How to Make 2016 Your Best Wine Year Ever
Ted Loos is the Travel + Leisure’s Wine and Spirits Contributor. Follow him on Twitter at @looslips.
Figure Out Your Champagne Spirit Animal.
Champagne—in addition to being fizzy, glamorous, and delicious—is a blended wine. That means varying amounts of the grapes Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier go into it each year, and from multiple harvests, too. By varying the recipe, the producers all try to keep a consistent, signature style in their Brut non-vintage (NV) wines—and these make up most of the production of the region. Knowing your preference makes New Year’s Eve bubbly shopping a lot easier. Find your favorite style and stick with it.
Maybe you like a light, citrusy character. Then Ruinart Brut Blanc de Blancs ($50) is your play. It’s made from 100% Chardonnay. Try this with sushi, it’s a terrific match.
Prefer toasty, rich and decadent? Then it’s Krug Grande Cuvée Brut ($160) all the way. This is a serious food matching wine that asks for a side of roast chicken.
For me, Charles Heidsieck Brut Reserve NV ($60) is the right balance of elegance and richness. If you have a chance, and the budget, try some of the vintage Champagnes from this house, which will blow your mind.
I do enjoy the fruity complexity of Taittinger Brut La Francaise NV ($60), too. Brioche, peach, and honey flavors have rarely been so well combined, and it’s gloriously consistent.
I never said deciding on your Champagne spirit animal was easy, but it is a lot of fun.
Try A Wine With Some Age On It.
A huge percentage of all wines sold are bought the same day that they are consumed, and most of those are from the most recent vintage of that wine, too.
But one of the joys of wine is that as it ages, it changes—sometimes for worse, but often for better, opening up a whole new world of flavor. If you’re dealing with a serious producer with an excellent track record and you see a vintage available that’s more than five years old, give it a try—it helps calibrate your palate to see how their wines evolve over time.
Exhibit A: Trimbach Riesling Cuvee Frederic Emile 2007 ($62). Yup, white wine can age too, and Rieslings from France’s Alsace region like this one are prime candidates to try. This dry, elegant beauty has a complex aroma of pears, apple and white pineapple. It’s more than eight years old, and it’s not done getting better.
Take South America Seriously.
The continent that used to bring you only cheap and cheerful wines has grown up. Chile in particular has blossomed on the high end, especially with Cabernet Sauvignon–based wines.
Exhibit A: Jet-setting billionaires Alex and Carrie Vik founded the Vik winery in a picturesque part of the Millahue region of Chile, and hired French winemaker Patrick Valette to craft a serious Cab-centric blend that incorporates the local favorite grape, Carmenere. It’s a red worth aging, with an extra supple texture—the Vik 2012 ($145) is pricey, sure, but it’s also serious. Bonus points if you stay at the incredible Viña Vik hilltop lodging, which Alex designed himself and modeled after the work of starchitect Frank Gehry. The 22 rooms are a quirky feast for the senses, filled with colorful local art that the couple has collected.
Stop Being Weird About Sweet Wines.
A lot of people are sugar-phobic, because they heard 20 years ago that sweet wines were uncool. Sugar is like anything else: It’s a tool in a winemaker’s arsenal that can be good or bad. And the sweetest wines out there are some of the most long-lived and delicious ones on the planet.
Case in point: Pacific Rim Riesling Ice Wine Selenium Vineyard 2013 ($40 for 375ml). This wine is plenty sweet, but it has the acidity to balance out the drinking experience, and it is chocked full of luscious honey, pear and apricot flavors. Try it after dinner with a goat cheese. Once you open in, your fear of sweet wines will vanish on a cloud of sweet happiness.
Attend a Wine Festival.
This January alone, the calendar is chocked full of options for great wine festivals. Why go to one? You might learn something from the intensive seminars and the chance to meet and talk to the people who make your favorite wines—the offerings are simply better when the principals are on hand. And let’s face it: it’s fun to taste and party with like-minded folks.
