My Top 10 Wines & Spirits in 2017

As you might guess, I enjoy an adult beverage (or two) pretty much every day. That adds up to a lot of different wines and spirits. Selecting 10 favorites was a challenge – but holy Zinfandel, was the research fun!

These bottles range in price from super-affordable to impress-the-boss splurge, but none are ridiculously pricey. Any would make superb holiday gifts.

In no particular order, these are my 2017 picks:

 

 

  • When I served Diplomatico Reserva Exclusiva (40 proof, $38) to a few friends, none of them knew they were sipping rum – they thought it tasted like brandy or a honey-infused bourbon. That’s not too far-fetched, since this Venezuelan beauty is aged for up to 12 years in bourbon barrels. Long aging bestows elegance on a fine rum; this one carries notes of fennel, caramel, oak and corn. I wouldn’t mix Diplomatico – savor it neat or cool it with one ice cube.
  • If you haven’t tried reds from northern Italy, the 2016 Colterenzio St. Magdalener, DOC Alto Adige (12.5 percent alcohol, $14) is a good introduction. Its vegetable tone is delicious, tinged with parsley and, as it rests, tea and black cherries. It’s a bit stony, and the ashy aroma continues into the taste with milk chocolate and smoke in the finish. If you don’t like tannins, you’ll love this wine, but keep it for a year or two before you crack the bottle.
  • I drank my 2014 Yarden Malbec (14.5 percent alcohol, $32.99) while I munched on olives, cheese and pepperoni – a typical lazy supper for moi – and it held up beautifully. This Israeli wine, produced in the Golan Heights in Galilee, is a real Big Sexy Red – plums and smoke aroma, followed by bacon, blackberries and a bit of dark raisin tastes. It reminded me of Trader Joe’s dark chocolate covered shortbread stars, but with heat.
  • Whenever I see Zweigelt, I buy it because it’s not that common in the U.S., but I had never tried a Zweigelt rosé. Earlier this year, a friend gave me a bottle of 2015 Josef & Philipp Bründlmayer Grafenegg Rosé vom Zweigelt (12 percent alcohol, $50) and I’m on a mission to find more. Although Zweigelt is a relatively obscure grape in the U.S. it’s actually the most-planted red in Austria. The soft salmon-colored wine is a high-acid gem – “almost fizzy,” my friend said – but creamy and earthy at the same time.

 

 

 

  •  Pinot Noir isn’t always a big-bold red, but the 2013 Gloria Ferrer Pinot Noir       Carneros (13.5 percent alcohol, $27) is almost chewy, and dark like a California tan. I got an aroma of dark grapes, blackberries and a bit of turkey sausage (and I mean that in a good way). Add black pepper, raspberries, plums, bell peppers and pomegranate on the palate – a well-ordered structure with smoke and mocha on the finish.
  • I discovered Hanson of Sonoma Small Batch Cucumber Flavored Vodka (80 proof, $26) on a trip to Sonoma last spring and when I returned in November, I brought home two bottles. Don’t let the “flavored” deter you; these certified organic artisan distillers infuse their grape-based vodkas with real produce, and you won’t be drinking a cucumber salad – that taste is barely a kiss. It’s only distributed on the West Coast, but I found it online at MissionLiquor.com. Shipping cost for one bottle is exorbitant, but if you buy three or more it gets reasonable.
  •  One of the hottest wine regions these days is Eastern Europe, and 2015 Patricius Tokaj Dry Furmint (12 percent alcohol, $15) is a great example of the quality wines produced there. Tokaj in Hungary is the world’s first designated wine appellation, and Furmint, one of its most abundant white grapes, is used for making both sweet and dry wines. This one is as dry as wine gets – zesty, fresh, with strong minerality and stone fruit flavors, along with a touch of pineapple and banana.

 

 

 

  • I haven’t tasted every rye in the world, but Russell’s Reserve 6 Year Old Small Batch Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey (90 proof, $49.99) is the best I’ve tried. Developed by Wild Turkey’s master distiller Jimmy Russell, it’s one smooth drink. The tastes are a delicious blend of toffee, rye, pecan and cinnamon – and don’t you dare mix it; this is a fine sipping rye. Just make sure it’s labeled “6 Year Old,” because the regular Russell’s Reserve Rye is 104 proof and not nearly as refined-tasting.
  • Casal Thaulero’s 2009 Thalé Montepulciano D’Abruzzo (14 percent alcohol, $40) is that special-occasion bottle you set aside – but just for a short while, because it’s at its peak now. After aromas of red fruit and vanilla, expect a big, bold mouthfeel and tastes of maple, pumpkin spice and dry leaves – perfect for fall and winter drinking.
  • It’s probably not fair for me to include this bottle because a friend bought it in Italy, but Limoncello is my favorite digestivo and always makes a great gift. It’s traditionally made with Sorrento lemons in southern Italy, but I’ve come across some terrific limoncello produced here in the U.S., too. Get recommendations from your liquor merchant; the best limoncello is sweet enough that you know you’re drinking liqueur, but not cloying; and tart but not bitter. Like any fine liquor, it should be smooth and balanced. You can find quality limoncello for less than $40.

