Last: My top 10 wines of 2020
For the past 22 years, I’ve delivered a column every January highlighting 10 wines that I felt deserved recognition for their attributes, either in terms of value, quality, or ideally both. When the pandemic started, I made a conscious decision to focus on made-in-Canada products –be they wine, spirits or beer – as a gesture of support. This would have been challenging 20 years ago, but we’ve come a long way in a relatively short period of time. It’s taken the storied old-world wine regions centuries to set the bar by which all newcomers are measured, and there’s no question their learned expertise has paved the way for the new world to follow. That being said, those historic regions are now being challenged by such remote outposts as Canada, for example.
I have to say that I have struggled over the past year with the task of writing about such an ephemeral and seemingly trivial pleasure as the enjoyment of wine. We now inhabit a world mired in disarray, chaos and sadness, and those glimmers of hope often seem precariously close to flickering out. I joined the legions of the unemployed myself this past fall, forcing me to re-examine my career choice as a wine merchant. Introspection brought me back to the core of what made me fall in love with wine in the first place. At its best – whether it’s a $12 bottle of periquita or a $200 bottle of Grand Cru Burgundy – it conveys a sense of place and time. It’s a pleasure that’s been with us since the dawn of civilization and it’s always at its best when shared with friends and family or other like-minded individuals. If anything, small pleasures –like a glass of wine – are more important than ever these days, despite the challenges we face as far as sharing goes.
So here they are, 10 wines that I think are deserving of some press; hopefully, we can share them again someday with missed friends, maybe even in a restaurant.
This may sound snobbish, but I tired of mundane Chardonnay decades ago. I still love the grape, but for me, it needs to be expressive, mineral-driven and not smothered in new oak (typically employed to mask what’s lacking underneath). Demougeot is situated in Burgundy’s revered Meursault region, for many the epicentre for great Chardonnay. This is their entry-level wine, but it’s far from entry-level in the vast Chardonnay realm. It’s all there; minerals, citrus, green apple, pear, and a nice touch of oak, a wine that competes with Chardonnay costing twice as much.
When I first started selling basic periquita 35 years ago it was about $5 a bottle; now it commands a hefty $12 and remains one of the world’s great bargains. Produced in Portugal’s southern Setubal peninsula from the grape of the same name, it stands as the first wine to be commercially bottled and sold in Portugal. Moving up to the reserva tier of this wine is well worth the extra six bucks; a blend of castelão, touriga nacional and touriga franca, it offers a big core of plum/black cherry fruit with ripe tannins and a degree of richness and complexity rarely found at this price point.
This delicious rosé is produced by Laurence Feraud of Domaine Pegau, a Rhone producer famous for their remarkable and age-worthy Chateauneuf-du-Pape. This is not your basic summer quaffing rose; it delivers a bouquet of herbs, red berries and stone fruits with considerable depth and body. Think of it as a winter rosé, if you will, and a versatile food mate.
This Loire Valley wine has been one of my favourite bargains for years, so I figured it deserves a well-earned spot on this list. Produced entirely from the under-appreciated chenin blanc grape, it shows notes of citrus rind, pear, minerals and honey, a nice option with shellfish or bouillabaisse, for example. This is a good example of the sort of bargains you can find from co-operative run wineries across Europe, they can be hit and miss but this group always seems to get it right.
Wittmann is a family-run estate that has been in constant production since 1663. Situated in the sleepy village of Westhofen in the Rheingau region, their star has quietly risen over the last couple of decades and it is now regarded as one of Germany’s very finest producers. They embraced organic and biodynamic viticulture decades ago and are a pioneer in that regard. I’ve had the pleasure of visiting on a couple of occasions and it’s an impressive place to be sure. The 100 hills is their entry-level wine, produced from estate fruit as well as grapes purchased from other growers (who are also certified organic) in the region. The wine is bone-dry with classic notes of minerals (attributed to their limestone-rich soils), grapefruit, lime and peach backed by vibrant acidity.
I really feel that pinot noir, chardonnay and riesling are the grapes from the Okanagan Valley that are delivering the most impressive wines of late (not that you can’t find other varietals that are also very good.) When it comes to the two premier Burgundian varietals – pinot noir and chardonnay – Meyer is the winery that has impressed me consistently more than any other, especially relative to their price points, which remain reasonable. This is a soft, plush pinot, very ripe and red berry driven with a touch of smoke and spice. For about $12 more, you can move up to their Tribute series, which are seriously good wines.
Portugal has been one of my favourite destinations for value for many years, which is why there are two wines from this beautiful country on this list. The biggest issue to dog many of their red wines has been a rough and rustic edge, which you can still find, but if I were an importer this is a country I would be taking a long look at. This one hails from the Dão region south of the Douro Valley in northern Portugal. A blend of three indigenous grapes, touriga nacional, aragonez and alfrocheiro, it’s full-bodied with notes of black plums, cigar box and herbs, a nice option with gamey red meats, such as lamb.
There’s not a lot of Champagne in our market for $46, especially at this quality level and from a grower-producer. (BTW, the importer is running low on this but has more on the way in short order). Grower-producers have been trendy over the last decade, a term that simply means the house uses only grapes from their own vineyards, as opposed to the large producers who typically buy grapes from hundreds of growers in the region to meet volume demands. This doesn’t necessarily mean the wine’s going to be better as a result, but it does mean you’re getting a wine that is perhaps more expressive of its place within Champagne. This wine has bracing acidity (there are three grams per litre of sugar, hence the term extra-brut) with a big core of stone fruits, lemon oil and minerals.
9. Zsirai Tokaji Furmint 2017 – $25
Zsirai is a Hungarian family-run estate run in the town of Màd in northeastern Hungary. The country is famous for its sweet Tokaji wines made from the furmint grape, and it should be said the best of these rank among the greatest sweet wines on the planet. Furmint also finds its way into some exceptional dry wines, and Zsirai’s is a great example of that. A lot is going on in this bottle, quince, apples, pear, smoke and minerals shine through, with great acidity pulling it all together.
10. Blue Mountain Gamay Noir – $27
Blue Mountain is one of the most awarded and highly regarded wineries in the Okanagan and their pinot gris was the first wine I tasted from the region, a long time ago, that opened my eyes to the potential in the valley. That was about 25 years ago, and they now produce a wide range of wines from their beautiful property in Okanagan Falls. They have a particular affinity for gamay, the grape of Beaujolais fame, and their vines are planted with several clones from the storied French region, some of which are close to 30 years old. This is not light gamay, it bears a resemblance to a morgon from the Beaujolais region, and from a very ripe vintage at that. There is a core of smoked meat and cassis, with some black pepper notes and soft, fleshy tannins. Note: Blue Mountain is exclusive to J Webb Wine Merchants.
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