If you’re reading this, you’re probably as relieved as I am that we’re in a new year. What a great year 2020 was (to focus on fine food and wine, music, or anything else than covid and politics), although there is hope now on those two fronts for the new year. I have decided to affirm life for the future, post-covid times by actively laying down more wines in my cellar, some of which I may find solace in until those happy days arrive.
This annual rating is limited to wines of eastern North America, which is my editorial focus.
Ratings key: * = good, ** = very good, *** = impressive & distinctive, **** = outstanding.
****Ankida Ridge Blanc de Blancs 2016: Light gold color from (neutral) barrel aging. Complex nose: toasty, hazelnut and almond, bruised apple. Palate: Complex but harmonious and elegant. Apple, pear, lemon flavors are complemented by almond hints, the acidity is rounded by very slight oxidation and creamy lees, with creme brulee and fresh lemon zest finish. An original and highly stylish, elegant blanc de blancs, traditional method. Only 97 cases made.
**-*Lost Creek Vidal blanc 2019: Fermented for 8 months in stainless steel from whole cluster pressed fruit. Nose: very subtle, fresh apple, typical of the grape but faint (young). Palate: Wow–mouth-filling, dry, with huge volume. Multi-dimensional, the wild yeast makes the difference compared to conventional yeast fermentations of Vidal in texture, complexity, lively acidity and wonderful integration. Two stars now, will age into three. Worth the $25 price, especially for the skeptics.
**-*Ankida Ridge Chardonnay 2017: The nose is Burgundian; restrained, with apple and mineral notes. On the palate though, the wine is quite forward and even juicy, much like a Macon Villages. The acid is lower than we’ve seen in past vintages, but the wine is young and promising and it will develop. Right now, it’s fun and gluggable.
***Glass House Winery Viognier 2018: While the ’18 vintage in Virginia was very difficult, I’ve been surprised by the high quality of many of the white wines I’ve tasted, that have much higher acidity than normal but also a rich, thick viscocity which is unique to the vintage and balances out the acidity well. This Viognier is excellent, with vibrant peach, nectarine and white flower notes on the nose, then peach and nectarine on the palate, drinking more like a Rheinhessen Riesling than a normal Viognier with brilliant fruit/acid balance, and a fresh clean finish. Very impressive and refreshing.
***DuCard Vineyards “Shenandoah” commemorative white wine 2019 is 100% Traminette, grown in the Shenandoah Valley. The aroma is richly aromatic like this grape’s vinifera parent, Gewurztraminer; you think the wine will be thickly sweet. Even though it is 2.6% residual sugar, the acidity (much higher than in Gewurztraminer) makes this a well-balanced food wine (it drinks to me like the R.S. is only 0.5%), ideal with spicy foods or ripe cheese. The tropical fruit flavors are balanced with fresh acidity, and make this a fun and versatile wine. You could find yourself gulping it easily. Frankly, this is about the best Traminette table wine I’ve tasted.
***Left Foot Charley Pinot Blanc 2018, Old Mission Peninsula, MI. Proprietor and winemaker Brian Ulbrich stresses that the star here is the appellation (Old Mission Peninsula in northwest Michigan), as well as the four separate (1-acre) vineyards that provided the fruit: Prairie School, Seventh Hill, Shangri-La Too, and Mary Lyon’s.
Brian says that the “sandy loam soils and cool growing season release an aromatic presence not typically found in the white Pinot,” and I agree. I also like to see a Pinot Blanc with no oak and an alcohol around 12% (this is 12.1%).
This is a classic, elegant, understated Pinot Blanc, with lively mineral and lemon/lime notes on the nose. Understated but fresh and lightly lemon on the palate, the acidity is vibrant but not heavy-handed, and the fresh minerality lingers, making you think that the four vineyards and their subtleties are the real star here, not the grape. Just coming into its own, drink with shellfish or goat cheese appetizers during the hot months to come. Finished with a Stelvin cap, this could actually age for another year or two and hold up.
***-* Lost Creek Chardonnay ’17: Estate grown, 10% malolactic, stainless with neutral oak. Nose: complex, apple, pear, yeast and mineral elements. Palate: chewy, dense, high acidity, apple and pear flavors, viscous, lovely but dense, still very young, drinks like white Burgundy, needs another 3-5 years, has the stuffing and acidity to last. You could enjoy it now but it needs decanting. A lovely yet masculine, taut wine, still evolving but brilliant. A deal at $29.
