One year ago, I thanked wine, food and travel for their help in getting me through the political and social tumult that defined 2016. Now that 2017 has wrapped up, a title from Led Zeppelin, my favorite rock band, seems apropos: The Song Remains the Same.
Here’s a look at the top wines I reviewed this past year, along with a few memorable places and three great meals.
For the umpteenth year, I reviewed more than 2,000 wines from Spain and South America. Here are my four most recommended wines from Spain, Chile, Argentina and up-and-coming Uruguay, based on quality, availability and price.
Muga 2009 Prado Enea Gran Reserva (Rioja); $79, 95 points. I’m not a fan of the 2009 vintage across northern Spain. It was too hot, with many overweight, overripe wines. But this outlier is alluring and complex, with aromas of grilled meat, berry fruits, tea, smoke, vanilla and spice. Given how warm 2009 was in Rioja, the intensity on this gran reserva is no surprise, but what is a surprise is its elegance. Blackberry, molasses and mocha flavors finish with chocolaty oak notes, fine tannins and cohesion. Drink from 2020–35. Editors’ Choice.
Valdivieso NV Caballo Loco Number Sixteen (Central Valley); $70, 95 points. Valdivieso’s “Crazy Horse” red blend, in its 16th incarnation, takes the cake in Chile for matching quality with mystery. That it’s a nonvintage “Central Valley” wine makes it highly curious; my guess (aided by common knowledge) is that it’s mostly Maipo or Curicó Valley Cabernet Sauvignon from one vintage (2012?), maybe with an older vintage or two and other grapes added in for complexity. Black cherry aromas lean towards raisin and spice cake. A lush, saturated palate holds flavors of chocolaty black fruits, while a dark smokiness takes over on the finish. Drink through 2023. Editors’ Choice.
El Esteco 2013 Chañar Punco (Calchaquí Valley); $68, 94 points. From Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes grown in thin Andean air, this blend comes from a single vineyard that sits at 7,800 feet in Argentina’s northern Salta region, making it one of the world’s highest flyers. Affable winemaker Alejandro Pepa’s pride and joy smells dark, grilled and rubbery, but also meaty and full of fruit. A lush palate piles on layers of richness, while lightly herbal berry and plum flavors are highly appealing. Drink one of the best wines I’ve tried from Salta through 2024. Editors’ Choice
Garzón 2015 Single Vineyard Tannat (Uruguay); $30, 91 points. Is Uruguay finally becoming a world-class wine producer? Wines like this Tannat indicate that the answer might be yes. This deeply colored red offers robust dark-fruit aromas. Fleshy in feel but also tannic, it has black-fruit flavors that are aided by notes of chocolate and mixed spices. A sturdy finish ending on a savory note is a plus. Drink through 2020. Editors’ Choice.
In late February, my wife and I spent a few days in Sedona, Arizona. Surrounded by mind-bending red-rock formations and in search of elusive energy vortexes that we never found, we stayed at L’Auberge de Sedona. It sits on the banks of Oak Creek and boasts the best wine selection in this gem of a high-desert town. If you go to Sedona, visit Page Springs Cellars, where owner Eric Glomski makes highly respectable wines from warm-climate varieties that include Vermentino and Grenache.
In May, I spent 10 days in northeast Spain, primarily in the Catalonian wine regions of Priorat, the Penedès and Terra Alta. There, months before the Catalonian secession movement hit the front page, I got my first taste of several high-end Cavas that could qualify for the designation of Paraje Calificado. This new category requires that a Cava be made from a single-vineyard site and have at least 36 months of lees aging before its quality can be approved by a panel of judges. The goal is to create a new class of top-quality Cava, but let’s wait and see about that.
In September, we vacationed in Rome and Positano, Italy. Truth be told, both were more crowded with American tourists than we liked. But hey, these places are popular for a reason. In Rome, we indulged in unctuous but totally delicious fettuccini carbonara at Roscioli, a lauded salumeria-cum-enoteca. The pasta was matched with Foradori’s outstanding Teroldego, Sgarzon, and the duo proved to be an all-time-great pairing. Also in Rome, we loved Sunday lunch at La Tavernaccia da Bruno in Trastevere. A classic lasagna and a dish of rabbit cacciatore with a mature Lungarotti 2004 Rubesco (Torgiano) is something you could put in front of me every Sunday.
Culinary Hot Spots East and West
Finally, three great American restaurants, two of which are new and located in New York City, where I live.
Last summer, The Grill and The Pool took over the former Four Seasons in Midtown Manhattan, and three cheers for that. A July birthday dinner at The Grill, where Mario Carbone is the chef, was part show and part fine dining. Go for the tableside preparations, fine wines and the type of attentive service that’s not much in vogue these days.
Cote, a Korean steakhouse in Manhattan’s Flatiron District, is not your usual Korean barbecue. The inspired wine program is overseen by Victoria James, profiled by Wine Enthusiast in its 40 Under 40 list in 2016. Here, you cook a variety of cuts of outstanding, aged prime beef on high-tech smokeless grills. Also excellent are the many kimchis, dipping sauces and sides.
On a beautiful late July night on tiny Lummi Island, located off the coast of Washington about halfway between Seattle and Vancouver, The Willows Inn served one of the greatest dinners I’ve ever had. Chef Blaine Wetzel’s tasting menu spanned more than 20 courses, and almost everything we ate came from Lummi Island or nearby waters. It was a nearly four-hour feast of local colors, textures and flavors that lingers with me to this day. If a trip to this remote corner of the country is not on your upcoming travel agenda, then check out Wetzel’s cookbook, co-written with Joe Ray, Sea and Smoke: Flavors from the Untamed Pacific Northwest.
Here’s to a great 2018! May your wines, meals and travels bring you much joy and enrichment.