Bonus picks – Three choice drinks didn’t make the list: Ferrari Grappa Segnana Solera, omitted only because it’s not distributed in the U.S. (but worth ordering online if you can find it); OYO Bourbon Whiskey, Michelone Reserve, distributed only in eight states but also available online; and Maker’s 46, a great option when you want a not-ordinary bourbon to sip by the fire. All three are in my cabinet…So many bottles, so little time!

Next up – uncommon, last-minute wine gifts for any wine lover – or treat yourself!

Cheers,

Mary

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Flute or Wineglass for Your Bubbles?

If you hang out with wine buffs, you know they’re always debating something. The current dispute: whether Champagne and sparkling wines should be served in an elegant Champagne flute, or a crystal wineglass.

It’s a first-world problem, for sure. I’ll state my position up front: I love my flutes. They’re  Me sniffing

fun, they’re elegant, and the wine’s subtle aromas travel right up to my nose when I drink from a flute. Some experts say the narrow opening makes it difficult to stick your nose down into the glass, but look at this photo – my schnoz fits just fine!

Would the bubbles tickle my nose and make me giggle if I drank bubbly from a wineglass? I think not.

But it seems I’m in the minority these days. A survey by Decanter.com concluded that almost 58 percent of readers prefer white wineglasses over flutes for their sparklers. The wider nose does give you more room for the all-important sniffing, and the larger surface area allows more bubbles to release their aromas simultaneously, so your sniff delivers more of a wallop – so they say.

Experts are weighing in, and some of the most prestigious Champagne producers and sommeliers are using wineglasses for their sparklers. I asked a Cleveland friend and wine authority, Gary Twining, CWE, SWE, for his take on the issue. Gary was characteristically diplomatic: “Medium-sized crystal glasses to enjoy Champagne and sparkling wines are certainly appropriate,” he said. “White wine glasses that taper inward at the rim to focus scents are perfectly fine, as are flutes made specifically for sparkling wine. Both hold enough to enhance the aroma and bouquet.”

Even Maximilian Riedel, CEO of the iconic glassmaker Riedel Crystal, told Decanter.com two years ago that his goal was to make flutes “obsolete.” But a quick look at Riedel’s website shows the company still sells flutes – with stems and without. (Holding a bubbly-filled flute in your paw? Now there’s a wineglass travesty, don’t you think?)

Popular history credits our favorite monk, Dom Perignon (b. 1638), with inventing the flute so he could “watch the dance of the sparkling atoms.” I’ll concede that, for older sparkling wines with more complex flavors and aromas, the flute might “restrict the development of the wine,” as one Glass of Bubbly writer put it. But how much? I tested the theory in the review below.

Now the trend seems to be toward different glasses for specific sparkling wines. A handy chart at WineFolly.com will keep you au courant: a flute, they say, is best for Crémant (sparkling wine produced in France, but not in the Champagne region), Cava (Spain’s version of quality sparkling wine) and Brut, Extra-Brut and Brut-Nature. A “tulip glass” works for Prosecco (Italian sparkling wine) and sparkling rosé, and the newer wide-tulip Champagne glass, the bubbles–specific chalice that most resembles a white-wine glass, is best for aged sparkling wine – vintage Champagne, Franciacorta and Gran Reserva Cava. It’s essentially a compromise, with a wider opening than a flute but less of a bowl at the core, so bubbles cluster in a sort of tunnel as they rise to the top.

You get all that? Don’t worry. Just keep drinking the best wine you can afford – sparkling or not – and try to buy glasses that will do it justice.

So, do you like your bubbles in a flute, or a white wine glass? Leave a comment below – the wine world wants to know where you stand!

Wine Lingo of the Day: Late-disgorged = a Champagne or sparkling wine that rested on its lees (the sediment that gathers in the neck of the bottle) longer than other sparkling wines produced by that winery. The extra time aging on the lees before the sediment is disgorged, or removed, is said to give the wine stronger, more complex flavors. Late-disgorged bottles are more expensive than earlier releases of the same wine, often costing at least twice as much.

Vino ‘View:  We can see why an earlier version of Gloria Ferrer Royal Cuvée 2007, Late 

GF Cuvee

Disgorged, Carneros (12 percent alcohol, $37) was once poured for King Juan Carlos and Queen Sophia of Spain. The glass made a difference: in a wineglass we tasted slightly less fruit, but a tart apple/melon peel taste emerged. The nose tingle didn’t happen, but the wine fizzed on our tongues, showing super acidity, and left a long celery finish. In the flute, the green apple aroma was stronger, leading to a sharper, banana and white pepper taste. It opened to a sweeter, more concentrated apple taste, a little yeasty, with a touch of taffy and a lot of silk – and plenty of fine, assertive bubbles. Made with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, this wine definitely is suitable for royalty! 

