Selecting my 50 Great Wines of the year always requires soul-searching and concentrated thought. After several days of these headache-inducing activities, somewhat assuaged by drinking great wine, here’s the list. Notice that my title is “50 Great Wines of 2011.” I don’t say “the greatest” or the “best,” because this roster arises, naturally, only from wines that I tasted and wrote about in 2011; it doesn’t reflect the state of the entire vast bewildering world of wine out there, but just what I experienced. I’ll admit that when I peruse the lists of best wines or most exciting wines or whatever printed in the Wine Spectator or the Wine Enthusiast or Wine & Spirits, I become somewhat downcast at how many “best” or “exciting” wines I didn’t taste. I am, however, only one man, and I have a living to make outside the realm of this blog.
So here are my 50 Great Wines, and by great I mean not only that they pleased me immensely and intensely but that they possess something so special in the way of personality and character and authenticity that they register on a higher plane than the stuff that’s just tasty and enjoyable, though there’s nothing wrong with those wines, either, everything depends on time and space and circumstance. California dominates this roster, but there are also wines from Oregon, Italy, France, Germany, Spain, Argentina and Australia.
You’ll notice that the venerable Napa Valley winery Grgich Hills Estate appears on this list thrice, each time for a wine that rates Exceptional. For that reason, and for incredible dedication, hard work and integrity, for believing in balance and integration and varietal character yet allowing each wine to speak for itself, for transitioning to biodynamic practices without making a big freakin’ deal about it, and for always making wines that I love, Grgich Hills is my Winery of the Year.
Coming in a few days: “25 Great Wine Bargains.”
No hierarchy here; the order is strictly alphabetical.
1. Angela Clawson Creek Vineyard Pinot Noir 2008, Oregon (though the vineyard lies on Savannah Ridge in the Yamhill-Carlton District of the Willamette Valley). Excellent. About $50.
2. Arnaldo-Caprai Montefalco Rosso 2007, Montefalco, Umbria, Italy. 70 percent sangiovese, 15 percent sagrantino, 15 percent merlot. Excellent. About $23.
3. Barda Pinot Noir 2010, Patagonia, Argentina. Excellent. About $30.
4. Bastianich Tocai Plus 2006, Colli Orientali del Friuli. Exceptional. About $60.
5. Black Kite Cellars River Turn Block Pinot Noir 2009, Anderson Valley, Mendocino. 160 cases. Exceptional. About $52.
6. Domaine Carneros Le Rêve Blanc de Blancs Brut 2004, Carneros. Exceptional. About $85.
7. Catena Zapata Adrianna Vineyard Malbec 2007, Mendoza, Argentina. 350 cases. Exceptional. About $120.
8. Chateau Doisy-Védrines 2005, Sauternes, Bordeaux, France. Excellent. About $45-$50.
9. Colomé Estate Malbec 2009, Calchaqui Valley, Salta, Mendoza. Excellent. About $25.
10. Drouhin-Vaudon Chalbis Réserve de Vaudon 2009, Chablis, France. Excellent. About $27.50.
11. Far Niente Chardonnay 2009, Napa Valley. Exceptional. About $58.
12. Fontanelle Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, Mount Veeder, Napa Valley. 750 cases. Exceptional. About $52.
13. Godspeed Vineyard Chardonnay 2008, Mount Veeder, Napa Valley. About $25.
14. Grant Eddie Syrah 2006, Whitman’s Mountain Vineyard, Sierra Foothills. 150 cases. Exceptional. About $27.
15. Grgich Hills Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, Napa Valley. Exceptional. About $60.
16. Grgich Hills Estate Chardonnay 2008, Napa Valley. Exceptional. About $42.
17. Grgich Hills Estate Fume Blanc 2008, Napa Valley. Exceptional. About $30.
18. Hess Collection Mount Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, Napa Valley. Excellent. About $48.
19. Tenuto di Biserno Insoglio 2008, Toscano I.G.T. 32 percent each merlot and syrah, 30 percent cabernet franc, 6 percent petit verdot. Excellent. About $32.
20. Jake-Ryan Cellars Bald Mountain Vineyard Zinfandel 2007, Mount Veeder, Napa Valley. 410 cases. Excellent. About $28.
21. Kapcsándy Endre 2008, Yountville, Napa Valley. 51 percent cabernet sauvignon, 25 percent merlot, 16 percent cabernet franc, 8 percent petit verdot. 370 cases. Excellent. About $75.
