Today is the fifth post where I reflect on many of the great wines that I was fortunate enough to taste over the course of 2020. Today, I review the top white still wines that I received over the course of this past year. While I did not go back and quantify, I am fairly sure that the group of samples that landed on my doorstep this year were the best since I started this blog some nine years ago. The biggest shockers on this list? First, that there is not one but two Sauvignon Blancs here (I am generally not a fan) and second, before the year began, I had never even heard of Manzoni Bianco, much less tasted any.
2018 Clif Family Winery Sauvignon Blanc RTE Napa Valley, CA: Retail $28. Under screw. First, I am a big fan of Clif Bars (made by the same owners), but that has nothing to do with my feelings about this wine (I’m fairly certain). Second, Napa Sauvignon Blanc is a dying breed and that is a damned shame for no other reason (but there are several more) than this bottle of wine. Really close to a Whoa. Light in color, but heavy on aromas: white peach, freshly cut grass, lemon rind, crushed limestone. The palate is much of the same with luscious fruit, tangy acidity, and hints of salinity. I don’t usually like Sauvignon Blanc, but, OK, Whoa. Outstanding. 93 Points.
2017 Gary Farrell Chardonnay Ritchie Vineyard, Russian River Valley, CA: Retail $60. B.A.B. From one of the oldest (and best) Chardonnay vineyards in the state (planted in 1972), located in the Middle Reach neighborhood, home to arguably the best Chardonnays in the country. Beautiful straw color in the glass with a zesty lemon and tart lemon on the nose. The palate is rich and tangy with some Meyer lemon, and various orange citrus. This is fairly exuberant and suggests it could use some time to settle down just a bit. Still, this is a fabulous Chard that will only get better in the short to mid-term. It might be tough to wait, though, as this is oh-so-wonderful now. Outstanding. 93 Points.
2017 Gary Farrell Chardonnay Rochioli Vineyard, Russian River Valley, CA: Retail $65. B.A.B. Ever since I started down the American wine path (after learning my fair share in Europe), there were a few vineyards that immediately grabbed my attention. Near the top of that list was Rochioli, a true Grand Cru in the Russian River Valley. Joe Rochioli and Gary Farrell were two of the pioneers in the Russian River Valley and I never passed up a bottle of wine that had either name emblazoned upon its label (unless, of course, it was too expensive). Thus, when I received this wine several weeks ago, I was over the moon (and no, not just because I didn’t pay for it). Very light, but a brilliant straw in the glass with plenty of tree fruit (peach), a bit of citrus (lemon mist), and just a hint of vanilla. Whoa. Yeah, this is my kind of Chard. The palate confirmed it: rich, fruity, tart, yet also reserved in a decidedly contradictory way. Sure, at $65 this is perhaps not a wine for the every day, but when one starts to feel nostalgic about the pioneers in the Russian River Valley (or one wants to drink an amazing Chardonnay), the Gary Farrell (Joe) Rochioli Chardonnay fits that charge beautifully. Outstanding. 94 Points.
2017 Alois Lageder Manzoni Bianco Fórra, Alto Adige – Südtirol, Italy: Retail $30. 100% Manzoni Bianco. Alto Adige is a fabulous contrast: Austrian precision and Italian passion. This grape, created by Luigi Manzoni in 1930 in Conegliano, is a cross between Pinot Bianco and Riesling and is particularly hardy which makes it a natural for Alto Adige. While this is not technically an “orange” wine, the skins are left in contact with the must for “several days” adding plenty of complexity. A fairly striking nose of quince, allspice, mango, and wet rock, which almost garners a Whoa on its own. The palate is rich, deep, and on the verge of unctuous. While “unique” is handed out like lollipops at a bank these days, this wine certainly deserves that characterization. I have the feeling that this wine will also age beautifully for several years. OK. Whoa. Outstanding. 93 Points.
2016 Pellet Estate Chardonnay Sunchase Vineyard, Sonoma Coast, CA: Retail $68. Another B.A.B.. 100% barrel fermented and aged. Golden in the glass, almost surprisingly so, with already well-developed secondary aromas of honey, dried apricot, and even caramel. The palate is delightfully balanced between the rich flavors, the tangy acidity, and a slight mineral aspect just before the finish. This is a delightful wine, strategically situated between Old World restraint and New World opulence. Lovely. Excellent. 93 Points.
2019 Troon Vineyard Kubli Bench Amber, Applegate Valley, OR: Retail $30. 74% Riesling, 16% Vermentino (Rolle), 10% Viognier. Orange wine is a weird thing. Not conceptually–simply put, it is a white wine vinified like a red wine as the fermentation includes the skins. But we have grown so accustomed to “traditional” white wine production that orange wine comes off as strange. Orange in the glass, almost the color of a light apple juice, it has an amazing nose if you take the time to breathe. Dried apricot, moist herbal tea leaves, rose petal, allspice. The palate is equally remarkable but decidedly more citrus with orange zest, glycerin, and a mouth-coating quality that enables the finish to linger for minutes. Orange wine is weird, and not everyone appreciates it, but this is a particularly wonderful iteration. Outstanding. 93 Points.
