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SEVEN HILLS

“SHW Founding Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon 2017

(Walla Walla Valley, Washington) $50

Just about the best thing a wine can do is taste like it costs twice as much as it does. That’s the case with this beautiful cabernet from Seven Hills with its rich aromas/flavors of cigar box, blackberries, dark chocolate, vanilla bean, espresso, cinnamon and that wonderful “rocky” character often evident in Walla Walla wines. Plus: soft tannin, a sleek body, and a long finish. Seven Hills (a partnership of four pioneers in the region) planted some of the first cabernet in Walla Walla, now considered one of the top wine regions in Washington, and one of the next great U.S. regions for cabernet. And this wine comes from those 30+ year old vines. (14.9% abv)

94 points KM

Available at Seven Hills Winery

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MONTES

"Alpha" Chardonnay 2016

(Aconcagua Costa, Chile) $21

If you like plush, tropical-tasting chardonnays, you must taste this fantastic one from Montes, one of Chile’s top innovative wineries. Exuberantly packed with pineapple, melon, coconut, lime, and yellow plum flavors, it also boasts a fresh minerally saltiness, the result of the vineyard’s location close to the sea. This is a crowd pleaser of a chardonnay and priced accordingly. Like all Montes wines, there’s an angel on the label—a tribute to one of the winery’s partners, a car fanatic, who despite dangerous driving habits has always walked away from accidents without a scratch. (13.5% abv)

93 points KM

Available at Gary’s Wine and Marketplace

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INAMA

Carmenere Riserva “Oratorio di San Lorenzo” 2015

(Colli Berici, Veneto, Italy) $55

At first, I was sure it was a typo. Carmenere from a region west of Venice, Italy? Carmenere is forever associated in my mind as one of the great red grapes of Chile. But here was a northern Italian carmenere, and it was (and is) stunning. Inama’s carmenere reminds me of a delicious Bordeaux red, but with lots more spice and minerality. The wine is deep, savory, and richly layered with whooshes of white pepper, green tobacco, and cassis. I poured it into a decanter to open it up and just stood by as it exploded into a fireworks display of flavor. Talk about a fun wine to serve blind (with a T-bone steak) to your favorite wine lover. Turns out, a small amount of carmenere has actually been planted in the Veneto’s Colli Berici hills since the mid 19th century. For its part Inama (which makes the only carmenere riserva) is a family owned winery that specializes in carmenere plus some of the best top-class Soaves in Italy. (14.5% abv)

95 points KM

Available at Saratoga Wine Exchange

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L’ECOLE NO. 41

Merlot 2017

(Walla Walla, Washington) $36

At about $7 a glass, L’Ecole No. 41’s merlot can’t be beat. The rich, juicy flavors of cranberry, pomegranate, and cherry are exuberant. And after a few minutes in your glass, the wine opens up with notes of roses, violets, and spices. This is not the dark, heavy side of merlot, but rather, the juicy, red-fruit side that begs for a roast chicken. L’Ecole No. 41 is a small, third generation, family-owned, winery located in the historic 1870 Frenchtown School (l’ecole means school in French) depicted on the label. (14.5% abv)

92 points KM

Available at L’Ecole No. 41

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SHAFER

“Red Shoulder Ranch” Chardonnay 2017

(Carneros, Napa Valley, CA) $50

There’s one time of year when I treat myself to a bottle of luxurious, expensive chardonnay, and that’s now, during the holidays. This year, it’s going to be the 2017 Shafer “Red Shoulder Ranch”—a chardonnay so exciting and complex, it stops you in your tracks. Every molecule of this wine is vibrating with a tapestry of flavors (minerals, mandarin oranges, crème brûlée, exotic citrus, tropical fruits, and a beautiful earthiness). And the texture… well, the texture is where silk meets velvet meets cream. Many wine drinkers know and love Shafer’s powerful cabernets; their chardonnay is a secret surprise. (14.9% abv).

94 points KM

Available at Vivino.com

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CHÂTEAU LA NERTHE

Côtes-du-Rhône Villages “Les Cassagnes” 2017

(Rhône Valley, France) $20

This is what my friend Ray Isle (Wine Editor of Food & Wine magazine) calls a “pajamas by the fire” wine—a wine so soul satisfying and delicious you won’t want to stop drinking it. It’s also an exquisite example of a great grenache’s irresistible aromas and flavors: wave after wave of cherry liqueur, cherry preserves, red licorice, violets, minerals and exotic spices. La Nerthe is a top producer in the southern Rhône Valley of France and is most famous for their Châteauneuf-du-Papes which cost considerably more. This is the estate’s Côtes-du-Rhône Villages, a theoretically humble wine which doesn’t taste one bit humble, and is a steal to boot. In addition to grenache, it includes some syrah and mourvèdre, and the vines are 40 years old. The wine is named after the green oak trees that surround the vineyard—cassagne means “oak tree” in the local southern Rhône dialect. (14.5% abv)

