Here’s a Toast to the Best of the Rest

Wondering what to do with that gift card for your local wine shop? It’ll be a nice treat to pick up something really good to save for a special occasion. Red or white, look down this column for some surefire options. These are the best wines I tasted this year that I haven’t already reviewed. If you really want to splurge, you can’t do much better than the 2005 Joseph Phelps “Insignia” Napa Valley ($200). This is the 34th vintage of this iconic Bordeaux-style blend. While previous years have included more merlot and malbec, this one sports 92 percent cabernet sauvignon with just a touch of petite verdot and merlot. It is a wine that puts power and luxury all in balance.

While we’re on to Bordeaux-style blends, there are two more fine examples, and at especially attractive prices. The 2004 Rodney Strong “Symmetry” Alexander Valley ($55) is an elegant blend of 71 percent cabernet sauvignon with herbal, chocolate and tobacco notes from additions of merlot, malbec and petite verdot. Barb and Bart O’Brien established their winery just a few years ago when they purchased a vineyard in the Oak Knoll district in California’s southern Napa Valley. Their 2004 O’Brien “Seduction” ($36) is mostly cabernet sauvignon with dollops of merlot and malbec. It is rich with juicy fruit complimented by cocoa and tobacco hints.

If you want to go flat out for a good, solid Napa Valley cabernet, I’ve got some fine choices. From a small family winery, the 2005 Sequoia Grove Napa Valley ($36) uses grapes including Rutherford and Oakville to produce a well-knit wine with luscious oak aromas and rich chocolate flavors. Even more impressive is the 2004 Rutherford Bench Reserve ($55). Abundant fruit is wrapped in creamy oak, delivered in a broad, plump texture. Former Hollywood executive Rich Frank oversees one of Napa Valley’s most hospitable wineries, where tasting is free and wines are really good. The 2004 Frank Family Rutherford Reserve ($85) uses grapes from Frank’s Winston Hill Vineyard on the east side of the valley. It is a large-scale wine with woodsy and mineral notes and strong tannins.

Another surefire option is Washington’s Leonetti Cellars, which celebrates its 30th anniversary with these fine releases. The blend of 63 percent cabernet sauvignon, 13 percent merlot and 17 percent petite verdot for the 2005 Reserve Walla Walla Valley ($125) yields a dense, dark, complex, structured wine. The 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon Walla Walla Valley ($80) is a classic, sharply defined cabernet with herbal and minty notes in a polished frame. The 2006 Merlot Columbia Valley ($65) is no ordinary merlot. This one is concentrated with pure, fresh fruit, toasty oak and floral notes. The wines may prove hard to find but they are worth the effort.

For a little variety, look to Parducci, the oldest winery in Mendocino that today is owned by Paul Dolan (formerly of Fetzer). The 2005 “True Grit” petite sirah ($30) is a tribute to the determination of the immigrant farmers who first planted the vineyards. Fresh fruit with mineral hints and powerful tannins make for a wine that is delicious now but should drink well for years.

Chardonnay drinkers should look to Monterey, Calif.-based Pessagno Winery, which specializes in pinot noir and chardonnay from the region’s best vineyards. I recommended some of the pinot noir choices in a previous column, and these chardonnays are great complements. The 2005 “Intrinity” Santa Lucia Highlands ($45) is essentially a reserve with lavish oak and luscious tropical fruit held together with fine acidity. The 2006 Sleepy Hollow Vineyard ($32) offers seductive lemon, apple and caramel.

You also should consider Chablis. The wines of this region at the northernmost end of Burgundy are 100 percent chardonnay. The cool climate and high-mineral-content soils (clay and limestone from fossilized oyster shells) produce a unique result that is the reference point for a style of chardonnay with highly focused acidity, little or no oak, and qualities that have been described using words like chalk, stone, mineral, green, steely, and flinty. While such qualities might surprise some, these wines truly reflect their origins.

Although the best-quality wines are not inexpensive, they are much less so than top Burgundies and priced on a par with California’s best. The seven highest-quality vineyards are classified as Grand Cru. The next level, Premier Cru, is more plentiful and often very nearly as good, especially from a top producer like Domaine William Fevre. I loved three of Fevre’s Premier Cru wines. They all offer pure citrus fruit, that characteristic chalk, and a judicious use of oak. The 2005 “Vaillons” ($40) adds an intriguing savory note. The 2006 “Montmains” ($45) shows more peach and tangerine fruit. The 2006 “Fourchame” Premier Cru ($55) is the most complex and minerally.

About Rich

I first became interested in wine while I worked in numerous liquor stores during college in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. In the years following college, I researched, tasted, traveled to vineyards in California and Europe, participated in countless tastings. I began writing about wine in 1995 with a column in Out Front Colorado. For me, wine is more than a drink. It is food. It is a connection to the earth. It is culture. There is just something amazing, even magical, about the transformation of grapes into wine. It is also remarkable how drinking wine with food enhances the taste and enjoyment of both. Appreciation of wine has become an integral part of my approach to life, which emphasizes balance, respect for nature, physical and emotional health, and an appreciation of our nature as social beings. In 2006, I was awarded a fellowship to the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers.