JAMES BARLOW’S TOP PICKS OF 2021

Hello Ladies and Gentlemen,

It’s that time of the year again! I having been pouring over my tasting notes to find the best wines that I’ve had the pleasure to partake of in 2021. You’ll notice that this list is heavily American skewed, but that is for obvious reasons as I am now the Fine Wine America buyer for Spec’s Wine Spirits and Finer Foods. I’ve had some amazing wines this year and I hope you’ll taste some of these as well for the holiday season! Go get them at your local Spec’s! Have a Great Holiday!

#2. Smith-Madrone Estate Riesling 2017

Spring Mountain, California

Cash Price $29.99

I brought Smith Madrone Winery into Texas earlier this year because I was absolutely stunned by the quality of their wines, especially the Riesling. Their Riesling is the best produced in the United States (in my humble opinion). The grapes come from the steep hillsides of Spring Mountain. This classic 100% Riesling is produced from the same vineyards, in the same way every year, yet the wines continually offer new characteristics every vintage. This Riesling has a light straw core with light legs. The nose offers wet rocks, white flowers, cream and whiffs of petrol. The palate has medium intensity with flavors of Granny Smith apples, orange blossoms, and Bosc pear that jump into medium plus acidity and tinges of grapefruit and honeysuckle.  The finish is balanced and lip smacking with touches of lime custard, minerals, and petrol. A classically beautiful Riesling. WOW! Barlow Score: 95 Points

#3. Chateau Ducru Beaucaillou Red Blend 2018

St. Julien, France

Cash Price $238.99

Bear Dalton (RIP) was the Fine Wine Buyer for Spec’s for over 20 years. He visited Bordeaux for 23 straight years. He noted before his passing that the 2018’s were the finest vintage that he had ever tasted. This iconic 2nd Growth is located in Saint Julien (one of my favorite areas for wine on Earth) and has a storied history of excellent pedigree. This wine is 85% Cabernet Sauvignon with 15% Merlot and was aged in 100% new French barrique for 18 months. This wine is extremely complex with waves of flavor showing through the entire palate. Baked black cherries begin the tidal wave with blackberry and cassis showing through medium plus intensity. Notes of dried herbs hit the next wave with a medley of graphite, exotic spice and tobacco leaf easing throughout the palate. The finish is classic with earthy minerality, violets, leather, and cedar. Sleek and integrated, this wine is drinking beautifully now, but will age for many years to come. Barlow Score: 99 Points

#4. Janzen Beckstoffer To Kalon Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2017

Oakville, California

Cash Price $199.99

This wine comes from one of the most hallowed vineyards in the world. If Napa Valley had ‘Grand Cru’ vineyards, this would surely be at the top of the list. The site is well drained and has evening shadows that allow the grapes to retain acidity. Only a tiny amount of this wine (4 barrels) is made every year. The wine is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon from the famous site in the heart of Oakville and was aged for 28 months in Taransaud French oak. Kirk Venge is the consulting winemaker to this stunning gem. Unabashedly brazen dark fruit explodes on the palate with a velvety thickness. The mid palate is luscious and giving while still offering medium plus intensity. Flavors of dark cherry, cassis and blackberry envelope the palate, caressing tannins lift the wine into layers of complexity. Notes of tobacco leaf and graphite tickle into whiffs of exotic spice, sandalwood and vanilla bean. The finish is nuanced with smidgeons of crushed rock and clove. This wine will aged for a good long time if you choose to cellar it. Barlow Score: 97 Points

#5. Caterwaul Regusci Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2018

Stags Leap District, California

Cash Price $94.99

I’ve always had a fondness for Regusci Vineyard located in Stags Leap District. I’d never heard of this winery, but was open to trying since they were sourcing from this renowned vineyard. I was extremely pleased with the result. Famed winemaker Thomas Rivers Brown (Schrader, Rivers Marie) makes this wine for 6th generation Napa resident Matt Hardin. Brown has produced more than twenty 100 Point wines. This wine is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon and was aged for 20 months in 85% new French oak. Opaque color leads into silky flavors of currant and cassis that combine with darker fruit. The mid palate shows blackberry with a hint of blueberry compote. Raspberry tea and candied violets waft into the finish with dark chocolate, coffee grinds, dusty earth and tobacco leaf laying on the palate for a good long time. Textured, Layered, Complex (TLC). Barlow Score: 96 Points

#6. Maritana La Riviere Chardonnay 2017

Russian River Valley, California

Cash Price $49.99 ON SALE FOR $44.99 FOR A LIMITED TIME!

