Monday, December 26, 2011

Year in Review: Top 10 wines of 2011

It’s that time again.  2011 is coming to a close, and the holidays are in full swing.  I’m sorting through recipes for Christmas Eve, Christmas parties and New Year’s bashes.  However, before I get too deep into things, I love to look back over the past year and my 500+ tasting notes for my top ten wines.  This isn’t a list that’s built through politicking or overthinking the subject.  Instead, these are my favorite ten wines of the year in three categories; mid-priced gems, top shelf wines and vintages wines.  You may notice that I don’t have a value wine section, but that’s because my article “Give the gift of wine for Christmas” spells out the best value wines I’ve had this year.

Looking over this list, I’m not surprised to see such a large representation made by Italian wines.  Italian wine was my first love in life, and it continues to amaze me for both quality and value.  Nowhere else can such world-class wine be had for the relative value Italian wines represent.  However, I’m also very happy to see wines from Germany, Spain and California.

Top Mid-priced Wines

Each of these bottles delivers the goods in spades, and if you compared how good they are, against how much they cost, then you’d see that each of them is a relative value.  This is the sweet spot where I find my most enjoyable drinking, because they perform beautifully, but won’t break the bank.  Give one of these to your boss for Christmas or New Year’s, and there would be no shame.

2006 Piaggia Carmignano Riserva - The nose showed ripe black cherry, herbal fruit tea, leather, and dusty potpourri.  On the palate, it was as soft as silk and flowed effortlessly across the senses.  It was structured yet elegant with unmistakable Tuscan character and flavors of black cherry juice, mixed herbs and sweet spices.  The finish lasted, showing red fruits with the slightest bitter character.  The Carmignano Riserva walks the line between sex appeal and restraint, and the result is something magical.  Give it an hour to decant, and let this beauty dazzle you. (95 points) Find it on Wine-Searcher!

2007 Vietti Barbera d'Asti La Crena -The nose showed crushed blackberry and plum, along with a hint of undergrowth and a dark toasty note.  On the palate, a rich, velvety wave of dark fruits swept across the senses with bitter dark chocolate. The intense fruit and zesty acidity cloaked this wine’s imposing structure, which was most noticeable on the long mouth-puckering finish. I am eager to see what this wine will mature into. (94 points) Find it on Wine-Searcher!

2009 Ridge Zinfandel Pagani Ranch - The nose was massive, as aromas of wild berries, dry coco, vanilla, ginger spice and savory notes filled the senses.  On the palate, it was medium to full-bodied with amazing focus to its intense red berry fruit and spice.  The masses of fruit slowly gave way to show this wine’s structure and balance.  The finish was long and clinging to the palate, yet ultimately refreshing as the tannins faded away.  I seriously enjoyed this structured Zinfandel and am very happy to have more in my cellar, as I can imagine that it will get even better with time. (93 points) Find it on Wine-Searcher!

2009 Peter Lauer Ayler Kupp Riesling Senior Faß 6 - The nose showed lime, green apple, white flowers and wet rocks.  It was simple yet perfectly enjoyable.  However, on the palate, this wine came to life, with rich and concentrated grapefruit, sweet lemon curd, which then turned to acid, minerals and stone--but then went back to sweetness into the long citrus finish.  This wine kept me guessing what each new sip would reveal.  It was amazingly fresh and enjoyable. (93 points) Find it on Wine-Searcher!

Top Shelf Wines

Sometimes the occasion calls for the best wines, and the ones listed below are sure to please.  These are wines that some may refer to as “collectable.”  However, I prefer to call them highly drinkable.  These are bottles that will blow away the competition and leave no survivors.  They may cost a pretty penny, but they’re worth every red cent.

2006 Castello di Monsanto Chianti Classico Riserva Il Poggio - The 2006 Il Poggio was Tuscany personified, as aromas of animal musk, spice, wild berries and forest notes wafted up from the glass.  On the palate, this wine showed wild red berries and autumnal notes with a mouth-feel of pure silk.  The finish was long in sour berry and spice. (94 points) Find it on Wine-Searcher!

