Narrowing an extensive list of tasting notes down to 21 wines took time.
These are the 21 wines for 2021. They were tasted in a variety of ways: at industry tastings, as samples, purchases, on winery visits or at restaurants. When a wine stood out, it would get an asterisk next to it with the intent to consider it for this column. Presented in alphabetical order, some made the list because they were thought-provoking, others for the potential of what they could become. There were powerful, delicate and balanced wines. But one thing they all have in common: they were downright delicious.
Anakota Helena Dakota Vineyard 2018 ($125) had a nose of cedar, spruce and currant with flavors of blackberry, hot coals, blackberry, black cherry, a touch of anise and fuller tannins that frame the fruit and spice so well. Give it anywhere between five to 20 years in the cellar; it will only continue to improve as the tannins begin to unwind and the fruit flavors mellow.
For anyone stuck in a wine rut, the entire Anarchist Wine Co. is loaded with options to explore.
Winemaker Patrick Saboe used 57% sangiovese, 19% grenache, 19% pinot noir, 2% viognier, 2% gewürztraminer and 1% sauvignon blanc in the Anarchist Wine Co. Freudian Slip 2017 ($38). With its multilayered, textured and faceted fresh juicy red fruit flavors, it was light bodied with dried rose petals, little conifer, strawberry and a fresh minerality.
“We want to be playful and thought-provoking,” Saboe said. “We always want to be more to someone or something than meets the eye. Freudian Slip is silky, smooth, balanced and integrated but so much more is going on beneath the surface. We cross growing regions and traditions.”
Aveleda Alvahrino 2019 ($19.99) had tropical fruits, pineapple and mango with thyme and rosemary coming through on the finish. Crackingly acidic and refreshing, it’s perfect for a seafood dinner or a hot summer day.
Blackbird Vineyards Napa Valley Contrarian 2016 ($95) is a blend of 64% cabernet sauvignon and 29% cabernet franc flavors of currant, black cherry, espresso, dark chocolate, conifer, black peppercorn and loamy earth. Cabernet franc has impressed in both blends and on its own this year.
Sublime pinot noir from the Sta. Rita Hills isn’t hard to find, but winemaker Greg Brewer at Brewer-Clifton has been turning out top cuts from the cool-climate growing region for years now.
The Brewer-Clifton Sta. Rita Hills 2018 ($38) had sweet cranberry, cherry, raspberry, tobacco and spice flavors. Red and black fruit flavors are on the nose and a loamy aroma lingers. The Pacific Ocean influence is obvious.
“The ocean is the driving force behind the appellation and it ultimately informs everything that we do here,” Brewer said. “It is rare to have an environment that is both cool and predictable which is attributed both to the orientation of our valley and our proximity to the Pacific. The soils are also largely marine based to further strengthen the ocean’s voice. The outcome is the potential for wines that are both intense and pristine.”
Cadence Camerata Cara Mia Vineyard Red Mountain 2017 ($62) had a mixture of mint and warm gravel on the nose, then surprised with a pure fruit expression; cherry, currant, licorice and an underlying warm rock note. It was medium bodied with a velvety mouthfeel accentured by a tart cherry and dark chocolate finish.
My favorite South African wine this year was Constantia Uitsig Semillon 2018 ($29), with its weighty texture for a white wine and a creamy mouthfeel with honeysuckle and fleshy red apple. Their cabernet sauvignon was also remarkable.
Croix Narrow Gauge Pinot Noir Russian River Valley 2017 had raspberry, clove, anise and earthy mushroom on a big rich nose. The purity of raspberry flavor caused a mouth-coating sensation. There was something earthy and mysterious – perhaps olive or potpourri flavors. It was a big rich mouthfeel with great balance between fruit, tannin and alcohol.
Never ones to chase a trend, Livermore winemakers aren’t rock stars. But, the Cuda Ridge Melange D’Amis 2016 ($60) from winemaker Larry Dino has green bell pepper, white pepper and dusty dark chocolate on the nose, flavors of blackberry, black currant and raspberry with hints of mint and dark chocolate on the finish.
Dunites San Luis Obispo County Syrah-Grenache 2019 ($34) had juicy blue and black fruit that mingled with a savory element of bay leaf and thyme. There’s an intensity in the wine with black pepper and dark chocolate notes on the finish.
