My wines of the year

For the past 12 months, he's been methodically tasting more than 200 wines a week. A toothstaining act of selfless heroism which means Tim Atkin is now able to give us his top picks of 2006

Sunday December 3, 2006
The Observer
Like an alcoholic version of TS Eliot's J Alfred Prufrock, I have measured out my life with spittoons. I reckon I taste 10,000 wines in the course of the year, some of them memorable, many of them ordinary, a few undrinkable. Looking back on my notes, the quality has been higher than ever in 2006, with far fewer duds. Boring brands may be colonising the shelves of our major retailers, but the UK is still a fantastic place to be a consumer if you know what to look for. It's easy to be seduced by deals on the likes of Kumala, Blossom Hill, JP Chenet, Hardy's Stamp and Gallo, but please, please drink more interesting wines.
I've noticed two encouraging trends this year. The first is that alcohol levels seem to be dropping in response to consumer demand for more balanced wines. Drinking more than two glasses of something with 14.5 per cent alcohol is like being hit over the head with a plank. I think we're finally starting to move away from the American obsession with fruit-bomb wines towards wines that taste good with food. The second thing I've seen this year is a reduction in oak levels, even in wines (such as Aussie Shiraz) that rely on barrels for a large part of their appeal. I've tasted more unoaked whites than ever, with Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Semillon, Fiano and Grüner Veltliner all getting more listings. On the red front, retailers seem to have discovered (or rediscovered) the joys of unoaked Cabernet Franc, Gamay, Tempranillo and Garnacha. More please! For the first time this year, I've divided my picks by retailer and country as well as by price. As ever, I've tried to include as broad a spectrum of flavours as possible, with prices between £4.49 and £30 and two wines under each heading. I'll cover sparkling wines next week, but here's my first round of award winners. Cue a drum roll and a packet of Alka Seltzer. Wine country of the year
We always knew the reds were good, but Spain's white wines have made impressive strides in the past year or two. Spain was just ahead of Italy in my ranking.

Best wines under £10 2004 Coonawarra Cellar Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (£5.99, The Co-op) At the Christmas price, this minty, concentrated South Australian red is a real bargain.

2005 Hattenheimer Schützenhaus Riesling Kabinett, Balthasar Ress (£9.99, Berkmann Winecellars, 020 7609 4711)
This is classic 2005 German Riesling: crisp, fruity and deliciously appley.



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