Donald Patz (Yes, that Donald Patz of Patz & Hall) has a new project called Maritana Vineyards. He has become renowned for producing highly rated Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from Sonoma. He has deep relationships with some of the best grape growers in California and has used them to get his hands of top notch fruit for his Maritana Vineyards. La Riviere is French for ‘The River’ and his Pinot Noir is called ‘Le Russe’ or Russian as these wines come from the Russian River AVA. The wine is 100% Chardonnay from Dutton Ranch, Ritchie, Martinelli and Sussana vineyards that are all sustainably farmed. The ensuing wine was 100% barrel fermented (10% New French oak) with 100% malolactic fermentation occurring in barrel with native yeasts. It was then aged for 9 months on sur lie. Ripe, yet refined flavors of yellow peach and apple are prevalent on the bouquet. The palate shows green apple and pear with a nice round mid palate that offers hints of lemon drop and citrus. The finish is pure and gives whiffs of salinity (which I look for in quality Chardonnay) that softens into hints of butterscotch and just a touch of oak. Beautiful. Barlow Score: 94 Points

#7. Domaine Jerome Castagnier Les Cazetiers Premier Cru Pinot Noir 2017

Gevrey Chambertin, France

Cash Price $149.99

I tasted with Jerome at his home a couple of years ago while in Morey St. Denis. It was the last appointment on the trip and I was quite pleased to end it on such a high note. The wines were incredibly sexy and balanced. I’ve bought numerous bottles of his wines for my personal cellar (especially in magnum!). The wines of Gevrey Chambertin are typically a more masculine style of Pinot Noir. The wine is 100% Pinot Noir with a minimum 60% destemmed and was aged for 16 months in 40% new French oak. Bright, plush flavors of red cherry and raspberry dance delicately with violets and rose petals. The mid palate has a creamy core and a surprising ripeness. The finish is integrated and inviting with whiffs of graham cracker, baking spice and a dark minerality. Barlow Score: 97 Points

#8. Patrimony Cabernet Sauvignon by Daou Vineyards 2017

Paso Robles, California

Cash Price $266.69

Daou is committed to producing the highest quality wines that Paso Robles can offer. It’s rare that I would consider a wine of this price outside of Napa Valley, but Daou has hit a bullseye with this wine. It’s worth every penny. Located in Adelaida District, this 100% Cabernet Sauvignon was aged for 30 months in new French oak. The wine is extremely concentrated with medium plus intensity. Almost opaque color leads into blackberry, currant and blueberry that sink deftly into the palate with licks of leather and tobacco showing on the mid palate. Hints of vanilla extract and dark mocha flow seamlessly into the creamy finish with just a whiff of savory and smoked oak. Barlow Score: 97 Points

#9. Patz and Hall Hyde Vineyard Pinot Noir 2018

Los Carneros, California

Cash Price $59.84

I’ve always had a fondness for Patz and Hall wines (as you probably noticed the Donald Patz new project, see wine #6). Hyde Vineyard is a special site in Carneros that can produce some of the best Pinot Noir in the United States. This gem was crafted by James Hall. Larry Hyde planted this vineyard in 1981 with a veritable who’s who of Pinot Noir clones. This wine was produced with new and older plantings of Hyde-Calera selection. The 2018 vintage was a spectacular year with many exceptional wines being produced. This wine is 100% Pinot Noir and was aged in 45% new French oak and bottled without filtration to preserve the wine’s aromas and aging potential. The wine is beautifully aromatic with whiffs of red roses and lavender on the nose. Flavors of bright cherry and raspberry flow into medium intensity and bright acidity. The mid palate offers notes of cola, dried rose petals and cardamom. The finish delivers a nice hint of earthiness with button mushroom and dusty cocoa. Barlow Score: 95 Points

#10. Calcareous Devil’s Canyon Syrah 2018

Paso Robles, California

Cash Price $35.99

Paso Robles has hit new heights of quality and it’s showing in the wines. I’ve been an ardent fan of Calcareous wines for many years. I think they produce one of the higher quality Syrahs in California. Most of you know (See last year’s Top Pick) that I am a sucker for delicious Syrah. I’ve always wondered why the variety hasn’t caught on with the American palate. The grapes for this wine come from the warmest, steepest and driest part of Calcareous Estate. The wine is 90% Syrah with 10% Grenache added to lift aromatics. The wine was aged in 45% new French oak for 18 months. Rich and ripe flavors of blueberry and crushed blackberry jam into the palate with medium plus intensity. The mid palate is filled with herbs, cracked pepper and smoked meat. Notes of raspberry compote and violets are strewn throughout the finish with toasted hazelnuts and coffee beans. Barlow Score: 95 Points

