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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.
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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.


Felt pretty sleepy today, feeling as if I neglected something important. What is today, anyway? Oh, wait, It’s Nov. 17, the third Thursday of November! Oh no! I missed the release of Beaujolais Nouveau! Darn, drat, rats, damn, merde! How could I have done that? I can’t believe that I missed the fun and festivities and frothy, grapy stuff! I must have been, oh, I dunno, out of my head or something. I’ll do better next year. Maybe. Sorta.

Readers, colleagues, friends, this blog, Bigger Than Your Head, has been nominated for a third year in the category of “Best Wine Reviews” in the annual Wine Blog Awards. We won the first two times, and I hope you won’t consider me selfish to want to win again! It’s an interesting rosters of nominees, with several strong contenders. The awards are based 50 percent on popular vote and 50 percent on the judges’ evaluations, so your vote really counts. If you enjoy the blog, if you learn something from my posts, if my reviews lead you to an understanding of individual wines and wine as a whole, if the complete package is informative, educational and a little amusing, then give me another chance to add a third winner’s badge to the sidebar. Voting ends June 27. Here’s a link to the voting page: http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/CNTK5P8

Thanks! Cheers!

My Readers … I want to steal a moment from the calm of New Year’s Day — blackeyed peas, hogjowl and turnip greens simmering on the stove; more Champagne chillin’ in the fridge — to thank you for your attention, your concern, your regard during 2010. In December, a month that concluded just 12 hours ago, this blog received 61,351 visits, the highest monthly figure since the thing was launched four years ago. And here’s what’s thrilling: For 2010, the total number of visits received by biggerthanyourhead.net was — ta-dah! — 516,015. That’s right, a shade more than half a million! In comparison, the total visits for 2009 was 383,511. Wow, that’s quite an increase. Naturally, I would like for those figures to climb exponentially for 2011, so do your part, come back and read my reviews, recommendations and commentaries, and click on those advertisements. I need the dough.

Happy New Year!


Readers, today, June 11, 2010, BiggerThanYourHead is the Featured Wine Blog on Foodista.com, “The Cooking Encyclopedia Anyone Can Edit.” You’ve already read the post — it’s Monday’s “Wine of the Week” — but follow the link to see what’s up on their website. Thanks, Foodista!

Lo, my children, such a thing has never happened in my many years of extracting corks from wine bottles, thousands of wine bottles.

Look at the picture. Yes, that’s my treasured Laguiole corkscrew, a gift, broken by the cork in this bottle of Bastianich Tocai Plus 2006, Friuli, which, as it happens, is a terrifically suave, layered and delicious wine. Now the bizarre accident didn’t occur as I was trying to lever the cork from the bottle. No, this happened when I was trying to insert the screw into the cork, which felt like iron. It took a mighty effort just to get the screw to scratch the surface of the cork. It was like trying to dig a hole with a shovel in dry, rocky soil. As I attempted to cope with this anomalous situation, I looked at LL, who raised her eyebrows and said, “Having a problem?” I replied, “Lord have mercy, this is the hardest cork I have ever seen,” meanwhile grunting with the effort and, naturally, swearing a bit. And then the screw part of the corkscrew snapped.

How do I know what the wine tasted like?

Later, I put the bottle in the sink and cracked the neck with repeated blows of a rubber mallet. I mean, what else?

This morning we’re tasting Barbera d’Asti from the Monferrato sub-region.

Here we go.

It’s snowing, and the roof of the building across the street wears a thick slope of pure white snow. A woman in a yellow house-dress just opened the double glass doors to her little balcony and used a broom to brush the snow off the plants in the box hanging from the wrought-iron balustrade.

I’m finding the Monferrato wines not stridently oaky, certainly not as much wood as the wines from Days One & Two. The acidity is certainly there; a couple of these so far have fairly screamed with acid, yet several examples strike me as being wholly satisfying. Of course my colleagues may disagreed; they’re a feisty bunch!

Again, though, the problem is inconsistency. One wine will brim with purity and intensity of fruit and penetrating mineral qualities; it’s the breath of fresh air syndrome. The next wine, however, smells so earthy that it feels unclean, so macerated that it’s sweetishyly cloying. And another will feature the whole box of dried spices and flowers and I think, “Very attractive,” until the acidity sears my palate. (After 25 years, my palate should get combat pay and Purple Hearts.) And I just wrote of another wine that’s it’s “so middle-of-the-road that it’s comforting.”

