The bold and the beautiful: A sommelier’s favorite wines of 2019


Every year, I’m likely to taste a few mind-blowing wines that make me contemplate my existence. Most are wines I can rarely afford.

Palate differences notwithstanding, this year was a wild ride. I didn’t get to taste nearly as much wine as I usually do. But there were some thought-provoking and pleasurable wines at affordable prices.

Sometimes the best wines are uniquely alive in a fleeting moment, and I can’t expect the same experience the next time. It wouldn’t be fair. And that’s OK. That’s part of the journey of finding exceptional wines at prices one is willing to pay.

The truth is, the best wine I tasted this year was a $300 bottle of Chave Hermitage Blanc, a gorgeous wine made from marsanne and roussanne grapes from the Northern Rhone region of France. I’ll literally never buy that bottle again. It was a lifetime moment and a lifetime bottle. 

Ernest Hemingway once wrote, “All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” He was on to something.

Wine alone doesn’t define humanity’s best attributes. We are no more interesting or special if we are drinking fermented grapes, compared to, say, cow’s milk.

Next to those expensive bottles of your biggest moments, those cheap bottles slugged off on a humble retail shelf might seem stupid to talk about. Screw that. This is the stuff of legends.

Wine is simple: It’s there for us to enjoy, to love, to drink as we see fit with our friends and family.
And that’s why the 2018 vintage of “Unlitro” (at around $18) is my wine of the year.

Have I had better wines this year? Definitely. But there’s something about this wine that threads different flavors, concepts, needs and overall value far better than most wines I’ve tasted.
Saddled from Tuscan vines, this funky Carignan-Grenache blend is effortlessly fruity, earthy and floral. This is not meant to be a gatekeeping type statement, but chances are this wine may not be exciting to you if you only dig on the same California cabernet sauvignon or zinfandel you’ve been drinking for the last decade. And that’s OK.

Meat, herbs, savory notes and impressive balance: How can a lower-tannin wine with no real faults somehow express character at this level? Sign me up. This is one of those wines I’d keep on hand at all times. It will sing with burgers, steaks, eggplant and Indian cuisine.

Ultimately, it’s the right wine for now. It’s unfiltered and unfined. It’s not a lab project conjured from the annals of a wine conglomerate.

Realistically, you can’t just drink one wine for the year. I want to include some other huge standouts of their pricing and genre.

Dassai “39” is technically not a wine. It’s a sake made in the Junmai Daiginjo style. Quick primer on sake: It’s a beverage made using specific grains of rice, produced using the multiple parallel fermentation process, when sugar and alcohol conversion occur simultaneously.

Easily one of the best sakes I’ve ever had, Dassai 39 is an impressive exercise in purity. Drink this slightly chilled, like you would a white wine. The aromas and flavors match those of green melon, lilacs, lilies and nectarines. It squeezes in like an assistant to well-constructed traditional sushi and sashimi. Expect to spend about $35 per bottle.

Runner up: the 2016 Combe Trousseau, from Santa Barbara County, California. A compelling project from Peter Stolpman of Stolpman Vineyards and Raj Parr, a famous sommelier guy who has been all over the place this last decade. This sings like some of our best pinot noirs. Trousseau is a native French grape from the region of Jura, noteworthy for its lower-tannin and high-acid style. Expect to pay around $30.

Eventually, I think we all come to realize these highlights are only snapshots. They are reflections of specific experiences that might not be duplicated in the exact same life-affirming way that we may have previously enjoyed them.

Drinking “good” wine ultimately has much more to do with who you’re with, the food you’re eating, the music, the art, the ridiculous stories and the harmonious vibes from all of those elements interconnecting. Enjoy it while you have it. Happy holidays.

Justin King is an Advanced Sommelier through the Court of Master Sommeliers. He is owner of Bridge Street Social, a wine and cocktails-focused restaraunt in DeWitt, and Bar Mitena, a Spanish winebar opening soon on Lansing’s Eastside.


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