Note: These tips originally appeared in the Feb. 28, 2019, issue of Wine Spectator, "Editors' Picks."
In Wine Spectator's annual Editors' Picks issue, our senior editors go through their most memorable wines, experiences and travels of the past year and share what stood out to them most. This week, we single out three special wines that sparked joy: a California Zinfandel, a French Pinot Noir and an aged Aussie Shiraz.
Easton Zinfandel: A Taste of Place
Growing up in the blue-collar Midwest, I had no concept of discretionary income. We weren't poor by any measure, but frugality was a way of life, and we admired good quality at a fair price.
Authenticity and regionality were also things that informed my early days. Frankly, we took those for granted back in the late 1960s. Most of the food I ate growing up was produced not far away. We only had tomatoes, corn and oranges when they were in season. My grandfather was a butcher at the corner grocery store he owned, and he worked his way through a side of beef every week.
Even now, those ideas influence who I am, for better or worse, a yin to any yang that might get too extravagant or mass-produced. In the world of wine that's a tough balance—authenticity and regionality require a level of commitment that seldom comes cheap, and for good reason. A juicy heirloom in the summer will cost a lot more than the tennis balls that pass for tomatoes in the grocery store.
For all those reasons, I've been a sap for Zinfandel since I moved to Sonoma County 30 years ago. It fits all my parameters: The price is fair, it's grown for miles around me, and it's the "real thing," California's historic and signature grape.
A wine I tasted this past year epitomized all of that for me: Easton Zinfandel Amador County 2015. Vibrant and sleek, yet plump with dense, ripe fruit, the wine offers briary black raspberry, smoked pepper and wild sweet anise flavors that stretch out on a zesty finish. What's more, it features lively acidity that keeps it snappy and light on its feet.
Bill Easton is the man behind the Zinfandel. Easton, 66, has more than 30 years under his winemaking belt in the small Sierra Foothills community of Plymouth, Calif. There, he produces two separate labels. For the Easton brand, he makes five different Zinfandels as well as Sauvignon Blanc, Barbera and occasionally Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. The Terre Rouge label focuses on Rhône-style red and white wines.
Hailing from nearby Sacramento, Easton inherited his passion for Zin from his father, who drank old-school wines from the likes of Joseph Swan and Ridge. When the superripe monster Zins became fashionable in the late 1970s, Easton noticed something. The wines fell apart in the bottle after a few years in the cellar.
That was a lesson Easton took to heart when he started making Zin. His wines seldom venture past 14.5 percent alcohol and retain a bright level of acidity. "Zinfandel up here, if it's made the right way, they're like Piedmontese reds," Easton says.
The Amador County Zinfandel is among Easton's most widely available wines, with 6,200 cases made in 2015. A modest percentage of estate fruit goes into the bottling, with the rest supplied by growers with 40- to 100-year-old vineyards, typically dry-farmed and head-pruned.
Easton had a specific goal when he started making the wine 20 years ago. "We wanted to make something that was a bit more accessible and that restaurants could pour by the glass," he says. "We also wanted a wine that reflects the personality of the region."
And that it does, year after year, particularly in 2015, and it also reflects all those old-fashioned values I grew up with in the Midwest. And remarkably, for just $22.—Tim Fish
Domaine de l'Arlot: Best Bet Burgundy
If you are looking for delicious Nuits-St.-Georges reds, Domaine de l'Arlot is an excellent source.
Arlot is located at the southern end of Nuits-St.-Georges, in Prémeaux-Prissey. Its manor house and cellar, concealed by a stone wall from the main north-south artery through the Côte d'Or, is surrounded by the Clos de l'Arlot premier cru—it's a well-protected bowl that makes wines of elegance and detailed length.
A few hundred yards to the north is Clos des Forêts St.-Georges, another of Arlot's vineyards. It's more exposed, producing wines that are frankly fruity, juicy and a little darker in their fruit profile.
To its original Prémeaux-Prissey parcels, Arlot added Vosne-Romanée Les Suchots and Romanée-St.-Vivant. The former is a chunky, fleshy style, while the RSV offers refinement and understated power and structure. There is also a Nuits-St.-Georges white that is charming if not too complex.
Jean-Pierre de Smet, the original director, learned from Jacques Seysses at Domaine Dujac. Seysses is a proponent of fermenting Pinot Noir with whole clusters, and de Smet adopted the technique at Arlot. I first visited the cellar in 2005, with de Smet and his then assistant winemaker Olivier Leriche, who took over after de Smet left. Leriche himself departed in 2011 for his own project in the Languedoc; his replacement, Jacques Devauges, made the wines until decamping for Domaine de la Tart in 2014.
Enter Géraldine Godot, 42, whose résumé includes stints at Maison Alex Gambal, Domaine Naudin-Ferrand, and Philippe Colin in Chassagne-Montrachet.
In the 2015 and 2016 vintages, Godot's first at Arlot, she has crafted wines of purity, precision and alluring aromatics.
The vineyards are farmed biodynamically, while in the cellar, the use of stems in the fermentation continues. "With the wines, I work a lot with feelings," explains Godot. "I like to work with whole cluster but not in a systematic way. When the grapes are beautiful and healthy, with good maturity, then everything is there to enrich the expression of Pinot Noir with this technique."—Bruce Sanderson
Penfolds: Wine of the Year Revisited
I'm not the first person to find revisiting wines as they age to be a reflective experience. After all, it's not just the wine that's getting older; so are we. Retasting wines is a way to ruminate on the context of our life, to check in with both the wine and ourselves.
It's also fun. Over burgers and duck-fat fries at Compline in Napa, I was catching up with John and Tim Duval of John Duval Wines, who were visiting from Australia's Barossa, when suddenly a bottle of Penfolds Grange 1990 appeared. Yes, the 1995 Wine Spectator Wine of the Year. I'm pretty sure I squealed with delight.
I've been lucky enough to taste this wine on a few occasions, but it had been a while, and I had never been sitting next to the winemaker. Duval was chief winemaker of Penfolds before starting his namesake brand in 2003.
I asked Duval if he knew it was a special wine when he bottled it, or if he was surprised by the attention it got. "It was singing from the start," he told me with a grin. He used the "iron fist in a velvet glove" metaphor, a way to describe both its structure and its elegance.
The wine was sensational—plush and smooth but with wave after wave of plum compote, tobacco and secondary notes that reminded me of white truffles and smoky black tea.
We each reminisced about the last time we had tried the wine. It was one of the most sentimental moments I've had in some time, trying a wonderfully aging wine with the (also wonderfully aging) winemaker, who had every reason to be proud of it, both of us recalling memories of the past 28 years.—MaryAnn Worobiec