I recently asked all of our regular contributors to send me their selections for the wines and producers they most admire based on their experiences during 2006. You'll find some fascinating choices and rationales in the paragraphs that follow, but first I should indicate just a bit more about what each writer was asked to provide.
The first entry under each contributor's name identifies the writer's Producer of the Year, which may be bestowed upon an entire winery or a particular winemaker. The option to go with either an especially admirable winery or a particular winemaker recognizes the fact that winemaking is both a collaborative endeavor involving many hands and an individual expression of personal artistry.
For Wine of the Year, I asked our contributors to select a wine they regard as exemplary in some respect, whether that means a 95-point wonder or an especially interesting 87-point innovation from a surprising location. You'll see that the wines selected are delightfully varied, which reflects the eclectic tastes of our writers. We don't push a particular stylistic preference or "party line" at WRO, and you'll see that this approach bears very interesting fruit.
Michael Franz, Editor
Producer of the Year: As with wine of the year, I agree with Michael Franz's approach to this accolade, and wish to honor a producer that contributes something special to the industry as a whole, not necessarily the one that produces the "best" wines. For that reason (and here is where I will undoubtedly part ways with Franz, a Beaujolais skeptic), my 2006 producer of the Year goes to Château des Jacques, a Beaujolais outpost of Maison Louis Jadot. Château des Jacques, under the direction of Guillaume Castelnau, is resurrecting Beaujolais as a first-class wine producing area. Historically, Moulin-à-Vent has been the village in Beaujolais producing not only the finest wines, but also those that develop increasing complexity with even decades of bottle age. Château des Jacques is the leading property in that village. Much like the villages in the Côte d'Or, the heart of Burgundy, where vineyards have been stratified according to their potential, Château des Jacques makes stunning wines from its individual vineyards--Clos de Rochegrès, Clos du Grand Carquelin, Clos de Champ de Cour, Clos de la Roche and Clos des Thorins--scattered throughout Moulin-à-Vent to highlight the diversity and distinctiveness even within this small area. In a decade or two, when the doubters finally rediscover the beauty of Beaujolais it will have been because of Château des Jacques.
Wine of the Year: For me "Wine of the Year" is not the "best" wine I've had all year (that would be Louis Latour's 1989 Corton-Charlemagne) nor would it be the "best" newly released wine (that would be either the 1996 Philiponnat Clos des Goisses Brut priced at $120 or Guigal's 2001 Château d'Ampuis, which rings up for $140). Rather, it's the wine that either surprised me the most or taught or reminded me of something. On both counts, my wine of the year for 2006 is Banfi's "Centine" 2004 ($10, imported by Banfi Vintners). Let me explain. This typically Tuscan wine--a blend of 60% Sangiovese with the remainder comprised of equal parts of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot--surprised me because of its high quality-to-price ratio. The most frequent question people ask me is, "What's a good $10 wine?" This is a superb one. With enough rich fruitiness, it will satisfy the part of the brain that loves New World wines. But it conveys an earthy--Tuscan--"not just fruit" component supported by mild tannins and uplifting acidity that keeps it interesting throughout the meal. Is it powerful, complex and profound? No, but it is extremely satisfying whether you're eating pizza or "grander" food such as a rack of lamb. Moreover, the 2004 Centine reminded me that a wine need not hail from a prestigious appellation to be enjoyable, and that large wineries should not be dismissed out of hand. They can--and, in Banfi's case, do--produce superb wines at both ends of the price spectrum.
Producer of the Year: My choice for this honor goes collectively to the many Sherry firms in the Andalucia region of southwest Spain. Making Sherry is a labor intensive process, yet in all its variety, Sherry is one of the world's most undervalued wines. Although the Sherry industry today is as modern as any, the houses have resisted the many trends in winemaking, preferring to continue making excellent traditional finos, palo cortados and olorosos. Whether enjoyed slightly chilled with a selection of tapas, a zesty ingredient in a favorite recipe, or as a flavor-packed after dinner drink, Sherry is ideal and it stays healthy in the bottle longer than most dry white wines. What more could you want from a white wine?
Wine of the Year: Fino Sherry is the ne plus ultra of aperitif wines and the affordable, light and crisp pale dry finos from Osborne are among the best value finos I've tasted this year. Osborne Pale Dry Fino Sherry NV ($10, W. J. Deutsch & Sons Ltd.) succeeds on the strength of inviting brilliant pale straw color and subtle scents of roasted almonds and warm bread yeast that follow through to the crisp, clean taste. I can think of few treats that I would rather have to start a holiday feast than a lightly chilled copita of Osborne Dry Fino with a handful of lightly salted Spanish almonds.
