Ken Gargett’s Best of 2023: Best Wines, Best Cigar, Best Meal, Best Event, Most Curious Meal, and Much More
Happy New Year to all and many thanks for your support and comments throughout 2023. And especially, a big thanks to my old friend and editor, Ian, who lets me get away with things that just wouldn’t happen elsewhere. Hopefully the results have been as enjoyable to read and share as they have been to research and write.
Before we head off into 2024, and the chaos that it promises, a few ‘Best Of’ selections from the past 12 months. Some have appeared here before, a few have yet to make an entrance but are in the works, and others are just purely personal choices.
2023 was a great year for winelovers. Personally, I think I saw as many great wines as any year preceding it.
Champagne of the Year – So many contenders – Bollinger, Roederer, Perrier-Jouët, Pol Roger and more. In the end, allow me to split it between a recent release and an aged champagne.
Taittinger’s Comte de Champagne 2012 was just spectacular, a wonderful blanc de blancs. Our ‘young’ winner. We looked at the wine in depth earlier this year I so won’t rehash it here.
Our overall winner was a 1929 Krug. The champagnes that day were truly mindboggling.
1928 Krug is the famous vintage, often described as the best champagne made last century. I have seen that wine from their Collection series. This wine was simply a well-cellared bottle, not from the Collection. As spectacular as the ’28 was, I thought this was better (silly to make a definitive decision on two individual bottles). An incredible champagne, so complex and still so alive. If I ever see an aged champagne that good again, I’ll consider myself a lucky man.
White Wine of the Year – Every category has so many options. I looked at a great many Rieslings from Australia, from the wonderful trio of vintages, 2021 to 2023, and there were many which would have been deserving winners.
One region, other than a few exceptions, which continues to disappoint for whites is Burgundy, where the wines are so often way overpriced and of average quality, or worse. California, New Zealand, and Australia are all producing Chardonnay I’d turn to in an instant, before battling the potential horrors in a bottle of white Burg. And this year, none better – quality and value – than the stupendous Giaconda Chardonnay 2021.
I’ve long been a huge fan (as evidenced by my cellar) of these guys, especially their Chardonnay, which many consider the finest made in Australia when on song (which is most years). The wines are incredibly complex, nuanced, intense, balanced, and simply thrilling. If you have not tried this wine, put it on your bucket list.
I remember 1994, 1996, and 1998 as stunners, especially with time under their belts, as well as plenty of younger examples, but I think the 2021 tops the lot. I am not alone. Almost all critics who have tried this wine immediately give it 100 points. I certainly did. The only vintage of this wine I have not bought for decades was the vintage a few years back, when our local tax authorities took the view that they were more entitled to my money than I was – something for which I have never forgiven them!
Red Wine of the Year – This all feels a bit Sophie’s Choice, but looking at the younger wines we enjoyed at the Top 100 Tasting, I gave three 100 points – there were so many stunning older wines, some more than a century in age, which were incredible, but we are going young here (if we did go older, 1990 Lafite, 1945 Gruard-Larose and 1949 Cheval Blanc ruled).
The trio consisted of the 2016 Penfolds Grange (which I discounted, as I think we gave top gong to the 2018 last year), the Bryant Family Cabernet Sauvignon 2019 (which blew me away as a youthful, tight, concentrated and stunning young Cab), and finally our winner, the Chateau Haut Brion 2019. Their 2016 vintage, seen earlier in the year, was a whisker behind it.
Such an elegant, balanced, silky Bordeaux with an extraordinary future. Merlot dominant with 49%, 43% Cabernet Sauvignon and the rest Cab Franc, it is apparently 15% alcohol, bigger than many Barossa Shiraz, though you’d never imagine it. A wonderful wine. Winesearcher has around 20 scores from wine critics and almost all sit between 98 and 100. It gets the full monty from me.
Fortified wine of the Year – If there was one category where I saw fewer top examples than usual, it would be the fortifieds, although every single sherry I enjoyed from the Equipo Navazos team left me in awe.
It is not often that one gets to see a truly ancient Madeira. None better than the Cama de Lobas from 1789.
It is a famous wine and a very rare one, of course (I did see a half still available over the internet for a mere US$6,000). It was astonishingly long, clean, complex, balanced, elegant and full of teak, toffee and caramel. A wonderful wine. A sad note, apparently those vineyards are now a hotel.
Winemaker of the Year – Michael Dhillon. Michael is the custodian of Bindi Wines at Gisborne near Macedon in Victoria.
Again, as we have looked at Michael and his operation and his brilliant wines before, we won’t rehash. Suffice to say that for me, a deserved gong. Michael has taken Australian Pinot Noir to new levels with his recent wines.
In addition, he makes brilliant Chardonnay. He used to make a fabulous sparkler that saw many years on lees, but sadly has dropped it (regular reminders have not swayed him on this). The future of top Aussie wine is in good hands with someone like Michael Dhillon continuing to rise to new levels.
Spirit of the Year – For those with the deepest pockets, very hard to go past a stunning malt whisky like the Glenfarclas 50-Year-Old (US$9,500). Bucket list stuff!
