Year’s end prompts us to reflect on the past 12 months while anticipating the future. I tend to look not through a crystal ball but through a filled tulip glass. For me, 2016 was all about history and wine’s ability to capture the past. Yet this year in wine also pointed to a delicious future.
We celebrated the 40th anniversary of the famous Paris Tasting of 1976, when California wines impressed professional French judges just ever so slightly more than classic French wines. Thanks to a short article in Time magazine, the tasting had tremendous impact and propelled California and the United States onto the world wine stage.
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History celebrated the anniversary; before that, I had the chance to visit in California with Mike Grgich, now 93, the Croatian immigrant who crafted the winning chardonnay for Napa Valley’s Chateau Montelena. At Grgich Hills Estate, founded in 1978, Grgich and his team are still crafting some of Napa’s most elegant wines.
I also caught up with Bo Barrett, son of Montelena’s founder, Jim Barrett, who continues to argue that California’s cabernets, zinfandels and chardonnays are better in the elegant style of the 1970s and ’80s rather than the more powerful, higher-alcohol trends of the past 20 years. Can history pull us back to the future?
This year was also the 50th anniversary of the Robert Mondavi winery, which ignited Napa Valley’s revolution in 1966. Robert Mondavi was the consummate salesman and ambassador for California wine, but his winery was also a crucible for winemakers who have since gone on to become famous; they include Warren Winiarski, who later founded Stag Leap Wine Cellars and crafted the 1973 cabernet sauvignon that won the Paris Tasting, and Grgich.
At the Mondavi anniversary dinner, we each received a thimbleful of the 1966 cabernet sauvignon, the winery’s first, crafted on the fly while the winery was being built around the hubbub of crush and winemaking. My thimbleful was entrancing: It tasted of black fruit, a little earth, maybe the sweat, hopes and fears of the crew who fashioned it.
When Winiarski stood and said of the 1966 Mondavi, “I made this wine,” the room erupted in applause.
World history was also reflected in my wine glass this year. In May, I visited Langenlois in lower Austria, northwest of Vienna. At Weingut Loimer, Fred Loimer escorted my wife and me through his brick-lined cellars, carved into a hillside. The cellars had been used as an airplane factory during World War II, he explained. It took a few seconds for that to sink in — that the factory was hidden from Allied bombers. “Wait here,” Loimer said at one point, then disappeared into the darkness. He flipped a switch and lights illuminated not just the tunnel where he stood, but another off to the side, more history to be explored.
And I tasted World War I this year. On a visit to Champagne, where some of that war’s fiercest battles raged, I visited the cellars of Champagne Bollinger. This venerable champagne house was celebrating the discovery of several hundred old bottles forgotten in its cellars. My tasting that day with Bollinger’s winemakers included wines from the 1990s back several decades and could easily fill a Top 10 list of the year. The highlight was from 1914, a wine I will never forget. Harvested at the brink of world war by women and children whose husbands and fathers had been mobilized to fight, the wine seemed to reflect the dread of impending war but also an optimism for the future.
But what of the present? Four wines stand out as exemplars of local (or at least regional) wines. The Galen Glen Grner Veltliner shows that Pennsylvania can produce delicious, racy whites when climate, terroir and winemaking coalesce.
Old Westminster’s malbec and Boordy Vineyard’s petit verdot, both from the 2014 vintage, showed that Maryland can offer savory reds of world-class quality. These wines will only get better in future vintages.
My wine of the year would have to be Barboursville’s Fiano Reserve 2015. It’s Virginia’s first wine made from fiano, an Italian grape, and the first Virginia white wine I would describe as delicate.
For full disclosure, I must admit a personal connection to this wine. I spent about 30 minutes harvesting fiano grapes as part of my four-part series on the 2015 vintage at Barboursville. The professional pickers were several acres away before Barboursville’s chief winemaker, Luca Paschina, pulled me out of the vineyards lest I damage his vines.
But no matter — this is my wine. And it’s delicious.