***Muse Vineyards Thalia 2019: This is a rare white Rhone blend without Viognier, just Roussanne and Marsanne, used to make white Hermitage (Thomas Jefferson’s favorite white wine). The flavor and character are quite distinctive. The nose is elegant, with subtle pear, white pepper and mineral notes. On the palate, it is dry, with pear flavors and a rich tactile mid-palate, but finishing fresh and clean. A well-made, original blend in a classic Rhone style, and a fine choice for Thanksgiving.
****Dr. Konstantin Frank Gewurztraminer Reserve 2015: This bottling may no longer be available, but anyone who can obtain a more recent vintage (except 2018) should consider it. This wine is rich, aromatic and unctous, and this vintage was significantly influenced by botrytis, giving a rich, slightly drying richness to the wine’s texture but concentrating the fruit. The floral aroma and lychee and rose notes on the palate should be able to stand up to the richness of a Thanksgiving dinner, and five years of bottle age should give it a rich dimension. This is about as good as Gewurztraminer can be in a table wine.
Carl DiManno of 868 Estate Vineyards accepting the Governor’s Cup from Virginia Governor Ralph Northam
****2017 868 Vineyards Vidal Blanc passito: Made from 100% Vidal Blanc, the 2017 868 Vidal passito was harvested at 22.5 Brix and then dried for one month to concentrate flavors and by reducing water content, increase the sugars to 32 Brix. The juice was fermented to 8 Brix and then chilled to stop fermentation, and aged in neutral French oak for 14 months. The wine is vibrant and fresh, with brisk acidity (10.8 g/l) to match the 8% residual sugar, and with a pleasing mid-palate density reminiscent of Sauternes. What seemed to impress the judges was the finesse and balance of a wine this sweet but which danced gracefully like a ballerina across your palate.
***Cunningham Creek Herd Dog Red 2017 (Cabernet Franc). This is a brilliant Virginia-style varietal Cabernet Franc, partly from the fine ’17 vintage and partly from skillful winemaking that keeps the new oak at only 14% new, for only 7 months. The nose shows distinctive black cherry and pepper, with a hint of mocha. On the palate, forward ripe black cherry and pepper, followed by smooth ripe tannins, all fruit-driven, with fine clean earth texture and mocha finish. I heard, but was unable to verify, that this wine won an impressive medal in a recent competition, so I suggest visiting, tasting and purchasing while supplies last.
***Breaux vineyards Meritage 2015
50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Merlot, 23% Cabernet Franc, 2% Malbec.
Nose: ripe black fruits, black olive, sage and a hint of tobacco. Palate: dense but well-integrated, reminiscent of the ripe, rich 2010 vintage. Ripe black fruits with a hint of oak linger on the palate with elegant garden herb nuances, and a pleasingly fresh, clean finish. Needs decanting, will last another 5 years if well-cellared.
***Muse Cabernet Franc 2017: Nose of exotic baking spices, red and black cherry, and a hint of smoke. On the palate, it’s fresh and dry with vibrant cherry and raspberry fruit, no heavy or even noticeable oak, lively with a fresh finish. (Note: this will soon go off the market to age another year as the non-vintage blend comes on.)
***Muse Petit Verdot 2017: a big, dark, brooding wine. Most ’17 wines are open and drinking well now but this one needs 2-3 years more aging. Nose: deep, rich black fruits with a hint of lavendar. Palate: powerful, rich and muscular but still fruit-driven and elegant with a solid core of ripe fruit, no clumsy oak and a velvet texture with nuances of oak on the finish. Balanced but rich, worth waiting for.
***Muse Nebbiolo 2016: was released on 12/6 at a Wine Club dinner. This is the first vintage of Muse’s Nebbiolo, the signature grape of Piedmonte, and is an impressive start; only 12 cases. Those who like a wine that is fruit-driven while keeping the signature acidity and tannins will really enjoy this. Nose: a hint of autumn leaves but a trio of red fruits: cherry, raspberry and strawberry. Palate: intense bright fresh raspberry and cherry, matched by vibrant acidity. Impressive length and finish. An original, fresh and promising style that can be enjoyed now.
