Last year was an excellent beverage adventure for me, and I hope for you, too. I drank beers from near and far, celebrated as Alabama opened its kitchens and basements to home brewing, and discovered great new wines from small producers. So we don’t forget them all, I want to spotlight a few of 2013’s “bests.”
Best Domestic Beer: Samuel Adams’ Grumpy Monk Belgian IPA. It’s on tap at The Haberdasher (Dauphin Street) and I think it may just be The Perfect Beer. More of a Goldilocks than a Grumpy Monk, it’s floral and hoppy, but not grapefruity bitter. It’s substantial, but not heavy. It’s dry, but refreshing. It’s made by a big-name brewer, but you’d never know it. You can drink it after whatever else you’ve been drinking all evening and it won’t clash. There are six hop varieties in this beer, plus three kinds of malt, which equals one perfect balance. And the alcohol content (6.5 percent) is just right, too. (Available year-round on tap; limited seasonal availability in bottles.)
My “runner up” award goes to Chatoe Rogue First Growth Good Chit Pilsner (Rogue Brewing Company, Newport, Ore.). Its classic Pilsner aromas and tastes virtually teleport you to Germany. With a clear, light-yellow color, substantial body, and dry, refreshing taste, it’s possibly the best American Pilsner I’ve ever drunk. Chatoe Rogue’s flavors stand up to a good chilling (they aren’t masked by one). It’s made from Liberty hops and proper floor-malted barley, just like you see done in small European breweries, with Czech Pils yeast. This brew comes in 22-oz bombers, so pour a glass to fully appreciate the aromas. ($6; 6 percent ABV; available at Lap’s Grocery and elsewhere.)
Best Imported Beer: O’Hara’s “Leann Follain” Extra Irish Stout (6.0 percent ABV) wins my “best import” category, although I swear the imported version isn’t as good as what I drank in Ireland. Maybe it’s true what they say about the influence of time and place. Anyway, O’Hara’s is still a brilliant combination of coffee, chocolate and alcohol in one glass. Opaque black with a creamy brown head, it smells of malt and molasses. There’s a smoky quality to the dark-chocolate taste and the body is surprisingly light. Try it with salty foods; my taster-helpers recommended prosciutto-wrapped asparagus, at one extreme, and chocolate-covered pretzels, at the other. (Carlow Brewing Company, Ireland; $5 for a 500ml bottle; available at specialty beer stores.)
Most Exotic Beer: Flag Spéciale Bière de Luxe, brewed and bottled in Cote d’Ivoire (a.k.a. Ivory Coast), in Africa. Flag is a medium-bodied Pilsner striving to mimic the European style, refreshing and easy to drink. (I say “striving” because its ingredients are water, malted barley, corn and hops — which violates the German purity laws.) I’m not saying you should run out and buy it, even if you can find it; but if you ever see it don’t be afraid to try it. That’s a fundamental “beer rule,” actually: If someone brings you a strange one, drink it, and if you travel abroad, try the local brew. There’s no better way to understand the local culture.
Best Red Wine: Antonio Sasa’s Ripasso Valpolicella Classico Superiore (2011) is in a class by itself. If you remember Valpolicella from the 1980s, forget it. Ripasso Valpolicella uses a special wine-making process to combine the flavors of fresh Valpolicella grapes (Corvina, Corvinone and Rondinella) with dried grapes used to make Amarone wine, producing a Valpolicella that’s rich and smooth, yet fresh and clean. It tastes of red and black raspberries — and a hint of black pepper — with striking acidity. You can enjoy this wine with steak or beef stew, but also with grilled sea bass or eggplant lasagna. It’s a medium-bodied red that’s not too heavy for summer; give it a quick chill before serving. ($30-ish ; available at several Mobile and Fairhope restaurants, and better wine shops.)
Best White Wine: My favorite white last year was a medium Riesling from Germany’s Mosel valley — the Dr. Loosen (rhymes with “boson”) 2012 “Dr. L” Riesling. It has mild aromas of pineapple, honey, apricot and allspice, then the taste hits you with a fistful of ripe cling peaches and ripe Meyer- lemon acidity; I think I said “Wow!” out loud at the taste . At only 8.5 percent alcohol, you can drink it all day long. The residual sugar weighs in at 40 grams per liter, so it might be sweet if it lacked its zippy acidity. Folks who like bone-dry wines might be wary of Dr. L, but I adore bone-dry wines. Germany’s 600 years of Riesling mastery showcases the ripe fruit, not the sugar. ($12; available at Mobile wine shops and — for a bit more money — the Porch on George.)
BIGGEST SURPRISE: You may not believe me but you really can’t go wrong by scarfing up as many bottles of Georges Duboeuf’s 2013 Beaujolais Nouveau as you can still find. Beaujolais Nouveau is usually just a bit of harvest-time fun, but occasionally life gives you more than you expect. The 2013 has soft aromas of ripe red fruits followed by firm, black cherry flavors (with maybe a lemon wedge on the side). It’s crisp, clean and well balanced — acidic without being astringent — far better than it’s meant to be. ($12; 12 percent ABV; widely available at wine shops and grocery stores — until it’s gone.)
WHICH LEADS TO MY PREDICTION: In 2000, I bought some Beaujolais Nouveau while driving through France (paid about $2 per bottle) and it was fabulous. Then, guess what? The 2000 vintage in Burgundy was exceptional. Beaujolais lies just south of Burgundy and the Nouveau wine is my “canary in the coal mine” for predicting whether Burgundy will have a great year or not. (Think about it: If the silly wine is good, won’t the serious wine be great?) So, officially, I predict exceptional 2013 Burgundies. We’ll just have to wait a few years to see if I’m right. Until then, happy drinking!