For those with a more modest budget (although a couple of hundred for a bottle of rum may not be everyone’s assessment of modest), I am going with a personal favorite (in Australia, we refer to this as a captain’s pick), the wonderful Foursquare 2010 rum.
From Barbados, the rum has been aged for 12 years (technically released late 2022 but with Covid and import timetables, I got mine in ’23) and is a blend of artisanal pot and the traditional twin column Coffey distilled rums. Bottled at a serious 60%, it is no shrinking violet. Caramel, glacéd orange rind, spices, stonefruits, tropical notes, vanilla, toffee, raisins and chocolate. I love it.
Books of the Year – We’ll keep this one brief – one for wines and one for spirits – as both will be, or possibly have been, depending on my editor’s timing, featured fully.
There has not been a spirits book to come close to Matt Pietrek’s superb ‘Modern Caribbean Rum’, in years. You enjoy rum, you must have this book.
For wine, the release of the fifth edition of the ‘Oxford Companion to Wine’, is also a must have. For many of us, it will take its place next to editions 1 to 4 on the bookshelf.
Jancis Robinson is well known as the incredibly hard working MW behind this project, but she has been joined by Julia Harding, also an MW. Each edition gets more and more comprehensive and tackles issues, old and new.
One Master of Wine once told me that anyone hoping to pass those tough exams should simply read the Oxford Companion several times. There is nothing else you need to know (not sure how that would get you over the tasting component of the exam).
Region of the Year – I’d happily give this to any place on earth with a vine stuck in the ground, but this year I had the chance to spend some time in Italy’s great regions.
For me, a dead heat between Barolo and Brunello. I love them both. So many places to explore, such great food and wine (and people) and such wonderful scenery. So many reasons.
If you have not spent time in these glorious parts of the world, the time is now.
Producer of the Year – It is so much harder to make these decisions than one might think, but for the top producer of the year, I could not go past that truly great champagne house, Krug.
Okay, that might look like a safe and easy decision, but when I look back over all the tastings over the last year, Krug appeared many times (one should not complain if one is drinking more than one’s fair share of Krug!). Obviously, more than that is needed, but when I looked over my notes, whatever Krug appeared, it was always either the wine of the day or very close.
The Krug Day we had recently (see It’s ‘Champagne Day’ with Krug: Pop the Cork and Cheers!), was a collection of the most incredible wines, and of course, our Champagne of the Year, the incomparable 1929. This is not for one wine or even a couple, but for a House that never misses a beat, never fails to put out champagnes that are truly great wines.
Best Cigar of the Year – We looked at far fewer cigars this year than we usually do, something which we will hopefully rectify over the coming twelve months.
Among those we included, for me the Diplomaticos ‘30th Anniversary PCC’ release is the pick.
Meal of the Year – Try as one might to transform oneself into that svelte, slim version one imagines, this is a tough job to take on to manage that. The upside is that one does get to enjoy a great many wonderful meals over the year. The best of them was not at a specific wine event but rather at an end of year lunch among cigar loving mates.
Moda Restaurant in Brisbane, in the hands of Javier Codina, is one of the city’s very best, but even he outdid himself on this occasion. Javier has been in Brisbane for a couple of decades (Barcelona’s loss is very much Brisbane’s gain). My friend who organized the event is also of Spanish heritage (others of us just love the place and the food).
We kicked off with a couple of tapas, the reef fish crudo my favorite, with ajo blanco (a Spanish soup made with almonds, garlic and milk – Javier uses coconut milk to great effect). Then sobrasada, basically a sort of sausage made with pork mince and toasted on their bread.
Next came 24-month-old Iberico Jamon, that incredible ham which many think the world’s best and this was some of the very finest I’ve seen. Even better, the always brilliant staff made a small error, thinking it was all for the one table and not realizing it was to be shared across the two. By the time the other table realized, it was long gone (they did get their own in the end).
Then a dish of Manolette Chorizo with sweet peppers from Bundaberg. Worth the admission price alone.
The main course was always intended to be the highlight, but I’ll confess I thought it had no chance after what had already been served. A couple of roast suckling pigs (if you wish to replicate this, you’ll need to pre-arrange it with Moda). Javier marinates them for two days with sage, lemon zest and salt and then roasts them until the skin is gold and crisp. The sweetest meat I can ever recall. So good that every single one of us declared surrender when asked if we wanted dessert. A truly memorable meal.
Curious Dish of the Year – I had to include this as it was such an oddity, served as an amuse bouche at one of the dinners. “Shaved baby reindeer heart and tar ice cream”.
Not making that up. And when I say ‘tar’, I do mean the stuff they use on roads. And yet, it all worked. No idea how but it was delicious.
I understand that giving the gong to a wine that no human will probably ever try again is a debatable move, but this was such an extraordinary and unique privilege that I could not resist.
The records I could source suggested that the oldest ever vintage champagne was from the 1810 vintage. Now, we know that is not true. The wine had no bubbles, but was still alive and fabulous. Served blind, most picked it as a great Sauternes or ancient Vouvray because of the hints of sweetness, which was how champagne was made in those days.
What was fascinating was that the bottle was both the shape of today’s Dom Perignon bottle, and had that three-pronged label as well, though of course, no mention of Dom Perignon – that would come more than a century later.
A privilege to have been able to try this incredible, unique wine.
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