After weeks of pondering and scouring my massive digital photo library I’m sharing the best bottles that made my palate sing with joy. The best wines that stood out from the rest were mostly good value for quality wines, but there were also icons that the vinous world had already appreciated and so their price climbed to the heavenly highs. Professional wine tastings, generous friend’s cellars, smart and timely investments and our contemplative pockets at very special restaurants made these luxurious choices possible.
Authentic luxury wines exist: look for a great sommelier, small producers, no fancy labels advertised heavily
I indulged in Moutons, ultra-rare Burgundies, Penfolds Grange and Super Tuscans, but the most impressive wines for my palate were less brand flashy. An exquisite Meursault that a friend brought us during a summer visit was so complex and mineral that I thought of a Grand Cru Chablis. Domaine Arnaud Ente was dubbed by Berry Bros & Rudd of London as “arguably Burgundy’s brightest rising star”. Whetting our appetite for more, a 2004 vintage Chambolle-Musigny Les Amoureuses by Domaine Comte Georges Vogue also from our friend’s cellar was easy to fall in love with, uncontrollable emotions in a truly superb, elegant Pinot Noir.
In Chablis, no producer can match up the complex diversity of the Grand Cru vineyards as Ravenau. My favourite cru is Monts Mains. Bread, flowers, yellow plums (mirabelle), very clean minerality with only a gentle touch of oak. There is no more complexity in a white Burgundy than this.
The first wine I toasted to the 2018 with, a late disgorged Jacquesson 1990 vintage Avize Grand Cru was impeccable. Champagne for NYE is a must and when dining at a three Michelin-stared French restaurant but if you care about value, skip the well marketed labels like Dom Perignon, Mumm’s, young Crystal and others from the Roderer stable. Bollinger, Charles Heidsieck and Pol Roger in a great vintage being the once in while indulgent exceptions. Still, better buy them in a store as the wine menus add a heavy margin to these bling bling bubbles.
Grower champagne are often the most character-wielding and complex sparkling wines there are and many professionals tend to prefer them. Récoltant-Manipulant is the term in French, often you find “RM” on the label. Larmandier-Bernier, Longitude Premier Cru Blanc de Blancs purely from their own Chardonnay is one of my favourite Extra Bruts. There is a great bistro in Saint-Paul de Vence, where we often enjoy a bottle of Terre de Vertus with more fruit on the palate.
In Beijing, I saw wine infused with black truffles on the beverage menu. Such a vanity reminded me of using a great wine for a vin chaud in France or sangria in Spain. Who does that? Adding spices and sugar kills the exceptional taste of any great produce. I ordered a pot of pure Chinese tea, naturally.
True artisan wine
There are so many excellent artisans creating incredible wines from their special land, but I could not have ever had just one bottle of the red Château Rayas, my beloved Châteauneuf-du-Pape and the best wine made in the Rhône Valley. Over the past year we opened the 2004, 2001, 2000, 1998, 1989 vintages, some even twice! The best selection and price for the older vintages is at the legendary L’Oustau de Baumaniere in Provence, so we always splurge a bit on Rayas there. Also the 1998 and 2001 at Hostellerie Jerome, my favourite restaurant near Monaco (more consistent and more rewarding taste than at Mirazur in Menton) were the perfect expressions of their respective vintage. The winemaker, Monsieur Reynaud might not be a people man, but he listens to his vines impeccably so they recite beautiful verses.
In Italy, Emidio Pepe redefines Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. His red wines age particularly well. I recommend not to drink them less than a decade old. These biodynamically grown grapes are living aromas that once opened and allowed to breathe shift so profoundly over time. We open a bottle and keep savoring its journey during several hours. From humus, the animal character with a touch of forest fruit dance around your nose.
Natural wines can deliver, but choose wisely
Barred to their own vinous bones natural wines can reveal bad winemaking. Ironically, faults due to insufficient hygiene, exposure to oxygen (oxidation), fizz when it should not be, an off smell (such as rotten eggs), and other widely agreed wine faults pop up in “natural wines” more than in attentively and wisely made wine.
Not far from Rayas, dwells another Southern French favourite of mine, Domaine Milan. Last year I re-tasted Henri Milan’s entire range at his cosy winery in Saint-Rémy de Provence. The Grand Blanc blend, Merlot in Le Jardin, and the Presk’ Orange Rolle (Vermentino) are still my tops. The later, a beast on its own, balanced, deep yet fresh started our NYE dinner once. The SX is a powerful Grenache for a special mood.
Hailing from Italy, Susucaru is a natural red wine from the iconic Frank Cornelisssen in Sicily. So bright and juicy that our bottle at the Franco-Japanese restaurant A.T. in Paris was gone before we reached the end of the tasting menu. In a good vintage, I prefer its ease to the pumped up intensity of the expressive Magma or MunJebel. Volcanic soil does the rest.
Another Etna I enjoy are some of the ungrafted centenarian vines by Graci. Indigenous varietals like Nerello Mascalese with Nerello Cappuccio in the Quota 1000 Contrada Barbabecchi from pre-phylloxera, high altitude old vines that do not need any treatment.
Best wines from Spain
Viña Todonia Reserva Lopez de Heredia is one of the best Riojas. We relished a 1982 vintage at El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, Spain. Their 2004 white, salty, mineral yet assertive aperitif, was a conversation opener with friends in New York.
Another superb Spanish wine I resampled at my favourite restaurants in Spain – the Asador Etxebarri in the Basque Country and at the Catalan El Celler de Can Roca in Girona was Fillo da Pedra O Poulo from La Perdida in Valdeorras. The monovarietal Garnacha Tintorera was made with a non-interventionist approach from recovered old vines in a region heavily industrialised by large volume viticulture. Its elegant lightness and low alcohol (12.5%) is atypical for the usually corpulent Spanish wine. Floral, balsamic bouquet and herbal, mineral character make this red an incredible value.
Best wines from America
From the new world discoveries, Ceritas enchanted me at first with their Chardonnay and Pinot Noir we had at Single Thread, the quick rising three Michelin-star restaurant and farm in Healdsburg, California. Later, a visit to the tiny family workshop winery nearby revealed a new treasure. There I tasted the Monte-Bello green pepper freshness in Ceritas 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon. The grapes came from the Santa Cruz mountains where Ridge Vineyards craft their highly valued Ridge Montebello, perhaps the greatest red wine made in America. It needs patience though.
From Napa Valley came Araujo’s Sauvignon Blanc that will sadly cease to exist with the new French owners of the precious Eiselle Vineyard. This white, Bordeaux-like, but in its own world residing beauty, left even the three Michelin chef Kyle Conaughton of the Single Thread speechless. He wrapped the night off while sipping from a glass. We exclusively visited the gorgeous property near Calistoga the next day pledging for its preservation, it is never too late to change one’s mind, s.v.p. Merci!
The most impressive picks on a wine menu over the past year were for us at the Brooklyn Fare in New York,HIDE in London, L’Oustau de Baumanière in Provence and Lung King Heen in Hong Kong. Despite its worldwide fame, the giant cellars of Hotel de Paris in Monaco, rarely please value seekers, plus the big brand focus seems a lazy work to me. Yet, there are other excellent wine lists around the world that I selected in my post on The best, most interesting wine lists I came across. Vinivores, check these out!