from longtime pinot noir makers like Calera Wine Company, Mount Eden Vineyards and Hanzell Vineyards.

Even more rewarding were the pinot noirs I enjoyed from regions that are not often associated with this grape. A perfumed yet earthy Barthenau pinot nero from J. Hofstätter in the Alto Adige region of Italy offers clear evidence that there is more to pinot noir than is found in Burgundy, California and Oregon. A juicy 2003 August Kesseler from the Rheingau will second the notion.

Of course, I would never turn my back on Burgundy, and if I can find any good 2005s in my price range when they are released I plan to scoop them up. As in Bordeaux, 2005 was great for red Burgundies, but they will be very expensive. I can’t speak of Burgundy without mentioning Henri Jayer, the master winemaker, who died in September at the age of 84. His wines will remain benchmarks of the heights that Burgundy can achieve.

While most of the talk in the United States is about pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon, the most exciting wines for me came from the most unexpected places. Great dry gewürztraminers from Lazy Creek Vineyards in the Anderson Valley in Mendocino County rival any you can find from Alsace, if you can find a dry gewürztraminer from Alsace, that is. And the dry gewürzes from Londer, Navarro, Handley and Corison are pretty good, too.

I already mentioned the pinot noirs from the Sonoma Coast, a rugged and unforgiving area where you are more likely to find wild boar than wine tourists. A small amount of syrah is grown in the region, including some of the best California syrah I’ve had, from Peay Vineyards, Failla’s Estate Vineyard and Radio-Coteau.

This year I’ve traveled all over Europe and the United States, visited an old zinfandel vineyard in Mexico and tasted delicious chenin blanc and pinot gris in British Columbia. Though I didn’t get to Australia, one of my favorite moments was a vertical tasting of Penfolds St. Henri shiraz in New York. This wine is kind of the forgotten old-fashioned brother of Penfolds Grange, and it is a pure, delicious expression of Australian shiraz, without the overlay of oak, that has stood the test of time.

This year hasn’t been all wine and roses. It’s been spirits and beer, too. In April, we had a wonderful panel tasting of lambic beers. The good ones, from producers like Cantillon, are made as they were centuries ago, and they are unlike any other beers in their rich complexity. We also had a sensational tasting of porter beers, an old English style of finesse and subtlety that has been reborn in the last 20 years. For a New World take on porter, seek out a Geary’s or Smuttynose, and for a classic porter try a Samuel Smith or a Fuller’s.

Just last month we had a memorable tasting of rye whiskey, which surely belongs in the pantheon of great whiskeys. Certainly, interest in it is at a peak, though the supply lags considerably behind. If you see a Black Maple Hill 18-Year-Old, or a Sazerac 18-Year-Old, you might want to snag it. We won’t be seeing much aged rye whiskey for a few years, until the newly distilled whiskey has had time to age.

I know I tasted a lot of bad wine this year, too. But for some reason I can’t remember any.

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