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As the last days of 2014 rapidly approach, the inevitable “best of 2014” lists are appearing. I thought I would jump on that bandwagon with a list of the 10 best bottles of wine I had this year. This week is Part I, and I’ll post Part II next week.

I follow the Stephen King rule of list-making. If you ever read his “best books I read this year” lists in Entertainment Weekly, you’ll know what that means: these aren’t bottles that were released in 2014; they’re bottles I drank in 2014. And every one of them was a highly memorable experience. They aren’t ranked in any particular order, but I’ll start with my favorite bottle of the year.

Canard-Duchêne Authentic Brut Rosé

IMG_7039I picked up this bottle in February when wine.com had a Champagne and sparkling wine sale. I had never had any of Canard-Duchêne’s Champagnes and wanted to give them a try. Wow, wow, wow! This non-vintage rosé was stupendous. We drank it with pretty much the most American meal you can imagine: hamburgers and French fries. We were celebrating the end of my husband’s judicial clerkship, and we were leaving for London the next day, so there wasn’t much food in the house.

The wine was the perfect pink color and had notes of berries. The taste tended more toward fruit and less toward minerality, which you often find with Champagne. My tasting notes also include the notation, “Delicious, buy more!” We paid $39.99 for it, which seems to be wine.com’s regular price for this Champagne. I will definitely be buying more of this one. Rosé Champagne at that price point is a steal! Real Champagne is pricey to begin with, and rosé carries a premium because it’s more difficult to make; finding one for under $50 is almost unheard of. If you’re looking for a truly magnificent Champagne experience, I can’t recommend this one strongly enough!

2011 Sunstone Merlot

Sunstone.2011.Merlot.LR copyWhen I was searching for a wedding venue a couple of years ago, I toured Sunstone Winery in Santa Ynez, California (just outside of Santa Barbara). I couldn’t begin to afford having a wedding there (the site fee alone is $10,000), but their wines were all fantastic. I couldn’t buy any on that first visit because we were about to move across the country, but I went back with my brother earlier this year and picked up several bottles. I opened the 2011 Merlot when my husband and I had my aunt and uncle over for dinner. That was in June, and I’m still thinking about how amazing this Merlot was.

The wine is 95% Merlot and 5% Cabernet Franc. It was very dark in color with a lot of dark fruits on the nose. The taste was complex and earthy, and the mouthfeel was like drinking velvet. We paired it with a vanilla-honey-thyme custard (link to recipe, which is my new favorite dessert), and the match was made in heaven. The notes of vanilla in the wine complemented the vanilla in the dessert, and the earthiness of the wine stood up to the richness of the custard.

Sunstone’s wines are difficult to find, unless you live near Santa Barbara. They’re only distributed to a few shops along the Central Coast (see the list here). But Sunstone sells wine through their website as well. If you ever find yourself in the Santa Barbara area, I highly recommend a visit to Sunstone. Their grounds are stunning–you’ll think you’ve stumbled onto an Italian villa–and the wines are delicious.

2009 Beaulieu Vineyard Maestro Collection Pinot Noir

2011 BV Maestro Collection Pinot Noir copyI’ve always been a fan of Beaulieu (BV for short); moreso since I visited their winery several years ago. We’re on their mailing list, so we always know when they’re having a sale or offering discounted (or free!) shipping. The Maestro Collection is a step up from their standard line, so the Maestro wines are a little on the expensive side, but not as pricey as the Reserve or Georges de Latour Private Reserve.

We paid $32 for a bottle of 2009 Pinot at the winery in 2012. Its regular price is $38 (they give you a tasting-room discount if you buy at least three bottles). However, we just picked up two bottles of the 2012 for $24 each, with free shipping, through one of BV’s special sales. It’s worth being on the mailing list, people! The Maestro Collection is only available from the winery, either in person or online.

As for the wine, it is smooth, not too tannic, and tastes of raspberries and chocolate. As I wrote in my notes, “A perfect Pinot.” We drank it on a steamy June evening and paired it with caprese salad, grilled bone-in pork loin chops, and a potato-and-green-bean salad in pesto. Despite the heaviness of the weather, the wine didn’t overwhelm us. It was balanced and delicious. I can’t wait to drink the 2012s!

2002 Taittinger Brut Champagne

IMG_7041Taittinger is one of the Champagne houses we visited on our honeymoon. Because Champagne (the region) cannot ship to the U.S., we had to bring home on the plane anything we bought. That included a small three-bottle crate of vintage Champagne from Taittinger because it was so delicious. We drank the 2002 on our first wedding anniversary in August as an aperitif before going out to dinner. (No, we didn’t drink the entire bottle before dinner. We put a Champagne stopper in it and drank it as an aperitif again the next night.)

As I mentioned above, Champagne can have a great deal of minerality and yeastiness to it, and some people find that off-putting. This was not one of those wines. Don’t get me wrong, it still has some earthy minerality to it–it wouldn’t really be Champagne without that sense of terroir–but it wasn’t overwhelming. It was golden in color with the teeny-tiny bubbles you expect in Champagne, and it has hints of almond and brioche on the nose. It’s made from a blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes, but I definitely get more of a sense of the Chardonnay than the Pinot grapes.

I’m not going to lie to you, this wine is expensive. Vintage Champagne always is. More bad news, you won’t find the 2002 anywhere in the States. But you can find other vintages if you’re willing to spend $80-100 on a bottle (and let’s face it, not many people are). However, if you ever have an opportunity to try it, you won’t be sorry.

2011 Michel Sarrazin et Fils Aligoté

Michel SarrazinYou may be unfamiliar with Aligoté, but it’s a white grape grown in Burgundy. The majority of white Burgundy is made from the Chardonnay grape, but Aligoté is closer to Sauvignon Blanc than Chardonnay. It’s crisp and fruity with citrusy tartness and some minerality, which comes from being grown in limestone-rich soil.

I picked up this bottle of Michel Sarrazin et Fils on sale at Whole Foods for a mere $8.99, and it was a revelation. Normally I would have paired this with a white fish or shellfish, but I also happened to buy some Coho salmon the same day at Whole Foods, so we drank the wine with that. I usually drink Pinot Noir with salmon, but the Aligoté was a surprisingly good match. The flintiness of the wine offset the richness of the fish.

I’ve searched multiple Whole Foods locations looking for another bottle of this but haven’t been able to find it. I get the sense that the winery does not export much wine to the U.S. As far as I can tell, their website doesn’t even have an option for English. But the lesson here is two-fold. One: Whole Foods has an excellent wine department. Their company-wide wine buyer is a serious connoisseur, and the staff they employ are highly knowledgeable. Two: Don’t be afraid to try something you’ve never heard of, especially if it’s a great price.

I promise that the wines featured in Part II will be more accessible! Stay tuned until next week. Merry Christmas! Happy Hanukkah!