It’s been an arduous year of tasting, tasting and more tasting here at the Good Libations sampling office. All for you, dear readers; and, of course, for my year-end roundup of the top 20 Californian wines of 2015.
I didn’t just sit back and let those beauties come to me, no sir. I hit the road, travelling to almost every wine-growing region between here and Lodi (including Lodi – much less wild and woolly than I’d anticipated). I swirled, sniffed, slurped and spit out God knows how many Cabs and Chardonnays at the International Wine Writers Symposium, an event held in Napa each February that practically guarantees more wine than even the most devoted oenophile could stand.
So I’ve tasted and traveled enough to give a reasonable assessment, at least when it comes to wines from our fair state. I’m happy to report that this was a very good release year for most of California’s wine-producing regions. Many 2013 reds hit the market over the last few months, and it’s proving to be the phenomenal vintage many suspected it would be – especially the wines of the Central Coast, but those of Napa and Sonoma as well.
I’ve broken my choices into four categories to spread the love around. I don’t play favorites – I love all my grapes equally. And it’s too hard to rank them; I’ve listed each category alphabetically.
Some of these wines are inexpensive and/or widely available. Others couldn’t be procured even if you had a genie and three wishes.
Here’s the list:
1. Claiborne & Churchill 2013 Central Coast Dry Riesling ($19): A hefty scent of lime introduces a bracingly dry Riesling with a strong backbone and excellent balance. One of the better wineries in an often overlooked cool-climate AVA, Edna Valley.
2. J Dusi 2014 Pinot Grigio ($18): Balanced, bright, dry and refreshing, the perfect expression of P.G. from one of the oldest wine names in the area – the Dusis have been making wine near Paso Robles for almost a century.
3. Peloton Cellars 2012 Albariño Spanish Springs Vineyard ($27): A classic representative of this increasingly popular Spanish grape, which grows well in California. Aromas of white flowers give way to honey. On the palate you’ll pick up peach and nectarine. This small Central Coast winery is one to watch. (The 2012 is sold out, but keep an eye peeled for the next vintage.)
4. Pomelo 2014 Sauvignon Blanc ($10): Enticingly fragrant nose – orange blossom and peach predominate – with a well-balanced body and citrus-y, complex finish that betrays a hint of tropical fruit. No. 40 on Wine Spectator’s Top 100 list for 2015.
5. Tablas Creek 2013 Esprit de Tablas Blanc ($45): From one of the best wineries in the hills west of Paso Robles, this blend of Roussane, Grenache Blanc and Picpoul Blanc reveals why France’s Chateau de Beaucastel partnered with them. The winery sums it up nicely: “An immensely appealing nose of peaches and cream, lightened by a pretty minty note. The mouth is medium weight with stone fruit, white flowers, a creamy texture and a pleasing saline mineral note at the end that helps keep the long finish clean and fresh. ”
1. Frank Family Vineyards 2013 Carneros Chardonnay ($35): Tropical fruit and honeysuckle waft from the glass. On the palate you’ll notice sweet lemon, vanilla and pear and Meyer lemon, and it’s blessed with a regal finish that hints of apples. Put away the Rombauer, folks – this is the better Carneros house.
2. Joullian 2013 Monterrey Chardonnay ($25): Although it uses fruit from both Arroyo Seco and the adjacent Santa Lucia Highlands, this creamy, complex Chardonnay tastes more like SLH, with lime, apples, slight mineral undertones and butterscotch notes. A fine example of Monterey’s beguiling style of Chardonnay.
3. Ken Brown 2013 La Rinconada Vineyard Chardonnay ($45): A beautifully expressive Chardonnay from the esteemed La Rinconada Vineyard in the heart of Santa Rita Hills. Luscious aromas of white peach, nectarine, honesuckle and lime blossom. Only 84 cases made by this esteemed senior statesman of Santa Barbara winemaking.
4. Merry Edwards 2014 Sauvignon Blanc ($32): A master Sonoma winemaker has discovered the penetrating, muscular side of this normally mild-mannered grape. A cavalcade of flavors greets you, including jasmine, honeysuckle, cherry blossoms and lime zest. On the palate, nectarine and Asian pear give way to toasted brioche, hazelnut and wet stone. A superb food wine.
5. Paul Hobbs 2012 Crossbarn Sonoma Coast Chardonnay ($25): Steely, crisp and fresh, with marmalade, lemon oil and peach aromas. Like a French Chablis, only with bigger fruit. A bargain from one of America’s great winemakers.
1. Foley 2013 Pinot Noir, Rancho Santa Rosa, Santa Rita Hills ($40): Sophisticated bouquet of black cherry and tobacco. Huge cherry component, and a silky finish that carries strong hints of blackberry.
2. J. Lohr Estates 2014 Wildflower Valdiguié ($10): A deep red-purple color with cranberry, cherry and black pepper aromas. Pomegranate and raspberry fruit welcome your palate, followed by a charming and sweet finish. This Beaujolais-light wine can be served slightly chilled.
3. Meiomi 2013 Pinot Noir Monterey-Sonoma-Santa Barbara Counties ($22): Despite its modest price tag, this lush Pinot just attained the No. 20 spot on Wine Spectator’s Top 100 wines of 2015. It’s spicy, earthy and brambly, with undertones of raspberry and blueberry.
4. Orin Swift 2013 Machete ($48): On the border between light and heavy, this combination of Petite Sirah, Syrah and Grenache delivers violets and other delicate flowers on the nose, then sweeps you away with a long, complex taste profile that swings from coffee and black cherry to wild, earthy mid-palate components and a soft, slightly mineral finish. Machete is an undisputed crowd-pleaser, and its R-rated label attracts even the wine-phobic.
5. Two Sisters 2013 Santa Rita Hills Lindsay’s Vineyard Pinot Noir ($75): From Foley. Deep color and a lot of viscosity for a Pinot. Legs galore. More rounded and deeper than most Pinots, revealing nutmeg, coffee, plum, blackberry jam and a lingering finish. This is why lovers of big Pinot go nuts over SRH.
1. Buccella 2013 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($145): Blueberry, cassis, crushed stone and violets come on strong at first. Then brace for big hits of cocoa, black fruit and other huge mid-palate components. Surprisingly, it finishes with soft, rounded tannins.
2. Onx 2012 Reckoning ($45): This newish winery just southwest of Paso Robles produces memorable and unusual reds. Reckoning contains Syrah, Petite Sirah, Tempranillo, Grenache, Zinfandel and a trace of Malbec. The nose offers plums, graphite and lavender. On the palate, hints of roasted meats and crème brûlée make it weighty and viscous. Long, luxurious finish.
3. Ovid Napa Valley 2012 ($200): This classic Bordeaux blend from the ultimate boutique winery demonstrates why Pritchard Hill, on the north end of Howell Mountain, is Napa’s newest red-wine mecca. Dark cherry, violets, blueberry and a wild yet subtle hint of loamy underbrush. Powerful, balanced and profound; it’s Napa squared. It’s also impossible to find, I’m afraid to say.
4. Rombauer 2012 Stice Lane Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon ($90): This dark-colored beauty throws off intense aromas of nutmeg and violet, and you’ll get the classic St. Helena dimensions as well, especially olive and tobacco. This could easily stand up to a T-bone, but it’s complex and refined enough to drink on its own. A masterpiece.
5. Saxum 2012 Broken Stones ($98): About 80 percent Syrah is combined with traces of Petite Sirah, Grenache, Mourvèdre and Roussanne in this signature wine from a Central Coast cult favorite. Dense, muscular and rich, with an impressive center of dark berry, cedar and tar.