2007 Arnaldo-Caprai Sagrantino di Montefalco 25 Anni - On the nose, this wine was a monster with raspberry, holiday spices and dark forest notes.  It verged on sweet, but something animal about this Sagrantino pulled it back to reality.  On the palate, a massive wave of concentration was turned fresh by vibrant acidity, as blackberry jam, pomegranate, cinnamon and herbs washed across the tongue like silk.  The finish showed this wine’s intimidating structure, as velvety tannin coated the mouth.  The Arnaldo Caprai 25 Anni is highly enjoyable now and will likely age into something magical. (96 points) Find it on Wine-Searcher!

2001 Tommaso Bussola Amarone della Valpolicella Classico Tb - At first, the nose showed black cherries with dark chocolate and tobacco; however, as it opened up in the glass, aromas of herbs and seared meat in a buttery crust filled the nose.  It was all at once a sweet and savory intoxicating bouquet.  On the palate, it was full with a hint of sweetness, as macerated cherry, rum raisin and Christmas spice lingered into a long and pleasing finish.  This may be made in a rich and sweet style, but it still manages to glide effortlessly across the palate with perfect balance and a graceful finish. (95 points) Find it on Wine-Searcher!

Top Vintage Wines

If you’re anything like me, then it’s the older vintage wines that truly make cellaring wine worthwhile.  Don’t get me wrong; I love young wines, but if there were a choice, I’d grab a 20+-year-old Barolo any day.  These are all wines older than ten years that truly made me stop and take notice in 2011.

1990 Bruno Giacosa Barolo Riserva Collina Rionda - This wine was everything I ever wanted in a glass of Barolo.  It was sweet yet sour, earthy yet fruity and rich yet with razor-like focus.  The nose showed masses of ripe red berries with hot dried spices, gravelly moist earth, mushroom and hints of green stems.  On the palate, this showed silky, sweet, ripe strawberry, yet it also had a savory warmth, full of earth, menthol and leather strap on a beautifully structured frame.  It was amazing how young the Collina Rionda seemed as silky tannin washed across the palate and soothed me into a long, seductive finish that begged for the next sip. (98 points) Find it on Wine-Searcher!

1990 Bodegas Vega-Sicilia Ribera del Duero Valbuena 5° - The 1990 Vega-Sicilia wowed me with its rich yet elegant personality.  The nose showed cherry preserves and cranberry with hints of clove, vanilla and burnt sugar.  However, with how rich and young the nose seemed, there was an underlying earthiness and hint of musky animal fur that truly kept it interesting.  On the palate, it was elegant, with a velvety feel on the tongue as flavors of rich red then black fruits and dusty spices assaulted the senses.  The finish was long and turned from juicy to sour as the fruit faded away. (96 points) Find it on Wine-Searcher!

2000 Mastroberardino Taurasi Radici Riserva - The nose showed beautifully with ripe strawberry and potpourri; yet as the wine sat in the glass, it turned darker and fuller with notes of candle wax, earth, mushrooms and moist fall leaves.  On the palate, this wine was eloquent and soft at first but turned more tannic into the finish.  The senses were wrapped with penetrating black fruit, followed by minerals and a taste of older wood, which gave it a bit of a rustic feel.  The finish was laden with intense cranberry fruit, giving it a really nice sendoff.  This wine is just starting to show its age, yet still has many more years to go before its structure truly softens. (95 points) Find it on Wine-Searcher!

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Tolani Revisited

The Tolani Dining Room
I spend a lot of time eating, and I certainly live in the right city to do it.  My desire to explore and eat lands me in some of the best restaurants in NYC.  However, it takes a moving experience to get me to sit down and write about it.  After it happens, I usually move my critical eye elsewhere while spending future visits to each establishment indulging in the food, without having to think about too much.

Rarely, does a restaurant inspire me to put my thoughts on paper twice.  Then there is Tolani.  Somehow, with each visit, Tolani has managed to raise the bar again and again and again. 

My most recent visit was no different.  I headed out to Tolani to conduct a double blind 2001 Barolo tasting.  I knew the food would be good, but the last thing I expected was to be floored from the start.  The Butternut Squash soup was a pure dive into a sea of indulgence.  It’s easiest to say that this soup managed to hit every pleasure meter of taste and smell impossible.  It’s one of those dishes that walks the line of sweet and savory and somehow lands perfectly between the two.  It was sweet, smoky, creamy and utterly seductive. The funniest part is that since I didn’t expect to be writing about food on this visit, I don’t have a photo.