2019 ZD Wines Sauvignon Blanc Napa Valley, CA: Retail $27. I tasted this with my buddy Gabe Sasso on a Zoom call (hello new world order). As I told him during the tasting, Sauv Blanc is not my “go-to” variety, but this is pretty darned close to gangbusters (minus the B.A.B., natch). Fresh, bright, citrusy, and just ever-so-slightly grassy on the nose (with no cat pee in “sight” thank goodness). The palate is certainly bright, but also rich and layered. Wow, this is what Sauv Blanc should be–a Napa interpretation of Sancerre? Fantastic. Outstanding. 93 Points.
These last four bottles were my top white wine samples of the year, hands down. I tried for a while to narrow it down to just one, but since I did not taste them side-by-side, I found that task impossible. So here they are, the Top Whites of the Year.
2018 Lucia Chardonnay Santa Lucia Highlands, CA: Retail $60. B.A.B. Having been around the “wine block” a few times now, there is very little that surprises me these days. When I received this wine, given the Pisoni heritage and the fruit sources (Pisoni, Garys’ and Soberanes vineyards), I knew this would be stellar. How could it not? Well, it wasn’t what I thought it would be–it was considerably more. I know that comparisons between California and Burgundy have grown tiresome and not all that useful, but I must here. The nose is, at least to me, as close to a Puligny-Montrachet as I have found outside the Côte-d’Or. Perhaps that was not the intention, but holy cow. Lemon meringue, a touch of oak, vanilla, Whoa. It is on the palate, though, that it is clear this beauty comes from The Golden State: an intensity of fruit that is rarely achieved in Burgundy, along with impeccable balance, and a finish that lasts minutes. Whoa. Move over Littorai, Failla, et al, I might have a new favorite California Chardonnay. If only winemaker Jeff Pisoni did not use this ridiculously heavy bottle… Outstanding. 95 Points.
2018 Château La Nerthe Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc, France: Retail $60. 42% Grenache Blanc, 41% Rousanne, 12% Clairette, 5% Bourboulenc. Whoa. Way back, well, let’s just say many years ago, I had a vanful of about 23 bikes and I was tasked to drive them from Avignon to St. Jean de Luz. As geography would have it, I needed to pass through the Southern Rhône Valley. As chance would have it, I got a bit of a late start (long story) and I was passing by the tiny town of Chåateauneuf-du-Pape at lunchtime. Not one to be known to ever miss a meal, I took a slight detour off the A-7/A-9 route to have lunch. And one singular glass of wine. That wine turned out to be a white Château la Nerthe, and my life was forever altered. Whoa. I have said more than once that if I were ever denied a white Burgundy at my final meal, it should be replaced by a Château la Nerthe Blanc (in the years since I first uttered that decree, la Nerthe has easily moved to the top rung). Slightly golden in the glass, this wine is simply a masterpiece: rich, unctuous, mineral, floral, holy mother of Jesus, I could smell this for days. The palate? Initially a bit of fruit, but only a hint, followed by a wave of tartness, and then a bed of white flowers. It finishes with a subtle fruitiness that causes one to beg for more, only to realize that the flavors remain en bouche for much more than a lingering moment. Whoa. Wow, and Holy cow. This is a bucket-list kinda wine. Outstanding. 94-96 Points.
2018 Tongue Dancer Chardonnay Pratt Vineyard, Russian River Valley, CA: Retail $42. I have never asked him (but I guess I should), but I think James MacPhail likely considers Pinot Noir to be his “wheelhouse.” And for good reason: his reds wines are succulent and rich but also nuanced and balanced. But. I think his Chardonnays are even better. It took me a while to be introduced to James and Kerry MacPhail (which is odd given my affinity for Pinot), but since that first tasting a few years ago, I have become an unabashed fan. Sure, they are witty, engaging, passionate, and fun people to be around, but the wines, oh, the wines. This Pratt Vineyard bottling I would place right up there with the top Chardonnays not just in California, but Oregon, even France (yeah, I went there). Light in color, but rich in aromas of lemon curd, Bosc pear, and vanilla, on the palate this wine is reminiscent of a Grand or Premier Cru Montrachet. This is a study in tension. Sure, it is rich, luscious, and decadent, but it is also subtle, nuanced, and balanced. While this wine is certainly gorgeous now, I feel that I opened it far too soon and it could easily go another 5-8 years, no problem. As white Burgundy prices continue to climb up onto the rafters and on through the roof, this wine, at just north of $40 is not only a more economical decision, it is likely a better wine. Outstanding. 95 Points.
2017 Winner’s Circle Winery Chardonnay Bon Pari, Russian River Valley, CA: Retail $75. While I love Bon Pari’s Pinots, the Chardonnay might just be a notch above. As I mentioned a couple of times here, I know comparisons to Burgundy are a bit déclassé these days, to me, this screams “Meursault.” Yes, there is more fruit (lemon, golden apple) and perhaps a touch more oak, but the balance here is incredible. Fruit, acidity, depth, and length. Yowza. While this is, by definition, not a Meursault, I would love to throw this in a blind tasting with a handful of Premier Crus. P.S. Oh and on Day Two? Even better. Whoa. Outstanding. 95 Points.