92 points KM

Available at Vivino.com

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BODEGAS CONTADOR

“Que Bonito Cacareaba” Blanco 2014

(Rioja, Spain) $70

In wine, tension is a great trait. It gives you a wine like this Contador—a wine with both dazzling acidity and decadent creaminess at the same time. White Riojas like this are some of the most exciting rich white wines coming out of Europe today—easily on par with the great white Burgundies. But, of course, they have their own unique flavors. In the case of this Contador, those flavors run to lemon pith, fresh sage, white pepper, sea spray, crème brûlée, and flashes of minerals. Que Bonito Cacareaba is a playful reference to the sound of a rooster’s crow—”cacareaba” in Spanish. (14.5% abv)

95 points KM

Available at www.find.wine

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TABLAS CREEK

Esprit de Tablas 2017

(Adelaida District, Paso Robles, CA) $60

Modeled on (and in partnership with) Chateau Beaucastel, one of the great wines of France, Esprit from Tablas Creek is one of the best Rhône-style wines in the United States. It’s what I call a “cooling red,” meaning that its irresistible sense of freshness is vibrant. It’s also a wine packed with personality. From the mourvèdre (40%), it gets a deep primordial earthiness; from the grenache (35%), a rush of cherry preserves; from the syrah (20%) comes a spicy white pepperiness. Plus a little counoise (5%) to tie it all together. There’s also a wonderful minerality and mineraly rockiness woven throughout the wine, thanks perhaps to the limestone chalkiness found in some of the soils of Paso Robles (but almost no where else in California). At about $12 a glass, Esprit isn’t an inexpensive wine, but it might just transform your Saturday night sometime this fall. For its part, Tablas Creek has been one of the leading pioneers of Rhône varietals in the U.S. (14.5% abv)

94 points KM

Available at Tablas Creek Vineyard

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SPOTTSWOODE

Sauvignon Blanc 2019

(Napa County/Sonoma County, CA) $42

For me, life without really good sauvignon blanc would be … unthinkable. The important words here are “really good,” because the “lean-mean-green” style of sauvignon is just too unrefined, too simple, and ultimately too boring to make the cut. Among the world’s great sauvignon blancs are a new class of sophisticated California wines I call “Super Sauvignons.” Spottswoode Sauvignon Blanc is one of them. The wine fairly vibrates with a kind of botanical freshness. And the key lime, white peach, and white pepper notes are lively and cooling. Best of all, there’s a crisp, sea spray quality that could not be more perfect with a warm bowl of rich risotto. If you’ve ever wondered what it means for a wine to have energy, try this. (14.1% abv)

94 points KM

Available at Vivino.com

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DIATOM

“Bar M” Chardonnay 2018

(Santa Barbara County, CA) $30

Winemaker Greg Brewer describes Diatom’s Bar M Chardonnay as being like “tuna belly, or some wonderfully plump oceanic thing.” I love the description, for Bar M is one of the rare California chardonnays that manage to pull off deep textural richness plus vibrant, almost briny, minerality. The wine is bracingly fresh yet, at the same time, so lusciously sensual on the palate that it may as well be illegal. (No oak is involved; the wine is fermented and aged in small stainless steel tanks). The name Diatom is a reference to plants known as diatoms which are algae that live in “houses made of glass”—that is their cell walls are composed of transparent, opaline silica (the only organisms on the planet for which this is the case). Diatom Bar M is one of my favorite chardonnays with roast pork and with “meaty” seafood, like lobster and crab. And Congratulations to Greg, who this week was named Winemaker of the Year by Wine Enthusiast Magazine! (14.5% abv)

94 points KM

Available at Brewer-Clifton

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DOMINO DE PINGUS

“PSI” 2017

(Ribera del Duero, Spain) $37

When Dutch-born, Bordeaux-trained winemaker Peter Sisseck first made Pingus in 1995, it was the most revolutionary red wine that had been made in Ribera del Duero (some would say in all of Spain) in more than a century. Pingus (made from the red grape tinto fino, aka tempranillo) is ultra-rare and, at nearly $700, expensive. But its little, little brother “PSI” is a super deal at $37. Named after the 13th letter of the Greek alphabet, PSI is luscious and rich, yet lively. It’s packed with vibrant raspberry, spice, vanilla bean, earth and mineral flavors. Admirably, PSI is a joint venture between Sisseck and Ribera’s poor local growers. He makes the wine and sells it, incentivizing them to preserve their old vines and vineyards. While the 2018 vintage of this wine is already out, I prefer this 2017, which is also available. (14.5% abv)

93 points KM

Available at Vivino.com

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TOLPUDDLE VINEYARD

Pinot Noir 2018

(Tasmania, Australia) $75

This wine is as close to a Burgundian Grand Cru as any pinot noir I’ve tasted from Australia. The long ribbons of savory earthiness are interwoven with citrus and roses, giving the wine both a deep richness and a pure freshness at the same time. Although the aromas and flavors are intense, the body of the wine is light, creating an ethereal elegance that would have made the winemaking monks of Burgundy proud. Tolpuddle is owned by veteran Australian vintners Martin Shaw and Michael Hill Smith MW. The vineyard, in the cool Coal River Valley of southern Tasmania, takes its name from the Tolpuddle Martyrs who, in the early 19th century, started an agricultural labor union in southern England and were shipped to Tasmania as convicts for their efforts. (13.5% abv)

97 points KM

Available at Gary’s Wine and Marketplace