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My top-scoring wines of 2009

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Of my 32 highest-scoring wines of 2009, all but one were red (the sole exception was Iron Horse’s appropriately named Joy! brut) and of those, 18 were Cabernet Sauvignon or a Bordeaux blend. Except for two of those (Rodney Strong’s 2006 Rockaway, from Alexander Valley, and Kendall-Jackson’s ’06 Trace Ridge, from Knights Valley), all the Cabs were from Napa Valley — from Oak Knoll in the south through Stags Leap and Oakville on up to St. Helena.

However, of the top 16 wines fully 12 were Pinot Noir. They were concentrated in the Sonoma Coast, Green Valley and Russian River Valley, but Santa Rita Hills were well-represented, with ambassadors here and there from Santa Maria Valley, Anderson Valley and Sonoma Mountain. Somewhat surprising was the relative absence of Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noirs. Is it just me or are these wines a little top-heavy? (You can see all my published reviews at Wine Enthusiast’s Buying Guide.)

No dry white table wine enters the list until #32, Hartford Court’s Stone Côte Chardonnay, from the Sonoma Coast. After that three Chards in a row pop up: Boekenoogen  2007 from Santa Lucia Highlands, Gary Farrell 2007 from Rochioli Vineyard and Au Bon Climat’s apocalyptically-named Santa Barbara Historic Vineyards Collection Bien Nacido Vineyard, from the 2006 vintage. As many of you know, I do like and admire a rich, ripe, oaky Chardonnay.

What all this says is no surprise. California’s three greatest dry wines are Cabernet Sauvignon (or blends), Pinot Noir (never, one hopes, blended) and Chardonnay (ditto). The reds get the nod because they’re more interesting. The same also is true in France, where these three varieties (with the addition, some would say, of Syrah in the Northern Rhône) constitute the nation’s patrimony. (Would anyone add the Sauvignon Blanc or Chenin Blanc? Speak now or hold your peace.) Why Cabernet, Pinot and Chardonnay are “noble” will be argued in different ways by different people. From an esthetic point of view, I suggest that when properly sourced and produced these three types of wine are the most complete and complex. (I’m speaking of California.) They drink the deepest and last the longest, and are best adapted to take on new oak. They show the greatest balance and longevity. After Cabernet, Pinot and Chardonnay there simply are “all the rest.” But they include some very good wines.

I wrote two days ago about the problem with Syrah in California and that generated lots of comment from readers, most of whom tended to agree with me that the variety lacks identity here. But I did have some very high-scoring Syrahs. Qupe’s ‘05 Bien Nacido X Block was way up there and so was Failla’s ‘07 Estate. Stolpman’s 2007 La Croce also did well, and I was surprised to learn it’s a blend of Sangiovese and Syrah. Perhaps there is something to be said for co-fermenting these varieties, provided that the grapes are superior. The Sangiovese seemed to add structure and acidity while the Syrah brought richness.

Not too many Sauvignon Blancs or Bordeaux-style white wines on my upper tier. Illumination’s 2008, which is 92% Sauvignon Blanc and 8% Semillon and was partially barrel-fermented and then aged on the lees, clocked in at #25. I did not know, when I gave it 95 points, that it was made by Charles Thomas, whom I remember from his days at Robert Mondavi, where he presided over the Tokalon Fume Blancs that are consistently among California’s best of the genre. (I liked the actual Mondavi 2007 Tokalon Reserve Sauvignon Blanc well enough, and gave it 92 points.) There were quite a number of dessert wines I scored highly in 2009, but I’ll save that discussion for another time.

It’s not likely that Cabernet, Pinot and Chardonnay will be dislodged anytime soon from their commanding heights. What is there to threaten them? I speak not of the cascades of indifferent, wannabe examples but of the very best. You can be an A.B.C. person but really, a great Caifornia Cabernet or Chardonnay is a world-class event. As for Pinot Noir, I am reminded of the tale that Napoleon (? can’t remember which one) had his troops bow down on bended knee as they marched past the Clos de Vougeot. There is something about that wine that approaches, well, worship, then as now.

P.S. I said yesterday I would blog today on “ten things we need more of in 2010.” It was a good idea but when I tried to write it, nada. Maybe another time.

  1. Nada? How about more interesting discourse in the wine blog-o-world, such as we see here on your blog?

    Also, I need more chocolate & peanut butter cakes baked in 2010. Especially for me. ‘Cause those things are damn tasty! :-)

  2. Dude you’re a writer. You know you can’t force it if it ain’t happening. P.S. I’ve passed your cake request along to the Keebler Elf who assures me all will be well.

  3. michele colline says:

    Speaking now…I would add sauvignon blanc AND chenin blanc…enough, I’ve said it..

  4. Too bad CA can’t seem to make decent riesling. That is, in some people’s minds, the noblest grape of all.

  5. The Napoleon story may be apochryphal, though it was traditional for French troops on the march to pay their respects to Clos Vougeot as they passed. From “A Pilgrimage into Dauphine” (1857) by George Musgrave:

    “You must absolutely halt at Clos Vougeot; for, such is the honour in which we hold it, that when a Regiment on march gains first sight of the Clos, the officer in command gives order to present arms, as though the nation itself were doing homage to the superior Sovereignty of this noblest of all grapes.”

    Other, similar accounts make no mention of Napoleon initiating the tradition, though it continued at least into World War I.

    Sorry. I’m not usually like this, but I’ve been doing some related research and this was close at hand.

  6. It is too bad. Maybe one of these days, from someplace really close to the ocean. Marin County?

  7. Tom, thanks for shedding some historical light. Happy new year.

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