“It’s such a complete wine, cool climate syrah, when you pour it in the glass, it’s as dark as can be,” winemaker and co-founder Tyler Eck said. “It’s dark but smells wild and feral but is also fruity, floral, pretty and elegant. Even with a dark, tannic structure, it can really be a pretty wine. In weight, our syrah is actually lower in alcohol than our pinot noir, but tastes so much richer and bigger. I like that duality in cool climate syrah, there’s an elegance with a serious brooding dark nature.”
Fel Pinot Noir Savoy Vineyard Anderson Valley 2019 ($75) with fennel and sage on the nose has enticing cranberry, pomegranate, tobacco pipe and cherry flavors.
Gran Passione Roso Veneto IGT 2020 ($13.99), a blend of corvina and merlot, had strawberry and raspberry flavors. The medium-bodied red had a sleek mouthfeel and vanilla bean spice on the finish. It’s a great value and will headline a feature story in 2022.
Hamel Family Isthmus 2019 ($90), with aromas of coffee, cedar and red fruits, flavors of milk chocolate, currant and coffee bean came through. There are really lusty tannins that complement the fruit well.
“My parents appreciated the blue skies, sun and hot weather,” said Managing Director George Hamel III when asked about why his family chose to move from San Francisco to Sonoma. “Originally, we wanted a house surrounded by vineyards. But, the house they fell for had 1.5 acres of cabernet on its property. What started out as a hobby – we grew grapes and made some wine for ourselves – spiraled into a deep dark hole and now we own four vineyards in the Moon Mountain District.”
Wine consumers are all fortunate the family had that small lot of vines.
A lighter bodied pinot, Holocene Memorialis Pinot Noir 2018 ($59) is driven by terroir. There’s a truffle, mushroom, wet leaves theme interrupted by red fruit flavors. It’s welcome diversion from the status quo in pinot noir.
Of course, a wine made by Matt Dees had to be on the list. The Kimsey Grenache 2016 ($60) was a big round blackberry thrill ride with gravely tannins and a lovely perfume on the nose.
Landmark Hop Kiln Estate Pinot 2018 ($40) had a mineral finish that was like water in a creek or green moss on a rock. It’s refreshing and slices right through the supple mouthfeel. It even shows up on the nose a little bit. There’s also cranberry, spice rack gingerbread on the nose and flavors of it as well.
“Attention to detail in the vineyard and winery is really the key to making great wine,” winemaker Greg Stach said. “I try not to overwork the wine and let the vineyards express themselves.”
Winemaker Orion Stang came back home with his Orion Wines Paso Robles 2018 ($65) made of 74% cabernet sauvignon, 20% syrah and 6% graciano. After making wines from some of Santa Barbara’s finest vineyards under the Dilecta label, this shows how to fully capture the finest attributes of Paso Robles – full bodied red and black fruit flavors, a big mouthfeel and a nervous acidity that keeps everything fresh.
From the Willow Creek District in Paso Robles, McPrice Meyers Paper Street Vineyard Cuvée 2019 ($60) had an amazing elegance for a full-bodied red. Flavors sail by like a boat on calm water. Anise on the nose, yields to blackberry cobbler. The floral lift on the nose is special. It has 44% grenache, 40% syrah and splashes of petite sirah, graciano and mourvedre.
In what could be the best syrah on the planet, Tensley Santa Barbara Syrah 2019 ($30) had blueberry, blackberry, dried violets, cracked pepper and hints of anise that were all encompassing on the palate. It’s a mouthful for sure, but never overpowering. Just a brilliant collection of flavors where the nose, flavors, mouthfeel, tannins and finish are all in total harmony.
Two Vintners Grenache 2018 ($25) has very polished tannins and a violet, floral lift like wines from France’s Cote Rotie. There were black fruit, plum and licorice flavors.
Another different kind of red loaded with intrigue is the Walls Stanley Groovy Red Mountain 2018 ($32), which needed some time to open up, but cabernet and syrah joined some Portuguese and French varieties. There was currant, blackberry, coffee and dark chocolate on the nose. A driving acidity in the mid palate, it had black cherry with anise, licorice and plum on the finish.
While this list of 21 is just a small fraction of the outstanding wines sampled since January, the constantly evolving and improving global wine industry has me excited for the potential of the 22 for 2022.
• James Nokes has been tasting, touring and collecting in the wine world for several years. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.