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Top 10 toasts of 2011

In 2011, I traveled to wineries on four continents and sampled more than 5,000 wines, from old classics to promising new cuvees. My top 10 this year are an eclectic mix, from a scarce cult bottling to a white from a country not renowned for its wine.

*NV Barons de Rothschild Blanc de Blancs Champagne ($125)

My current bling wine is this hyper-elegant fizz, the best of a trio of champagnes in the first joint wine venture of the Rothschild clan. The three branches of the banking and wine-growing families own Bordeaux chateaux Lafite, Mouton and Clarke. Yes, it's too expensive, but its subtle complexity and creamy texture backed up its label power in a New York launch tasting.

*1998 Giuseppe Quintarelli Alzero Cabernet ($325)

I'd never tried this rare, mostly cabernet franc blend, made Amarone-style from dried grapes by Italian maestro Giuseppe Quintarelli. So when a generous host pulled out the 1998, I happily reveled in its cedar and truffle aromas and savored its deep velvety texture. It rivals Bordeaux's far pricier Cheval Blanc.

*2003 Gravner Ribolla Gialla Anfora ($115)

"Orange" wines are whites made the way reds are, by letting juice macerate with the skins to pick up color and tannin. My favorite this year is this fascinating, powerful, honey-and-heather wine from Italy's Friuli region. Inventive vintner Josko Gravner ages it in buried terra-cotta amphoras.

*2011 Cultivate Wonderlust Chardonnay ($35, 3 liter box)

Clinton Global Initiative attendees inhaled glasses of this superior box wine at a September VIP reception for the former president. The bright, fresh, spearminty chardonnay from Chilean grapes is my bargain pick, and not just because of its quality-to-price ratio. Ten percent of the price goes to good causes, which you can vote for on the website.

*2009 Magrez-Aruga Koshu ($35)

Surprise of the year. This fresh, delicate white is made from Japanese grape variety koshu in Yamanashi prefecture. It's an east-west project of Bordeaux chateau owner Bernard Magrez and Katsunuma winery owner Yuuji Aruga. The wine's lightly floral aromas and subtle citrus-and-chalk flavors convinced me Japan has a wine country future.

*2001 Grant Burge The Holy Trinity ($35)

I had low expectations for this 10-year-old Australian Barossa Valley red when I found a forgotten bottle of it in my cellar. Like many wine lovers, I've trashed the region's reds as expensive over-the-top fruit bombs. Clearly we shouldn't write off all of them: Ten years of aging turned this balanced grenache-shiraz-mourvedre blend into a scented, wonderfully plummy wine with silky tannins.

*2005 Klein Constantia Vin de Constance ($50, 500ml)

South Africa's sweet Constantia wines, coveted by 19th century royals, also consoled Napoleon in exile on Saint Helena. Forgotten after phylloxera devastated the Cape's vineyards, the legendary late-harvest muscat was revived in the 1980s. On a South African wine tour, I tasted several vintages and was wowed by the 2005s'heady, honeysuckle aromas and taste of sweet apricots and candied orange peels.

*2006 Louis Jadot Corton-Charlemagne ($110)

This deep, rich, luscious and perfectly balanced white, savored in Hong Kong before a record-breaking auction, reminded me that it's still possible to find stunning Burgundies from grand cru vineyards for just over $100. Jadot's age-worthy bottling, from the domaine's prime 4.9-acre parcel, is what the greatness of chardonnay is all about.

*Taylor Fladgate Scion Port ($3,500)

An elderly woman in Portugal's Douro region dies, leaving two heirloom casks of port that have been aging for 150 years. Famous port house buys the same and releases 1,400 bottles of this 1855 pre-phylloxera tawny in fancy boxes. This incredibly complex spice and toffee wine is up to the tale. A high price? It's only $23 per year of aging.

*1983 Chateau Musar Red ($370-$440)

I'd never miss a tasting of old vintages from Lebanon's Chateau Musar with owner Serge Hochar. During decades of conflict, he managed to harvest grapes and make his wines. At New York's Hearth restaurant he poured six reds, his grand vin cabernet and Rhone-grapes blend. My pick was the great spice-and-rose-petal-scented 1983.