It’s always an enjoyable task deciding what to highlight from the year just gone, or almost (as I write this on New Year’s Eve). The research for this article, and my initial words, were begun in the week before Christmas and I always try to devote a lot of thought to my annual review. As with everything I write, the caveat is always that it’s totally subjective. I always allow my reaction to wine to be influenced by other factors when I’m not at a professional tasting. Wine is so much about enjoyment with wonderful people rather than the cold sting of “points”. My assertion is that when so many other things in the world are a bit, well, crap, then at least your glass may as well be half full when it comes to drinking. So below you can read about the wines I recall enjoying most in 2019 (with apologies to any stunning wines I’ve forgotten), followed by a few more categories to (hopefully) stimulate your interest.
I am gratified that this site continues to build its traffic year on year. In 2018 I was amazed to top 30,000 visitors, and the 2019 stats are just a little short of 36,000. It’s gratifying to see that so many people are interested in my opinions and passions. To be frank, that’s what keeps me writing. So I hope that this little interlude, or indulgence, will strike a few chords. Normal service will be resumed in a week. I hope you had a wonderful festive period, whatever you believe in and wherever you are.
FIRST THE WINES
Red Wine –
Probably the producer who provided the greatest number of brilliant red wines in 2019 (though mostly not at home) was Hanspeter Ziereisen. This wonderful winemaker in Southern Baden, near the Swiss border, will also appear in the white wine category, impressive. I just bought Anne Krebiehl’s Wines of Germany and for this producer her “recommendation to try”, rather than just one wine, says “anything at all”. After my own heart! A producer which excels at every level.
Our visit to Australia recently gave me three outstanding wines from many drunk and tasted – Clonakilla Shiraz-Viognier 2018 is a superstar wine (potentially wine of the vintage, though too young now, of course). Andrew Thomas‘ Kiss Shiraz 2017 will be stunning as well, and every red I tasted at Bindi (I should say every wine) almost made me cry (only partly because they are not currently imported into the UK). However, I can’t omit another Aussie, Henschke Mount Edelstone Shiraz 2001. This old favourite was drinking perfectly, one of the best wines I’ve ever opened on Christmas Day. You know, I’ve never tried Hill of Grace!
I saved a bottle of Rennersistas Waiting for Tom 2015, which I drank last year (Blaufränkisch, St-Laurent and Pinot Noir) and adored it. Who says natural wines don’t age well. My other star Austrian drunk in 2019 was a Gut Oggau Josephine. From France, several Gnome Labels from Domaine L’Octavin (Arbois) were all beautiful. As an aside, I am so happy and relieved that Eduard, Stephanie (of Gut Oggau) and the family are safe after a fire at a friend’s house over Christmas. It puts many things in perspective.
But after all those lovely bottles one red wine stood out above the rest in 2019. In fact it is among the very best red wines I’ve ever drunk. Casse Basse Soldera Brunello Riserva 1990. It was a privilege to drink it with good friends at The Sportsman (Seasalter). Astonishing, and a clear example of how wine can touch the deepest parts of the soul.
White Wine –
I think one white wine also stands out in 2019. It’s always difficult when you know a wine isn’t mature, but the genuine purity of Bindi Quartz Chardonnay 2017, from the Macedon Ranges in Victoria, drunk on a farm in NSW which, as I type, is under threat from the terrible bush fires, was quite remarkable. The Ziereisen white I mentioned above is made from a grape usually sneered at by the uninitiated, Chasselas. Hanspeter’s Gutedel 10 hoch 4 Alte Reben 2016 is something else though. I only tasted this at a Howard Ripley event, but I didn’t spit. In fact, whilst others were ogling the Auction Wines on the next table, I took a second pour.
Another star of a lovely dinner at home with a sommelier friend and her partner, where we drank quite a few outstanding natural wines, some of unicorn status, was Domaine L’Octavin Pamina 2015, Chardonnay from Arbois’ “La Mailloche” vineyard. I’m kind of in love with this domaine’s wines, although I find Alice Bouvot a little daunting as a result. Finally, a general mention for the Aligoté of Andrew and Emma Nielsen’s Du Grappin label. Over Christmas I adored opening one or two of their Le Grappin Burgundies (Beaune Boucherottes 2013 is exquisite now), but these wines from the region’s forgotten white grape have been amazing. It’s generally been a fine year for Aligoté consumption.