***Hiddencroft Petit Verdot 2015: The alcohol is 14%, and at five years the wine is mature, but still gutsy and more masculine than the 2008. Stylistically, it reminds me of a Piedmontese red, like a blend of Barbera and Dolcetto with a touch of Nebbiolo.
Nose: Rich ripe blackberry, with pepper and smoke, and a touch of forest floor. Palate: lively but zesty, fruit-driven, with ripe blackberry flavors, amplified with flint and clean earth hints, a hint of truffle, deep black fruits and full but smooth tannins on the finish. Also, refreshingly fruit-driven with no oak flavors or texture. Classy. Good integration, can age another 4-5 years.
This is like a Virginia version of a high-end Zinfandel blend such as the Ridge Geyserville or St. Francis Old Vine (county blend) Zinfandel, each of which have significant quantities of more tannic grapes like Mourvedre (a k a Mataro) and Petit Sirah to balance the intense fruitiness and alcohol headiness of the Zinfandel. This wine shows that a very northern site in Virginia can make a Petit Verdot to stand with any other in the state.
***Winery 32 Cabernet Franc ’15: estate grown, first crop. Classic varietal hallmarks of black cherry, black pepper, and leafy herbs. Palate: Wow! Loads of flavor–huge black cherry, black pepper, and baking spices, oak not in the flavor but in the texture. Drinking at peak; big volume, a classic with smoky oak on the finish.
***Lost Creek Genesis ’17 (50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Merlot, 10% Petit Verdot). 18 months in 60% new French oak (but you don’t notice). Nose: classic black cassis of cab. sauv., black fruits, cherry, complex notes from native yeast. Palate: rich depth of flavor. Texture chewy, with chocolate mocha. Rich, needs time.
***Breaux Meritage ’16 (57% Merlot, 19% Cabernet Franc, 18% Petit Verdot, 5% Cabernet Sauvignon, 1% Malbec). Nose: closed, with hints of pencil lead and hints of cigar box; needs air. Palate: Wow! Chewy but very smooth, ripe tannins and ripe black fruits that are concentrated but with incredibly smooth texture. Can stand up to St. Emilion Grand Cru rank wines. Worth the $45 price. Drink from this fall/winter for the next 7 years, but decant first.
****Gabrielle Rausse Merlot ’19 “Unsulfited”
Vibrant, dark ruby color (note: KMS scalps some color from red and rose wines). Nose: young, vibrant Merlot fruit; blueberry and blackberry, with garden herbs and pepper. Palate: Lively, dry, vibrant black fruits and zesty acidity with ripe tannins, fruit-forward, no oak flavor, and a hint of dark chocolate making me think of chocolate-covered cherries. Very sexy, enjoy this for another six months with Mediterranean foods.
****Ankida Ridge Pinot Noir 2017: has an intensely vibrant, fruity, juicy cherry/berry aroma, with huge volume of flavor on the palate, zesty tingling acidity and firm red and black cherry flavors with a crisp texture. This wine was fermented with 10% whole clusters, to add tannin and complexity. This is the “largest” flavored Ankida Ridge Pinot Noir yet. Even though the alcohol is over 14%, the wine remains fresh, fruit-driven and intensely lively, and should last a decade. A different style than the fine (higher acid) 2016, but forward and very hedonistic.
****Early Mountain Eluvium 2017, 71% Merlot, 25% Petit Verdot and just 3% Cabernet Sauvignon. The old vine Quaker Run Merlot is the backbone. Nose: amazing concentration of dark Merlot fruits, fragrant floral/herb notes from Petit Verdot, and rich, bright, explosive dark fruits, herbs, licorice and violets on the palate; a keeper!
****Michael Shaps Meritage 2017, Monticello I tasted this wine while reviewing wines from the Shaps portfolio before they were released. Shaps has had his Meritage in the Governor’s Case a couple of times in recent years. This wine starts elegantly, then mid-palate has a punchy dark bass note, as if Tannat were in the blend, or an exotic oak barrel were part of the aging. Normally I don’t like tasting oak, but Shaps has a way of letting oak add its intriguing spice without having it muddy the texture of the elegant blend of the grapes. This wine is impressive but shows the potential of the Virginia Meritage category, by giving you an original style that is neither Bordeaux nor West Coast, but still stylish and impressive.