And I just wrote of another wine: “Dried spices, flowers and fruit, very attractive; v. intense, dense and concentrated, but fairly well-balanced, but very dry, now increasingly austere, does it need all this tannin?”

You, see? These wines are all over the map, and the map itself is not very large.

The most consistent aspect of this morning seems to be the snow.

I just saw that Imbibe online lists BiggerThanYourHead as one of 10 “bookmark-worthy” wine blogs that are “honest, outspoken, accessible and often funny.” I say “Yes!” to that. Here’s what they say about Yours Truly and BTYH:

“Sure, you’re initially drawn to this blog for its larger-than-life name, but one visit and you’ll be sold on Fredric Koeppel’s site which solely focuses on unfettered and unbiased wine reviews and tasting notes. Added bonus? He lists the U.S. importer of every wine he mentions, making it extra easy to track down a bottle of your own.”

To which I say “Amen” and “May a Thousand Blessings Fall Upon Your Bones.”

I’m happy to be in good, if not enviable company on this roster: 1 Wine Dude; Brooklyn Guy Loves Wine: Dr. Vino; The Good Grape: Good Wine Under $20; The Pour; Swirl Smell Slurp; Veritas in Vino: and Vinography. Wow, that’s pretty breathtaking.

Thanks again for the honor Imbibe, and thanks for getting it.

My former father-in-law, Ed Harrison — whom we saw last weekend at one of my daughter’s dance performances — at some point wisely bought a case of the Simi Reserve Vintage Cabernet Sauvignon 1974, Alexander Valley, a wine of which he was particularly fond, and with good reason: This is one of the great Simi cabernets. At the time, in Memphis, it sold for $16 a bottle. Winemaker in the early 1970s at Simi was Mary Ann Graf, with the legendary Andre Tchelistcheff serving as consultant. After passing through many ownership phases, Simi is now part of the Icon Estates portfolio of Constellation Wines.

I think it was the last bottle of the case that Ed opened for Christmas dinner in 1984, and what a superb wine it was, rich, mellow and flavorful at 10 years old. Here are my notes from that day:

“Wonderful wine, aged to perfection. Fading brick-reddish color; fragrant nose, lots of depth of fruit & currant undertones; soft tannin, bell-tone roundenss, elegant fruit, levels of berry undertones, dry yet with a hint of ripe sweetness. Long finish.”

Wow, I can almost smell and taste that wine now! Next time I see Ed Harrison, I’ll have to thank for for that experience.

The pizza had a medley of marinated and sauteed mushrooms — oyster mushrooms, shiitakes, chanterelles, criminis — with applewood smoked bacon as primary toppings, with some sliced Roma tomatoes, green onions, thyme, rosemary and oregano and then mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses. Clearly a boldly flavored wine was required.

Filling that criteria with no problem whatever was the Two Hands Gnarly Dudes Shiraz 2008, from Australia’s Barossa Valley.

This is a rich, ripe, deeply saturated wine that bursts with black currant and blueberry scents and flavors imbued with a wealth of exotic spice, fruitcake notes, briers and brambles and granite-like minerals. Dauntingly dry but luscious and juicy, this shiraz comes close to being jammy, but its exuberance is just held in check by singeing (or singing) acidity and dense tannins that seem fathomless. Hints of brandied plum pudding and bitter chocolate draw in touches of lavender and licorice, all of which are etched on that circumference of pure earthy minerality. Oak is carefully done; the wine aged 12 months in hogsheads, that is to say large barrels, only 12 percent of which were new, so the effect is of tone and suppleness and resonance. There’s no denying the influence of 15.2 percent alcohol; innate ripeness and sweetness gather from entry to mid-palate, where they are subdued by immense tannins through the long, smooth, fruit-and-shale drenched finish. This is, in three words, quite a ride. Closed with a screw-cap for easy opening. Drink through 2012 to ’14. Excellent. About $25.

Imported by Terlato Wines International, Lake Bluff, Illinois, which supplied this bottle as a sample for review.

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