First is the WinterFest Food & Wine Festival at the Paws Up Resort in Montana ($745/person, Jan 21–24), a luxury property on 37,000 acres of wilderness. Master Sommelier Chuck Furuya will be doing seminars on topics like Old World vs New World Wines, and you’ll be eating the food of acclaimed chefs all weekend.
That’s followed by the boffo, biggest-of-them-all charity wine auction, the Naples Winter Wine Festival ($10,000/couple, Jan 29-31). Maybe not everyone can afford it, but some of the most prestigious wineries in the world will be on hand, including Napa’s Chateau Montelena and Château de Beaucastel of France’s Rhone region. And they’ve raised $135 million for charity since it started.
Get a Decent Set of Glasses
Yes, it’s cute when your favorite farm-to-table restaurant serves you wine in little tumblers. But ultimately, wine doesn’t taste as good in those vessels, and if you want to educate yourself and learn the difference between good and not-so-good, a well-shaped glass is key.
Don’t overthink it: Go with the greatest makers of wineware, Riedel (riedelusa.net), and get a couple of shapes that fit your favorite varietal or style. Think about it: It’s worth spending $10 on a glass if every one of the next 100 $10-bottles you buy tastes better.
Or grab the all-purpose The One by top sommelier Andrea Robinson, which aims to be everything to every grape—it may not be as good as individual glasses for each type, but it’s a lot better than those cute tumblers.
Go to Camp.
There are opportunities all over the world to get involved in a wine grape harvest—you’ll quickly get appreciation for how much effort that requires. (Thank you, vineyard workers everywhere.) One of the best is Sonoma Grape Camp, which takes place every September in one of California’s most important regions. Not only do you get a first-hand taste of picking grapes and making wine, there are deluxe dinners, seminars and cooking classes, as well as a high-end lodging to rest your head. There’s no better way to learn about how wine gets from an estate to your glass. This is education that goes down easy.
Try A New Region from a Classic Wine Country
France is enviably deep in wine—almost every part of the country has a tradition of making fine wine that goes back centuries or millennia, from Champagne to the Loire to Burgundy. But you’ve probably never heard of Gaillac, tucked in the Southwest corner of the country near Bordeaux. They do a lot of things well in Gaillac, but the rustic red blends are the star attraction.
Domaine Plageoles Le Duras 2012 ($18), made from organic grapes, has lovely sweet black fruit, backed up by herbs and smoke.
Domaine Plageoles Prunelart Rouge 2012 ($19) is inky black and tannic, and made from a grape that has been mostly forgotten, delivering prune and chocolate tastes. It’s a great match for brisket.
Chateau d'Escabes L'Orangerie 2011 ($19), a blend of Syrah and two other grapes, is quite buttoned up and Bordeaux-like, with a plummy black cherry profile. It’s a great way to get a reassuringly familiar taste from a new place.
Branch Out to a New Country.
Uruguay is a good contender, because it makes affordable wines and hasn’t become as well-known as its neighbor Argentina. One of the best distributed wineries, Bodega Garzón, is about 45 minutes from the ultra-chic beach resort of José Ignacio, and has a brand-new winery opening in March. There’ll be a restaurant, retail space and an interactive wine lab, not to mention a place to taste its award-winning olive oil. The Garzón Sauvignon Blanc 2014 ($17), with its zingy grapefruit profile, will welcome you to a country that may be 2016’s sleeper.
Napa Valley has become known as All Cab, All the Time, as the wines get fancier and pricier, crowding out any other grapes. But the formerly low-rent Coombsville district, right next to the recently rebounding town of Napa itself—a bit cooler than most other parts of the valley—not only does Cab well, it does Zindfandel and Syrah, too.
The super-elegant Robert Biale R.W. Moore Vineyard Zinfandel 2011 ($50), made from extremely old vines, will make you think differently about Napa. It’s got an explosion of raspberry fruit but a very light and supple mouthfeel, and won’t weigh you down as you head into 2016.