22. L’audacieuse 2010, Coteaux de l’Ardeche (rose). 50 percent syrah, 30 percent grenache, 20 percent cinsault. In a year of superb rosé wines, this was the best. Excellent. About $30.
23. Lis Neris “Gris” Pinot Grigio 2008, Friuli Isonzo, Italy. Excellent. About $25-$35.
24. Ca’ Lojera di Tiraboschi Lugano del Lupo 2006, Lugano, Lombardy, Italy. A mind-blowing sweet wine made from — who woulda thunk it? — late-harvest trebbiano. Excellent. Price unknown. (A small quantity of the Ca’ Lojera di Tiraboschi wines are brought to these shores.)
25. Mayacamas Chardonnay 2008, Mount Veeder, Napa Valley. 876 cases. Exceptional. About $30.
26. Merry Edwards Sauvignon Blanc 2010, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. Excellent. About $30.
27. Montenidoli Il Templare 2006, Toscana I.G.T., Italy. An extraordinary blend of what should be ordinary grapes: trebbiano, malvasia, vernaccia. Exceptional. About $23.
28. Chateau Montelena Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, Napa Valley. Excellent. About $49.
29. Morgan Winery Double L Chardonnay 2009, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey. 560 cases. Exceptional. About $36.
30. Mount Horrocks Cordon Cut Riesling 2008, Clare Valley, Australia. Exceptional. About $32 for a half-bottle.
31. Nickel & Nickel Medina Vineyard Chardonnay 2009, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. Exceptional. About $48.
32. Nickel & Nickel Stelling Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Oakville District, Napa Valley. 547 cases. Exceptional. About $140.
33. Nickel & Nickel Vogt Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, Howell Mountain, Napa Valley. Excellent. About $90.
34. Tenuta dell’Ornellaia Le Volte 2009, Toscana I.G.T., Italy. 50 percent merlot, 30 percent sangiovese, 20 percent cabernet sauvignon. Excellent. About $30.
35. Paul Bara Grand Cru Brut Réserve, non-vintage. A grower Champagne from one of the best houses in Bouzy. Excellent. About $45-$50.
36. Paul-Marie et Fils Pineau des Charentes Tres Vieux Fut #3. Pineau des Charentes, a fortified wine made in Cognac, is considered old if it ages five years in barrels; this superb example aged 25 years. Exceptional. About $90.
37. Dr. Pauly-Bergweiler Bernkasteler alte Badstuke am Doctorberg Riesling Spätlese 2008, Mosel, Germany. Excellent. About $25-$30.
38. Pfeffingen Ungsteiner Herrenberg Riesling Beerenauslese 2004, Pfalz, Germany. Exceptional. About $50 for a half-bottle.
39. Roda Reserva 2006, Rioja, Spain. 81 percent tempranillo, 14 percent graciano, 5 percent garnacha. Excellent. About $45.
40. Bodegas Septima Gran Reserva 2008, Mendoza, Argentina. 50 percent malbec, 40 percent cabernet sauvignon, 10 percent tannat. Excellent. About $25.
41. Sequana Dutton Ranch Pinot Noir 2009, Green Valley of Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. 514 cases. Excellent. About $45.
42. Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, Spring Mountain District, Napa Valley. Excellent. About $45.
43. Smith-Madrone Chardonnay 2008, Spring Mountain District, Napa Valley. Excellent. About $30.
44. Susana Balbo Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, Mendoza, Argentina. Excellent. About $25.
45. Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs Brut 1998, Champagne, France. Exceptional. About $179, but prices soar beyond.
46. Tardieu Laurent “Guy Louis” 2008, Côtes-du-Rhône. Excellent. About $28.
47. Chateau Thivin Côte de Brouilly 2010, Beaujolais, France. Excellent. About $24.
48. Chateau Tire Pe Les Malbecs 2009, Bordeaux. Excellent. About $25-$28.
49. Trefethen Family Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, Oak Knoll District, Napa Valley. Excellent. About $58.
50. Twomey Cellars Merlot 2006, Napa Valley. Exceptional. About $50.