[The Gloria Ferrer Royal Cuvée was received by BigSexyReds.com for review.]

Happy sipping,

Mary

Napa vs Sonoma – Which Sparkling Wine Shall We Pour Tonight?

If you’re a fan of fizzy wines, you already (probably) know that California is not a one-bubbly-fits-all state. If you didn’t know that, we won’t out you! Just get a few basics down and you’ll get more out of your sparklers.

Gloria Ferrer glass

[Photo by Sarah Stierch, “Sparkling Wine at Gloria Ferrer Caves & Vineyards, Sonoma, California” via Flickr.com]

The first sparkling wine in America was a sparkling Catawba, produced in Ohio (we Ohioans like to boast), downstate near Cincinnati, by Nicholas Longworth in the 1830s. It only took another 30 years for Jacob Schram to purchase his vineyard property in Napa Valley and start producing California’s first quality sparkling wines. By 1870, Schram had planted 30,000 vines and was aging his earliest vintages in cool caves.

Napa is a warm, narrow valley, protected from the cold air of the Pacific Ocean by low mountain ranges but still cooled by the waters of San Pablo Bay. Growers there enjoy calcium-rich soil and a Mediterranean climate with a warm, sunny growing season – ideal for growing Chardonnay, one of the prime grapes used in making their sparkling wines. The southern part of Napa, nearer to the bay, is cooler than the rest of the valley.

Schram’s little enterprise didn’t make it past Prohibition, but new owners resurrected Schramsberg Vineyards  in 1965 and still use those caves to store their wines, considered some of the finest in California.

About 20 years later, the Ferrer family from Barcelona discovered the Mediterranean climate and terroir of Sonoma County. Just west of Napa and more diverse in terms of soil and plantings (think: redwood forests), Sonoma has cooler nights, thanks to 60 miles of Pacific coastline and an ocean cool-down. The region reminded José Ferrer of his family home in Catalonia, especially good for growing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, so it was there he built Gloria Ferrer Caves & Vineyards and named the new winery after his wife.

Only the practiced palate would discern real differences between Schramsberg and Gloria Ferrer sparkling wines. Schramsberg’s might taste a little stonier, slightly bready and creamy, with clear tropical fruit notes. Gloria Ferrer’s sparklers might be fruitier with a little more cinnamon coming through.

But when you’re staring at that confusing wall of bottles in the store, maybe it’s most important to remember that both wineries produce their sparkling wines using the Methode Champenoise, or “Classic (Traditional) Method.” We’ll save the long version for another day; suffice it to say that sparkling wines displaying any of those phrases on the label, and “Fermented in This Bottle,” have undergone the hands-on, multiple steps necessary to create the finest sparkling wines. It’s the same technique used to produce Champagne (which comes from the Champagne region of France, but you knew that, right?). It will cost a little more than sparkling wine whose label says it was fermented inside the bottle (rather than this), or using the Charmat or “outside the bottle” (i.e., in a tank) method, but it’s worth paying extra for the classic-method wine. That’s a difference you will taste.

Wine Lingo of the Day: Mayacamas and Vaca MountainsWhen you’re looking at wines from regions as popular as Napa Valley and Sonoma County, it helps to orient yourself geographically. Any serious discussion of Napa and Sonoma is likely to mention these important mountain ranges because they affect the grapes and, ultimately, the wine: the Mayacamas Mountains run along the western edge of Napa, protecting it from the cooler Sonoma air, and the Vaca Range forms Napa’s eastern boundary. If you’re contemplating any form of wine certification, memorize these two names – you’ll see them on just about every exam.

Patrick bubbly

Vino ‘View:  With the onset of summer, we wanted a couple of cool sparklers to sip on the porch. We chose two delicious, affordable California bottles: Gloria Ferrer NV Blanc de Blancs and Gloria Ferrer NV Blanc de Noirs (both Methode Champenoise, both 12.5 percent alcohol, both $22). The 100-percent Pinot Noir has a rosy tinge and gave us tiny, assertive bubbles. The aroma was lemon at first, then it melted into a rich pear that changed to apple in our mouths. The all-Chardonnay Blanc de Blancs was a melon-and-banana delight, a super-tropical feel and perfect for our warm-weather neighbor-watching. That handsome fellow in the photo is my nephew, Patrick Straffen – we were celebrating because he and my niece, Emily Straffen, had just passed their Level 2 WSET exams! You go, guys!

Cheers,

Mary