Through the Wine Looking Glass: 2018 in Review


Another year is slowly coming to a close and the memories are too numerous to count, or to list. I realize just how fortunate I am to be able to make a living by writing about wine; each year, what is  both my job and my passion provides a collection of wonderful moments spent in the company of great wines, people, friends and family. But it also involves countless visits to wineries, beautiful countrysides, unforgettable tastings and academic conferences in Italy and all over the world (a real feat, as I absolutely hate to fly: thank-you, benzodiazepines). Add to that delightful food and restaurant experiences and a few on the side non-wine vacations that are absolutely necessary to get away from it all once in a while and stay sane. So yes, I am a blessed individual. But before it all begins to sound too good to be true, let me also mention endless airport waits (“Are you checking your trolley in?” “Thanks, but absolutely not” are probably my Top 10 most heard words of the year) and delays, many (and I do mean many) less than stellar bottles (admittedly, tasting 300-400 wines from a wine region not known for outstanding or even above average wine quality can be a bit of a slog. That said, it’s still an invaluable exercise, for doing so annually for twenty or thirty years straight allows the development of a tasting memory and palate that few others anywhere following Italian wine can boast). But the worst part of the job is the memories of friends who are no longer with us, because life is neither a box of chocolates nor a memorable bottle of wine, unfortunately.

The beautiful Alsace countryside

And so, just where does one start? It might as well be from the end, with the last month of the year well representing a microcosm of my year, in which I had plenty of time, Woody Allen-like, to think about the twelve-month period flown by with a whole bunch of happiness and sadness and misery and joy that really was all over much too quickly. So here is my “A month in the life”, a diary summarizing 2018 in review.

Riga, November 23

Wine region discovery of the year: Latvia. I had just landed in Milan after three days in Riga, Latvia where I attended a conference and guided tastings on Italian wine for local wine professionals. Latvia is beautiful and the people friendly. But did you know it makes a slew of different wines? Granted, most are quirky and made from the likes of raspberries, elderberries, blackberries, bilberries, dandelions, rhubarb and lilac, and yes, grape hybrids. An acquired taste? Maybe, but I have been down this route before and it’s always an exciting one; in the late seventies, I guzzled a steady stream of Ontario Marechal Foch, Seyval Blanc (those were actually pretty good), De Chaunac and similar wines. Canada now makes world class wines and I have no doubt that Latvia will too, one day. The benefits of climate change? I’m not sure the word “benefit” is at all the correct term, and besides, there’s probably a polar bear or two who might beg to disagree (in case you were wondering, I stand with the bears, on whatever little ice there is left to stand on, that is). And did you know the Latvian town of Sabile boasts the northernmost winery in Europe (as attested by the Guinness Book of World Records)? Neither did I. In the meantime, enjoy the twice a year rather noteworthy wine festival held in Riga, the country’s capital city, devoted to still wines and Champagne with tastings led by luminaries such as Michael Schuster. I have never much traveled to foreign countries to visit new wine production areas, preferring to concentrate all my time on the wines of only a few countries and get to really know them in depth, but it was fun to break free from my daily routine and acquaint myself with Latvia and its wine lovers.

Barolo, November 24 and 25

I tasted through one hundred and forty-five Piedmont wines. Another time it might be the wines of the Marche, or Alto Adige, or Abruzzo, or Alsace or Niagara or the Okanagan. It never ends, every year a new vintage, new releases, something new going on at a winery… but it’s always a wonderful time. I had a lovely meal at Bovio and a surprisingly good lunch at Da Felicin, the latter a place that has endured a fair share of criticism in recent years. What do you know… two more Vinous Tables, coming right up!

Rome, November 26

It’s s great to be back in my apartment for two whole days, a real luxury. I am not sure I even remember the last time I was here. No matter: my mission, which I choose to accept, is to disappear from the world prior to my next flight two days from now, on November 28.

Rome, November 27

Time to start thinking back at my best meals of the year (not cooked by me, that is).

