I was once again fortunate enough to be invited to judge at the annual Critics Challenge International Wine competition, which took place late last month in Stay-Classy San Diego.
CC is always one of the highlights of my professional year; the organizers, volunteers, and fellow judges are all top-notch, and the fact that they’re also great people with whom to hang is just tasty icing on the cake. And then there’s the whole going-somewhere-gorgeous-to-taste-wines aspect, and, well, I suppose In can’t be helped for waxing too poetic at about it.
As in past years, I thought that I would highlight a few of the wines that I considered particularly memorable from the medal-winners. In this case, there were two that received a Platinum award from my judging panel that went on to take Best-in-category awards, and another that didn’t come from my table, but I just wanted to make sure was on your radar because it’s friggin’ tasty…
Best Pinot Gris: 2016 J Vineyards & Winery Pinot Gris, California $18
This white might carry a pedestrian statewide-California designation, and be perennially misunderstood by some critics, I’ve always found this to be a minor miracle of a wine. Certainly it punches above its weight class, offering an abundance of tropical fruit and honeysuckle action on the nose, and tempering all of the melon, apple, and pineapple flavors with a bit of well-woven acidic zing. Alsace or Friuli it’s not, but it’s a heck of an attention-getting pour for the money. It was really shining in the blind lineup of PGs that I judged.
Best Red Bordeaux Blend: 2010 Sodaro Estate Winery Estate Blend, Coombsville, $100
Let’s start with the numbers: 56% Petit Verdot, 22% Cabernet Sauvignon, 11% Cabernet Franc, and 11% Merlot; 22 months in 50/50 New/seasoned French oak. The numbers don’t really tell the story of this superb assemblage, which ends up being greater than the sum of its parts (or its digits). The PV puts the dark blackberry and blackcurrant fruits to the fore, along with prominent aromas of violets, with the two Cab cousins adding additional depth via dried herb and spice notes. It all finishes with tobacco, wood spices, and great length. Plush and ripe, this is decidedly Napa, but in all of the ways for which Napa is justifiably famous. A standout among a flight of Bord’x style red blends.
Best Rioja: 2011 Ysios Reserva, Rioja $34
While I didn’t judge this wine, I felt compelled to try it when the Platinum award winners were unveiled, because I’ve been within spitting distance of the impressive winery building taking photos back in 2012 (see inset pic). I often find that there’s a sweet spot to be had in the middle ground of Rioja’s Reserva category, being between the fruit-forwardness of Crianza, and the matured-whether-you-like-it-or-not-dammit oak influence of Gran Reserva. This Ysios release hits that sweet spot remarkably well, being full of fresh, sour cherry fruitiness, but also not shy about its helpings of smoke and wood spice, all while keeping things food-friendly-fresh on the palate (fresher than one might expect six years on, for sure).