Fuyu Persimmon Salad
It was at this time that my camera was aimed at the plates as well as the wine.  The soup was followed by a Fuyu Persimmon Salad.  If I had to explain what it is about Tolani that truly wins my heart, it’s the inclusion of fruits in savory dishes and how they balance salty, sweet and savory on almost every plate.  The Persimmon Salad was no different, and it benefitted from the addition of a crispy sweet pecan cracker, which added a textural kaleidoscope to the experience.

Pork Belly
Then came the Pork Belly, and everyone at the table turned silent.  One of the best parts of tasting menus is the ability to indulge in a dish like this, without being tempted to devour an entire plateful.  It’s certainly not a dish for the faint of heart, but when in a hedonistic state of mind, this is the dish that will settle your craving.  It was pure salty, sweet, melt-in-your-mouth satisfaction.

Rabbit Fricassee
The Rabbit Fricassee changed the pace, but at a perfect point in the meal.  I do not believe I have ever experienced a more perfectly-cooked piece of rabbit in NYC before this night.  Instead of the usual bursting-at-the-seams yet coloring-in-the-lines style of Tolani, this dish relied on Italian country-style, comfort food principles and it did it well.  Fresh gnocchi, sweet yams, dried cherries and a perfectly-seasoned and flavored broth is all it took.  Very nicely done.

Braised Short Ribs
Lastly, we have the Braised Short Ribs, which is the only dish on this night that I had before at Tolani.  As usual, it was a hit, and this time it was served with a pomegranate gastrique.  A perfectly braised short rib that falls apart on your fork, placed over a parsnip puree with the crunchy snap of tart pomegranate. Yum!

If you haven’t already experienced Tolani, now’s the time to do so.  I honestly can’t imagine how they can top my last two experiences, yet I have a feeling they’re up to the challenge.

Tolani Wine Restaurant
410 Amsterdam Ave (btwn 79th and 80th)
New York, New York, 10024

Tolani Wine Restaurant on What's Cookin'

Sunday, December 11, 2011

2001 Piedmont Retrospective

Barbaresco, Barolo and Castiglione Falletto
A classic vintage (part 1)

Wine of the Night
In the world of wine writing, there's always going to be somebody who's touting the next perfect vintage.  However, what's unfortunate is that this praise is usually created to sell wine.  What's more, the wines that are loved by the majority of today's critics, don't necessarily share anything in common with classic wines of the past, other than the name.  How do we know that a 2007 Barolo will age into something similar to the great vintages of the past?  We simply don’t.   What we do know, is that the Nebbiolo grape possess the remarkable ability to age, and that even in “off” vintages or ripe vintages, the best producers can create good wine, that should age well. 

My top three picks
2001 was not an “off” or ripe vintage.  In fact, it was quite the opposite.  To me, 2001 is a true classic vintage, which provided intense, structured wines with balanced acidity and the capacity to age for decades.  Often grouped with great vintages like ’89 and ’96, most wines tasted from ‘01 show a level of refinement and balance, that you can actually sense the quality in the glass, even as your mouth is wrapped in tannin.  In general, the aromatics are layered and truly stunning and the core of intense, pure fruit promises that these wines will last the test of time.  With that said, we have now reached the 10 year mark for 2001, and they are right where you’d expect them to be in their evolution—young and full of potential. 

The best part is it’s not too late to find many of these wines, as long as you take care to source them from reputable retailers.

Fight 1

Flight one consisted of two of the biggest names and three of the most esteemed vineyards in Barbaresco.  This flight truly showed the benefits of tasting double blind, as we worked through the wines and formed our conclusions.  A point of note is that the consensus of the group placed the Produttori Asili against the Giacosa Asili in a tie for third place wine-of-the-night (important to consider since the Produttori can be had for half the price).  I also found the Giacosa Santo Stefano to be far more interesting than the majority at the table.  The Asili came across as a little too earthy and with aromas that I don’t associate with great Barbaresco, however the Santo Stefano was simply classic to my palate. 

Lastly, I was saddened by the performance of the Produttori Rabajà, since the last time I tasted it, I felt there was much more potential in the glass.  In the end, the Giacosa Rabajà Riserva was my wine of the flight, as well as my wine of the night (and yes, this was all tasted double blind); it’s simply a great bottle of Barbaresco.