Spaghetti al limone at Carlino, Positano

Best affordable lunch of the year: La Taverne Alsacienne, Ingersheim, France (coming your way soon in the form of a Vinous Table). This cozy, discreetley elegant tavern boasts a long fairly-priced wine list, hearty but precisely cooked food and happy dining patrons and offers an excellent example of what Alsace does so well when it comes to food and wine. Time just flies by anytime I step inside. Honorable mentions: Armando al Pantheon, Rome; Le Quatrième Mur, Bordeaux and Osteria al Cimino, Caprarola, Italy.

Best upscale lunch of the year: La Côte Saint-Jacques & Spa in Joigny, France. Chef-owner Jean-Michel Lorain has a masterful, delicate touch, the dining rooms and grounds are magically beautiful, the food and wine list top notch. I could live there. Honorable mentions: Miramonti l’Altro, Concesio; Pierre Gagnaire, Paris; La Tour d’Argent, Paris and Maximilien, Zellenberg, Alsace.

Best affordable dinner of the year: Armando al Pantheon, Rome. Sommelier Fabiana Gargioli and her family run what is a temple of traditional Roman cooking. And when it’s over, step outside and enjoy the real-life theatre that is Rome’s magically beautiful piazza del Pantheon. Honorable mention: L’Arcangelo, Rome; Au Trou Gascon, Paris; Lipp, Paris; Cul de Sac, Rome; La Pineta, Marina di Bibbona and Wistub du Sommelier, Bergheim.

Best upscale dinner of the year: Tough decision, and I’ll call it a tie: Le Calandre, Rubano, Italy and The Modern, New York City. The former offers an unbelievably sleek and precise cuisine made up of technical wizardry and iconic dishes (don’t miss the cuttlefish and potato cappuccino), the latter a thoroughly solid, professional dining experience bolstered by extremely flavorful dishes and a great wine list. Honorable mentions: Commis, San Francisco; Dal Pescatore, Canneto sull’Oglio; Fitzgerald, Rotterdam; JY’s, Colmar; Hedone, London; La Taverna del Capitano, Neirano; La Torre del Saracino, Vico Equense; Osteria Fiore, Venice; Steirereck, Vienna; T’ang Court, Hong Kong and The Ledbury, London.

Best restaurant discovery of the year: The Peacock Room, Shangai. The combination of great food, wine and ambience is admittedly hard to beat. As Jeff Lynne might sing, I can’t get it out of my head.

Best place for a glass of wine: Any good bacaro in Venice, and there are many good ones to choose from. On that note, make you sure you go to Venice in the dead of winter, and follow these simple steps: first, lose yourself in the bone-warming mists of the wines; then step out into the starless night and lose yourself in the bone-chilling mists of the world’s most beautiful city.

Best pasta dish of the year: a three-way tie (as much as I love carbonara and cacio e pepe, this year amatriciana takes two of my top spots). The dishes are: gnocchi all’amatriciana from Arcangelo, Rome; the pici all’amatriciana at Osteria del Cimino, Caprarola and the spaghetti al limone from Carlino, the seaside easygoing lunchtime trattoria of Positano’s mythical San Pietro hotel. L’Arcangelo’s chef-owner Arcangelo Dandini turns gnocchi into something memorable by using the potato of Leonessa, a very high quality spud that grows at high altitudes in droughty conditions making for a more textured potato that allows Dandini to use less flour (250 g instead of 500g) with which to make his heavenly and very flavorful gnocchi. At the Osteria del Cimino, it is Maria Assunta Calistri’s amatriciana sauce, a masterfully well balanced and intense blend of high-quality tomato, guanciale and pecorino cheese that lifts this dish to food nirvana. The spaghetti al limone from Carlino are a tightrope virtuosism of equilibrium and citrus perfumed juiciness (the Carlino is a restaurant available only to the hotel’s registered guests).

Somewhere up in the skies, November 28

Did I tell you just how much I love benzodiazepines?

Shenzen and Shangai, November 29-December 4

I land at Shangai-Pudong International airport for the sixth time this year and the young lady at the telephone sim card counter recognizes me and jokes asking why it took me so long to come back.

Pici all’amatriciana at Osteria del Cimino, Caprarola

Most interesting trip of the year: A combination of work and fun here in China.

The fun – visiting Chinese tea plantations along with Aubert de Villaine (DRC), Bernard Hervet (past director of Bouchard Père et Fils and of Faiveley) and Pierre-Henry Gagey (Louis Jadot) was incredibly interesting. The tea was phenomenal, but the conversation was even better.

