Exciting Wines: They’re Waiting for You, but Where?

You don’t want to be around us when we have a wine we consider exciting. We mean it. Over our half century together, we’ve tasted tens of thousands of wines. We still sample, or consume, many hundreds each year and we find something to like about many of them. But exciting? That’s different. That’s a wine we talk about with each sip in a way that no one else could understand, not just because we have our own language of wine but we have our own history. 

Here are some examples of exciting wines from 2023 and here’s the catch: In each case, we are going to restrict ourselves to 200 words or less without heading to Divorce Court because we can’t decide who gets custody of the words.

--When was the last time you had a bubbly you found exciting? Many Cavas and Proseccos are lovely, and when many of us spring for Champagne, we fall back on well-known names because who wants to be disappointed on a special occasion? (We think Champagne should not be reserved just for special occasions and we were early to the Grower Champagne party.) But how often is the wine itself exciting? At the International Pinot Noir Celebration in Oregon, we were enjoying the salmon bake when a young couple showed up and poured us their bubbly. It was incredibly lively, yet had so much stature that we called it “RD-like” – high praise because it reminded us of Bollinger R.D. from our youth, back then a truly singular wine that had only been recently disgorged (RD) after years in the bottle. The young couple are the owner-winemakers at Corollary Wines, a sparkling-only winery in Oregon. The bubbly was a 2017 Pinot Blanc and it was a stunner, with such elegance and life. The 2018 is $60. 

--It has been a very long time since “Sideways” and it’s well past time to get over the Merlot thing. Still, how often is Merlot exciting? We fell in love with Cormorant Cellars 2021 Red Blend when we pulled the cork. The smell from the bottle immediately made us start taking notes. There was just so much fruit and earth and minerals. We finally poured and swooned over the first sip: rich, red fruit, a touch of blackberries and the kind of acidity and tannins that balance a wine and make it great with food. This is not Merlot, but it’s 72% Merlot, 24% Cabernet Sauvignon, 4% Petit Verdot – and 100% delicious, with all of the tastes and senses in harmony. It’s $47. Many years ago, we wrote about a Merlot from a then little-known winery called Pride Mountain, which went on to become very famous. It was not only our best in a broad blind tasting, but rocked our world in terms of what to expect from Merlot. This red took us all the way back to that beautiful wine. 

--Because we are wine writers, we are sometimes invited to events where a winery is pouring great old stuff directly from the cellar and that is always a very special treat. And we routinely see social media posts from collectors with pictures of their treasured old bottles with a note that says something like “Holding up nicely!” But we’ve never really been collectors, so we don’t often raid the cellar for, say, a 1929 Lafite. Last year, Dottie’s cousin Jon died and he left behind a couple dozen old wines that he’d bought over the years and hadn’t gotten around to opening. His widow, Wendy, graciously gave them to us, reminders of good times together. So we became quite excited when we tasted the first of them, the Château La Lagune 1999. This is a solid château in a solid year, but we never would have kept it this long. It was clear from the first sniff that it still had a good amount of fruit. There were blackberries and cherries, mushrooms, and tobacco. “Amazing!” we wrote. “Quite surprising!” Exciting, to be sure.

--Cabernet Franc is the grape of the moment. It makes stunning wines in the Loire Valley, of course, and vintners in many places are trying their hand with it, sometimes with awesome results. We had really liked T. Berkley Rosé of Cabernet Franc, so we opened its Cabernet Franc (2021 Big Ranch) with great expectations. The nose that rose to greet us was extraordinary: sleek, focused and varietal, with clarity, edginess and a bit of pencil shavings and herbs. And, yes, that is just from smelling it. The taste was the same, demanding attention because it had so much focus it seemed almost tense. “This is probably the best California CF we’ve had in some time,” we wrote. It’s $75. For anyone who wonders what the fuss is all about with Cabernet Franc, check it out. 

--We find some wines exciting because they confound our expectations. We were blind-tasting some rosés and one really rang bells for us. It turns out it was from Provence – no surprise there – and it was called Miraval. It was in a bottle that was a little too fancy for us, but we didn’t know that when we tasted it. In our second flight, another rosé rose far above some of the others – and it was a different Miraval. The first was the “Côtes de Provence,” $28, and the second was Studio, which was just $16, a price that’s exciting in itself.  Yep, it is indeed Brad Pitt’s winery. We are deeply skeptical of celebrity labels, so this was just plain fun – not to mention a delicious surprise. 

--Even before Beaujolais Nouveau became a big deal, harvest wine was a celebration for us. A long time ago, Sebastiani in California made a Gamay Nouveau. The date of the harvest and the date of the bottling were printed on the neck label and we felt very much like part of a global community. When Beaujolais Nouveau got big, we hosted a party with our friends, the only parties we ever threw. Beaujolais Nouveau has had its day. We have found it harder and harder to find any that put us in much of a celebratory mood. They don’t taste like anyone had fun making them and they are not much fun to drink. But this year, Modales Wines in Michigan contacted us and asked if we’d like to taste its Nouveau of Zweigelt, a grape we associate especially with Austria. We said, um, sure, we guess. And we were so glad they asked. This was such an exciting wine. It was alive, filled with nicely acidic fruit and purple blossoms like lilacs. It was made to be drunk this very second, if not sooner. As we enjoyed the wine, our apartment filled with the long-ago sounds of our friends and the aromas of the catered food we served. It was $16.

--The best wines are often the ones that are unexpected, that really come up from behind. That literally happened to us at the International Pinot Noir Celebration. We tasted only a fraction of the wines during that three-day Bacchanalia, virtually all of them Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. They were consistently excellent and the people we met were even more consistently excellent. At one event, a man walked up to us and almost whispered, “Would you like to try a Syrah?” That was so unexpected it seemed almost a little naughty. And then – whoa. We had only one sip and started flailing our arms, always a good sign of excitement. This turned out to be from Hundred Suns Winery ($45). Many Syrahs can be overmuch, but this balanced its brains and brawn beautifully. Maybe this stood out to us in part because it was different, but does it matter? 

May your 2024 be filled with joy, hope and exciting wines that take you back, and forward, to the happiest times of your life. 

Dorothy J. Gaiter and John Brecher conceived and wrote The Wall Street Journal's wine column, "Tastings," from 1998 to 2010. Dorothy and John have been tasting and studying wine since 1973. In 2020, the University of California at Davis added their papers to the Warren Winiarski Wine Writers Collection in its library, which also includes the work of Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson. Dottie has had a distinguished career in journalism as a reporter, editor, columnist and editorial writer at The Miami Herald, The New York Times, and at The Journal. John was Page One Editor of The Journal, City Editor of The Miami Herald and a senior editor at Bloomberg News. They are well-known from their books and many television appearances, especially on Martha Stewart's show, and as the creators of the annual, international "Open That Bottle Night" celebration of wine and friendship. The first bottle they shared was André Cold Duck. They have two daughters.

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