The Best Domestic Wines of the Year

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Photos except where noted: Wes Rowe

2015 was an interesting vintage. And I don't mean for wine: the grapes harvested this year are largely still in barrels and only time will tell how tasty they are. For me, though, harvest season brought a babbling baby girl and the end of a nine-month dry spell. By the time my baby was born in July, I hadn't drunk a bottle of wine since the previous fall. And I was thirsty.

To catch up on what I'd missed, I devoted the past few months to drinking a whole lot of American wine in the $20 to $50 range—old favorites and unfamiliar bottles I'd started seeing on restaurant lists, wines from up-and-comers working in shared warehouse spaces and young producers launching labels while still holding day jobs at more established wineries.

By the time I lost track of how many wines I'd tasted—somewhere north of 100 bottles—and began to construct my list of favorites, one thing was clear. There are certainly great domestic examples of classic grapes such as Chardonnay and Zinfandel, but most of my top picks are hiding under less-familiar names. Some of today's best American winemakers are focusing on grapes you may have never heard of—grapes that are less expensive for producers to acquire and don't demand a crazy-high price at the wine store, either. If you want to drink well for your money, it pays to be open minded. This is the year to try American-grown Riesling, Nebbiolo, Barbera, and others.

Here are the wines that stopped me in my tracks this year.

Red Wines

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Photo: Vicky Wasik

Barbera

California winemaker Matthew Rorick of Forlorn Hope makes what he calls 'rare creatures', tracking down oddball vineyards to feature in tiny batches of unusually delicious wine. My current favorite of his offerings is something of a practical experiment: Rorick wanted to try a side-by-side comparison of sulfur-preserved and unsulfured wine. He split a batch of Barbera from the Sierra Foothills in two parts after fermentation, and kept just one barrel unsulfured so he could see the differences in flavor between the two. The sulfured version turned out bright and focused (and Rorick believes that the sulfur will help it age gracefully for at least a decade), but the unsulfured bottling is the one I'm bringing to dinner. Forlorn Hope 2013 L'Asino Santo ($30) tastes like it was made from ripe black cherries dosed with bright, tart cranberries, fading with a flicker of bitterness and river-rock minerality on the back of your tongue. Rorick ferments the grapes on the stems to add a little bit of tannin, which works to provide a framework for the juicy fruit. This is stellar pizza wine, latching right into the bold, tangy flavors of tomato sauce.

Charbono

It's believed that Italian immigrants brought Charbono vines to California in the 1800s, but they thought the brambly, juicy grape was Barbera for decades (until geneticists at UC Davis identified the mixup). There have always been some Charbono fans—Inglenook, a famed Napa Valley producer, offered a special membership to their 'Charbono Society'—but other wineries didn't see much demand and just blended the grapes into Zinfandel bottlings. Only 70 acres of California Charbono vineyards remain, but Calder Wine Company's vibrant 2012 Charbono ($28) makes me wish there were more. Hailing from warm Calistoga (on the northern end of Napa Valley), this wine reminds me of juicy plums and dusty cocoa, but all the sun-baked fruit character is kept in line with mouthwatering acidity that can cut through the fat of your Christmas goose.

Grenache

The high-desert vineyard where New Zealand-born winemaker Angela Osborne sources her A Tribute to Grace 2013 Santa Barbara Highlands Grenache ($45) sits at a 3000-foot elevation, where the days are hot (and the cool nights keep things in balance.) The wine tastes of sandy clay binding together leathery fruit: cinnamon-spiced cherries and sun-dried tomatoes, and it straddles the line between savory and sweet. It's perfect with a rosy slow-roasted beef tenderloin. The label's named to celebrate Osborne's grandmother, Grace, who would have been 93 on the day this wine was bottled.

Nebbiolo

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I never imagined that I'd love Nebbiolo from anywhere but Italy. But the first time I tasted the Nebbiolo wines from Clendenen Family Vineyards, I was floored. And every bottle I open elicits the same response. These wines capture my favorite things about Nebbiolo: its hints of mint and scrubby herbs, its veil of dried roses. Jim Clendenen planted the vines on a cool and breezy hillside of Santa Barbara County's Bien Nacido Vineyard back in 1994. The wine rests for years (four for the entry-level 'Pip', six for the 'Bricco Buon Natale') in big 500L barrels before bottling. The 2008 'Pip' ($25) tastes of dried sour cherry and black tea, with a gamey edge that's ready for pairing with seared venison. It's much leaner, though, than the silky 2009 'Bricco Buon Natale' ($35), which adds deep blackberry fruit and a touch of violets to the picture, and can handle richer cuts of lamb. I love both.