The work – guest speaker at a conference on Italy’s wine terroirs in Shangai, where I presented brand new and exclusive data from my upcoming book Italy’s Native Wine Grape Terroirs, out in the summer of 2019 for University of California Press and that cost me another four years of life (and that was just the time spent writing it: but there is no truth to the rumor my editor has a “Most Wanted” poster of me on her wall with which she practices her dart-throwing skills).

This trip also wins, hands down, my 2018 award for Most complicated if fascinating gastronomic subject: Tea, without any doubt. I love the stuff and never tire of it, but after countless trips to the tea regions of China, and despite my best intentions, I am still at the junior kindergarden level on the subject. I know I am driving my Chinese friends to drink in despair, but in my defense, you have no idea how many different, headache–inducing permutations there are of green tea alone. And always a glutton for punishment, now that I am beginning to wrap my head around good ol’ Camelia sinensis, I am planning an early 2019 trip to the forests of Cambodia and Vietnam in search of plants in the wild of Camelia assamica. And who knows if afterwards I’ll want to come back to Europe and all its never-ending problems.

Somewhere up in the skies, December 5

Upon landing, a flight attendant gives me a curious look and says: “Gee, I really envy you: I have never seen anyone sleep so deeply on a flight, you must really love to fly”. If she only knew.

Rome, December 6-9

Good to be back home to be greeted by an invasion of fruit fly-like insects; I think I left a peach on my kitchen table that is now busy demonstrating how the process of sublimation works in real life.

December 10-12, Houston

Two seven-hour days of non-stop Masterclasses on Italy’s native grapes and wines (did you know I happen to like the subject?). Great crowd of wine professionals who happily for us all cannot seem to get enough of the subject.

Best breakfast dish of the year: the outstanding Bananas Foster French Toast at the Houstonian Hotel and Spa. French toast is a lost art in Italy; who knows, maybe if they had named it Italian toast, the world as we know it would be a different place today.

A friend asks me to name my Least successful wine-related event of the year: As much as I appreciate big-time wine collectors and their generosity, at times you have to wonder. Differently from most wine lovers and wine writers, I don’t enjoy dinners (and very rarely accept such invitations) in which nothing but a long litany of supposedly great wines are served (and it’s always the same wine names, of course). I mean let’s stand up and fight for the likes of Assyrtiko, Baco Noir and Verdejo! Free Grignolino! My kingdom for a good Torrontés! Anyhow, my experience at one such dinner this year? A famous 100 point 1990 Bordeaux wine that has had legendary amounts of brett-like aromas and flavors right from day one and is literally undrinkable, a premoxed 1996 Batard-Montrachet, a 2001 DRC Richebourg that was fine but in keeping with that less than stellar year, a 1999 DRC Richebourg that was blacker than black and smelled of grilled steak and black pepper, a delightful 1955 d’Yquem and a lovely Leflaive Clavoillon (all things considered, the wine of the evening). Though one cannot help but be grateful for such generosity, and admitting too that, yes, at times Lady Luck plays a decisive hand in the evening’s outcome, but if you go and knowingly serve a Rudy wine bought at auction (that 1999 pseudo-Richebourg), then you are only asking for trouble. And while there’s nothing wrong with being taken for a ride, it doesn’t mean you enjoyed it.

December 13-15, secret escape to a US city

I flew in to see a friend and for two days of absolute rest, which gave me a chance to think things through and review some of the best Italian wines released this year (more or less).

2018 leaves many lasting memories

Best Italian sparkling white wine of the year: 2018 Paolo Saracco Moscato d’Asti: If I had a big enough goblet, I’d fill it up and go swimming in the stuff (with my mouth open, of course).

Best Italian sparkling red wine of the year: Medici Ermete Lambrusco di Modena Phermento Metodo Ancestrale. Made by secondary fermentation in the bottle, this cloudy Lambrusco di Sorbara showcases just how complex Lambrusco wines can be.

Best Italian light-bodied white wine of the year: 2016 Bucci Verdicchio dei Castelli Di Jesi Classico; what else can one say about the master of Verdicchio? Ampelio Bucci probably could not make a bad wine even if he set out to do so on purpose.