2001 Produttori del Barbaresco Barbaresco Riserva Asili – The nose showed dusty cherry and strawberry with notes of orange, rich mulling spices and the slightest whiff of old library books.  On the palate, it showed silky black cherry fruit and minerals with vibrant acidity providing an airy lift.  On the finish, notes of tart red fruit and mushrooms lingered through this wines tight, drying structure.  (93 points) Find it on Wine-Searcher!

2001 Produttori del Barbaresco Barbaresco Riserva Rabajà – The nose was elegant and showed dark strawberry, floral stems and herbs with notes of tar, crack black pepper and moist earth.  On the palate, it first showed soft, sweet red fruit and an earthy funk with tongue curling acidity, yet as it traveled across the palate, it seemed diluted and somehow hollow.  The finish showed this wines structure with lingering notes of red fruit and earth. (91 points) Find it on Wine-Searcher!

2001 Bruno Giacosa Barbaresco Santo Stefano – The nose showed rich sweet raspberry and herbs but with time in the glass it turned to tart cherry, orange peel and the slightest hint of shoe polish.  On the palate, it showed a solid core of cherry fruit, which was zesty with acidity, yet full in body.  An impression of balance and focus struck me as I sipped this wine, which should mature into something magical.  The finish was clean with dried cherry and fine tannins. (94 points) Find it on Wine-Searcher!

2001 Bruno Giacosa Barbaresco Asili – The nose showed earthy funk, black cherry, breadcrumbs, and hints of green vegetables.  On the palate, I found black cherry fruit, floral notes and minerals in a soft and juicy style.  The finish showed cranberry but was short and drying. (90 points) Find it on Wine-Searcher!

2001 Bruno Giacosa Barbaresco Riserva Rabajà – The nose showed deep, ripe strawberry fruit, crushed leaves, potpourri and sweet spices, yet bright and clean.  On the palate, it showed elegant, ripe red fruits with beautiful structure and balance.  The finish was long and structured.  This wine showed so much balanced mix with intensity that it’s easy to imagine great things in its future. (97 points) Find it on Wine-Searcher!

Flight 2

Flight two was painful.  It was designed as a flight of wines that all came from the commune of Barolo.  However, we weren’t aware of this information while tasting.  The consensus of the Giuseppe Rinaldi was that it was a modern styled Barolo and one taster even felt that it was cooked.  The intense aroma of acetone (or nail polish remover) made me think of VA.  I decided to withhold a score until I can taste this wine again.  Following that was a corked wine (which turned out to be Bartolo Mascarello).  Then the last two wines, which were very similar on the nose and even convinced me that they might have been from the same producer.  Again, from the performance on the nose, these wines came off as modern in style.  In the end, it was Giacomo Borgogno Barolo Storico Liste that was my favorite wine of the flight.

2001 Giuseppe Rinaldi Barolo Brunate Le Coste – The nose showed a whiff of initial heat, followed by rich cherry lollipop and notes of acetone.  On the palate, it was almost port-like, without the sweetness with notes of black cherry fruit.  The finish was rough with tannin and almost sticky.  One taster thought this was cooked, however, I felt it suffered from VA.  Either way I’ve reserved scoring the wine, as it may have been faulty. (N/A) Find it on Wine-Searcher!

2001 Bartolo Mascarello Barolo – Corked (N/A)

2001 E. Pira and Figli (Chiara Boschis) Barolo Cannubi – The nose showed sweet red and black fruits with floral, menthol notes and a hint of black truffles.  On the palate, it was big, rich and palate staining on entry, yet a wave of acidity on the mid-palate gave the impression of focused, airy red fruits.  The finish was woody with drying tannin. (89 points) Find it on Wine-Searcher!

2001 Giacomo Borgogno and Figli Barolo Storico Liste – The nose showed tart cherry, medicinal herbs, menthol and tobacco leaf.  On the palate, it showed sweet, soft strawberry fruit with a balance of structure and acidity that kept it focused and fresh.  The long finish was laden with spicy red fruit. (91 points) Find it on Wine-Searcher!

