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Best of 2017, Vol. I
By Michael Franz
Dec 12, 2017
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Everyone seems to have his or her favorite holiday, and for many years, mine has been New Year’s Eve and Day.  I love reflecting on the year in retrospect, and also thinking about what I hope to accomplish in the year ahead.  I suppose that if I were a more reflective and less hyperactive person, I wouldn’t need a marker day at all…but to quote Popeye, “Iyam what Iyam,” and New Year’s is my most meaningful holiday.  Among its most enjoyable aspects for me is the chance to think back to the most beautiful and memorable wines of the past year, and to hazard some predictions regarding wine types and regions that will likely shine in the coming year.  This column will mostly look in the rear-view mirror, with next month’s looking ahead….

Fastest-Rising Wine Producing Country

This goes, without question, to South Africa.  A research sabbatical from my university position permitted me to fly more than 100,000 miles during 2017, and though I encountered a lot of impressive wine developments along the way, no place is improving at a pace that can touch South Africa’s.  The successes are so broadly based that it is actually difficult to know where to start when singling them out.  Chenin Blanc is amazingly good at every price point and also in multiple styles.  Zesty renditions are wonderfully refreshing but still substantial, and wines made with oak involved at some point are better than ever, showing additional complexity but rarely any problematic oxidation or overtly woody notes.  Both of these problems were still in evidence a decade ago, but now they seem to have been almost completely overcome.

Sauvignon Blanc gets a lot of attention in export markets, and citrus-based renditions from cooler regions deserve every bit of that attention, but moderately priced Chardonnay is even better in my estimation.  In the sweet spot around $16 - $18, no country can touch South Africa’s Chardonnays in terms of their complexity-to-price ratio, and many South Africa Chards sold in this range out-perform their counterparts from elsewhere that are priced above $30.  White varieties associated with France’s Rhône Valley are also doing very well, and though few examples of Viognier from anywhere can light my fire, I tasted multiple examples while in the country during September that were positively igniting.

Reds are as good as the whites, and improving as fast, too.  Syrah is now much more exciting than it was as recently as six years ago, and I tasted several that were dead ringers for excellent Saint-Joseph.  What other country can make that claim?  Not the USA nor Australia nor Chile nor Argentina, and only Hawke’s Bay in New Zealand is currently in South Africa’s league when it comes to keeping northern Rhône vintners awake at night.  Cabernet Franc is getting seriously good, and varietal renditions of both Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are also on the rise, with Bordeaux-style blends perhaps the best of all.  Pinot is still all over the map stylistically, but overall quality is shooting straight up.  South Africa is struggling with serious political and economic problems, but its wine industry is soaring, and buying the wines is highly beneficial for you--even as you are helping a country that needs a hand.

Wine Gadget of the Year

This is easy, both because I love exactly one wine gadget, and think that almost all others are a waste of money that could be much better spent on wine.  Manufacturers send me lots of this stuff hoping for coverage, and also see lots of products advertised by the two leading gadget purveyors, IWA Wine Accessories and Wine Enthusiast.  Almost all of what I see or try is either useless…or stupid…or both, but I absolutely love a unique aerating tool named the Aermate.

The thing is basically a stainless steel wand with a bulb at the top (essentially the same as what you’d find on a turkey baster) and an inch-long cylinder at the bottom with a gazillion little pores.  After uncorking a bottle and pouring a healthy glass out of it, one then inserts the want and pumps air into it from the bottom, which sends countless little bubbles into the wine, which foams very noticeably.  (This is why you need to pour out a glass first…otherwise, you’ll overflow liquid from the bottle all over your counter.)  The fancy winemaking name for this process and effect is, “micro-oxygenation,” and it really does work to get young red wines to open and become much more expressive very quickly.

