10 Top Wines from SWE 2010

Water is for fish! That’s what my Italian husband likes to proclaim at the dinner table. But truly, water is a wonder drug. Without it—lots of it—I couldn’t survive my profession. That, and the inelegant art of spitting.

So, armed with my nifty green Nalgene water bottle, I faced down a couple hundred wines at the Society of Wine Educators conference last week in Washington DC.

Daily sessions began after a quick bagels-and-coffee breakfast. Six glasses of Rioja at 8:30 in the morning? Sure! Especially when two of my perennial favorites—Roda I and Contino’s Viñedos del Contino Reserva—were in the line-up, along with others that artfully contrasted the Alta, Baja, and Alavesa zones of Rioja. Next, I tasted 10 pinot noirs from Willamette Valley; the game here was to see whether you could identity sub-AVAs in the glass. (Kind of, but to me it was the wineries’ house style—especially Panther Creek’s distinctive earthiness, my passion in pinot—that trumped all else.) Lunch offered no let-up, with each table being littered with a dozen bottles from sponsor Vini Portugal. (Oddly, no coffee was served.)

Next, with fortitude and refilled water bottles, we marched into the barrage of three afternoon sessions. My chosen panels focused on Malbec, with the ebullient Laura Catena pouring wine from five separate vineyard lots, followed by the final blend in Catena Alta Malbec; Portugal, where MW Doug Frost had us in stitches as he motor-mouthed his way through this up-and-coming wine country; and La Cote d’Or of Burgundy, which was a gift from heaven, or more precisely, from Maison Louis Jadot: five pairs of burgundies (2004 vs 2005) from Mersault-Charmes, Puligny-Montrachet, Chassagne-Montrachet, Corton-Pougets, and Chapelle-Chambertin. All in a day’s work. The next day brought seminars on aromatic whites, Tuscany, undiscovered Spain, Portugal’s blended wines, and Amarone.

Alas, dear reader, words cannot convey the pleasures—and yes, learning!—gleaned from this three-day marathon. But I can single out my Top 10 picks and spread a bit of joy:

1. Charles Heidsieck, Brut Reserve NV ($35-40) – A lovely, yeasty, medium-bodied champagne (50/50 pinot noir/chardonnay) with a long finish. “One of the most underrated, undervalued champagnes,” said presenter Ed McCarthy. “A wine writers’ champagne.” We agreed, voting it our favorite during the NV champagne lunch.

2. Anselmo Mendes, Vinho Verde Muros de Melgaço 2007 ($15) A great summer wine, this was several notches above the norm for vinho verde from northern Portugal. Sourced from 20 parcels of alvarinho and partially fermented on the skins in used barriques, the wine showed succulent fruit, well-focused floral aromas, and greater weight than usual. It’s well worth the few extra bucks.

3. Javier Sanz, Villa Narcisa Verdejo (DO Rueda) ($18) – Now considered Spain’s best white varietal, verdejo offers a bright, crisp, fruity character. This one has a fantastic concentration and body—so much so that locals pair it with roasted suckling pig. (I plan to try that on La Dolce Vita’s “Rioja Roundup” tour this fall.)

4. Louis Jadot, Puligny-Montrachet Les Referts 2005, 1er cru ($60) – With land in Montrachet going for $12 million per acre (seriously), consumers are getting off easy spending just $60 on white burgundy, especially this jewel. Focused, concentrated, and a bit toasty, this wine has more layers and depth thanInception. The 2005, considered a stellar year, is already nicely evolved.

5. Agricolo Punica, Barrua ($45) – Giacomo Tachis, the semi-retired winemaker of Sassicaia fame, has a soft spot for Sardinia. Let’s be glad, for the result of his new collaboration is this delectable carignano-based bombshell. I loved it when I first tasted it at Tenuta San Guido in Bolgheri, and it again leapt out as my favorite at SWE’s international walk-around tasting.

6. LAN, Viña Lanciano Reserva 2004 ($25) - Powerful and concentrated, this red-berry-and-earth Rioja has 20 percent manzuela in blend, giving it some heft, while its 18 months in French/Russian oak provide appealing cigar-box notes. A great mid-priced Rioja.

7. Bodega Inurreita, Sur ($15) – Here’s a nice discovery from Navarra. This grenache/syrah blend takes a page from southern Rhone. It offers waves of intense berry fruit, with rich tannins and a long finish, while avoiding overt oak. Ripe and juicy!

8. Bodega CatenaCatena Alta Malbec 2006 ($50) – This Argentine wine convinced me that blends really can be exponentially better than the sum of their parts. A 100% Malbec sourced from 18 different lots at high elevations (up to 5,000’), it shows deep blueberry and mulberry fruit with refreshing acidity and smooth tannins. Ready for drinking tonight.

9. Quintarelli, Amarone della Valpolicella Classico 1998 ($400) – Black figs and raisin backed by good acidity make this a hedonistic but classic-style Amarone. It’s truly a wine to swoon over. Amarone was recently elevated to DOCG status—on my brother’s birthday, March 24. If money were no object, I know how I’d celebrate.

10. Quinta da Bacalhoa, 5 Year Old Moscatel de Setúbal ($15) – I knew I’d love the Dow 10 Year Tawny that Doug Frost poured, but this orange-hued dessert wine from southern Portugal really blew my mind. In the Muscat of Alexandria family, it showed moscatel’s characteristic aromas—though here more candied orange-rind than orange blossom—plus scintillating layers of caramel and cola. “Wow! ” I scrawled in my notebook. I confess, it was impossible to spit—the true test of perfection.