While the best wine and food might still appear on my table over the next couple of weeks, 2011 is quickly shutting down like newly bottled Bordeaux and I catch myself reminiscing over the year that was in wine and food. These musings must not be mistaken for a quintessential nor ultimate reminiscence of global wine and food headlines, but instead a personal replay of the year’s top newly discovered gems and pinnacle moments of advancing appreciation. And if you are inclined, check back later this week for the second installment of this year end personal log: 2011 Wine Highlights Part 2- Wine Community.
2011: The Wines and Foods
Rereading the year’s notes from blind tastings, industry tastings, restaurant wines, and cellar dwellers reminds me that it was a year of serious indulgence. So many great classics and top wines were tasted and re-tasted. Old Bordeaux, Rhone, California, and Italian wines that I bought more than twenty years ago are rewarding the patience invested in their maturity. They represent the highest level of wine satisfaction and indulgence. Alongside those are the wines I discovered this year that make wine enthusiasm a bottomless journey of discovery, with unending treasure troves always lurking in the shadows of surprise. Here are some of the best new encounters from 2011:
2009 Testalonga El Bandito Swartland, South Africa
This wine is a personal project of Craig Hawkins, winemaker at Lammershoek Winery. I tasted the wine in South Africa and then again at dinner at AKA Bistro. The bottle is impossible to find, but it shows that the quality chenin blanc from Swartland’s old vines combined with vision fueled natural wine making religion can create dreamy wines of distinct character and personality. Whole clusters, carbonic maceration, full lees contact, and wood bring the fruit together in ways that express the richness, texture, and acidity that are signatures of the region. If you can not find the Testalonga, which you probably won’t unless you show up in the Cape Winelands and beg the right people, look for the Lammerschoek wines. Craig is strutting his stuff with these wines as well and they are more available in US markets.
2009 Occhipinti SP 68 Nero d’Avola/Frappato, Sicily
I had been wanting to try Arianna Occhipinti’s wines and managed to taste through a large part of the portfolio this year for the first time. She makes wines in a natural and biodynamic style from Sicily’s local grapes like nero d’avola and frappato. Her wines are bright and serious, expressive of the varietal styles with grapey nero d’avola and spicy frappato, all full of life and exotic aromatics. I try to refrain from writing that wines are expressive of their terroir, but it’s impossible here. The SP 68 series, named after a road near the vineyards, are white and red blends that reflect her style of winemaking and flavors that can only come from southern Italy, all at a seriously affordable price of less than $30. The Il Frappato was the best wine of hers that I tasted this year, a serious wine with more brooding characteristics than the fully and immediately accessible SP 68. I can’t believe she has been making wine for a decade and it took until now to discover the magic of these wines. Without a doubt, one of my best wine discoveries of the year.
2009 Domaine Francois Raquillet Vielles Vignes, Mercurey
I have Doug at ablegrape to thank for showing me the way on this Burgundy. Old vine Burgundy for $30. Mercurey and its broader Côte Chalonnaise region are forgotten lands, once producing the finest pinot noir in all of Burgundy but now also rans next to the heralded Côte d’Or. Raquillet makes an old vine blend and several single vineyard wines that are also steals. These are great old world representations of pinot noir, with amazing acidity and riveting crispness to go along with luscious pinot fruit. Simply discovering Raquillet is enough to reignite interest in a region with high degrees of variability yet consistently inflated prices. Mercurey just might hold more Raquillets, and while I intend to find out, I don’t think I will ever get tired or lose any of my excitement for these wines. And at $30 a bottle, what more can you ask for from Burgundy?
Favorite New Grape: Nero d’Avola- With my discovery of Occhipinti, I learned that there are lots of wonderful nero d’avola examples available on wine lists and shelves. A serious grape with awesome spice, body, and old world style. Go experiment and buy a few bottles off wine lists and retail shelves. You just might be as surprised as I was, and they all come at value price points considering their inherent quality.
Favorite Wine Tasting: The Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux 2008 Bordeaux tasting held in Boston. 2008 came to market under the heralded and blinding cover of 2009, but the 2008 St. Emilions proved to be magical; Troplong Mondot and Pavie Macquin in particular. A very grown up wine tasting with the very well dressed and classy Bordelaise. I was reminded during this tasting how so many “non-classic” vintages of Bordeaux produce stellar drinking twenty years later. The tasting was a great look at a complete vintage of varying quality, but a consolidation of very impressive wines and relative values in St. Emilion. If you had a baby in 2008, I would not hesitate making one of these wines their birth year case to celebrate with on their wedding day!
Favorite New Restaurant:
Kin Shop by Harold Dieterle in New Yorks’ West Village. The volume of great restaurants I eat at each year always leaves something to be desired in the departments of creativity and sheer yumminess. Dieterle kicked both those cans clear across 6th Avenue with Kin Shop. I dined here three times and every trip produced new levels of spicy and sweet creative Thai food that is unfair to lump in with any other Thai cuisine you have ever tasted. Kin Shop comes complete with a wine list of exciting labels that are perfectly matched to the heat and sweet of the restaurant’s in your face cuisine. A meal here is a like a movie thriller, and as observer you are continually chilled by the moment while anticipating what might be coming next.
More New Favorite Restaurants:
Balaban’s is a wine shop and restaurant I just discovered in St. Louis. Amazing selection of hard to find, older, and exciting international wines are there for the taking to your table or cellar. Prices are extremely affordable, selection is to die for, and the food lives up to the often hard to find international wine inventory. A great comfortable night out for midwest winos in a relaxed neighborhood atmosphere.
Kitchen A Trattoria is a hidden gem in St. James, Long Island. Best of all it is BYOB. Serious Italian food that will transport you across the ocean and back to your most memorable trattoria experiences in Italy. The combination of serious-as-a-heart-attack Italian comfort food, convivial atmosphere, local feel, and BYOB kept me coming back through the year.
And One Rediscovered Restaurant
I stumbled back into Cambridge’s T.W. Food. The T.W. stands for Tim Wiechmann, founding chef/owner. Along with his lovely and welcoming wife Bronwyn working the front of the house and the serious and hard working Jillian Mariani handling the wine duties, T.W. Food turned out one serious meal after another, and having missed out for a couple of years by simply forgetting about this part of Cambridge, I returned as often as I could. Inventive French country fare dominates the menu, but Tuesday themed dinners with wine pairings and Sunday musical brunches that brings Weichmann out of the kitchen and on the stage are just as compelling. This is an amazing alternative to the big names on the Boston fine dining circuit and the local neighborhood feel just adds to the experience.
Later this week, the Best 2011 Wine Community Happenings.