****Muse Clio 2017 Shenandoah Valley: Clio is Muse Vineyard’s Meritage blend, their flagship wine (now including all five red Bordeaux grapes) and this one is 40% Petit Verdot. Nose: lively bright red fruits, then some darker fruit, occuring like listening to a quintet. Palate: exquisite balance of bright fruit flavors, delicate oak, acid and tannins, and some herb and spice notes, with the base notes of Petit Verdot. Elegant and well-balanced, can drink now but based on this wine’s track record, I recommend holding another 5-7 years.
And now, for my three favorite wines tasted in 2020: either a penultimate five stars, or trending towards that with more age:
****-*Early Mountain “Rise” 2015, their term for the French phrase “grand vin.” Based on 57% old vine Merlot from the Quaker Mountain vineyard in northwestern Madison County, the balance is an even trio of Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Tannat, all from mountain vineyards, with inclusion of stems in the fermentation for complexity. The ’15 inaugural vintage had a nose of black fruits, nuts and spices. On the palate, the volume was very high, with rich, dense, ripe fruit, velvety texture, but a fresh finish. For a four-year-old wine, it’s both mature and young, with years ahead of it. If this wine were music, it would be a composition by Gustav Mahler, with both power and finesse. Four stars now, trending towards five with another five years of age, and $95.00 retail.
****-*Muse Vineyards “Clio” (Meritage blend) 2010, Shenandoah Valley: This Woodstock-based winery burst onto the Virginia wine scene in 2015 when their as-yet unreleased 2009 Meritage blend Clio won the Governor’s Cup. I suspected then that the great 2010 vintage Clio would surpass the ’09, and I believe I was right. I bought the ’10 some years ago, but when I opened it over Christmas, I was stunned that it seemed not to have aged AT ALL! It was still young and needed to breathe, and still had plenty of mileage left.
Nose: Unlike most New World Meritage blends. Even though the blend is an even 25% split between the two Cabernets, Merlot and Petit Verdot, it has a wild, hedonistic quality reminiscent of Priorat or Monsant in Spain, or of a Mourvedre-based Chateauneuf-du-Pape (but clean). Ripe, roasted black fruits are supported by flinty, clean earth hints, black pepper and exotic baking spices, but in the manner of a young wine; this drinks like a 2017.
Palate: Again, ripe roasted black fruits, layers of textural depth and very rich, smooth tannins with fine, bright acidity on the finish and no flavor of oak anywhere, a point in its favor. It resembles Bordeaux blends in a great year but has the minerality and depth of black fruit you’d find in Priorat or nearby Monsant. I love the freshness on the finish despite the depth of fruit and ripe tannins. If this wine were put into a tasting challenge (like the Master of Wine exam), few people (including this writer if I didn’t know better) would think it was a New World wine, let alone a Meritage blend from Virginia.
If you have a bottle of this wine, cellar it in a proper cool, dry and quiet place, and wait until 2030; that’s what I plan to do with the second bottle I have of this. Note: when you taste a wine that really moves you, buy as much of it as you can afford at the time before it’s gone. Four stars now, five for drinking 8-10 years from now if well-cellared and you can handle a great red wine without obvious oak flavors.
*****FOX RUN FINE TAWNY PORT, Finger Lakes, NV
Lovely amber/tawny color. Nose: what a treat; butterscotch, English toffee and caramel. On the palate, a pleasing plump fatness, with ripe red fruits and loads of baking spices, zesty bright acidity but no coarse burn, then a fresh clean finish reminding us of the origin of the wine. An aged multi-vintage tawny port of this character is one of the most difficult things to pull off with grace and charm in the world of winemaking, for technical reasons I won’t bore you with, and veteran fortified winemaker Peter Bell has surpassed himself with this bottling. I believe it’s only available at the winery and is not on the tasting or regular retail list, due to limited supply. $50/375 ml, but if you have been searching for perfection in tawny port that demonstrates finesse and terroir, you needn’t look further.
Ratings key: * = good, ** = very good, *** = impressive & distinctive, **** = outstanding. ***** = sublime; as good as it gets (in wine).