It’s not just the tastiest wines I’m talking about. It’s the ones that made the biggest impression on me. Many times it’s because they surprised me as atypical: a huge viognier, a cab with power and elegance, an Italian wine I’ve never tried before. These are the bottles that made the grade this year. Get your hands on any of them and see if you agree.—Anne Valdespino
2006 Guigal Condrieu La Doriane, Rhone, France. ($110) Incredibly beautiful labels usually set you up for disappointment. Not in this case. Super floral and plentiful in peach and apricot notes, this white Rhone has now set the standard for all others in my mind. A huge surprise since I generally love roussane and hate viognier. But this bottling is 100 percent viognier, which goes to show how high-toned the varietal can be—one sip and you’ll feel like you've just slipped into a tux or a white satin wedding dress.
2007 Robert Mondavi Reserve Cabernet To Kalon, Napa Valley, California. ($250) This bottle makes the case for American terroir. At a dinner with vintner Genevieve Janssens, it wasn’t just the balanced, supple tannins we respected, it was the hints of spice, not only from the barrels, but from the loamy cumin and coriander-scented soil, that made us fall head over heels. If you can’t afford this one, try its little brother. The Oakville Estate cab ($45) will give you a peek into the world of top-flight Mondavi cabs.
2008 Martinelli Vineyards Chardonnay Zio Tony Ranch, Russian River Valley, California. ($50) Helen Turley is gone from this winery but this vintage from her past enchants with huge, ripe, butterscotchy flavors, and a golden yet cloudy appearance. Each richly textured, honeyed sip reveals different facets of her hand-selected fruit that grips the palate and won’t let go.
2008 Ovid Napa Valley Cabernet, California. ($185) Just try to get your hands on this one. Made by vintner Austin Peterson, it’s already a cult wine even though you might never have heard of it. Layers of structured black fruit with blueberry singing through and gorgeous baking spices in a powerful, yet well balanced package: pow! Be sure to visit their incredible facility next time you’re in Napa, it will also bowl you over, I’m told.
2006 Vespa Rosso Bastianich, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Italy. ($75 on the wine list, $30 retail) They say never make yourself the house band. Well you can’t fault Joe Bastianich for bringing his wines to the table at Mozza in Newport Beach. I had to try one and didn’t regret it. A blend of merlot, refosco, cab, and cabernet franc has an Italian accent that matches perfectly with the hefty pizzas and charcuteries, even chocolate and fruit desserts.
2008 Icon Ravenswood Winery, Sonoma County, California. ($70) Forget those earthy, smoky zins you might expect from Joel Peterson. Not that there’s anything wrong with them, it’s just that this is a different animal. Profound berry flavors, spicy aromatics with a hint of purple flowers, and sturdy, steady oak brings everything together without leaping out of the background. I want more of this blend of rustic carignane, brambly petite sirah, with alicante bouschet for color, and of course, his signature varietal: zin.