The single best wine I tasted this year was bright, balanced, and filled with personality.
And, did I mention, it was 221-years-old?
I’m referring to a 1795 Barbeito (producer) Tarrantez (the grape) Madeira.
The fruit for this wine was picked when George Washington was our president.
In hindsight, 2016 was a stellar year for tasting the fortified wine from Madeira, an island afloat in the middle of the north Atlantic Ocean.
I tasted exceptional Madeiras on two occasions this year. You can recap the original stories here:
From a tasting on Valentine’s Day, in San Francisco
From a 2-day tasting in Seattle with America’s Madeira guru, Roy Hersh
http://www.napaman.com/napamancom/2016/04/george-washington-was-president-when-this-wine-was-made-and-its-still-young-brilliant-and-lively.html - http://www.napaman.com/napamancom/2016/04/george-washington-was-president-when-this-wine-was-made-and-
In summary, here is a chronological ramble of my Best Wines of 2016.
We weren’t very far into the year when I attended a rare Madeira tasting in San Francisco; Mannie Berk, of the Rare Wine Co., poured 16 Madeiras, the oldest was 216-years-old, from 1800.
The tasting produced three perfect (100 point) wines.
In addition to the unique taste of Madeira, when you drink any wine of 200 year’s age, there is this immutable and impressive fact:
There is NO ONE ON THE PLANET alive today who was alive when this wine was made.
EVERY SINGLE HUMAN ON OUR PLANET AT THE TIME THIS WINE WAS PRODUCED IS DEAD.
So, yes, with an old Madeira, you truly are drinking a snapshot of history.
1834 Barbeito Malvasia
A truly sensational wine, balanced, elegant, exhibiting notes of raisin and brown sugar with a bright undertow of acidity and then, on the finish, sublime salinity. A perfect 100-point wine.
1863 Barbeito MMV Malvasia
MMVF are the initials of Ricardo Freitas’ (he owns Barbeito today) mother, who, during her lifetime, guarded the evolution of this wine, which, only recently was moved from storage to bottle.
This wine has many of the characteristics of the 1834 Madeira above, though it is 29 years younger. (Such a youth!)
Coffee, treacle and burnt orange peel notes arouse your senses; there is richness and warmth in the mouth; this is a generous wine wanting to please. Until I tasted the other two wines, highlighted here, I had already thought of naming this 1863 Malvasia as my Wine of the Year -- and yet we were only into February!
I have reconsidered, and think that all THREE of these Madeiras merit a position on napaman’s compendium of Best Wines of the Year. 100 points.
1885 Barbeito Verdelho
Verdelho is a grape that mostly produces a drier-style Madeira. Even so, this wine offers delicious brown sugar top notes on the middle palate, sports great acidity and has a long, focused finish.
If this Madeira were an Olympic marathoner, it would be one of those Kenyans gracefully racing to the finish line, arriving well ahead of the pack, without ever skipping a heartbeat, or an ounce of breath. 100 points
A bit later in the month, I had the privilege of tasting my first-ever Masseto, often called “the Chateau Petrus of Italy.”
It also costs like Petrus; the bottle friends brought to our home for dinner has a price tag up to $1200 in the secondary market.
The wine was paired with perfectly roasted, moist and juicy, farmhouse chicken. The Masseto blew the hinges off the dinner door, surpassing ten other wines, which I served to our eight assembled dinner guests.
The Masseto was sublime; it exhibited such finesse, balance and warmth that it sucked me in, made me think I was drinking an elixir worthy of royalty.
The rich, ripe fruit, integrated tannins, and exceptional finish made me rethink and revere Merlot all over again. From the house of Ornellaia. 98 points.
And then, in April, I attended a two-day Madeira event in Seattle, WA, organized by Port and Madeira expert Roy Hersh, which produced three additional Best Wines of the Year.
(Yes, I am running this photo again -- a) because I Can! and b) because anytime you experience a wine of this profound age and vibrancy, you can talk about it, and show pictures of it, as much and as often as you like!)
1795 Barbeito Terrantez
Terrantez is one of the original grapes used to make Madeira. This bottle presented a wine of profound depth and harmony. On the nose there were bright, warm scents of chocolate, amber-grade maple syrup, marzipan, and the salted caramels made by San Francisco chocolatier Michael Recchiuti.
The color was one of dark mahogany, the color of a sideboard in an old southern colonial home.
I was knocked out by the peppery attack and long lasting peppery finish. Even at 221 years of age, this wine was lively, spirited, delivering flavors of warm bread, yeast, treacle, and molasses.
This wine is a complete symphony of flavors and scents; there are fruited notes, including strawberry; the finish goes on for a minute or more. There are hints of rum-raisin, hot-cross buns, wine-gum candies and cola.
In short, this wine is a religious experience; it may be what Heaven tastes like.
Thank you Eric Ifune, from Las Vegas, for bringing this wine to the Seattle tasting, and thank you again, Roy Hersh, for organizing this transformative (at least for me) Madeira tasting. The wine: 100 points. The weekend Madeira tasting experience: 100 points.
1886 Barbeito Malvasia
I brought this Madeira to the Seattle tasting; it turned out to be a favorite of many guests at the event, and I thought it rocked, too.
Initial tastes: honey, yeast, malted barley, molasses, tobacco bordering on cigar wrapper, marzipan, and even a hint of shiny floor wax.