Sangiovese

Every year at Christmas, my mother makes a big pot of her famous cioppino, a tomato-seafood stew scented with orange zest and chock full of sweet crab and briny clams. We often serve it with juicy Zinfandel or Cru Beaujolais, but my pick for pairing this year is Piedrasassi's 2014 Central Coast Carbonic Sangiovese ($22). Its fresh fruit flavors are heightened thanks to carbonic maceration, just like Beaujolais—it's made by filling a carbon-dioxide filled vessel with whole clusters of grapes and sealing it off so fermentation occurs within the berries. The wine's soft tannins keep cherry and tomato notes front and center; it's best served slightly chilled.

Syrah

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If you really pressed me, I'd admit that the Wind Gap 2013 Nellessen Vineyard Syrah ($40) is my favorite red wine of the year. At lunch the day after I tried it, I ordered a lauded Rhone Syrah for comparison. But as delicious as the French bottle was, I found myself thinking back to the Sonoma County rendition—they're neck and neck. A scent of graphite teams up with bright, tart cranberry flavors to keep this Syrah agile. As you sip, it softens into eucalyptus and minty chocolate, as if swirled with a few drops of Fernet in the glass. It's the sort of wine you'll want around for holiday entertaining, whether you're making prime rib, roast duck, or rack of lamb. Pour it for someone who doesn't believe that California Syrah can compete on a world stage. They may be surprised.

Zinfandel

For some folks, Thanksgiving isn't Thanksgiving without a bottle of fruity Zinfandel. For others, there's no Turkey Day without juicy, earthy Gamay. The Dashe Cellars 'Les Enfants Terribles' series will please both camps; these Zins are produced the way many Beaujolais are, with carbonic maceration. The wines then spend a few months in a giant 900-gallon barrel—fifteen times the size of a regular wine barrel—which limits surface area to gives them a little air but not a lot of oaky flavor. The 2014 McFadden Farm is especially juicy and Beaujolais-like, but my favorite is the earthier 2014 Heart Arrow Ranch, which is all mushroom and black pepper, with silky roast-plum flavors that are great with savory dark-meat turkey and herb-laced stuffing but also perfect for Peking duck.

White Wines

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Photo: Vicky Wasik

Chardonnay

Last year I joined a gathering of winemakers at Sonoma's Michael Mara vineyard to taste a dozen or so different Chardonnays produced from the property's vines. It was no accident that so many different winemakers worked with these grapes: while planting the vineyard, Steve Matthaisson encountered what he says was the rockiest soil he'd seen in 20 years of vineyard work: "The rocks were finally surmounted and the vineyard produced a crop," Matthaisson says, but to cover the unexpectedly high costs of all that work, they had to sell most of the grapes to other wineries.

It was a chance to examine how the same fruit could turn into a broad range of wine styles, depending on when the grapes were picked, how long the wine spent in what type of barrels, and other winemaking choices. Several of the bottlings were memorable, but Matthaisson's wine really stood out. He picked most of his section of the vineyard very early to capture the bright tartness of the grapes, then harvested again later in the summer for the richer, more powerful flavors of riper fruit, adding the juice from the second harvest into the barrels where the earlier-picked juice was fermenting. In the glass, Matthiasson Michael Mara 2013 Chardonnay ($55) is seamless, ready for your Thanksgiving turkey and perfect for tucking away for next summer's lobster roll. On one hand, it's all sun-ripened golden pear, but this wine glimmers with fine-grained minerals, too, taking you to that stony, dusty vineyard, whose soils were created by a landslide of rocks and volcanic debris down from the Sonoma Mountains to the valley below. Can't find this wine? I'd recommend pretty much any bottle Matthiasson makes.