Producer of the Year: Pepper Bridge Winery; Winemaker, Jean-Francois Pellet; Partner, Norm McKibben. Pepper Bridge, the vineyard, lies in the heart of the Walla Walla Valley, on a ridge above an ancient swath of the Walla Walla River. It was developed by the region's patriarch, Norm McKibben, who knew it was a good piece of land for the quality apples that had grown there years ago. In this past year the vineyard's fruit has been an integral part of dozens of wines--great wines, like L'Ecole No. 41's "Apogee" and Reininger's impressive red blends. But this was the year where, critically, Pepper Bridge the winery came into high acclaim. Winemaker Jean-Francois Pellet says it took him a half-dozen years just to get his head around the region, but there's no question he has, crafting Cabernets, Merlots and blends of incredible complexity, elegance and power, and practically defining Walla Walla character in the process.
Wine of the Year: Those of you who have read my column this year would probably question my judgment if I did not recommend a wine I had written about ecstatically earlier this summer, the Krug 1989 Champagne. I still think of her fondly, though we haven't seen much of each other. I have a photograph, attached to an empty flute, and at certain still nights I can still hear the creamy effervescence of her laughter. Until we meet again I'll have the memory of her finish on my lips, and the hope that she returns, as she promised, before the New Year.
Producer of the Year: Saintsbury, Carneros, California. It was 25 years ago that David Graves and Dick Ward founded Saintsbury winery and produced their first Pinot Noir. Many of California's Pinot Noirs at that time were deep in color and over-extracted, but Saintsbury proved that California Pinots could indeed have finesse. Over the decades, Saintsbury's clones have changed, its trellising has changed and new single vineyard wines have come into production, improving overall quality but not obscuring Saintsbury's signature style. Today, as Pinot Noirs in California once again trend toward becoming richer, darker, and denser, Saintsbury stands as a beacon for the refined, complex, pure flavors that many people believe are Pinot Noir's truest expression.
Wine of the Year: Ceretto Barolo (Piedmont, Italy) Bricco Rocche 2001: I paid a long overdue visit to the Ceretto winery in November, and tasted through the whole line of wines. This Barolo, from Ceretto's Bricco Rocche estate, which is named after the vineyard surrounding it, thoroughly impressed me. Despite the use of barriques, it's quite a traditional Barolo, with tarriness, great depth and lots of grainy tannins at this point; its aromas and flavors are very pure very concentrated, rather like an essence. This is one of those special Barolos that manages to have a certain lightness and delicacy and yet be rock solid. Because I have known the Cerettos forever but had not visited them for several years, this fantastic Barolo truly resonated for me. About $180.
Producer of the Year: Domaine Weinbach, Alsace, France. This year I paid my fifth visit to Domaine Weinbach, an extraordinary establishment housed in a former Capuchin monastery just outside the lovely town of Kaysersberg. The property has been owned by the Faller family since 1898, and since the death of Théo Faller 1979, it has been run by his widow, Colette, along with daughters Cathérine and Laurence. Why visit a producer five times? Full disclosure entails noting that the three Faller ladies are beautiful and charming, and in a more serious, critical vein I should also note that their wines are among the very best in Alsace and hence the world. But more important still: Colette, Cathérine and Laurence Faller conduct themselves and their business with more grace and class than any producer whom I can recall from nearly 900 estate visits over the years. They are very serious people but everything they do has a light touch to it. They work as hard as anyone I know in the world, but they invariably do things in a way that seems effortless. They are rightly proud of their estate and their wines, but must be prompted to speak about themselves and never speak ill of others. If I ever went into the wine business, I'd aspire to conduct my enterprise as the Fallers conduct theirs.
Wine of the Year: Although I tasted nearly 9,000 wines in 2006, this choice was easy: Sigalas, Santorini (Greece) 2004 ($18, Athena Importing Co.). I love First Growth Bordeaux and Grand Cru Burgundy as much as the next guy, but my peculiar love affair with wine is more about exploring new frontiers than luxuriating in established greatness, and I'm usually more excited about experiencing a new flavor than enjoying even the most profound renditions of classic wines. Crafted on the gorgeous island of Santorini from the Assyrtiko grape, this stunning wine is phenomenally intense in flavor and remarkably persistent in the finish, yet light in body. The resulting effect is uncanny and almost unnatural, in that it seems physically impossible to pack so much flavor and structure into a wine so light. Yet the wine is nevertheless coherent and convincing every time I taste it, and never jarring or garish. The quintessential rendition of one of the world's most remarkable wines, this Santorini is--believe it or not--even better in the 2005 vintage.