The wine exhibits great acidity; this is a vibrant wine – you’d NEVER guess that it’s 120-years-old. Very complex. Gorgeous. 98 points.
1895 D’Oliveiras Malvasia
On the nose, hints of orange peel, honey cake, spearmint, and tobacco. On the palate, there are elements of orange peel and fruit cake, all of it fused with a core of bright acidity. Extremely complex and compelling. 96 points.
Then, three days after this extraordinary Madeira event, the bottom fell out of my life; my BFFF – Best Four-Footed Friend ever – died.
Linus, was an amazing, life-of-the-party, Goldendoodle with palpable personality, who got too old too fast. He died a few weeks shy of his 13th birthday.
To honor his memory, the day after he died, Mrs. Napaman said she wanted to cook a dinner to celebrate Linus’ life – so she made homemade chicken soup from scratch, which was Linus’ favorite meal. For 13 years, Mrs. Napaman made Linus his own chicken soup from scratch once, or twice, a week to spark up his kibble.
To commemorate Linus’ life, I chose a wine from his birth year to complement the rich, nourishing chicken soup, filled with moist chunks of chicken – the 2003 Spottswoode Cabernet Sauvignon.
Due to the occasion, and because the wine was just so damned near perfect in every way – color, aroma, texture and swallow – I scored the wine 98 points, and the soup 100 points.
Linus would have been pleased. As my BFFF, he scored 100 points every day of his life, of which there were 4,710. And, if I were given the chance, I would trade a case of Madeira to be able to spend one more day with him.
And then, to lighten my mood and distract me, before the month was out, the Robert Mondavi Winery held a massive, three-day event to celebrate the upcoming 50th anniversary of the eponymous winery, which Bob Mondavi started in 1966.
Napaman was one of very few guests invited to the pre-event and I am eternally grateful to the organizers for including me.
The highlights of the three-day tasting were recorded here:
It is critical that I add all 50 vintages of Mondavi wine to this year-end summary, because, taken as a whole, they constitute a lifetime’s oeuvre.
I was particularly bowled over by the first vintage produced here, the still bright, 1966 Cabernet, and I loved the 1969, which was still at an apogee of complexity, length and vigor.
For me, the single most memorable moment of the year in wine-speak, occurred at the Mondavi 50th Anniversary gala dinner.
At the Monday night dinner for 75 former winemakers, vineyard managers and close friends of the winery, the hosts poured, among many wines and many vintages, the 1966 Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon, leaving only three bottles of this compelling wine in the cellar at Mondavi.
1996 was the first vintage of Mondavi Cabernet ever made.
After the wine was poured, Warren Winiarski, who was seated next to Margrit Biever Mondavi, stood up and said loudly and proudly,
“Hello, my name is Warren Winiarski AND I MADE THIS WINE (50 years earlier)!
Everyone in the room got goose bumps. The dining room erupted in thunderous applause, and many gave Warren a standing ovation.
In a lifetime of writing about wine and profiling famous, and not so famous, winemakers, this was simply an astounding, once-in-a-lifetime experience. How many winemakers are still around 50 years after their first wine? And when such an event occurs, how many of those first wines do you suspect would still be supple, confident, and delicious 50 years later – as was the 1966 Mondavi Cabernet the night we tasted it?
Bravo to Robert Mondavi, who had the vision to pick Warren as his first winemaker! Bravo to Warren for making such a profound statement. Bravo to Bob, who was a dear friend, for sharing his vision of what Napa Valley could produce.
You don’t see a lot of French Burgundy (Pinot Noir grape) on Napaman’s annual Best of the Year wine list. It’s not called the Heartbreak Grape for nothing.
How many bottles of Burgundy do you have to open to get a bottle that you can rave about?
Answer: Too many.
Many years, though, a Willamette Valley Pinot, from Oregon, appears on my list because these Pinots deliver in spades – unctuous texture, sublime ripe fruit, ethereal balance and rich complexity. Oh wait, I’ve just described the 2006 Patricia Green Cellars Croft Vineyard Pinot Noir I drank while the Warriors lost Game 6 of the NBA finals to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
This was a profound wine and at ten years of age, seamless, gorgeous, a near-perfect drinking experience. 98 points.
In June, napaman was invited to a wine seminar in Coombsville, one of 16 designated sub-appellations in Napa Valley.
For decades, grape producers in Coombsville have been supplying exceptional fruit to the big boys in Oakville and Rutherford where the resultant wines are sold in fashionable, extra-heavy bottles for a fortune.
During my wine reconnaissance, I discovered one of my Napa Valley wine-finds of the year – Scalon Cellars.
I loved the 2013 Scalon Cellars Cabernet, scoring it 96 points the day I tasted it in June... and then scored it the same again in August, when I met with winery partners Jesus Espinoza and Cruz Calderon at their vineyard property.
This is a voluptuous, heady, complex, cocoa-tinged, flesh bomb of underpriced Cabernet; I urge readers to connect with business associate Tim Goodwin to acquire one of the very few cases, which remain. His cell is: (925) 658-2151. Good luck!
Having had so many spectacular high-scoring wines, and having been invited to the two Madeira tastings and Mondavi event in the first half of the year, I failed to find any wines, or events, in the second half of the year worthy of being added to this rich list.
But the truth is, I am still running high on the vapors of the two Madeira tastings and the historical Mondavi Cabernet tasting.
Best wishes to readers for a healthy, happy and wine-filled 2017.