The year that was 2018 had plenty of ups and downs, but fortunately the ups were made even better by being privileged enough to have had these wines pass my lucky lips along the journey, which included cycling down the beautiful Mosel River in Germany to the great Niederberg Helden; home to one of the wines on this list.

PS: There were the next level up Chablis, the great Barolos, the amazing Chenin Blancs and a particularly spectacular bottle of Verdicchio shared with a great friend and aged for a crazily long time on lees… yes, they were outstanding one offs, but the following dozen are my best available wines – with reasons why clearly outlined. If you can count, you’ll see it is a baker’s dozen. Why stop at 12?

Italian style… hipster from Tuscany

2016 Tenuta di Carleone Il Guercio DOCG $65.99

Chosen because… it shows a great grape in a new light.

Natural ferments, foot stomping,  low sulphur, free run juice… It doesn’t get much more hipster than this IGT Toscana Rosso, which comes to New Zealand thanks to the adventurous importer, Richard Klein; a former restaurateur who now taps into the interesting underside to Italy’s mainstream wines. “Il Guercio” delivers big time on being a great drink – my first big tick for any wine on a top 10, top 12 or any top list, for that matter. It’s made from Sangiovese, the most famous Italian red grape, which tastes as it should – dry, fruity, full bodied, refreshing.

Cheeky little French red

2016 Clape Cotes-du-Rhone $59.99

Chosen because… it breaks the mould – Auguste Clape is one of the great winemakers of the world and a master of Syrah from the northern Rhone, so it’s only fitting that his Cotes du Rhone is a next level up red, made in small quantities entirely from the Syrah grape, from vines between 30 to 50 years old, grown on granite – absorbs sunshine, retains it, reflects it back to the vines. Brooding power and dark deliciousness.

Sparkling sensation

Quartz Reef Brut NV $26.99 to $34.99

Chosen because… It’s affordable, it’s dry, it’s classic and it consistently over delivers. Rudi Bauer and his team launched an extraordinary first ever Blanc de Blancs this year too but it’s the amazing value for money and consistency of this wine that make it such a stellar sparkling.  

Greatest value white

2015 Main Divide Riesling North Canterbury $21.99

Chosen because… Speaking of over delivering, meet New Zealand’s best spatlese style Riesling under $25 – and often significantly less. It’s no mean feat to make a wine that tastes this good every year and the Pegasus Bay winemaking team (led by Mat Donaldson) achieves just that. If anything, this sensationally concentrated wine keeps getting better, thanks to Mat’s constant quest to fine tune his winemaking philosophy and production. Zingy, zesty, succulent, like ripe-lemons-on-steroids in style.

Adventurous newcomer

2017 Forrest Estate Albarino Marlborough $19 to $22

Chosen because… it’s great quality, delicious and shows another side to New Zealand’s biggest wine region. And this Albarino is the best yet from the determined father-daughter winemaking team that is John and Beth Forrest. This is their third vintage of Albarino – dry, medium bodied, super fresh. It’s made from their warmest vineyards in Marlborough’s Southern Valleys.

Methode in Marlborough

2013 Saint Clair Dawn Methode Traditionelle Brut $35.99 to $49.99

Chosen because… it tastes outstanding – zesty, full bodied, toasty, subtle – and shows how well suited the South Island of New Zealand is for sparkling wine production. The Ibbotson family originally made the first vintage of this wine for their matriarch’s 100th birthday, back in 2014, naming this wine ‘Dawn’, in homage to the great lady. The wine is aged for the same time as a vintage champagne – 35 months on lees in bottle. And how better to celebrate the 100th birthday of their matriarch, Dawn. That was four years ago and the bubbles keep getting better.

PS: Dawn celebrated her 104th birthday in December 2018. No prizes awarded for guessing which wine the family toasted her birthday with.

Quartz Reef’s top drop

2017 Quartz Reef Single Vineyard Pinot Noir $85

Chosen because… It’s bold, red and powerful but soooo refreshing. Bendigo is one of the hottest parts of Central Otago and is home to the vines that grew the grapes that went into this powerful Pinot, made by Rudi Bauer, owner of Quartz Reef Wines. This is an outstanding Pinot – my top southern red tasted all year.

Pinot power

2017 Felton Road Block 5 Pinot Noir $90 to $110

Chosen because… Block 5 Pinot Noir is the most outstanding Pinot of the well known Felton Road Winery in Central Otago. It’s also on strict allocation to members of the winery’s “Block” mailing list. Quantities are tiny but quality is super high – fruit forward, silky, sensational.

2017 Grasshopper Rock Earnscleugh Vineyard Pinot Noir $39.99

Chosen because… The 12 hectare Grasshopper Rock vineyard is one of the edgiest places to grow grapes in New Zealand (frost prone and chilly, but also dry and hot) and yet this wine is one of the most consistently powerful Pinots from the world’s southernmost wine region. It drinks beautifully now and can age for up to 10 years and then some.

2017 Schloss Lieser Nederberg Helden GG $40-ish

Chosen because… This is Riesling at its very finest. I cycled to this winery this year and it was worth every drop of perspiration in the European heatwave that passed for summer in August this year. What a wine. Incredible concentration, essence of limes, green apples, peaches and nectarines. Every sip lingers.

2014 Guigal Cotes Du Rhone $26.99

Chosen because… its humble price, growth in quality over the past decade and delicious drinkability put this wine in the affordable category for most wine drinkers.

It’s a blend of 60% Syrah, 35% Grenache and 5% Mourvedre, which is aged today in the northern Rhone – one of many qualitative moves that make this wine so consistently high in quality. It’s aged in large oak for 16-18 months – to accentuate softness, roundness and drinkability.

Yes, Guigal makes a huge number of other far bigger, more impressive wines, but if you’re looking for greatness in terms of availability, affordability and very good quality, then look no further than this wine, which expresses France’s southern Rhone with great taste.

Mount Ed’s great red

2016 Mount Edward Pinot Noir $49

Chosen because… Mount Edward Pinot is a leading light in the world of Pinot Noir, thanks to judicious everything in the winemaking – from the organically certified grapes to the natural yeasts, low use of new oak (just 15%) and careful addition of whole bunches, which is balanced here in a wine that’s silky, smooth, powerful, savoury and has beautiful fruit flavours too. Very very good now. Can age. If you have willpower.

Top champagne

André Clouet Champagne Grand Reserve NV $57

Chosen because… This wine is made in the village of Bouzy in the Champagne region from 100% Pinot Noir grapes and it tastes fresh but with beautiful aged character – like a youthful oldie, in other words. An awesomely delicious wine, thanks to being aged for six years before release. At this price, what more could you ask for?

  • The best wine I drank all year is no longer available and it’s an oldie but a goodie – the 2000 Weingut Willi Haag Brauneberg-Juffer Sonnenuhr Spatlese was impeccable – from my cellar for my daughter’s birth year, enjoyed with her when she turned 18. Danke, Wilhelm Haag.