Flight 3

Flight three was a perfect way to end the evening.  For one thing, it turned up the 2nd place wine-of-the-night with the Cavallotto Barolo Riserva Bricco Boschis Vigna San Giuseppe.  But what’s more, the entire Cavallotto lineup was a pleasure to drink (I had my issues with the Riserva Vignolo, but no one else seemed to mind it so much).  What was a let down was the performance from the Monprivato.  Call it backward or say that they never perform well in their youth.  I think we’ve all heard the excuses made for this wine when young and I will be very happy if my bottles mature into something wonderful.  However, at the moment, it comes across as out-of-balance and shows vegetal notes that I don’t find attractive.   The Cavallotto Barolo Riserva Bricco Boschis Vigna San Giuseppe was my wine of the flight and the Cavallotto Bricco Boschis was no slouch either.  These are great wines, especially for the money.

2001 Cavallotto Barolo Bricco Boschis – The nose on the Cavallotto Bricco Boschis showed bright cherry, sweet spices, roses and hard candy.  As it sat in the glass an aroma of espagnole joined the bouquet and added masses of complexity.  On the palate, it was juicy and rich yet balanced, showing sweet red fruit mixed with baking spices.  The finish was long and concentrated, showing dark chocolate and black cherry. (92 points) Find it on Wine-Searcher!

2001 Cavallotto Barolo Riserva Vignolo – The nose showed ripe red fruits with minerals, a hint of rust and a sweaty note that detracted greatly from the experience.  On the palate, I found silky sweet cherry, and a dusting of dark chocolate, which turned lean on the mid-palate and stayed through the finish with dried red fruits and rough tannin.  (89 points) Find it on Wine-Searcher!

2001 Cavallotto Barolo Riserva Bricco Boschis Vigna San Giuseppe – The nose showed deep, rich red fruits, poppy and menthol with a zesty, almost tropical note of tangerine.   On the palate, it was velvety and rich with sweet, spiced red fruits.  The finish was intense, structured and long. (95 points) Find it on Wine-Searcher!

2001 Giuseppe E Figlio Mascarello Barolo Monprivato – The nose showed dark, almost dank strawberry fruit with minerals and a vegetal note.  On the palate, it came across as round but missing focus with soft red fruits with a vegetal note.  The finish showed dried out fruits and burnt sugar. (88 points) Find it on Wine-Searcher!
The 2001 lineup.  Served double blind.

Other recent tastings of 2001 Baroli:

2001 Parusso Barolo Bussia – The nose on the ’01 Parusso Bussia was gorgeous, showing ripe cherry, cola, tobacco, potpourri and cedar spice box. On the palate it was rich yet firm, with black raspberry and hints of wood spice. The finish was remarkably long, showing refined structure and a lingering note of pure cherry. (95 points)

2001 Elio Altare Barolo Vigneto Arborina - The Altare Arborina showed a classic Barolo nose of red fruits, plum skins, roses, tar, a hint of animal musk and undergrowth. The nose pulled me in and reminded me somehow of a childhood Autumn day with dried leaves and pine nestles. On the palate, it showed an elegant, full body, backed by a balance of tannin and acid. The fruit was rich but not over-ripe, with sweet spice and an airy, refreshing note of menthol. The finish was long with red fruits, tobacco and a hint of brown sugar. (95 points) Find it on Wine-Searcher!

2001 Elio Grasso Barolo Rüncot - This wine was painfully young, but there was such potential in the glass, and after time in decanter, a glimpse of what it may become shined through. At first, the nose was full on oaky vanilla and even a hint of nail polish, but this faded over the course of three hours, and what remained was dark red fruit, a dusting of brown sugar, and menthol. On the palate, I found an elegant and more feminine structure than expected with lush cherry fruit, herbs and cinnamon. The long finish showed fine silky tannin that left my palate dry but not fatigued. I’m very excited to think what this may be in another ten years. (93 points) Find it on Wine-Searcher!

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Food, Wine, Restaurants--Oh My!

My take on Pizzoccheri Valtellinesi
The holidays are now in full swing and with it, comes all the work involved in the wine and food industry.  Today, I wanted to take a moment to post some links to my recent work off The V.I.P. Table, as well as a new page dedicated to Barolo, and a link to a new Blog that was created by a fellow Barolo lover who has great insights on some of the best Baroli coming out of Piedmont.

A Passion for the Valtellina
Passion is the key to great food. I don’t care whether you spent eight months in a diploma program or two years at the C.I.A., the best food comes from chefs who possess passion. I’ve worked alongside some highly trained individuals who will never do anything more than rehash the same repertoire throughout their entire careers. Why? Because they lack passion. A great chef is not built in school or the restaurant kitchen, he is made through decades of experiences... Keep reading at What's Cookin!