#11. Snowden ‘Lost Vineyard’ Merlot 2018

Napa Valley, California

Cash Price $37.99

Merlot has had to overcome quite a stigma over the past decade, but the wineries that continued to produce quality Merlot are making some of the best in the world. I absolutely love Merlot as it can offer a supple freshness and velvet texture that Cabernet Sauvignon often cannot offer with its abundant tannin structure. Randy and Scott Snowden have been making stunning wines for decades that have flown under the radar. They had been selling their grapes until 1993 to the likes of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Silver Oak, Caymus, Frank Family, Viader and Ramey. They decided to start making wine in 1993 and allowed Diana Snowden (Scott’s daughter) to take the helm of winemaking in 2005. She offers amazing pedigree (one of my favorite winemakers!) as she makes Napa Valley wines for Snowden, while living and helping produce Grand Cru Bourgogne wines at Domaine Dujac, and also consults in Provence at Domaine de Triennes (my favorite Rosé!). Lost Vineyard is a 2 acre block located on perlite and sand soils. The wine was hand harvested and fermented with native wild yeast and aged in 50% New French oak barrels for 14 months while being bottled unfined and unfiltered. The wine is 95% Merlot with 5% Cabernet Sauvignon. She knocked this Merlot out of the park! It has beautiful structure and intensity while offering loads of fruit and velvet texture. Bright flavors of red cherry and currant pop into the palate with silky finesse and elegant balance. The mid palate is balanced with ripe red fruit while offering touches of spice and whiffs of earthy underbrush. Notes of plum, vanilla and cedar are prevalent with hints of tea leaf on the long, lingering finish. Barlow Score: 94 Points

#12. Baer Callisto Red Blend 2016

Columbia Valley, Washington State

Cash Price $34.99

Baer Winery is producing some absolute rocking Red Blends. I’ve had the Ursa blend over the years and jumped at the opportunity to bring these wines into our portfolio. Erica Orr is the winemaker for these single vineyard wines. She worked her first harvest with Cathy Corison! The wines are all single vineyard from Stillwater Creek Vineyard on the Royal Slope of the Frenchman hills. The vineyard has quickly earned a reputation as one of Columbia Valley’s Top Vineyards. This was my favorite of their portfolio and officially one of my Top Picks of the Year.. The wine is 42% Cabernet Sauvignon/42% Syrah/16% Petit Verdot from Stillwater Creek Vineyard and was aged for 22 months in 50% New French Oak. The wine has a dark ruby core with medium plus intensity. Sleek flavors of blackberry, raspberry and salty ham sink deftly into the palate with licks of blueberry. The mid palate is silky and plush with hedonistic notes of currant, briar bushes and blueberry pie. The finish is richly textured with luscious notes of cedar and vanilla cream. Yum! Barlow Score: 94 Points

#13. Bonny Doon Le Cigare Volant Red Blend 2019

Monterey, California

Cash Price $14.99

I was pleasantly surprised when I tried this wine a couple of months ago. I didn’t have much expectation since Randall Grahm sold his winery to WarRoom Ventures last year. I did take note that Randall stayed on as the head winemaker and one can really tell as this wine smacks of being made by a Rhone Ranger Master! The wine is 56% Grenache/30% Cinsault/13% Syrah/1% Petite Sirah. In cooler years, Grenache shows wonderfully vibrant and aromatic. Randall dropped Mourvedre from the cepage and increased the Cinsault in the blend and the flavor profile is quite dramatic. The wine has medium intensity with flavors of raspberry and pomegranate on the front palate. The mid palate shows crushed rocks and rose petals wrapped up in juicy red cherries. The finish is long and perfumed with notes of bacon fat, tobacco and black pepper. Tasty! Barlow Score: 93 Points

JAMES BARLOW’S TOP PICK OF 2021

Sullivan Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2016

Rutherford, California

Cash Price $79.79

I tasted this wine for the 1st time in over a decade earlier this year and immediately knew that this would be one of the best wines I tasted this year. It has the brilliance of Rutherford terroir exemplified. The wine was an instant classic for me. We brought them back into our portfolio soon after. I recently had breakfast with Jeff Cole, winemaker for Sullivan, and we talked about his wines and the winery’s history. Sullivan was founded by James O’Neil in 1972, but the land has been farmed since the early 1900’s. Jeff actually cut his wine making teeth producing wine for the famed sparkling estate, Schramsberg. This wine is 93% Cabernet Sauvignon with 7% Petit Verdot making up the rest of the cepage. The wine was aged in 70% new French oak for 20 months. The 2016 vintage saw ideal weather conditions to produce top notch Cabernet Sauvignon. Sullivan Cabernet has a medium ruby core with thick legs. The nose shows dark fruit and milk chocolate. The palate offers exquisite flavors of blackberry and dried black cherry that flow seamlessly throughout with hints of salinity and dusty cedar. The wine is richly textured with soft, chewy tannins that act as a velvet glove encompassing the palate. Notes of vanilla bean and exotic spice mingle into hints of graphite, milk chocolate, and lavender. The finish gives whiffs of blue fruit, dusty minerality, and crushed rocks. Tinges of blackberry linger lovingly on the palate with tobacco leaf and cigar box for a good long time. TLC (Textured, Layered, Complex) Barlow Score: 98 Points

Thank you,

James C. Barlow, CWE, CSS

Spec’s Fine Wine Buyer

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