Sparkling Wines –
And the winner is…I really must plug Black Chalk, Jacob Leadley’s new label from Hampshire. The Wild Rose 2015 was my favourite of several wonderful bottles this year. Other accolades to Bérêche Beaux Regards, Jérôme Dehours Terre de Meunier, everything I drank from Lassaigne, Florian Lauer‘s Sekts (and those his dad made) and my only bottle of J-P Rietsch‘s Crémant d’Alsace (just stunning). The best fun all year was had drinking the Koppitsch family’s Pretty Nats (or nuts!) petnat, once I could get hold of several bottles. In fact all of this family’s wines make me so happy. Very much hoping to see Alex and Maria this year.
Orange Wine –
Amber Wine, Skin Contact, whatever you want to call it. Lots of great Georgians, mostly from Les Caves de Pyrene, and Matthieu Deiss/Emmanuelle Milan’s Vignoble du Rêveur Artisan is amazing if you can find it, but one wine from another source stood out. Dobra Vinice is an estate I know well, insofar as I know wine from Czech Moravia. Nejedlik Orange 2011 is a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Ryzlinka and Sauvignon Blanc. Off the scale complex. Kind of what you hope for plus more, if you are partial to the odd orange (from Basket Press Wines, although this vintage may no longer be available).
Sweet and Fortified Wine –
I’d been saving Heidi Schröck Ruster Ausbruch 2002 for some years. It finally went, and it just pips Rieussec 1996 to top spot for sticky of the year. I’m ever the predictable one when it comes to fortified wines. Equipo-Navazos gets the gong again, and the best of the year was almost certainly the Bota 51, a Palo Cortado Viejissimo “GF”, sourced originally from butts at Gaspar Florido, then moved to Pedro Romero. The wines in this old solera are between 50 and 80 years old. I do so adore the singular wines of EN, but maybe someone will buy me some old Madeira in 2020…
There are one or two producers I’ve not mentioned and I’d feel terrible if I failed to do so. My favourite people in Arbois, Domaine des Bodines, Hermit Ram (Canterbury, NZ) and Kelley Fox (Oregon). All three are joining my select group of wine gods (Gut Oggau, Rennersistas, Octavin etc), people whose wines light up my life.
Last, but certainly not least, Tim Phillips, or perhaps I should say Charlie Herring Wines. Tim makes wine, cider and beer from his walled garden (Clos du Paradis) and orchard in Hampshire, not far from Lymington on the edge of the New Forest. His wines, including as far as I’m aware England’s only bottle fermented Riesling, are made in tiny quantities but they are so pure. Often steely, but oh so pure. You’d think Tim does it by shamanism, but actually I think he has a very good grasp of wine science and trusts his intuition. And of course it’s all about the quality.
Perfect Strangers, Tim’s “cider with a dash of red wine” blend
STARS AND BARS…AND RESTAURANTS
As I write I’m yet to visit the newly opened Silo way out on the edge of London’s eastward spread (as far as hip dining goes), but their Brighton iteration served up exciting food, amazing wines and all with a zero-waste philosophy. It was the most exciting place to eat in 2019.
The gastronomic highlight of my year is invariably what has become an annual trip to The Sportsman at Seasalter for a group of us. We are allowed to take our own wine on this occasion (so long as we share it). It is hard to imagine anywhere (I mean that) capable of serving a better tasting menu. On our 2019 visit I must single out the halibut in Vin Jaune with a single morille, and the pairing of Sussex Rib with my choice for red wine of the year/decade/lifetime (that Soldera). In London a little of the Sportsman magic rubs off on Noble Rot (Stephen Harris remains Executive Chef) and I can’t wait to try their new restaurant on the former site of one of Soho’s great dens of political machination when it opens later this year.
More than honourable mentions go to Mast Weinbistro (Vienna) and the new Wild Flor (Hove), both for their exciting but very different wine lists. Mast is probably my favourite restaurant in Europe (because they have a great wine selection, wonderful atmosphere, and food to match). Wild Flor was where we spent New Year’s Eve (a short piece will appear soon). For bars, well, Plateau (Brighton) is up there with anything London can offer, especially for its wine list, and the best time I had in a bar in 2019 was probably at Septime La Cave (Paris), on a day when we both ate and drank quite a lot…which is what Paris is for.
