Dunne on Wine

Dunne on Wine: 2015 a year of finds and surprises

Early Mountain Vineyards is the Virginia winery estate of Jean and Steve Case of America Online fame.
Early Mountain Vineyards is the Virginia winery estate of Jean and Steve Case of America Online fame.

For wine writers, the last column of the year traditionally is given over to either sparkling wine for New Year’s Eve soirees or a list of the year’s best wines.

In recent weeks I’ve addressed sparkling-wine matters, which leaves me obligated to come up with my picks for best white wine of the year, best red wine of the year and so forth.

But this has been an odd year, and that customary format isn’t feeling like a comfortable fit. There’s no lack of candidates for best this and best that. I’ve judged at 16 commercial wine competitions this year, tasted wine almost nightly with dinner and visited wine regions from Mendocino County in California to Monticello in Virginia. Thus, my notebooks and folders are thick with jottings about wines I’ve found delightful.

Yet, I sense that the old and familiar format may be too old and too familiar, that singling out particular wines doesn’t say enough about wine today or necessarily help guide readers to a wine that while vivid with character in March simply may no longer be available.

Thus, this wider look at lessons drawn from 2015. There will be wines mentioned specifically here, but their vintage will be less important than the name of the producer; they will be highlighted mostly for their enduring reliability, regardless of the nature of the year.

Most surprising realization: In scanning tasting notes over the past year I was struck by how often I gave high marks to under-appreciated gewürztraminer. Lots of reasons are given for gewurztraminer’s static sales, from its challenging pronunciation to the perception that it’s invariably sweet. It isn’t, as several dry interpretations show.

Especially memorable releases this year were the uncommonly composed Handley Cellars 2013 Anderson Valley Gewurztraminer ($20), characteristically floral in aroma and abiding in fruit and spice; the dry, wiry, focused and versatile Lazy Creek 2013 Anderson Valley Gewurztraminer ($22); the lithe yet athletic Navarro Vineyards 2013 Anderson Valley Dry Gewurztraminer ($19.50); and the sleekly elegant Stony Hill Vineyard 2013 Napa Valley Gewurztraminer ($24), as layered with lychee, peach and minerality as any on the market.

Gewurztraminer’s lack of broad appeal just may explain why so many artful and articulate examples are available: In trying to secure a spot for it in the American market, vintners are growing it only where it is most responsive, then treating it with the utmost discipline to secure the strongest and most expressive constitution.

Second most surprising realization: I’m not a big fan of syrah, finding too many one-dimensional and blunt, but this year a kind of turnaround commenced. I found myself smitten with several, most of them from cooler climates that seem to permeate syrah with the complex fruit, pepper and persistence that represent the varietal at its most profound and appealing, at least to this palate.

The standout was the Lagier Meredith 2012 Napa Valley Mount Veeder Syrah ($48), notable for its vivid and beckoning floral aroma, deep and broad cherry and berry flavor, and veritable pantry of black pepper. But others also positively impressive were the savory and lushly aromatic Enfield 2013 Fort Ross Seaview Coryelle Fields Vineyard Syrah ($35), laced with several twists of the pepper grinder; the hefty, gamy and spicy Drew Family Cellars 2013 Mendocino Ridge Valenti Ranch Syrah ($45); and the Halcon Vineyards 2013 Yorkville Highlands Alturas Estate Syrah ($32), gracefully layered with violets and lavender in aroma, blueberry pie with a shaving of truffles in flavor (don’t knock it until you try it), and a spiciness and acidity that kept the palate refreshed and eager for more.

At the Rhone Ranger tasting in Richmond this spring two other brands with syrahs from several vintages and vineyards showed why they have secured such a high standing for the varietal – Qupé from Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties and Pax Mahle of Sonoma and Mendocino counties.

Just for kicks: At the start of the year I thought that white zinfandel just might make a comeback during 2015, a bit of sentimental wishful thinking, I admit. But then I began to notice a tentative makeover of the wine’s profile, shifting from sweet and flabby to dry, crisp and even a touch complex. A few winemakers sensed that zinfandel could yield a wine as pretty, lively, composed – and dry, or nearly as dry – as other pink wines that have become the rage in recent years.

One is Michael McCay of McCay Cellars in Lodi, who released an insistent, ample and vivid 2014 white zinfandel fragrant with lavender, fresh with suggestions of raspberry and strawberry and punctuated with a touch of spice. Other winemakers drawn to the dry white-zin camp include Tegan Passalacqua of Turley Wine Cellars in Napa, Amador and San Luis Obispo counties and Chris Brockway of Broc Cellars in Berkeley. In the meantime, vintners who have been turning out white zinfandel for decades look to be coming up with fruitier and better balanced interpretations, with sugars more restrained, acidity more biting.

The Calaveras County Fair commercial wine competition drew just two white zinfandels, but we awarded both gold medals, the 2014 Milliaire for its insinuation of orange zest in its fragrance and wild strawberries in its flavor, and the 2013 Montevina for its suggestion of strawberries and watermelon, its spice and its length.

California reigns, but…: At lunch a decade ago I sat by a Sonoma County vintner who railed about how “terrible” wines from other states were. You don’t hear that kind of blanket condemnation from California winemakers any more, or if you do you are sitting by someone who doesn’t taste or travel beyond his or her backyard. His remark was myopic then and it would be even more myopic today, and many California winemakers know it, even those who haven’t moved to other states to plant grapes and make wine.

The wine trades of Washington, Oregon and New York are well established and growing in esteem, but this year I also tasted local wines in Wisconsin, Virginia, Idaho and Texas, and found releases that were outstanding for their individuality and poise. They showed that wine education and research is being cultivated across the country, that the industry is attracting practitioners dedicated and disciplined, and that just about every quarter of the nation has a farm-to-fork consciousness that encourages knowledge of and respect for local agricultural products, including wine.

California continues to dominate the country’s wine culture, but the maturing of grape growing and winemaking in other states will make for more interesting and rewarding treks as California wine enthusiasts hit the road in 2016.

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 dmichaeldunne@gmail.com.