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Reflections on a Very Good Year
By Robert Whitley
Jan 9, 2007
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Before we lay 2006 to rest, a few reflections on what turned out to be a very good year.

Sagrantino Sonata

I watched as the brilliant Italian winemaker, Marco Caprai, basked in the warm glow of his anointment as Gambero Rosso's Winemaker of the Year. This was no small feat, for Italy's stable of exceptional winemakers is very deep. What's more, Caprai accomplished this pinnacle with an ugly-duckling grape variety, the Sagrantino.

If you've ever tasted an old-fashioned Sagrantino you know what I mean. It only proves that Caprai is a visionary as well as a skilled enologist. There was little charm in the robust, tannic Sagrantinos of yore, wines that would have certainly put hair on your chest. Caprai saw the potential and crafted the first Sagrantinos that were actually drinkable.

That he could make Sagrantino with elegance and a significant "yum" factor, all the while maintaining formidable structure, is simply remarkable. Marco's wines are sold under the Arnaldo Caprai banner.

Way Out West

I'm talking about way out west as in Western Australia, where the vast potential for viticulture is only now being discovered. The Margaret River region is Western Australia's best-known appellation, but there is good wine being made from Perth's Swan Valley (a three-hour drive north of Margaret River) to the tip of the Great Southern, a largely unknown but vast region south of Margaret River that encompasses many smaller sub-appellations such as Frankland River and Pemberton.

Margaret River's fame was built largely on the success of Leeuwin Estate and Cullen, wineries that produce exceptional Chardonnay and Cabernet, but some of the world's finest dry Rieslings and Sauvignon Blancs also come from this part of the world. Shiraz isn't as important in WA as it is in South Australia, but what there is expresses itself in a leaner, more elegant fashion.

This was one of my favorite stops in 2006, leaving me with fond memories of the wines of Voyager Estate, Ferngrove, Alkoomi, Plantagenet, Salitage, Mad Fish, Vasse Felix, Wise, et al.

That Other 'WA'

I rediscovered Washington Rieslings, which was good for the pocketbook. Hogue Cellars, Columbia Winery and Chateau Ste. Michelle must be thanking their lucky stars they didn't rip out their Riesling vines and replant with Chardonnay when that was all the conventional wisdom only a few years ago.

These wines are lovely and affordable, and pair extremely well with the hugely popular Pacific Rim cuisine of the region, as well as sushi.

A visit to Red Willow vineyard also honed my appreciation for Washington Syrah, which is about as close as you'll come in the U.S. to the firmly structured red wines of the northern Rhone.

Eye-Opening Kiwi Experiences

Kumeu River's 2004 Mate's Vineyard Chardonnay was probably the finest New World Chardonnay I tasted in '06. This is a remarkable achievement considering the location of the winery in an unfashionable wine district just outside Auckland. The Kumeu River Chardonnays rise above their humble origins in a huge way.

During my trip to the International Chardonnay Challenge in Gisborne I also had an opportunity to drop in on Villa Maria and was most impressed by a single-vineyard Pinot Noir (Taylor's Pass) from the relatively new Awatere Valley sub-appellation of Marlborough.

It was simply the best New Zealand Pinot Noir I've come across.

Speaking of Chardonnay

There are encouraging signs that California vintners are ending their love affair with flabby, overblown Chardonnays and are responding to consumer demand with more balanced Chards that are more food friendly.

There was no better example in '06 than the 2004 Bouchaine Estate Chardonnay from Carneros, but I would be remiss if I didn't point out that Monterey's Morgan Winery, in particular, has been keenly aware of the recent shift in consumer taste and has been producing its 'Metallico' Chardonnay for a number of years.

Other California Chardonnay producers that released impressive wines over the past year: Sonoma Cutrer, Gary Farrell, Kistler, Franciscan Estates and Grgich Hills, names that would hardly surprise anyone. From Oregon I especially enjoyed the Domaine Drouhin Oregon 'Arthur.'

The Drouhin family also weighed in with several beauties from the exceptional 2004 vintage in Burgundy, including the utterly brilliant premier cru Chassagne-Montrachet, Marquis de Laguiche.

The Competitions

What would a look back at the year be without an observation or two on the wine competitions. Notable was Champagne Charles Heidsieck's second-consecutive Wine of the Year award at the Critics Challenge International Wine Competition in San Diego. Heidsieck's 1995 Blanc des Millenaires Brut, a 100-percent Chardonnay cuvee, captivated the judges yet again after winning the same honor in 2005.

And Hahn Estate's Adam LaZarre continued to take the big prizes, winning Best of Show red wine at both the Monterey and San Diego international wine competitions - with different wines. In fact, he won the Monterey prize with the $14 2004 Hahn Merlot, which was no small feat.

The judges taste the wines blind, so they have no idea what's on the label. But they did know it was a Merlot. Now that is amazing.

Vintage of the Century

You guessed it, another VOC in Bordeaux. This would be the 2005 vintage, which was unveiled to the trade and the press during the annual en primeur tastings in March.

This is Bordeaux' second VOC in the past five years and at least the eighth or ninth since I began seriously collecting Bordeaux some 30 years ago.

Well, it was a very good year!

Robert can be reached at rwhitley@winereviewonline.com.