Picking the best wines of the year is a fascinating exercise because it reflects the passions and field of expertise of the wine writer. In the case of Justin Keay, the ‘wines that make him go Hmmm’ are ones largely made from lesser-known grapes, wines made in regions that are just coming onto the wine world map and those that have been around for millennia but are just being re-discovered. So in Keay’s top 10 are fascinating, rare wines such as one made from Lorkosh and Samarghandi grapes exported from Iran and vinified in Sweden by a natural winemaker, and another, a Tuscan white made from Vermintino and Ansonica grapes picked by prisoners on the island of Gorgona.
“Great value at £15 a bottle and because it’s organic and Fairtrade you can allow yourself a warm reassuring glow of smugness as you pour that second glass,” writes Keay about one of his top 10 wines from 2022.
With the wine trade desperate to recover after Covid and endless government screw-ups – Exhibit One: Brexit – tastings over 2022 were frenetic, with events stretching into late November. They reassured me that although there may not be much cheer these days, importers continue to scour the wine world to find its most exciting offerings.
An autumn tasting hosted by Cava Spiliadis for example, showed three Persian wines made from Lorkosh and Samarghandi grapes transported out of Iran’s Zagros Mountains and vinified in Sweden in 2021 by natural winemaker Shahram Soltani, with the red and orange wines probably the most interesting. A first vintage of just 20,000 bottles, the wines were unusually light but old fashioned in style, with 14.5% alcohol. My most unusual and intriguing wines of the year certainly – and my first ever wines made with grapes from Persia, the original home of Shiraz – but what else stood out?
Cava Spiliadis also showed Terrasea 2020 from Mikra Thira, a deliciously textured and saline Assyrtiko made with fruit grown entirely on the small island of Mikra Thira across the caldera from Santorini proper. Unique, managing to taste quite different from Assyrtiko from Santorini proper, and so beguiling it makes my Top 10 wines of the year.
The Wine Society’s Autumn Tasting had its usual excellent range of great wines, including a fascinating vertical of Porseleinberg Swartland Syrah from 2017, 2018 and 2019, from South Africa’s famed Marc Kent and Callie Louw, a lovely Hungarian Kadarka from Peter Vida (the Bonsai Szekszard 2020) and a well priced spicy, rounded 2019 Pinot from Fess Parker in California’s Santa Rita Hills.
But the wine on everyone’s lips, literally, was the delicious, moreish Rose de Xinomavro 2019 from Xinomavro master Apostolos Thymiopoulos, which demonstrated that this fantastic but tricky grape can make truly great rosé and that rosé can be a wine to be taken seriously. Made in small quantities, this sold out within days of many of my fellow wine writers recommending it in the national press. Little wonder.
Southern Wine Roads hosted what was for me the year’s most disconcerting tasting, a consumer focused event attended, it seemed, exclusively by people under the age of 35 and hosted by the very charming Sophia Longhi. Unaccustomed to being far and away the oldest person in the room, I sought solace in the great Greek wines, two of which make my Best of 2022 list; Glinavos Debina 2020, a delicious sparkling wine made from the Greek Debina variety and another Santorini Assyrtiko, the Gavalas 2019 Natural Ferment.
Debina is an ancient variety from the far north-west of Greece and this high altitude wine, produced by Domaine Glinavos in the town of Zitsa, comes from the country’s smallest PDO near the town of Ioannina. One reason we haven’t heard much about Debina is that it is very prone to oxidation and thus stayed local. Until now: improved viticultural techniques have changed this and as a result we will be hopefully be seeing more of these wines, light, mineral and, in this example, just off dry and lightly sparkling, or frizzante as the Italians would say. A perfect aperitif.
The Gavalas wine – like all those produced by the renowned Gavalas family, best known for their benchmark Assyrtiko in its distinctive square shouldered light blue bottle- is intensely mineral, saline and highly textured, a joy to drink, but with years ahead of it. An absolutely classic Assyrtiko, in the best sense, and highly evocative, showing just what this fantastic variety can be.
It took another consumer event, Vineyards of Hampshire Fairy Lights & Fizz event in Winchester’s Guildhall to restore my age equilibrium; here I felt positively sprightly as I tasted wines from the county’s ten producers, including two newbies, Louis Pommery and Quob Park, and wondered at the senior’s theme park that is today’s Home Counties. Maybe it was the thrill of relative youth that made me associate so much with my next wine, The Grange’s zesty White from Black, a delicious 100% sparkling Pinot Meunier, pretty much only just put into bottle at its new winery outside Winchester. The Grange’s Zam Baring is rightfully proud of this fabulously moreish, fruit-packed take on the variety which clearly has a great future in southern England’s chalk-heavy soils.
Anyone who had doubts that Australia is at the top of its winemaking game will have had them dispelled by Matthew Jukes’s superb 100 Best Australian Wines tasting at Australia House, the first to be held there since Covid. As Matthew reminded me – and demonstrated in his impressively detailed tasting booklet – this selection was the result of three years work, as Covid derailed his 2020 and 2021 100 Best listings. Great wines all around but Chardonnay was king with two truly great wines on show: the 2018 Savaterre Estate Chardonnay from Beechworth in Victoria – an incredibly complex and layered wine with perfect poise and balance – and the equally impressive Tolpuddle Chardonnay 2021 from Tasmania, demonstrating that this former sparkling wine producer is at the top of its still wine-making game.
I’m not generally a fan of Bodega Argento, finding most of its Malbec and Malbec blends a tad boring, despite the heftily touted organic labelling, but that changed with its latest offering, a white Malbec. The Artesano de Argento White Malbec 2022 has pretty much everything going for it, lovely fruit and great balance, with a suggestion of white flowers and lime citrus, with finely judged acidity and good grip and texture, as you might expect from a red grape that is vinified as a white. Great value at £15 a bottle and because it’s organic and Fairtrade you can allow yourself a warm reassuring glow of smugness as you pour that second glass.
Enotria’s 50th Anniversary bash at the Royal Albert Hall showed an embarrassment of riches; more than half the wines here could have made it onto my list, unsurprising when producers include the likes of Planeta, Stag’s Leap, Vega Sicilia and Chateau Haut-Brion. But I have to hand it to the gorgon has it, or should I say the Gorgona Bianco Costa Toscana IGT 2020, produced by Frescobaldi from Vermintino and Ansonica grapes picked by prisoners on the island of Gorgona off the Tuscan coast. This was hauntingly delicious, with apricot, peach and white flowers on the palate and the perfect acidity and palate typical of Ansonica. Truly special.
Another indigenous grape, Trentino’s Nosiola, has created what for me seems like something close to perfection in Cantina Toblino’s Largiler 2013. There’s not much left of this ancient variety and most of this is grown and vinified by this award-winning cooperative, located on the shores of Lake Toblino, around 15 kilometres north of Lake Garda. Toblino make at least two varietal wines from this fascinating variety and this is an absolute stunner – made from grapes grown on 30-year-old pergola vines which are then hand-picked and fermented after very limited skin contact for seven year in large oak botti. The result is a highly textured wine, with suggestions of wild mushrooms and truffle alongside red apple, peach and apricot; this had almost perfect balance with nicely poised acidity supporting the fruit. With a long, haunting finish, this wine feels almost ethereal and very welcome in a year when the heavenly often felt in pretty short supply.
Cheers – here’s to a more hopeful and kinder 2023.