2021 Seen Through 12 Unforgettable Wines

Regardless of where I am in the world or what’s happening, one thing is constant: I’ve got a bottle of wine to try.

So many memorable experiences have occurred on the wine road, as I’ve discovered new regions and producers or seen what old acquaintances were doing.

Not this year. While 2021 permitted steps toward normality, most of my adventuring with wine took place at home. The wines themselves took me on journeys.

No matter the circumstance, good wines can create indelible memories. Here are the 12 most memorable wines I drank in 2021, from youngest to oldest.

Credit…Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

Cacique Maravilla Pipeño País Bío Bío 2019

This bottle is a thirst quencher, an uncomplicated $19 liter of red from the Bío Bío region of Chile. So what’s memorable about it? For me, it epitomized how wine is evolving.

Chile once seemed to export a lot of cheap, mediocre wines from big companies, interspersed with the occasional polished trophy bottle, mostly from familiar international grapes. Old vineyards of país, known as mission in English, were dismissed as rustic and uninteresting. They were the province of old farmers, who turned the grapes into pipeño — fresh, rough wines that were consumed locally.

It turned out, though, that an international market existed for exactly these sorts of lively, refreshing wines, like this one, by Manuel Moraga, a vigneron who farms organically and captures the spirit and energy of the place in every bottle. All over the world, old vineyards like the source of this wine have been re-evaluated as treasures to be cherished. And we have people like Mr. Moraga to thank for not allowing them to disappear.

Credit…Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

Domaine des Ardoisières Vin des Allobroges Argile Blanc 2019

I’ve been enjoying the wines of the Savoie region of France for a long time, though primarily the reds and sparklers. This was the year I fell in love with Savoie whites.

Savoie is in the Alpine foothills of eastern France, where the border intersects with Switzerland and Italy. The whites, made of local grapes like altesse, mondeuse blanche and jacquère, all seem to have a breezy, cool feel to them, as if a fresh mountain wind were blowing right at you.

This bottle epitomizes the appeal of the Savoie whites. It’s made of jacquère and mondeuse blanche, along with chardonnay, all organically farmed, and it’s almost shocking in its incisive precision and purity. It’s easy to toss around the word terroir, but these wines truly have a sense of place.

Credit…Courtesy of Tess Bryant

Travis Tausend Adelaide Hills Riesling ‘Opa, Watch Out!’ 2018

Travis Tausend is a thoughtful Australian producer who makes natural wines in the town of Hope Forest, on the southern edge of the Adelaide Hills, which, as he points out on the bottle, was originally the domain of the Peramangk people.

I was drawn to his carefully considered wines when I visited him in the Adelaide Hills in 2019. I’ve rarely seen a bottle in the United States, but I spotted this one in June at Dame, a seafood restaurant that divides its wine list into two sections: one called James Bond, for the classics, and another titled Austin Powers, for the new-wave.

The riesling was even better than I remembered — fresh, energetic, textured and eminently digestible, a favorite word of Mr. Tausend’s, as I recall. At our outdoor table in Greenwich Village, the wine seemed to capture the peacefulness of the Hope Forest countryside.

Credit…Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

Istine Chianti Classico Vigna Istine 2018

For some years, now, I’ve had an insatiable thirst for Chianti Classico. So it is exciting to see newer Chianti producers like Istine, in Radda, doing such beautiful work, making wines of purity and finesse that are nonetheless true to their Chianti Classico roots.

Or should I say Radda roots? As in numerous other regions, Chianti is debating whether to add subzones to labels, like Radda in Chianti, recognizing that the different Chianti communes can have distinctive qualities. To me, the signature of Radda, where Istine farms its organic vineyards at relatively high altitudes, is elegance and finesse, and this bottle seemed particularly graceful and floral.

While I love Chiantis in a range of styles, I find myself particularly drawn to those from Radda. The fact that this bottle cost $24, less than half the price of some other Chianti Classicos, made the experience of drinking it particularly sweet.

Credit…Courtesy of Hiyu Wine Farm

Hiyu Wine Farm Columbia Gorge Hypericum 2017

Hiyu Wine Farm, outside Hood River, Ore., in the Columbia River Gorge, is an astounding place. It’s a fully mixed farm with animals, vegetables, fruit trees and eclectic grapes, along with a tasting room and a terrific restaurant overlooking the vineyard.

I was having lunch there in July, on my first extended trip in a year-and-a-half. I had driven up from Los Angeles to the Gorge, stopping in wine regions on the way.

As I was eating a delicious piece of halibut and drinking this bottle, made from grapes like assyrtiko, fiano and others that trace a path from Greece to Southern Italy, I looked out the window at a wild meadow bursting with herbs and wildflowers, with bees and butterflies flitting about.

The wine tasted almost exactly as I imagined the meadow smelled, herbal and floral, vaguely Alpine. It was completely unconventional, a tad mystical, wholly enchanting and completely in keeping with the ethos of Hiyu, where beauty is created in an atmosphere of humility, openness and uncertainty.

Credit…Courtesy of Polaner Selections

Domaine Trapet Marsannay Rouge 2017

I wrote about this wine recently in an article examining what “greatness” means when applied to wine. I suggested that reserving the term for the most complex and age-worthy bottles was too limiting, and that many other wines could be great, depending on how well they reflected the occasion at which they were consumed.

This bottle was a good example, I thought. My wife and I drank it in September in Brussels with our younger son and his partner, whom we hadn’t seen in nearly two years.

Trapet is an excellent producer, based in Gevrey-Chambertin. It makes a range of wines including several grand crus, the top of the Burgundy hierarchy. Comparatively speaking, the Marsannay is a humble wine, without the grandeur of, say, Trapet’s grand cru Chambertin.