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I rarely bought Chardonnay for recreational drinking until I first tasted what John Lockwood of Enfield Wine Co. was up to, and now about a third of my wine fridge is filled with his current release. Enfield was just a side project while Lockwood worked full time farming and managing vineyards for Failla Wines; 2013 was his first year focusing solely on his own label. The barrel-fermented Enfield 2013 Heron Lake Vineyard Chardonnay ($35) is a creamy-quartzy stunner. Grown in volcanic soil where the cool bay air hits the ridges up above the city of Napa, it tastes a bit like licking a salty oyster shell, but after 16 months in barrels, it has the richness to balance a full Thanksgiving feast or some sage-and-brown-butter pasta. I'll be really sad when my stash runs low.

Up in Oregon, Johan Vineyards produces two different Chardonnays from their 87-acre biodynamic vineyard in the Willamette Valley. Cool ocean breezes are pulled through a nearby corridor in the coast range, lowering average temperatures (and sugar in the grapes.) My favorite of the wines is the Johan Vineyards 2012 Visdom, which is meant to be a bit like Champagne without bubbles. This precise and vibrant wine has a punch of lemony acidity cutting through its creamy texture, it's great for drinking with steamed Dungeness crab.

Chenin Blanc

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As winter's chill begins to set in, I find myself turning to richer white wines: wines that have a little weight in the mouth, a little spice. They're just what I want to drink with roast chicken or turkey and potatoes whipped with cream. I'm excited to see more domestic winemakers experimenting with Chenin Blanc, but sometimes these wines are fresh and tart but lacking the earthy-waxy richness you find in Chenin from the Loire. Berkeley winemaker Chris Brockway's take, the Broc Cellars 2014 Solano County Green Valley Chenin Blanc ($25), is wonderfully grounded, filling the mouth with hints of olive oil, sage, and briny seawater, with a tea-like savory side that's kept fresh with lemony acidity. It's ideal for turkey, and awesome with seared scallops.

Chenin's back at it up north, too: the Portland winemakers at Division Wine Company source their Chenin from 35+ year old vines grown in Washington's Yakima Valley. Their lovely $20 Division-Villages l'Isle Verte Chenin Blanc is sadly sold out, but I can't stop thinking about the Division 2014 Chenin Blanc 'Savant' ($25). The grapes were picked in two passes, one early to preserve the bright and lively acid in the grapes, and a second that included riper grapes that had a bit of botrytis (also called Noble Rot), which gives the wine a slightly malty character. It's as deep and moody as a white wine can be, dry but almost caramel-like, sultry and savory in a way that makes it a natural partner for sage-laced stuffing. (Get a couple bottles so you can pour it with your New Year's Eve porchetta, too.)

Gewürztraminer

Many think of Washington State as a land of riesling, but lovers of aromatic whites should seek out Dowsett Family Winery 2013 Gewürztraminer (around $22) from the Celilo Vineyard in the Columbia Gorge. This very floral—but totally dry—wine is produced in the cellars at Buty, where Chris Dowsett also serves as winemaker. It's heady stuff, like a distillation of jasmine and lychee, but it's tangy and tart enough to stay refreshing. Pour it alongside a cheese-filled quiche (and don't be afraid to add a little bacon or ham to the mix.)

Riesling

John House and Ksenija Kostic of Ovum Wines believe that riesling "shows terroir and texture like no other" wine grape. Avid drinkers of old-world bottlings, the husband-and-wife team wondered, House says, if they could produce similarly great riesling in Oregon: "Do we have soil types that will find a voice through riesling?" If all of the wines, sourced from different vineyards and soils, are handled similarly in the cellar—going through native fermentation without added cultured yeast (or acid, water, etc.), kept in extended contact with the lees in neutral barrels, puncheons, and an-egg-shaped cement fermentor—House questioned, "and they taste different, can we/have we found terroir?"

Tasting three 2014 Ovum rieslings (all around $29) suggests they might have. The Off the Grid comes from a former creek bed of a vineyard near the Siskiyou mountains on the Oregon/California border. This site, at 1500 feet elevation, has extreme temperature swings, and the wine is tart and chalky, with yellow apple and fennel flavors meeting a gush of lemon and white grapefruit. Memorista, grown in well-drained soils on basalt at a warm site in the Eola-Amity Hills, is peachier than the others, with a whiff of orange blossom and a tangy finish. It's wonderful with a cheese plate, especially favoring nutty aged gouda. (Add that gouda to a homemade mac and cheese situation and you're even more on the money.)

