Counting down the top wines of 2011 

Top tastes: The ’01 La Rioja Alta, Viña Ardanza Reserva Especiale ($40), left, and Champagne CH.&A. Prieur Grand Prieur Brut, NV ($57) stood out this year. - COURTESY PHOTOS
  • Courtesy photos
  • Top tastes: The ’01 La Rioja Alta, Viña Ardanza Reserva Especiale ($40), left, and Champagne CH.&A. Prieur Grand Prieur Brut, NV ($57) stood out this year.

Your palate changes over time. I hated olives as a kid — now I’m a junkie. Looking back on the wines that really grabbed me in 2011, I’ve noticed a slight shift in my preferences toward drier, lighter wines.

Perhaps this change is not so much about me, but about how some wines are made. I’m not a big fan of heavy, clunky, high-alcohol wines. Let me explain.

Amarone is by nature more than 15 percent alcohol, and I’m OK with it. Two that I tasted at the Tre Biccheri in March stand out: Brigaldara’s ’06 Amarone della Valpolicella Classico ($70) and Massimo Venturini’s ’05 Amarone della Valpolicella Cl. Campomasua ($80). Either one of these wines would make a terrific gift.

However, wines that are more than 14 percent alcohol often seem hot, have a glycerinlike texture and sappy fruit. How’s that for a sweeping pronouncement? Of course there are exceptions but as a rule, I’m over the notion that bigger is better in wine.

The most complex and interesting wines are those with subtleties. That is one reason why pinot noir became popular. Or was it the movie?

Sadly, many winemakers who jumped on the bandwagon don’t seem to get that this is the beauty of the grape. Anyway, on to more great wine memories.

I’m a bit of a sucker when it comes to Champagne. I’ve met plenty that are pretty average, but when I come across one that passes the sniff test, it usually triggers an endorphin fest. In October, I had a near out-of-body Champagne experience and did not even leave San Francisco.

A new importer, Valkyrie, had a tasting at Jardiniere. It was convenient enough to my lunch date at the Boxing Room, and I’m always happy to see Eugenio Jardim, the wine director. So, I went, not knowing what to expect but immediately discovered Champagne CH.&A. Prieur. Four wines, were shown: Grand Prieur Brut, NV ($57), Blanc de Blancs, NV ($73), Rosé ($73) and Millesime, 2000 ($80). While each one seemed to be better than the one before it, I was and am equally in awe of all. Compared with other Champagnes, these are good prices.

Not all especially memorable wines are on the high side. Birichino, a Santa Cruz Mountain-based producer, makes three lovely wines, all under $20. The floral ’10 Malvasia ($19) smells so good it should be made into air freshener. The ’10 Vin Gris ($15) was a staple in my house during the summer, and I’ve transitioned to the effusive ’10 Vielles Vignes Grenache ($19) this fall.

Honorable mention also goes out to ’10 Chehalem Gruner Veltliner ($20) from the Willamette Valley; ’10 Paras Baltas Xarel-lo ($20) of Penedès, Spain; ’09 Krajancic Posip Intrada ($21) from Korcula, the Croatian island that was the birthplace of Marco Polo; ’08 Corazon Rosé of Cabernet ($24) from our own backyard in Napa Valley; and ’08 Nelles Spatburgunder ($27) from the Ahr in Germany.

The value of the year is hands down the ’09 Cave de Saumur, Saumur Liet-dit les Pouches ($10). This Loire Valley Cabernet Franc has depth of fruit, terroir, balance and a great finish. It is a steal.

The wine of the year is (drum roll) ... ’01 La Rioja Alta, Viña Ardanza Reserva Especiale ($40). Ardanza has wowed me for years, but not knowing which wine it was, it came in first in a blind tasting last month among a crew of other excellent Riojas. It is marvelous and will age for at least another 10 years.

With all the wines I taste each year, it is never easy to narrow down the top list. That is why I write this column strictly from memory (though I cheat to confirm prices). I look forward to what 2012 will introduce to my palate and allow me to share with all of you. Have a happy, healthy New Year and please, drink responsibly when you are driving. A taxi is way less expensive than a DUI.

Pamela S. Busch is the owner of, founder of CAV Wine Bar and a Bay Area wine consultant. Please submit your questions to

About The Author

Pamela S. Busch

Pamela Busch has been working in the wine industry since 1990 as a writer, educator and consultant and co-founded Hayes & Vine Wine Bar and Cav Wine Bar & Kitchen. In 2013, she launched
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