Best Italian Rosato wine of the year: A tie. Not the two highest scoring wines of my year, but all things considered, two of the most fun and memorable: the 2017 Bonavita Faro, Sicily and the 2017 Tiberio Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo, Abruzzo. The former offers a magical combination of fleshy fruitiness and exotic spicy charm, the latter a refreshing, precise mouthful of Montepulciano fruit aglow in its rightful bright red color at a time when Abruzzo legislators, in a misguided effort to follow today’s fad of paler than pale pink wines, are allowing the travesty of pale colored Cerasuolo wines that have no tradition and no historical reference point.

Best Italian light-bodied red wine of the year: Ansitz Waldgries 2017 St. Magdalener Classico Antheos; very few grape varieties give more charming, fruity-floral reds than Trentino and Alto Adige’s three different Schiava varieties.

Best Italian medium-bodied white wine of the year: Choose between: a) 2015 La Staffa Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico Riserva Rincrocca b) 2016 Montecappone Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico Superiore Ergo c) 2015 Tenuta di Tavignano Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico Riserva Misco d) 2014 Marotti Campi Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico Riserva Salmariano e) 2017 Collestefano Verdicchio di Matelica f) All of the above.

Best Italian medium-bodied red wine of the year: The 2016 Grosjean Cornalin Vigne Rovettaz is a great example of this little-known variety’s potential; Grosjean excels with the even less well-known Prëmetta too.

Best Italian full-bodied white wine of the year: A toss-up between the 2016 Miani Sauvignon Zitelle or the 2016 Miani Ribolla Gialla Pettarin. Italian white wine just did not get better than this in 2018.

Best Italian full-bodied red wine of the year: As much as I love the three “B’s” of Italian wine (Barolo, Barbaresco and Brunello) my vote goes to the 2010 Guastaferro Taurasi Primum, a heady mix of ripe red fruit, tar and licorice aromas and flavors with some age on them.

Best Italian sweet wine of the year: 2015 Tramin Gewürztraminer Vendemmia Tardiva Terminum, a lusciously sweet but lifted essence of Gewurz.

Best Italian wine I had all year: a tie between the 1971 Bruno Giacosa Barbaresco Santo Stefano Riserva Speciale and the 1985 Tenuta San Guido Sassicaia.

Best vertical tasting of the year: A truly unforgettable evening in Rome in the company of childhood friends and every vintage of the Bruno Giacosa Barolo Vigna Rionda ever made. At six o’clock in the morning, we were still going strong, nobody there in any hurry to let go of their glasses.

Most underrated white grape of Italy: Bellone (Lazio).

Most underrated red grape of Italy: Mayolet (Valle d’Aosta).

Most underrated Italian wine (outside of Italy, that is): A tie between Alto Adige’s mesmerizingly good and often old vine Sylvaner (especially), Müller-Thurgau, and Kerner wines. Most hopeless Italian wine: Chardonnay (there are infinitely much better Chardonnay wines made all over the world; with a handful of exceptions, and I mean only a handful, most of Italy’s are hopelessly overoaked, neutral or simply uninteresting).

The 1978 Cogno Barolo

Most incredible Italian wine of the year: 1971 Vietti Barolo Località Briacca. Made with the Nebbiolo Rosé variety, the 1971 is still beautiful, concentrated and very intense after all these years, and seems capable of aging forever; so unlike Kate Bush’s third studio album and first number 1, it’s not a case of Never for Ever (first ever album by a British solo female singer to top the charts). Honorable mentions (from younger to older): 2005 Soldera Brunello di Montalcino Riserva; 1990 Bruno Giacosa Barbaresco Asili; 1982 Bartolo Mascarello Barolo (magnum); 1978 Cogno Barolo and 1975 Col d’Orcia Brunello di Montalcino Riserva.

Somewhere in the desert, December 16

With nothing but empty space in sight, wouldn’t you know it, I seem to have lost my corkscrew; seriously wondering if I can saber my way into the 1921 and 1959 Riesling half bottles I have been chilling in a stream. Either that or confront suicidal ideation.