Masi Amarone and Risotto
I was recently on vacation with my wife. Together we sat under the stars, a small fire pit going in front of us and a glass of Amarone in hand. It was a wonderful moment in time that two working parents seldom get to enjoy. I spoke in utter contentment, “The stars are so beautiful.” My wife looked at me, and I looked at her, and she said, “I love… Amarone... Keep reading at Snooth!

Older Vintage Wine and Cellaring
I’m often asked, “Why should I cellar wine?” Now, we’re not talking about a well-stocked shelf of bottles to pull from or a Eurocave filled with your favorite juice. We’re talking about a wine cellar filled with vintages that are left to sit for years or decades in perfect, cool, moist, dark, vibration-free harmony. The answer is simple to me... Keep reading at Snooth!

The Barolo Pages
From the hills of the Langhe in Piedmont, Italy. Barolo truly is the King of Wines and the Wine of Kings. It is made from the Nebbiolo grape, which is also used to make Barbaresco, Gattinare and Ghemme in Piedmont, as well as in the Valtellina and Franciacorta regions of Lombardy. Often compared to red Burgundy and capable of aging for decades, its layered and deeply fragrant aromas make Barolo a wine that can be dwelled upon for hours... Keep reading at The Barolo Pages!

Nebbiolo Junkie
Nicolai Soegaard is a fellow Barolo enthusiast, whose insights and tastings, I've followed for many years now. Living in Copenhagen, Denmark and regularly traveling to Piedmont for tastings.  Whether it's food or wine, Nicolai constantly has something new and interesting to share with fellow Nebbiolo lovers. Hence his new blog... Nebbiolo Junkie

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Give the gift of wine for Christmas

From $20 - $40 dollars, Ten bottles that make great gifts.

It's that time of year again. Christmas is bearing down on us quickly, and wouldn't it be great to give or receive a nice bottle of wine? However, the fact is that the wine you usually receive as a Christmas gift is typically horrible.  All the good intentions in the world won't protect you from making a poor purchasing decision based on a retailer’s marketing.  That stack of cases in the front of the store is not always the best place to pick a bottle to give away.  And what impression does that leave on you when the bottle is opened and it performs horribly?

It doesn't need to be this way.  An informed decision can make a world of difference; and so, I have gone through all of my notes of the last year to find some great bottles for gift giving.  Each wine listed below will deliver the goods in spades.  I've also included Wine-Searcher links to help you find a retailer that carries the bottle.  The first thing to realize is that the average "Wine and Liquor" store is not the place to buy your gifts.  Unless you have a trusted retailer that stores their back stock properly and is more concerned with your satisfaction (than their bottom line), then I urge you to expand your horizons and check out Wine-Searcher.  I've also provided a list of some of the trustworthiest retailers from my experiences.  In the end, you can't go wrong by picking a bottle from the list or giving a call to one of the retailers listed.

And so, on to the wines:

United States - This list below runs the gamut and is great for exploration. 

From the North Fork of Long Island, the Paumanok Merlot is a great gift to show a wine lover just what the North Fork is capable of producing.  It's a great bottle of wine with a price tag that's easy to swallow.  

2007 Paumanok Merlot (avg. $22)
Find it on Wine-Searcher!
Paumanok Website!

The Merryvale Cabernet is a crowd-pleaser, especially for those who think that good wine can only come from Napa, but think that it needs to cost an arm and a leg.  This rich yet balanced Napa Cabernet drinks better than most bottles that cost twice as much.  It's a wine that provided me with a pleasant surprise when I first tasted it, and I think you'll agree.

2006 Merryvale Cabernet Sauvignon Starmont (avg. $26)
Find it on Wine-Searcher!
Merryvale Website!

Lastly, if it's going to be Zinfandel (red, not white) then it's got to be Ridge.  The 2009 Ridge Lytton Springs Zinfandel is a great way to turn the head of any wine lover who hasn't yet explored the wonders of red Zinfandel.  Ridge continues to improve upon what was already an amazing array of wines, and in 2009 they really shined.