Sydney…well I’m going to write about three really good Sydney restaurants in the New Year, but just to mention them, Jonah’s (posh), Dear Sainte-Eloise (Sydney’s Sager+Wilde) and Bhodi (vegan dim sum, seriously!). Watch this space.
WINE MERCHANTS AND SHOPS
I bought less wine than I should have in 2019, though I suppose I do still own rather a lot. I still buy regularly from Solent Cellar (Lymington) and Butler’s Wine Cellar (Brighton), supplemented by trips to Newcomer Wines (Dalston, and invariably Furanxo just down the road whilst I’m there), and increasingly to the new wine shop at Antidote (off Carnaby Street), who sell a few choice bottles from the Dynamic Vines range. Solent Cellar is like a London wine shop in a small Georgian town on the edge of the New Forest. It is very much worth the detour.
Dynamic Vines is probably my favourite medium-sized merchant (well, they import Gut Oggau and La Tournelle for one thing), alongside Graft Wines (formed last year when Red Squirrel and The Knotted Vine came together) and Vine Trail. Small Merchant of 2019 must be Basket Press, whose mainly Czech list is inspiring, and getting more exposure, but I also have to mention Nektar and Modal Wines, plus Swig, Indigo, Uncharted Wines, Carte Blanche and, new to me in 2019, 266 Wines (some amazing kit shown at the 2019 Out of the Box Tasting last October, including the remarkable Hiyu Wine Farm from Oregon).
Les Caves de Pyrene surely wins the accolade of best large merchant, and if their portfolio is anything to go by, they are indeed large now. They are responsible for so much that we drink today, either directly or indirectly. I buy more wine from them (directly or from retailers they supply) than any other UK merchant right now. And let’s not forget they have Doug Wregg, who as most of you will agree is just one of the nicest bloke’s on the planet, not just in wine. I only lament that they stopped importing Bindi.
If there is one thing I ought to buy more of in 2020 it is wine from Piemonte, but I don’t want Barolo which needs 20 years. I’m getting a little too old for that. I also learn’t something in 2019. I knew blokes could drink pink wine, of course, but I discovered it is perfectly nice in winter as well as summer. I have mainly a bunch of Austrians to thank for that piece of enlightenment. Well there you go.
Throughout the year I try to attend as many tastings as I can, although their organisers seem to enjoy bunching them all together at times. It’s not at all unusual for several to be held on the same day, and whereas some people are happy to show their face at several, I generally make a point of doing only one in a day. I miss some, but it suits my focus. And with me it’s always first come first served (take note). There are some tastings, mostly trade/press only, aside from the obvious (Raw and The Real Wine Fair) that I would hate to miss.
Out of the Box, the young importer event usually located in Clerkenwell in early October, has become unmissable. The importers showing tend not to be big names, but this is almost certainly where you will make some amazing discoveries (as with 266 Wines’ Hiyu Wine Farm, mentioned above).
In 2019 there were some other wonderful events, perhaps headed by Newcomer Wines’ and Vine Trails’ Celebrating Common Ground. This brought together wines from Alsace and Germany from two of the UK’s very best merchants. I even got to meet legend Rudolf Trossen, worth the trip to Old Street just for that. I think the other tasting which stood out in 2019 was Les Caves’ “Drinking Outside the Box“. No marks for confusing nomenclature, but this September event was, for me, even better (high praise) than their Real Wine Fair, perhaps on account of it’s more manageable physical size and Marylebone location (easier to get there early doors and get stuck in before the crowds arrived). It was so good I actually wrote three articles about it.
The Les Caves “Box” and Marc Tempé pointing to “Common Ground”
Other plaudits go to the wonderful New Wave of South Africa which was the only trade event in 2019 where we had to queue to get in, so popular it has become, and a small tasting of Blank Bottle Winery, held at one of Henry Butler’s shops in Brighton in early June. Winemaker Pieter Walser, and Damian from importer Swig Wines, came along to pour something like nineteen or twenty samples. Not only did we taste them, but Pieter, possibly the most entertaining story teller in wine, gave us a morning of unparalleled myth, legend and yarns that I may have ever had the pleasure to listen to in a wine shop. You can easily search for any of these events using the search box at the top right of this page, but if you want to be enthralled by Pieter’s wines and a few tall tales, click here.