Somewhere in the skies, December 17

Absolutely miserable flight with air turbulence rioting for ten hours straight. Thanks to my pharmacologically-induced not-quite-so purple haze I didn’t understand the extent of it all. Yes, ignorance can be bliss. I plan on sending an email of complaint to Eolus (given today’s day and age, he’s probably on the internet like everyone else). I try to cheer myself up by thinking of some of the things that really matter in life, such as…

Best Buy Wines of 2018 (ranging from $15-40): 2017 Agathe Bursin Sylvaner Lutzental; 2017 Albert Boxler Alsace Sylvaner; 2017 Albert Hertz Alsace Pinot Noir; 2017 Ansitz Waldgries Alto Adige St.Magdalener Antheos; 2016 Argiolas Nasco Sardegna Iselis; 2016 Bernard Defaix Chablis; 2017 Benito Ferrara Greco di Tufo Vigna Cicogna; 2017 Burn/Clos St. Imer Alsace Sylvaner; 2016 Cantina Bolzano/St.Magdalen Alto Adige St.Magdalener Classico Huck am Bach; 2011 Capolino Pierlingieri Sciascinoso Sannio Sciascì; 2016 Cave de Donnas Donnas; 2017 Charles Baur Alsace Muscat; 2016 Clelia Romano Fiano di Avellino; 2017 Eleni and Edouard Vocoret Chablis Le Bas de Chapelot; 2016 Famille Hebinger Alsace Blanc; 2017 Fattoria La Rivolta Coda di Volpe Sannio Taburno; 2017 Fattoria La Rivolta Greco Sannio Taburno; 2012 Filomusi Guelfi Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Riserva; 2017 Giacomelli Rosè Liguria di Levante Gorgonia; 2017 Iovine Lettere Penisola Sorrentina; 2011 Jayer-Gilles Bourgogne Aligoté; 2016 Jean Huttard Alsace Muscat; 2017 Jean-Louis et Véronique Mann Alsace Sylvaner Mouton Bleu; 2017 Köfererhof  Müller Thurgau Alto Adige Valle Isarco; 2017 Kuenhof Sylvaner Alto Adige Valle Isarco; 2017 La Crotta di Vegneron Muller Thurgau Valle d’Aosta; 2017 La Valentina Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo Spelt; 2017 Manni Nössing Müller Thurgau Alto Adige Valle Isarco Sass Rigais; 2016 Pala Cannonau Sardegna I Fiori; 2018 Paolo Saracco Moscato d’Asti; 2018 Romano Dogliotti Moscato D’Asti La Caudrina; 2017 St.Michael-Eppan Pinot Bianco Alto Adige Schulthauser; 2017 Tenuta delle Terre Nere Etna Rosato; 2016 Tiberio Montepulciano d’Abruzzo; 2016 Tiefenbrunner Alto Adige Pinot Bianco Anna; 2017 Trimbach Alsace Sylvaner; 2017 Vadiaperti/Traerte Coda di Volpe Irpinia; 2015 G.D.Vajra Langhe Freisa Kyè; 2016 Valle Reale Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Vigneto Sant’Eusanio; 2017 Domaine Weinbach Alsace Muscat; 2017 Domaine Weinbach Alsace Sylvaner.

Rome, December 17-18

Finally a little down time to look back at 2018 some more. Here is a small selection of some truly lovely bottles that can either still be found with a little searching around (clearly, provenance and authenticity are everything) or that will be soon released for sale.