Producer of the Year: Chateau Souverain, Sonoma County, California. The winemaking team at Chateau Souverain, headed by Ed Killian, turns out a bevy of delicious, fairly-priced wines year after year. The Cabernet, Merlot, Zinfandel, and Rhône varietals (Syrah and more) are always top-notch, and the Chardonnay offers superior value. (To my mind, the only varietals not quite at the top level are Souverain's Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc; but then let's be honest-whose are in northern California?) And unlike those produced by many other wineries, the 'Reserve' offerings invariably do what that designation suggests, as they offer added richness, complexity, and interest. Now, nothing out of the ordinary happened with Chateau Souverain in 2006. Yes, buildings and some vineyards were sold; but the wines under the Souverain label remained in Killian's capable hands. His work is marked by consistency at a very high level--not just this year but for many years. To my mind, though, consistency counts more than big, single splashes. That's why Chateau Souverain is my "Producer of the Year."
Wine of the Year: Leeuwin Estate, Margaret River (Western Australia) Chardonnay "Art Series" 2004 (Imported by Old Bridge Cellars, about $70). I tasted this wine at the Leeuwin Estate winery in Western Australia about a month ago. (My understanding is that it is just now being released or about to be released onto the American market.) Full of layered flavor, it tastes wonderfully harmonious and balanced--with both vibrancy and complexity, a fantastic but very rare combination. And odds are that it will only get better, since Leeuwin Estate's 'Art Series' Chardonnays have a strong track record of improving with five or ten years in bottle. I can't say that this 2004 was my absolute favorite wine tasted in all of 2006, especially since this is not necessarily my favorite varietal; but I can say that I have never tasted a finer young New World Chardonnay--and given how many Chardonnays I've sampled over the years, that makes it my '06 "Wine of the Year."
Producer of the Year: Viña Matetic, San Antonio Valley, Chile. In any given year, I probably visit 60 wineries, sometimes more. Rarely do I get blown away by a winery visit, but Viña Matetic, in Chile's cool San Antonio Valley, did this to me. The Croatian Matetic family made their fortune in construction in Chile, and in 1999 built a state-of-the-art winery, tucked away in a hillside in Rosario Valley (within the San Antonio Valley region). There I tasted the finest Pinot Noir that I've experienced outside of Burgundy--it was the 2003; the 2004 is the current vintage--and a 2003 Syrah that was almost as good. Matetic makes a decent Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay as well (these four wines are their top-of-the-line wines labeled "EQ" and are sometimes listed that way in trade publications). Matetic is imported into California and Florida, but also distributed in New York Metro region by Martin Scott; the Pinot Noir and Syrah retail in the $23 to $25 range.
Wine of the Year: The year 2006 marked the arrival of many 1996 Vintage Champagnes to the U.S. For me, 1996 is the greatest Champagne vintage in 30 years, since the amazing 1966. If I could, I would award the entire vintage with "Wine of the Year" honors, because it's so difficult to choose just one or two, but two 1996s that debuted this year which are spectacular are Gosset "Célébris" and Pol Roger "Sir Winston Churchill," both prestige cuvées. Gosset specializes in dry, full-bodied Champagnes, but its Célébris (65% Chardonnay and 35% Pinot Noir, all Grand Cru grapes) is so elegant and ethereal that it works really well as an apéritif. Gosset Champagnes do not go through malolactic fermentation, enhancing their lively acidity. When I first tasted the 1996 over lunch in Champagne-with its aromas and flavors of mango, apricot, and lemon, it was so delicious that we ordered a second bottle! The 1996 Pol Roger Sir Winston Churchill, on the other hand, is powerful, rich, and firm, very harmonious, with lots of flavor intensity, and yet with finesse and control-one of the all-time great Sir Winston Churchills. The 1996 Gosset "Célébris" is about $125 (imported by Palm Bay Imports); the 1996 "Sir Winston Churchill" about $180 (imported by Frederick Wildman).