WINE BOOK OF THE YEAR
I buy quite a lot of wine books and I try to review the best of them on my Blog. There is one clear winner among many great reads for 2019. You might wonder how come the same author that won this highly esteemed accolade in 2017 has won again in 2019? Well, Wink Lorch‘s Jura Wine, the 2017 winner, was not only a well researched gem, but it also hit the zeitgeist perfectly, being published as this remarkable region in Eastern France was shooting to stardom. Her timing was perfect.
As well as being clearly the world’s foremost expert on Jura wines, Wink lives for half the year in the French Alps. Her next project therefore had to cover her home regions. It took a very long time for Wines of the French Alps (also self-published) to come out. The work was completed after a period of tragedy for Wink, who lost her partner before publication. Brett Jones was very much an inspiration for her, and as owners of her two books will know, a great photographer as well. Yet Wink struggled through, and produced a book every bit as near-perfect as the last.
The French Alpine Regions may not be quite as “on trend” as Jura, but those who have tasted the wonderful wines of producers like the now retired Michel Grisard, Jean-Yves Péron, or perhaps the two Dominiques (Belluard and Lucas) already know that there are world class wines to be discovered. If you’ve read Wink’s book, you will be in the vanguard of new discoveries. If you haven’t read my review, click here. The review also contains a link if you wish to buy it.
I want to mention one other book. I had been mildly annoying Wink by suggesting that her next project should be a natural extension eastward to Switzerland, but she gently pointed me in the direction of an author I had previously only read in wine magazines and journals, Sue Style. Her The Landscape of Swiss Wine was published in 2019 by Bergli Books, and later in the year Sue sadly passed away. The book does omit a couple of producers I’d have liked to have seen covered, but it’s a lovely book, one sorely needed by myself and my more adventurous wine friends. I’m not alone in appreciating Swiss Wine and Sue’s book will inspire many others to discover the beautiful wines we already know and love. My review can be found here.
Lest you should think I have forgotten, I have to remind you that 2019 saw a new (8th) edition of the World Wine Atlas. Hugh, Jancis and team have as always done a magnificent job. I only got my copy late, on my return from Australia, but although I’m yet to read it cover to cover, a good flick through shows that the amount of updating looks astonishing. It must be the most meticulously put together wine book there is. It’s essential. If you own the 7th edn, then I seriously suggest you upgrade to the eighth.
THE SELF INDULGENT BIT
I write about wine and I’m truly passionate about it, so people are surprised when if asked which I’d give up if forced to, wine or music, I always say wine. I would hate to live without wine but I’m not sure I could live without music. I have remarkably wide and eclectic tastes as well, perhaps mirroring my tastes in wine. For those who managed to get this far in my review of 2019 I’m going to throw in some musical highlights too.
My musical event of the year took place in Vienna, happily one day before the Koppitsch Party at O Boufé’s. I have a love of opera, and I’ve seen performances at Vienna’s famous Staatsoper, but I had never seen a performance at the Theater an der Wien before. I’ve been desperate to see Purcell’s King Arthur for years and in January 2019 I had the chance. In truth I wasn’t feeling too well but it remains my opera highlight of the last decade. So, Gus Christie, don’t say I didn’t tell you.
For a very different musical experience, check out the sheer raw energy of Idles via their recent release A Beautiful Thing, recorded live at the Paris Bataclan. The music sounds violent but this is a band full of love and compassion. A very different set is Nick Cave‘s Ghosteen. I read a review which said that to listen to it you need to be able to comprehend absolute despair and to be able to come out the other side. It is clearly the work of an artist who has lost a child, but there is hope in there, and it is beautiful.
I bought many records from many genres in 2019 (more than bottles of wine? Maybe not), but to listen to all three above would give a fairly interesting summary of what goes on inside my head. If you are interested, yes, I am pretty much hooked on the vinyl revival. I can’t believe how fresh music appears through this medium, especially after the compressed, dulled, passion of MP3 files.
It only remains to wish you all a very happy and successful 2020, and to thank you for reading my articles. Every click is encouragement for me to write more (for sadly there is no financial inducement to do so). To anyone who finds the time in their busy life to read my work, I am genuinely grateful. There are many more words to come out and many bottles to be drunk, books to be read, and vineyards to be visited…I hope…in the coming year. Happy New Year!
Below are some (I stress, some) of the wonderful wine people who have helped me enjoy 2019 like perhaps no wine year before it. Without all of you, producers and wine merchants, I could not have written the many thousands of words of the past year. Some I know well, others hardly at all, but you all played a part.