A beautiful old bottle at Zind-Humbrecht

My favourite non-Italian wines of the year: in no particular order of preference, and not necessarily the best wines of the year, but memorable each in their own way: 1990 Louis Roederer Cristal Rosé (words do not do this beauty enough justice, but my taste buds do); 1967 Zind Humbrecht Gewurztraminer Hengst (phenomenal, ageworthy Gewurz); 1971 Von Kesselstatt Josephshöfer Riesling Trockenbeerenauslese (I haven’t stopped gyrating on the floor in a paroxysms of joy since tasting it, and that was months ago); 1975 Egon Muller Scharzhofberger Riesling Trockenbeerenauslese (one sip, and you step into a parallel universe where all is good and beautiful; clearly, a place not of this earth); 1988 DRC La Tâche; 1989 Basserman Jordan Forster Jesuitengarten Riesling TBA (I’ve had many much older vintages of this wine from the same estate, but this is one of the most balanced and memorable wines they have ever made). Honorable mentions: 2017 Agathe Bursin Sylvaner Eminence; 2017 Albert Boxler Pinot Gris Grand Cru Sommerberg Wibtal Vendanges Tardives; 2017 Albert Hertz Riesling Grand Cru Eichberg Sélection de Grains Nobles; 1998 Albert Mann Gewurztraminer Grand Cru Furstentum; 2009 Bruno Clair Corton Charlemagne; 2013 Burn Gewurztraminer Grand Cru Goldert Clos St.Imer Séléction de Grains Nobles; 1961 Château Cheval Blanc (one of my favourite all time wines, and no, I didn’t drink this at a McDonald’s); 1967 Château d’Yquem (still great after all these years); 2010 Château Lafleur (once again, Cabernet Franc speaks loud); 1970 Château Ausone; 2006 Château Rayas Châteauneuf-du-Pape Réserve Blanc; 2009 Christian Moreau Chablis Grand Cru Les Clos; 2017 Dirler-Cadé Muscat Grand Cru Saering; 1992 Domaine Drouhin Pinot Noir Willamette Valley Laurene; 2016 Hugel Gewurztraminer Sporen Grossi Laue; 2007 and 1996 Joseph Drouhin Montrachet Marquids de Laguiche; 2016 Marcel Deiss Altenberg de Bergheim; 2002 Morey-Blanc Montrachet; 2016 Muré Riesling Grand Cru Vorbourg Clos St.Landelin Séléction de Grains Nobles; 1971 and 1988 Petrus (Merlot like no other); 1985 Ponzi Pinot Noir Willamette Valley; 2004 Domaine Ramonet Montrachet Grand Cru; 2010 René et Vincent Dauvissat Chablis Preuses Grand Cru;1983 Raveneau Chablis Les Clos Grand Cru; 1999 Temkin-Paskus Chardonnay Beamsville Bench; 1998 Thirty Bench Cabernet Franc; 2017 Trimbach Riesling Clos Saint Hune and 2017 Trimbach Riesling Cuvée Frédéric Emile; 1990 Domaine Weinbach Gewurztraminer Séléctions de Grains Nobles; 2015 Zind Humbrecht Riesling Grand Cru Brand; 2016 Zind Humbrecht Pinot Gris Clos Windsbuhl.

Funniest movie of the year: Le Grand Bain, by Gilles Lellouche. A little like The Full Monty but with a swimming pool dominating the setting. Don’t miss it.

Rome, December 21

Dinner at L’Arcangelo, one of Rome’s best upscale trattorias (and your inner child gets to play with toy cars while you wait for your food) in the company of Maynard James Keenan of Arizona’s Caduceus cellars (plenty of Italian native grapes in his portfolio of wines, but it’s the Tempranillo that stole the show on this night) and, oh yes, also lead vocalist of Tool and A Perfect Circle; plus his lovely wife and a few other friends including the explosive José Vouillamoz (one of the world’s most famous ampelologists) to help celebrate the holiday festivities in style.

Rome, December 22-23

Tasted one hundred and sixty wines from Sicily’s latest vintage.

Rome, December 24 and 25

One of the really great things of 2018 (and life in general): Christmas Eve dinner and Christmas day lunch with my mom.

1999 Temkin-Paskus Chardonnay

The really bad things of 2018: 1. Restaurants with “sulfur-free”, natural wines-only lists. Yes, such estates do have wonderful stories to tell, all of them; too bad the wines often stink (or if you’re lucky, they smell and taste “only” of cider), offer no varietal recognition, are undrinkable at least 50% of the time and the all too common high-handed “I know best” attitude of their owners and winemakers alike quickly grates on the nerves of all those listening. 2. That Leonildo Pieropan and Bruno Giacosa, two of the nicest, most generous people I have ever met in wine are no longer with us, just like many other wonderful men and women of wine from all over the world who are all looking at us from a surely better place (I think of you all).

Somewhere in the skies, December 25 (late evening departure)

Kissed my mom good-bye and off to the airport to fly back to Shangai; working on Christmas day, or spending part of it up in the air, has been the one constant in my life and I’m used to it. But honestly, it’s not great.

Happy Holidays to you all. Thanks for your continued support and encouragement.