Producer of the Year: My vote for best winemaker of the year belongs to a young German living in northeastern Spain. Jurgen Wagner of Celler de Capçanes in Montsant is worthy of accolades. Montsant is a fairly new appellation in Spain that lives in the shadow of famous Priorat. Circling Priorat like an archery target, Montsant shares similar rugged terrain planted primarily to native varieties such as Garnacha and Cariñena. Capçanes is a cooperative--a term used for a group of local growers who make wine in one facility--but broke the mold of mediocrity normally associated with cooperatives more than a decade ago when they made quality Kosher wine for the Jewish community of Barcelona. This move raised their profile. After partnering with American importer, Eric Solomon, they made a splash by introducing their value-priced Mas Donis red. With the charming, soft-spoken Wagner at the cooperative's winemaking and exporting helm, Capçanes has garnered rave reviews for their high-quality, affordable "cult" wines with personality.
Wine of the Year: Plantagenet, Mount Barker (Great Southern, Western Australia) Riesling 2005, $17. For Riesling lovers on a quest for the best, this is a producer and place to discover. Located in the ultra-cool southern portion of Western Australia, Mount Barker is home to a handful of top-notch Riesling producers. The regional style is singular: taut, with laser-like purity. The searing acidity and minerality of this wine shows through when young, but with age Plantagenet's Rieslings gain layers of complexity while maintaining their youthful look and character. Who needs Botox when you can sip this?
Producer of the Year: Ferngrove Vineyards Estate. Talk about the middle of nowhere--this place really is! The Ferngrove winery and vineyards are in Western Australia, 260 kilometers south of Perth, in the tiny Frankland River region, tucked into a landscape of gravely clay soil and eucalyptus trees where flocks of wild cockatoos screech in the trees. It's a young winery--the first crush was in 2000, and winemaker Kim Horton is coming up to his fifth vintage--but it has been racking up a stunning number of awards: Best Winery in Western Australia 2006; Best Young Winemaker; Best Wine in Show (Cabernet "Majestic"), etc. Among the Ferngrove wines I love are the clean, fresh 2006 Chardonnay, the plump and juicy 2004 Shiraz, the gorgeous 2005 "Majestic" Cabernet Sauvignon, and the powerful 2005 "Stirlings" Shiraz/Cab. I also love the reasonable prices (most Ferngrove selections range from $12 to $40). Only a bloody drongo (Aussie-speak for "really stupid person") would fail to seek these wines out.
Wine of the Year: Tiefenbrunner, Alto Adige (Italy) Muller Thurgau "Feldmarschall von Fenner" 2005. Picking a favorite wine is a challenge akin to choosing the best book of the year, or the favorite meal in 2006--there's just too much good stuff to choose from in our rich lives! Nevertheless, Feldmarschall von Fenner, from Italy's Alto Adige region, stands out for a couple of different reasons. First of all, it is utterly delicious, with awesome aromas that range from spices to tropical flowers, and tremendous intensity on the palate. The other notable thing about this wine is that it's made from Muller Thurgau. Who knew this humble grape (a Riesling/Sylvaner cross) could rise to such lofty heights?
Producer of the Year: Duckhorn Vineyards could well be a contender in this category every year, but its performance in 2006 was particularly striking to me. I believe I've tasted just about every wine Duckhorn released during the year and scored each one in the mid-to-high 90s. Of particular note is the stunning array of Cabernet Sauvignons from Duckhorn--three single-vineyard wines and the estate Cab. As a group it may be the single best set of red wines from the same producer and vintage that I've ever tasted. The Estate Merlot, for which Duckhorn is most famous, was no slouch either. Ditto the Sauvignon Blanc. Winemaker Mark Beringer delivered the goods in a vintage that some considered lean by Napa Valley standards. Yet all of the Duckhorn reds possess plenty of octane. They are tightly structured, remarkably complex, and elegant, with exceptional depth and undoubtedly a bright future ahead. Duckhorn Vineyards, Producer of the Year indeed.
Wine of the Year: The Spottswoode Estate in St. Helena, in the heart of California's Napa Valley, is indisputably one of the world's top sites for Cabernet Sauvignon. It has been producing stellar Cabernets under the Spottswoode banner since 1982, but before that the vineyard supplied grapes to such Napa stars as Duckhorn and Shafer. The 2003 Spottswoode Cabernet Sauvignon is a triumph of great terroir over challenging conditions. The famous California sunshine was not in evidence in its usual abundance, and rains at harvest altered many a picking schedule. This actually played well for Spottswoode's more restrained style, with its emphasis on elegance rather than sheer power. The 2003 Spottswoode is firmly structured, shows beautiful red and black fruit character, hints of dried herbs and an attractive mocha note. This is a sensational Napa Valley Cab, and it's a keeper for the cellar as well.