As I assess the merits and pleasure of a wine, whether in a seriously structured venue like a wine competition or while sampling a bottle over a casual meal at home, I use a four-star shorthand for my bottom-line conclusion.
Most wines end up in the middle of the scale, at two or two and a half stars. They are sound, clean and refreshing, but not profound. Few get just one star. Even fewer get four.
What makes for a four-star wine? The quality that more than any other distinguishes a four-star wine for me is persistence. It’s got to run deep. I like the finish of a wine to echo. I like to sit back and just listen to what it has to say, and when the message shifts in nuance with each sip, all the better.
Beyond that, a wine is to be true to varietal or style. If it’s a zinfandel, for one, I expect it to meet the standards of the varietal – berries, juiciness, spice.
Regardless of varietal or style, the wine is to be balanced, meaning no one characteristic, such as alcohol, tannin or oak, should stand out so much as to divert my concentration from the overall picture. I look for tension in wine, by which I mean a tautness and assurance that evokes power and concentration without unjustified bluster. The acidity should be snappy. The wine should seem to possess the potential to age well.
That said, what were my four-star table wines during 2014? Here are the nine at the top of my short list:
Bergstrom Wines 2012 Willamette Valley Sigrid Chardonnay ($85): Oregon is best known for pinot gris, pinot noir and riesling, but Josh Bergstrom believes the state’s white-wine future lies in chardonnay. Toward that end, he’s begun to sculpt a chardonnay of unusual heft and grace. His 2012 Sigrid Chardonnay is big and complicated, its mature-fruit aromas and flavors running to suggestions of apricots, hazelnuts and peaches. The wine is dense, creamy and complex, but it isn’t likely to be taken for a California chardonnay because of the cinnamon spice, tangy acidity and extended finish that the Willamette Valley incubates. The price is as startling as the wine’s strapping build and flourishing fruit, but it represents Bergstrom’s confidence not only in the wine but in Oregon’s future with chardonnay.
Navarro Vineyards 2013 Anderson Valley Gewurztraminer ($20): This year marked the 40th anniversary for Ted Bennett’s and Deborah Cahn’s Navarro Vineyards in Mendocino County. Fittingly, Navarro was named the Golden State Winery of the Year at this summer’s California State Fair commercial wine competition. The tribute wasn’t based on longevity or sentimentality, however, but on all the high awards the winery won during the competition, which was done blind, without judges knowing the identity of entries. At the State Fair the gewürztraminer won a silver medal, not a gold, oddly, though at the subsequent Mendocino County Fair commercial wine competition it did win a double-gold medal, meaning all five judges of the panel agreed that it warranted gold. Furthermore, at the later Long Beach Grand Cru it was anointed best of class.
Bennett and Cahn have been making gewürztraminer since the start, sticking by the varietal even though it isn’t closely associated with the state’s wine scene. The 2013, as so many earlier vintages, is textbook gewürztraminer, screaming of rose petals and lychee, with spice at the mid-palate and tang in the finish. It has so much complexity and persistence that it’s one of those rare white wines that can be savored as easily in winter as in spring.
Ravines Wine Cellars 2012 Finger Lakes Dry Riesling ($18): I’m pretty keen on riesling and tasted a lot of it this year, including several superb interpretations, a few of which were from California, widely seen as too warm for the grape. That said, the epicenter for quality riesling in the United States is the Finger Lakes district of New York. That’s a tough area in which to grow wine grapes, but the rewards include rieslings svelte and pointed. Of several outstanding interpretations from recent vintages, the Ravines 2012 stood out for its balance, length, zip and complexity. In Sacramento, Corti Brothers has been stocking it, but if the 2012 is sold out don’t balk at picking up the 2013; every year, Ravines is on top of the varietal, no matter how challenging the lay of the land.
Zocker Vineyards 2012 Edna Valley Paragon Vineyard Gruner Veltliner ($20): Gruner veltliner is even less recognized in California than gewürztraminer, but its obscurity is doomed if other vintners pick up winemaker Christian Roguenant’s astute ways with the grape, which start with planting it in a fitting place, like San Luis Obispo County’s cool Edna Valley, where Roguenant works. The result, as shown by the 2012, is an exceptionally alluring wine, lean yet mouth filling, dry yet fruity, subdued at the outset but spicy and crisp in the finish. Its suggestions of fruit range from grapefruit to apricot. It was so impressive at the California State Fair commercial wine competition that judges declared it the best of the non-mainstream white varietals.
Bonny Doon Vineyard 2013 Monterey County Clos de Gilroy Grenache ($20): As youthful, energetic and exploratory as a youngster on a new playground, the Bonny Doon shows with spunk and clarity why grenache is exciting so many California vintners. It seizes all the grape’s vivid, floral, earthy, fruity and spicy aspects in a package accessible and rewarding.
Borjon Winery 2010 Shenandoah Valley Clockspring Vineyards Frank Alviso Reposado Sangiovese ($24): This is a prime example of the problem with year-end lists of best wines: Often, the highlighted wines are virtually impossible to find, perhaps because of their small production, perhaps because of their popularity, or both. That’s the case with this bright, ripped and agile take on sangiovese, one of the few California interpretations on the varietal that comes close to capturing the sunny fruit and sharp build of Chianti Classico. The Borjons have moved on to the 2012 vintage, which I haven’t tasted, but nonetheless would gamble on, given the track record that the family is developing for the varietal.
Flora Springs 2011 Napa Valley Trilogy ($75): On the other hand, no one should have trouble finding some of this. Flora Springs made 4,680 cases of the 2011 Trilogy, a Bordeaux-inspired blend based mostly on cabernet sauvignon (75 percent). The wine is gorgeous without being overwrought or tricked up in any way. The tannins are mellow, the oak caressing, the alcohol a not unreasonable 14.2 percent. The folks at Flora Springs have been making this version of a meritage wine since 1984, getting more selective and more precise each vintage. The 2011 is big but balanced, from its deep and brilliant ruby tones to the forward blasts of cherry in fragrance and flavor. The fruit is sweet, the texture silken, the structure solid, the finish long. That’s a lot of money for a bottle of wine, but no one who invests in it should be in any way displeased as they finish a bottle.
Richard Longoria Wines 2011 Sta. Rita Hills Fe Ciega Vineyard Pinot Noir ($48): “Fe Ciega” is the name Rick and Diana Longoria chose for their small vineyard of pinot noir and chardonnay just west of Lompoc in Santa Barbara County. “Fe Ciega” is Spanish for “blind faith,” which the couple had when they were among the first aspiring vintners to put down roots in the Sta. Rita Hills. That faith has paid off for the Longorias and others, with the appellation becoming synonymous with classy and expressive pinot noir and chardonnay. The couple’s 2011 Fe Ciega Pinot Noir swells with direct and sweet strawberry and cherry fruit complicated with shavings of intriguing truffles and mushrooms. It’s one meaty pinot noir, but the tannins are supple and the overall texture silken, making for one noble take on the varietal.
Wild Oats 2011 Central Ranges Shiraz ($15): Biggest surprise of the year, by far. I’d about given up on inexpensive shiraz from Australia, but this one shows that vintners Down Under still know how to squeeze bushels of character from shiraz, with the result affordable enough for everyday drinking. The wine is fresh and youthful, its floral aroma and blackberry and blueberry fruit laced with bacon, smoke and peppery spice. It’s a light- to medium-bodied shiraz, with restrained tannins leaving the wine tasting supple and velvety. Wild Oats is a brand of Robert Oatley Vineyards.
Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at email@example.com.