2009 Ridge Lytton Springs Zinfandel (avg. $30)
Find it on Wine-Searcher!
Ridge Vineyards Website!

Italy - My first love was Italy, and I've yet to find another region that can provide the enjoyment, value and diversity that can be found there.  The first bottle is for the true Italian wine lover.  We'd all love to give or receive a bottle of Barolo for Christmas, but it's not the easiest thing to afford. 

No worries; the Vietti Perbacco Nebbiolo is a serious overachiever that will please any Nebbiolo lover (Nebbiolo being the grape that makes Barolo and Barbaresco).  It's a wine that I buy in every vintage, sourced from fruit that could easily be made to make Barolo and made by a true master in the region.

2007 Vietti Langhe Nebbiolo Perbacco (avg. $25)
Find it on Wine-Searcher!
Vietti Website!

The Sartarelli Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Balciana is a white that drinks like nectar from the gods.  Verdicchio is often used to make easy-drinking white to pair with seafood, but this bottle takes it to all extremes.  It may not be typical of Verdicchio, but it's a wine that you will not soon forget. 

2008 Sartarelli Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Balciana (avg. $22)
Find it on Wine-Searcher!
Sartarelli Website!

The Avignonesi Vino Nobile di Montepulciano is for the Sangiovese (Chianti and Brunello) lover.  It's a racy wine with all the stuffing to stand up to big, hearty cuisine.  It's also a great alternative for the Chianti drinker who's looking for something a little different. 

2007 Avignonesi Vino Nobile di Montepulciano (avg. $28)
Find it on Wine-Searcher!
Avignonesi Website!

Lastly, the 2000 Castello di Monsanto Chianti Classico Riserva Il Poggio is a gorgeous wine that any Italian wine lover would enjoy.  Il Poggio is a barrel selection riserva from Monsanto.  It’s a bottling that's hard to come by and usually costs upward of $60 on release and much more with age.  Imagine how happy I was to find that Grapes the Wine Company had this killer bottle for $40.  It's a beautiful bottle of wine that's drinking well with 11 years of maturity under its belt.  If you know an Italian wine lover, and you're looking to impress, this is the way to go.

2000 Castello di Monsanto Chianti Classico Riserva Il Poggio
(Grapes The Wine Company $39.99)

FranceI don't drink much French wine because I find that it's hard to find value from this region.  I know that many people would disagree, but I can only tell you what I taste.  However, when I do find value, it's usually in spades.  In 2009, the Southern Rhone turned out another excellent vintage.  What's more, the wines can be enjoyed now or put away for a few years to mature.  The 2009 Vignobles Mayard Châteauneuf-du-Pape Clos du Calvaire goes right to the point.  It's a big wine with a lot of sex appeal that pleases on many levels, yet refrains from becoming overly rich or flabby.  If you're going to gift French, you might as well do it with Châteauneuf-du-Pape, especially at this price point.

2009 Vignobles Mayard Châteauneuf-du-Pape Clos du Calvaire (avg. $30)
Find it on Wine-Searcher!
Vignobles Mayard Website!

Germany - One of my new-found loves in life is German Riesling.  For years I would taste these wines and ask myself why I didn't drink them more often.  This year I changed all of that and set out on a tasting spree of every German Riesling I could find.  In the end, I have a lot of favorites, but the 2009 A.J. Adam Dhroner Hofberger Riesling Kabinett took the cake for quality versus price.  It's an amazing elixir of a wine that pushes masses of citrus and mineral with a hint of sweetness and then turns the tables on you as its zesty acidity massages your taste buds and makes your mouth water.  It's amazing stuff.

2009 A.J. Adam Dhroner Hofberger Riesling Kabinett (avg. $22)
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A.J. Adam Website!

ChileFor those of you looking for an alternative to the big three, Chile offers tremendous value for a large selection of styles and grape varieties.  One of my favorites this year was the 2009 TerraNoble Carménère Gran Reserva.  Carménère, which was nothing more than a blending grape in Borduexe has shown its true potential in Chile.  Some are light and easy-drinking, while others take it to the level of fine wine.  TerraNoble excels at the latter and does it very well.  It’s rich with a blend of intense fruit with savory, earthy notes, yet it’s balanced by excellent, focused acidity and a long finish.  I bought half a case for myself, and it’s now all gone; enough said.

2009 TerraNoble Carménère Gran Reserva (avg. $17)
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TerraNoble Website!

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