It’s been almost a year since the COVID era began. The past year has brought many new experiences, some of them unpleasant but a few of them were unexpected surprises. Due to dwindling access, availability, and some forced changes of personal habit I stumbled upon a few new wines during this crazy time. Here are some of my best surprises from the COVID year; perhaps they will give you a smile as well.
My favorite local restaurant ran out of my usual go-to wines so I had to try some others with my takeout. One of them was the 2017 Ebbio Langhe Nebbiolo ($30). I’m a huge Barolo fan and typically like Nebbiolo but this one is a real bargain for what it offers. Dusty red berry, light tobacco, and lithe body make this a terrific offering. In fact, I’m wondering if I’ll like it better than my old favorite once it comes back into stock.
Another standout, which is an older and much more “special occasion” wine was the 2014 Spring Mountain Cabernet ($75). Spring Mountain wines are known for their robust power and iron fist, usually needing many years to become approachable. This one has arrived in its happy place with palpable energy coursing through its blackberry, currant, and cedar notes. A brilliant wine that got even better over a few days.
I am woefully behind on blogging (my friend calls this the “COVID ennui”) and I finally tapped into a few delightful wines that I was sent months ago. The label on the 2018 Passimento ($18) alone makes it worth a second look and drink. From the Veneto region of Italy, this lovely white wine is made from Garganega grapes and tastes of peach, apricot, and almond flavors woven together with racy acidity. Three months in oak rounds out the palate and gives it an extra boost in body. Perfect for a warm summer day or even a cool winter afternoon spent outside seeing an old friend as I did.
Another great treat was the Bruno Paillard Champagne Reims Rosé Première Cuvée Extra Brut ($59). This is a beautifully delicate and scintillating sparkler that was one of my year’s best. The fact that I’ve had the great pleasure to meet Alice Paillard a couple of times only made it better as it expresses her quiet assurance, elegance, and poise to a tee.
I was invited to review the wines of Elden Selections earlier in 2020 and one of the wines I was sent, the 2015 Domaine Mouton Givry 1er Cru Clos Jus ($59), is still on my mind. “Jus” means “juice” and true its name, this wine was juicy yet delicate with bramble raspberry and fresh mineral notes.
Eating out during the summer and even early cold spring was a sheer thrill. Along with those evenings came some other new wines in the 2016 Alpha Estate SMX ($34) and the 2016 Tancredi Donnafugata ($39). The Alpha Estate SMX is a red blend of 60% Syrah, 20% Merlot, and 20% Xinomavro from Amyndeon, Greece. Layered and supple, this wine teems with dark fruit notes of black cherry and plum interlaced with sweet spice and pepper flavors. A full-body and crisp lean acidity round out the palate.
The Tancredi is from Sicily and another great find. Blended from Cabernet Sauvignon, Nero d’Avola, and some Tannat grapes, this wine exudes savory notes of licorice, stone, and tobacco amid its black plum flavors. Medium-bodied with fine-grained tannins, this wine has some staying power and should be good for several more years.
There was a brief respite last fall where I was able to go on a short domestic trip. The hotel I was at was low on wines like everyone else but our sommelier went rummaging in their cellar and came out with the knockout 2005 Marques de Murrieta Castillo Ygay Gran Reserva Especial ($110) for my friend’s birthday.
Wonderfully smooth and seamlessly integrated, this wine, made from 81% Tempranillo and 19% Mazuelo, exudes classic savory tobacco, dried cherry, and tarragon notes with a haunting spicy finish. The Tempranillo was aged in American oak in traditional Rioja style while the Mazuelo was aged in French oak. It all culminates in a beautiful marriage of flavors and a perfect birthday celebration. I would like to rummage in that hotel’s cellar a bit more.
Also on that trip, we were treated to the 2016 Terlan Porphyr Lagrein from Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy ($75). Lagrein is one of those unique grapes that’s harder to find but when it’s made as well as this one, it’s extraordinary. A cross between the lighter body of Pinot Noir and the zesty flavors and electric acidity of Nebbiolo, this grape can hold its own. A striking inky color, this wine tastes of violets, clove, and black tea. While it is medium-bodied, this wine has impressive structure and heft while retaining its elegance and smooth tannins.
Back at home, there were a few periods where we locked in so long that I started going through my own collection and seeing how things were tasting. Three standouts here were:
2013 Sbragia Monte Rosso Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. I loved this wine when I first had it sitting in the Sbragia tasting room in Moon Mountain District, Sonoma years ago. On a particularly barren day last year, I treated myself to my last remaining bottle. It is one of those wines where even a great memory paled to its present form. It was simply ethereal. Using my Coravin, I enjoyed a glass every day for 4 days, and this wine never stopped delighting.
2011 Il Poggione Brunello I always love Brunello but I have to be in a certain mood for it. It’s not a subtle wine so it takes some energy I think to really appreciate it. My brother gave me this wine a few years ago and I was determined to hang on to it. However, my resolve weakened during COVID as I considered how fleeting time and opportunity are so I decided to dive into it.
Another experience of it being better than I remembered ensued. Made from 20-year-old vines and 100% Sangiovese grapes, this lush and radiant wine tasted of toasted herbs, black cherry, plum, sweet spices, and tobacco. A powerful backbone with vibrant acid and a cedar finish rounded out this decadent pleasure.
The 2010 Madrigal Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa was perhaps the best bargain of the year. I bought it several years ago on a Napa wine trip for $25. Having forgotten about it until I was going through my wine collection this summer, I thought it would be past its prime but it was a wonderful surprise, bursting with blackberry, currant, and cigar box spice. Smooth round tannins dotted with menthol notes made for a lingering finish.
Hopefully this year will bring a much happier state of the world for everyone. In the meantime, take the opportunity to try new wines when stores, restaurants, and your own cellar run low. You might be pleasantly surprised as I was.