2020 - A Few Good Bottles

2020 - A Few Good Bottles

Tuesday 22nd December 2020
by Julian Campbell

This year, perhaps more than any other, solace has been found in transportative bottles of great wine.

Without recourse to travelling, it has come down to the willingness of producers to send samples, and in that regard I’ve been blessed with some very accommodating winemakers who have been happy to fire bottles across the seas for me to taste in the comfort and (occasional) peace of my own home. In truth, there are many bottles that stand out as bright sparks of excitement in the muddle of 2020; Germany features heavily, so does Champagne, a little bit of South Africa, plenty of California, a handful of momentous, or just perfectly timed Burgundies and one particularly lovely bottle of single vineyard St Joseph that sang next to chicken with clementines, fennel and Pernod. What follows is a handful of especially bright spots – wines that made, to paraphrase Mr. McCartney, all our troubles seem so far away…

Olivier Collin’s Roises (2015 base), tasted over several days alongside his Enfers, was a champagne like no other. A week later, Enfers had blossomed like exploding, fractured rock, allowing me to see the mineral layers that make it up. But Roises was sheer sensory overload from the word go – buttered fruit and splintered flint, richness with a mineral edge. With both energy and a caressing nature, it would be impossible to get bored drinking wines like this.

Out of a much smaller, no nonsense 20cl plastic bottle (that in another life might have held soy sauce) I was lucky enough to taste a 1900 Moscatel from our favourite Madeira house d’Oliveira. At 120 years old, despite a temporary stay in miniature plastic, it was nickel fresh, with an intensity that was almost shocking given its complexity. One day humankind will be almost certainly be able to maintain immense vitality, brains, and beauty at 120 – but not yet. Until then, we have Madeiras like these…

Tasting the full range of 2019 German auction wines at my kitchen table during the summer was a high point – there were so many good wines to choose from in 2019. Looking back, two dry wines that stand out, representing the two furthest extremes stylistically.   Battenfeld Spanier’s Zellertal Kreuzberg humms with reverb and deeply resonant flavour. It’s not necessarily Riesling as most people know it, the dimensions are entirely new, but it’s an unforgettable glass of wine that somehow manages the sensation of bass but at the pitch of treble. At the very other end of the spectrum, Frank Schonleber’s auction bottling Auf der Lay is so demure on entry its easy to miss. Intensely mineral, taut, refined and detailed, its only on the finish that it reveals the full spectrum of its abilities. Immensely long, ethereal, weightless and transparent. It’s sheer rock, but gossamer thin, with impression but no mass; a shadow that haunts the palate long after the glass is empty. It left me speechless…

From the Loire and our friends the Pinard brothers, a bottle of Sancerre Chene Marchand 2014. Beyond Didier Dagueneau, Sauvignon Blanc can be a rather unfashionable wine to love, so it’s nice to open wines like this that prove that the greatest Loire wines can truly thrill. One of the great vineyards in the region, this 2014 delivered layer upon layer of sheer Sauvignon fruit and minerality in a body full of torque and tension.  Magnificent now, it’s likely only to improve over the next decade as complex honey and truffle notes appear. I can’t wait to drink another bottle.

At the absolute opposite end of the spectrum, Ferren 2016 Frei Road was revelatory. I loved Matt Courtney’s Chardonnays when I first tasted them, seeing them as the perfect antidote to the excessively reductive Chardonnay that was threatening to become ubiquitous. Matt makes just 75-125 cases of each of his wines from some of the Sonoma Coast’s most exciting sites and they purr with rich flavour and bright acidity. With a couple of years of bottle age, I popped a 2016 Frei Road during the summer and couldn’t believe the extra shape it had taken on. Rich yet tapered and dripping with cool creamy tropical fruit, an edge of citrus, tight stones, a whisp of smoke and huge concentration, it could only have been California, yet held so much more poise and control than it had any right to. A brilliant wine in any setting (as it proved on a second outing alongside some very highfaluting company).

Last but certainly not least, a bottle tinged with sadness. Chris Howell and Katie Lazar are Cain through and through. Their wines are some of the most intriguing in Napa, both those that come solely from their majestic Cain Five vineyard, and the blends. Complex, traditional and textured, they often show flavours of wild grasses, flowers and herbs alongside the mineral soaked, often earthy, Bordeaux blend fruit. I regularly drink their multi-vintage Cain Cuvee at home and so immediately reached for a bottle of NV13 after a particularly harrowing call with Katie the day after the Glass Fires took their house and the winery. Anyone who has visited them will know just how remote Cain feels. Perched atop Spring Mountain, it’s a solid 20 minute drive from St Helena, up winding tree-lined roads that become increasingly remote, until, just when you think you’ve gone the wrong way, Cain appears. From the amphitheatre vineyard you can see down to the valley and across to its eastern slopes, so long as the fog has lifted.  The idea of fire striking up there is utterly terrifying but by some miracle, everyone up at Cain got off the mountain that night. And while buildings were razed, Chris and Katie were both keen to stress that the place, the culture, and the very soul of Cain remains. Their stoic insistence of this was unwavering. So a bottle tinged with sadness but also one tasting of relief, relief that it could have been infinitely worse, and indeed hope, that what was there before, will rise again.