The effectiveness of this product, which you can find offered on Amazon for the whopping sum of $15.75, is almost completely limited to young red wines, or older reds that wouldn’t likely throw a lot of sediment (which you wouldn’t want to agitate by using the Aermate…go with a decanter instead).  In case you are suspicious about my enthusiasm, let me note that the manufacturer’s claim that the device is also effective for spirits (which are listed at length on the box in which the Aermate is sold) is silly, and that its usefulness for white wines is quite minimal. 

However, for young reds, this thing is terrific.  After the foam in the bottle subsides and settles, I use a cheapo stainless funnel (available at many hardware or home furnishing stores) to pour the glass back into the bottle, and voila…no decanter to wash, no confusion about which wine is in which decanter…just a very effectively aerated young red wine (or five or twelve, as is often the case when I’m reviewing) in the bottle in which it was sold.  The only cleanup requires is a quick rinse of the perforated cylinder under running water (while pumping) to assure that the pores don’t get clogged with dried wine.  I buy a new one of these every year or so, as some clogging is inevitable based on my daily usage, but it should work well for a long time for most consumers.  And for the record, I just bought four more of these things to give away as holiday gifts….

Who Knew?  Wine Category of the Year…High-End Cava

I would bet that most readers assume that Cava (Spain’s sparkling wine category) is little more than a serviceable $10 - $12 substitute for Champagne for big parties or, well, Tuesdays.  And among the reasons I’d bet that this is that this was basically my assumption too…prior to a trip to Catalonia in April of 2017.

Sure, I was aware that some big Cava houses like Segura Viudas make impressive-looking products like “Reserva Heredad” (which is actually more comical than impressive, with a pewter base and extruded seal that makes it look like something from a 1930s Errol Flynn movie).  However, I wasn’t aware that several houses make strikingly complex Cavas by ageing them for long periods on the spent yeast lees from the second fermentation performed in the bottle (as in Champagne).

We’ve all got a good excuse for not knowing about these wines, namely, that few distributors carry them and few retailers try to sell them…for the simple reason that most of us think of Cava as a $12 wine.  This is the very definition of a vicious cycle, and I hope you’ll join me in trying to break it this holiday season by trying a few bottles from this terrific, under-the-radar category.  From Juvé & Champs, try “Reserva de la Familia” 2013 ($25) or “Gran Juvé & Champs” 2012 ($49).  From Gramona, try “Imperial” 2011 ($30), “Illustros” 2009 ($49), “Celler Batlle” 2006 ($85, but 96 Points) or…yikes…”Enoteca Brut Nature” 2001 ($234, scored at 98 Points).  From Parés Baltà, try “Blanca Cusiné” 2010 ($40).  These are bottled revelations, and they are worth every penny.  Sure, I know you will have a panic attack in the checkout line based on your assumptions regarding Cava, but just hold your breath, hand over your credit card, and prepare to be delighted.

Magic Vintage of the Year…2014 White Burgundy

Every year, it turns out that the weather conditions in some appellation someplace in the world produced something magical from the grapes grown there, and in 2017, the magic was all about Chablis, the various Mâcon appellations, and the famed Côte de Beaune villages of Puligny-Montrachet, Meursault, and Chassagne-Montrachet.  The wines are the most intensely refreshing and mineral in recent memory, surpassing the wonderful 2008s and really the best made since at least 1996.

As in almost all magic vintges, the great thing about these wines is that the greatness extends all the way down to even the most affordable bottlings.  For example, I have tasted amazing renditions and then purchased multiple cases of straight AOC Chablis (meaning, neither Premier nor Grand Cru…just “Chablis” on the label).  I’ve also bought some more exalted wines to age for the future, but $30 will get you some terrific wines if you act quickly…which you’ll need to do, as the 2014s are disappearing and being replaced by much less exciting wines from 2015 and 2016.

Oh…and the other great thing about magic vintages?  Almost everybody makes excellent wine, so buy single bottles to experiment for starters, and then pony up to buy in quantity.  Magic is rare by definition, and needs to be seized when encountered.