But my favorite is the Deep Water, sourced from the powdery basalt soil at the highest elevation for riesling in the Dundee Hills. It's a tightly tuned balance of acid, mineral, and fruit, as refreshing as the best tart limeade, but with a rich texture that'll have you thinking of high thread count sheets. Sashimi pairing optional but excellent.

But Ovum's not the only winery offering some serious Oregon riesling these days. I'm a little obsessed with Love & Squalor 2013 Willamette Valley Riesling ($20), which beautifully brings together grapes from a few different dry-farmed vineyards in the valley. It hits all the right notes: juicy apple and honeydew fruit flavors, crisp bright acidity, and the hint of cool fennel and mineral that makes riesling special. This one's a guzzler, and its fruity flavors (and low alcohol at 10.6% ABV) make it the perfect wine for a marathon of a Thanksgiving meal. I'm going to look into buying a sixpack.

On my first visit to New York's Finger Lakes several years ago, one wine stood out: a single-vineyard riesling offered by the young assistant winemaker at Atwater Estate Vineyards. Nothing else compared. Kris Matthewson now focuses on his own label, Bellwether Wine Cellars, and his Bellwether 2013 A&D Vineyard Dry Riesling is just as impressive as the wine that first caught my attention. Precise acid and an herby kaffir lime note drives the flavor, cutting through the wine's soft peachy side like a bolt of lightning. Pair the pucker with a fresh green salad topped with seafood, matching crisp with crisp.

Grown up at an elevation of 1200 feet, the Dunham Cellars 2013 Lewis Estate Vineyard Riesling ($20) starts out tasting tart and slightly savory, like fresh lime in your seltzer (and maybe a splash of tea.) But after the bottle's been open a bit, the fruit comes out, too: swirling grapefruit and juicy tangerine with a mineral-water core. Bring this wine to dim sum, or make your own soup dumplings to enjoy with a glass at home (pouring the bottle into a decanter or pitcher is the way to go.)

Sauvignon Blanc

Dan Petroski is known for working with unusual Italian grapes in Napa—Tocai Friulano, Greco, and Ribolla Gialla—brought together in remarkable white blends inspired by Friuli. But his Massican 2014 Sauvignon is one of the only California Sauvignon Blancs I've ever really loved. It's a wine with guts: ripe without going tropical, tart without going sharp, a little green and herbal without going grassy. To balance the flavors, Petroski harvested the vineyard in two passes: one half in early August and the other four days later. Serve it with a whole roasted fish.

Rosé Wines

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This won't be the last you hear of Mike Lucia, who released his first vintage under the Rootdown label this year. Lucia, who also works at Copain Wines, found the trousseau grapes for his wonderful Rootdown Wine Cellars 2014 Rosé of Trousseau ($21) in Amador County, east of Sacramento—the vines were planted in 1970 for making port-style wines. After a foot tread the grapes sit in the bins in a cold room for 15 hours on the skins to get a little texture and weight. It's a smart move, yielding a wine that's tangy and bright without being severe, full of silky, juicy fruit (hinting at just-ripe peaches and perfect tomatoes) without tasting like watermelon punch. It's everything I want in a rosé. You need this wine if you have summer pool or beach access, but I want a few more bottles to serve with pre-dinner prosciutto year round.

My other favorite rosé of the year, Lieu Dit 2014 Rosé of Pinot Noir, is a bit pricier at around $30 (thanks, Pinot Noir grapes), but it's a really special wine. As if steeped with orange peel and tiny, intense strawberries and dosed with salty oyster brine, this is a rosé that gets your mouth watering. It comes from Santa Barbara County courtesy of sommelier Eric Railsback and Justin Willett of Tyler Winery. It'll go with a wide assortment of appetizers, but I highly recommend that you mash up some anchovies with butter, spread that on toast, and pour yourself a glass.

Note: All wines except the Enfield and Forlorn Hope provided as samples for review consideration.