In an objective sense, considering their potential for aging and achieving complexity, the Chambertin would be deemed the superior wine. But on this occasion, the Marsannay was the better choice.

Though simply a village wine, a couple of notches beneath grand cru, it was earthy and floral, lovely to admire and delicious to enjoy but not distracting. Was it the wine that was memorable? Or the occasion that made the wine memorable? Does it matter?

Credit…Courtesy of José Pastor Selections

Bodegas Cota 45 Ube Las Vegas El Carrascal 2017

This year I’ve been inspired by wines like this one from Cota 45 in the Jerez region of southern Spain, sherry country. The proprietor, Ramiro Ibáñez, is fascinated by the terroir of Jerez, a quality sadly neglected in the production of mass-market sherries, except for a small group of serious-minded producers who seek out the pure expression of albariza, as the chalky white soils are called.

El Carrascal is one of a series of wines made by Mr. Ibáñez that are meant to express the albariza terroir. Like sherry, these wines are made from the palomino grape, but unlike sherry they are not fortified.

Carrascal is from a single vineyard, Viña Las Vegas, in manzanilla territory, near Sanlúcar de Barrameda. It seemed to express the savory, fragile essence of manzanilla, demonstrating that fortifying the wine — adding neutral spirit to raise the alcohol level to 15 percent or more — was unnecessary.

Wines like this open possibilities, requiring us to re-examine what we think we know about a region and the potential of its wines.

Credit…Courtesy of Equipo Navazos

Equipo Navazos La Bota de Manzanilla 32 Saca de October 2011

Speaking of Jerez, I had the pleasure of visiting the region in 2012 and was particularly happy to spend time with Jesús Barquín and Eduardo Ojeda, the two men behind Equipo Navazos, a sort of high-end négociant that was spearheading a sherry renaissance.

In an industry dominated by mass production of generally mediocre, inexpensive wines, they were bottling small quantities of extraordinary sherries that demonstrated how much of the conventional wisdom about sherry was wrong.

Chief among the beliefs is that fragile sherries like manzanilla must be consumed almost immediately upon purchase or they will deteriorate. But here was this sherry, bottled in 2011, which I opened in October at a picnic in Central Park after it had rested in my wine fridge for most of a decade.

It turned out I drank the same wine, La Bota de Manzanilla 32, in 2012, finding it gentle but intense, with great finesse. Nine years later it was brilliant, its salinity and minerality concentrated by the aging, yet still a ravishing example of intensity without weight. Maybe hyperfiltered, mass-market sherries can’t age, but this one? Absolutely.

Credit…Courtesy of Frederick Wildman

Ridge Monte Bello Santa Cruz Mountains 2011

I recently said in an article that Ridge Monte Bello was perhaps the greatest American cabernet sauvignon. I received some pushback for that opinion from people who suggested, in effect, that it could not hold a candle to some of Napa Valley’s cult cabernets.

That’s partly a matter of taste, as those wines are different in style from Monte Bello, and partly my own imprecision. I ought better to have said “among the greatest American cabernets.” Singling out any wine is always dicey.

But the 2011, which I drank in January for a Zoom discussion on that very difficult California vintage, reinforced my conviction. It was gorgeous, beautifully aromatic, complex and elegant, graceful and savory.

I can think of a lot of great California cabernets. But it’s hard for me to think of any that are regularly better than Monte Bello.

Credit…Courtesy of The Wine Trust

Château Mouton Rothschild Pauillac 2005

In June, I made a quick hop to Atlanta for a 16-year retrospective of the 2005 Bordeaux vintage, the best so far in the 21st century, in my opinion. It was originally scheduled for 2020. Better late than never.

The event, over two days, included many impressive wines, including an elegant, pure Pontet-Canet, but the bottle I can’t forget was the Mouton Rothschild, which stuck out in an exalted group. It was powerful yet graceful and harmonious, already developing complexity yet still, after 16 years, a baby.

Who knows if I’ll ever have an opportunity to drink this wine again. But I would love to be able to check in with it once every decade, give or take a year.

Credit…Courtesy of Grand Cru Selections

Domaine J.L. Chave Hermitage 1989

Another casualty of 2020 was an annual wine dinner among friends, including some noteworthy wine collectors. Our 2021 edition, held in October in Chappaqua, N.Y., more than made up for it.

Two rare wines made particular impressions on me. The first was a 1989 Hermitage from Domaine J.L. Chave, a family that traces its work as vignerons back to 1481. Chave is synonymous with Hermitage, a source of powerful, long-lasting syrah wines in the Northern Rhône Valley, one of my favorite regions.

This wine seemed to be bottomless, pure, meaty and saline, with flavors that resonated over time. They are still resonating in my mind. I don’t think I will ever forget the wine’s depth and dimension.

Credit…Courtesy of Acker Wines

Cantina Mascarello Barolo 1978

The second wine at that gathering in Chappaqua was this 1978 Barolo, from what is now known as Cantina Bartolo Mascarello, even though Bartolo Mascarello’s daughter, Maria Teresa Mascarello, has run the family estate since he died in 2005.

At the dinner, a dish of homemade gnocchi with white truffles had just been served, which set off a debate on whether white truffles went better with Burgundy or Barolo. It was put to a test.

First came a 1993 Clos de la Roche from Domaine Dujac, a gorgeous grand cru Burgundy that was delicate and nuanced. You could not go wrong with this combination.

But then came the Barolo, stony and dark yet almost ethereal. Together with the truffles, which like the wine came from the Piedmont region of Italy, the wine was magical. Nobody had really doubted that a great Barolo is unsurpassed with white truffles. We just wanted to drink the Burgundy, too.

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