Memorable Bottles of 2023

2023 saw many highs and lows in the drinks business, but rather than ruminate over the past, let's simply recap with some of the more memorable bottles of the year. 

I greeted 2023 in Northern California with this wine, but it haunted me all year long...  the 2020 Luigi Giordano Dolcetto d'Alba ($25) is an amazing red wine. Soft, pure, honest, fresh, and poised. Simple, yet magical. At 12.5% you'll find it difficult to resist gulping your way through the bottle. It's from just outside the town of Barbaresco, where nebbiolo reigns supreme, which makes this dolcetto very unusual. 93 points.

More of this wine than any other was opened at my house this year. Checking all the boxes: availability, price, quality, and overall pleasure, the 2020 Gabbiano Chianti ($10) isn't terribly unique, as it's a fairly straightforward Chianti of better than average (but not much greater) quality. A workhorse of a wine without anything to prove, it's bottles like this that will remind you of why we drink wine. But you can get this at the grocery store and CVS and other random places, rarely paying more than $10 for a bottle. It's refreshing with a slight chill on it, and works with anything from pasta to pizza to steak salad. You can even get it in a magnum, which is always fun for when you've got company. The 2020 vintage is slightly better than the 2021, which seems to be filling retail shelves out there. Look for Bing cherry, along with balanced, friendly acidity just as authentic Chianti should display, this wine is nothing cerebral or profound, but damn if it isn't affirming that there is still good, inexpensive wine to be discovered in this world. 92 points

Regular readers know my preference for overlooked wines. It's hard to believe, but nearly 20 years since the release of Sideways, merlot still struggles, making it one of those often-ignored varieties. However, the 2018 Whitehall Lane Merlot Napa Valley ($35) is excellent and goes for a fraction of what Napa cabs sell for these days. It exudes everything that's good about Napa Valley - structure, poise, density, and an exotic perfume that beguiles. The nose alone is enough on this wine: rich and seductive. The rest is all gravy, and the palate follows through on the aromatic promise. If you're inclined to splurge occasionally, you don't want to risk bringing home a dud, and this one is as close to a sure thing as you'll find in Napa. Enjoy with red meat and laughter. 91 points (Note: I had the 2019 vintage of this wine on a recent trip to California and it wasn't nearly as memorable as the 2018, so best to snap up whatever is left on shelves before it's gone.)

Later in the year I was sent a batch of samples from Abbruzzo, which included a wine that I am likely to pine for well into 2024. The 2022 Villa Gemma Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo ($24) Was love at first sight for me. More translucent red than rose (though classified as the latter,) this serious wine is also a blast to drink. Made from the red Montepulciano grape in a very light style, it delivers (and then some) on bright, sun-baked cherry flavors and brilliant acidity. Clocking in at 14% and hiding it well, this might be the entry-level in the Villa Gemma lineup from Masciarelli, but has managed to more fully capture my attention and heart than the other (very impressive) wines. Stupendo! (Honorable mention to its sibling red wine, the 2019 Marina Cvetic Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Riserva, which can be found as low as $25 in some markets.)

Finally, I ended the year picking up a lucky bottle of Watershed Distillery Bourbon Finished in Nocino Barrels ($100) Normally, I'm not much of a sucker for flavored spirits, but this is good bourbon that has a just hint of Nocino's nutty core and much of it's dark, mysterious color. Very well done, indeed. Aged 5 years, this bottling was only available direct from the distillery and through a lottery, but given the success of the Fall Finishing Series that this was a part of, it's worth getting on Watershed's email list to stay informed of future offerings. For whatever it's worth, I also had some of the 6 year bourbon finished in apple brandy barrels, but that wasn't nearly as good.

Happy 2024!!