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GRACI

Etna Rosso 2017

(Etna, Sicily) $29

From nerello mascalese grapes grown on the northern slopes of the active volcano Mt. Etna (which has been steadily erupting since last week, belching smoke, ash, and fountains of red-hot lava!), comes this beautiful red from Graci, a small estate founded in 2004. You have to be a bit braced for wines from nerello mascalese. For all their pale colors and their lovely cranberry, sour cherry, and earth flavors, they slam down on the palate with steel doors of tannin. The answer is so very Italian: EAT!!! Nerello mascalese shows what it was made for when there’s some spaghetti al siciliana on the table. With fond memories of his grandfather’s humble Sicilian wines in his head, Alberto Graci gave up his career as an investment banker in Milan and embarked on a different kind of risky speculation: he bought land at 1800 feet (600 meters) on the slopes of the active volcano Mt. Etna, and started making stellar wines. (14% abv)

94 points KM

Available at K&L Wine Merchants

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DOWNES FAMILY VINEYARDS

“Sanctuary Peak” Sauvignon Blanc 2020

(Elgin Valley, Western Cape, South Africa) $26

The first grape variety that woke me up to the quality and appeal of South African wine was sauvignon blanc. Pure, minerally, racy, and sage-like, it was a bit like Sancerre but with more body. Add some stone fruitiness and smokiness and you’ve got Downes Family’s “Sanctuary Peak” a wine that’s as precise as a top riesling and not one bit green or vegetal. Close by the Atlantic Ocean, the Elgin Valley of the Western Cape is one of the coolest climate regions in South Africa and renowned for its apple and pear orchards, rose and flower farms, and most recently, its thriving wine industry. The Downes and Shannon families came to South Africa in 1899 from County Cork in Ireland. Sanctuary Peak is named for the peak of the mountain range just above the vineyards. (13% abv)

92 points KM

Available at Solano Cellars

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RUSACK VINEYARDS

“Ballard Canyon” Syrah 2016

(Santa Barbara County, CA) $36

Tasting this terrific syrah, I found myself wondering why I love wines that are woven through with spicy, salty, minerally notes. Is it because these flavors are like excitable electrons that whirl around on the orbit of one’s palate? Yes, there’s that. But I think it’s also because wines with spice/salt/minerals taste so good with food. No need to spice up that roast chicken; the wine did it for you. Of all red varieties, syrah can be depended on in this department. And this syrah from Rusack is delicious, complex, and beautifully structured. Just begging for a roast pork or a juicy cut of grilled meat. Family-owned Rusack Vineyards is in Ballard Canyon in the rolling “horse country” of Santa Barbara, north of Los Angeles. (14.2% abv)

91 points KM

Available at Rusack Vineyards

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EL COTO

“Coto de Imaz” Reserva 2015

(Rioja, Spain) $23

Some “Old World” wines have what I think of as a “sense of corruption”—a wonderful primordial earthiness evocative of damp forests, old leather, pipe tobacco, coffee, worn leather, and braised meats. These aromas and flavors comingle in the most enticing way in El Coto’s reserva, made entirely from tempranillo. This wine is simply to die for with roast lamb or pork. El Coto means “the Preserve,” and featured on the wine’s label is the Monastery of Imaz (located on the estate) whose monks cultivated the vineyards in the area in the 16th century. (14.5% abv)

92 points KM

Available at Wine Anthology

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ROAR

“Soberanes Vineyard” Pinot Noir 2018

(Santa Lucia Highlands, CA) $60

Starting in the early 2000s, and perhaps more than any other winery except Kosta Browne, ROAR redefined what California pinot noir could taste like and feel like, and still be pinot noir. Some wine drinkers, of course, would argue that ROAR’s uber hedonistic, super-full-bodied style pushes the envelope too far. Not me. I think the ROAR wines at their best possess the amazing ability to be complex and multifaceted in flavor (cranberries, sarsaparilla, pomegranate, damp earth, hibiscus, tea, exotic spices) while at the same time, they are big cashmere blankets of feel-good texture. Of the four top ROAR vineyard-designates (Sierra Mar, Rosella’s, Pisoni, and Soberanes), my favorite is often the Soberanes for its length and wonderful kaleidoscope of flavors. (14.9% abv)

95 points KM

Available at Gary’s Wine and Marketplace

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PIEROPAN

Soave Classico 2019

(Soave Classico, Veneto, Italy) $19

The delicious limey freshness of this wine is off-the-charts—a sensation that’s like drinking icy cold water from a mountain stream. And limey only begins to tell the story. There are bursts of juicy mandarin orange, starfruit, and minerals. If what you think about– when you think about a good Italian every night white wine—is pinot grigio, then you have to taste this fantastic (and far superior) wine. For decades, the Pieropan family have been considered the top producer of Soave Classico; they were the first there to make single vineyard wines, for example. And the current vintages of their single vineyard Soave Classicos “Calvarino” ($34) and “La Rocca” ($40) are stunning. But for sheer flavor per penny, nothing beats this wine.

92 points KM

Available at Vivino.com

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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