I really do look forward to this time of year and the creation of my list of the top wines of the year. For one thing, it’s a great feeling to share these discoveries with you, but also because I love to dig through all of my notes from the past year and really think about what I loved about each of those wines. This year to date, I cataloged nearly 650 tasting notes, which is the largest number I have ever written in a year. But what’s even more eye-opening is that I would estimate that I was only able to type about half of the actual hand-written tasting notes that I made this year. In the end, I would go by scores and wines that truly moved me, while the rest remained hand-written. This is unfortunate, but there is only so much time in a day.
That being said, the notes that made it from paper to computer really are the greatest wines I’ve tasted, and so this list is truly fine-tuned to the best of the best. Picking the wines here was not easy, and often I found myself splitting hairs. What I will say is that nearly every wine in this list has been added to my personal cellar. I wholeheartedly believe in each and every one of them.
Categories have changed to a degree, as the average price point has gone up. However, I ask that you truly consider the term “relative value,” as while there is not a single $20 bottle on this list, each wine hits high above its price point. Of course, there is my value wine of the year, as well as a highly recommended wine from off the beaten path.
Lastly, on the point of scoring, I strongly believe that we have witnessed a massive inflation in scores throughout the media. Honestly, it’s a concern of mine as a consumer, as well as a being part of the industry. That being said, I score my wines as I have for the last ten years. My highest scoring wine this year was 98 points (only three wines achieved that score), and in my book, a 90-point wine should be very good, just as a 95-point wine should be amazing. That being said, if a 93- or 94-point score in a Top Wines of the Year list scares you, then you may need to consider point inflation. In the end, the wines listed here are all tremendous examples of their kind.
And so, without further ado, my Top Wines of 2015
Drinking Well Above Their Price Points:
Relative value is a very important thing in the world of wine. Finding a $25 bottle that drinks like a $35 bottle is great, but what’s even better is finding a $65 bottle that drinks like a $100 bottle or a $100 bottle that drinks like it cost $200. That’s what this category is all about. Many of these producers are world-renowned yet still produce an affordable “under the radar” gem in their portfolio, just for the vigilant wine-lover to discover. Others included here are on the verge of discovery. If you’re just building a cellar or looking for some of the best “relative” values to be found, look no further.
Built Like a Skyscraper
One of the most noteworthy wines I tasted this year, the 2012 Fontodi Vigna del Sorbo, is a classic in the making, and I can assure you that I am not alone in this belief. In fact, every person I have tasted this wine with has had the exact same reaction. Borrowing a term from Robert Parker, it is built like a skyscraper. The intensity, purity, structure and balance of this 100% Sangiovese is undeniable. In the $100 price range, you’d be hard-pressed to find a wine with more potential.
2012 Fontodi Chianti Classico Riserva Vigna del Sorbo – The nose was rich with depths of red fruits, yet there was a bright and lifting quality to the fruit which added alluring contrasts. Cherry, crushed strawberry, minerals and hints of spice wafted up from the glass. On the palate, I found wild berry fruit with hints of herbs and cedar, as a wave of acidity pulsed across the senses. The finish showed tremendous length along with imposing structure, yet the fruit remained rich, intense and ever-present. The 2012 Fontodi VdS is now 100% Sangiovese, and it has firmly found its place as one of the top wines of the region. (95 points) @Morrell
The Evolution of Barolo
The price of top-shelf Barolo has gone through the roof. Many of my favorite producers who were once priced in the sub $100 range are now pushing $200-$250. It’s quite sad, but there are still great values to be found if you’re willing to explore and open your mind to new producers. G.D. Vajra should really be a household name of any collector of traditional Barolo, and yet I still find myself introducing them to people for the first time. Vajra, and their Barolo Bricco Delle Viole, have greatly benefitted from global warming as other producers of Barolo have suffered–the reason why being the location and the altitude of their vineyard. Located in the far western edge of the Barolo commune and at a much higher elevation than your average Barolo vineyard, Bricco delle Viole, which was once a feminine and nuanced expression of Nebbiolo, is now turning out some of the top wines in every vintage. This started as far back as 2005, but now the prestige of this location is showing through in a big way. If you’re not already on board with Vajra, then I suggest jumping in as soon as possible, especially at $80 a bottle.
2010 G.D. Vajra Barolo Bricco delle Viole – Talk about potential. Through a series of events, I was given the opportunity to taste this bottle three times throughout the day, and each taste was better than the one before. At 10am, it was all about intensity and densely-packed fruit laced with minerals and finishing on tannin. At 1pm, it began to open, gaining flesh and nuance as spice, leather, earth and balsamic tones joined the mix. At 5pm, it was a study in elegance. It is still youthful in its tannin but so giving all the same. Gorgeous floral tones and dark red fruits gave way to cedar and minerals. This is a wine for the ages. (95 points) @Morrell
Exploring the “New California”
California has shown that it really can produce world-class Pinot Noir, and much of this has to do with the efforts of Rajat Parr and Sashi Moorman. Of course, many great producers have come before them and laid a foundation that led up to today’s “New California” revolution, but the creation of Domaine de la Cote and the wines they are producing today have drawn a line in the sand, and they have shown us all of what this noble variety is capable of in California’s coastal appellations. A study in terroir, picking at ideal ripeness, using whole cluster fermentation, and allowing the purity of Pinot Noir fruit to shine through are just a few of the staples here. These are some of the top Pinots being made in the world today, and the best part is that you don’t need to spend up to the La Côte listed below, because you can get a great example of this producer’s style with their entry-level Santa Rita Hills as well.
2012 Domaine de la Côte Pinot Noir La Côte – The nose was so soft yet intense with depths of ripe dark red fruit, however the profile was more about exotic floral tones and spiced citrus with hints of undergrowth adding brooding depth. The textures on the palate seemed to sweep over the senses like the finest silk, carrying with them refined, focused red fruits, inner floral and earth tones. It was intense and vibrant throughout with a long finish of crushed flowers, tart berry, citrus-rind and earth. (95 points) @Morrell
The Other Great Nebbiolo
Speaking of Barolo, and the prices and level of rarity the best wines are fetching, I’ve found a great outlet to be in the category of Barbaresco. Frankly, it was shortsighted of me to not place more of my Nebbiolo budget in this category before now. The biggest differences you’ll find between Barolo and Barbaresco come from terroir, with Barbaresco generally having a higher content of sand in the soils and the moderating influences of the Tanaro River. This has earned Barbaresco a reputation of being more feminine, but make no mistake, there are dark and brooding Barbaresco just as there are ethereal and finesse varieties. Plus, I’ve yet to witness a 10-20-year-old Barbaresco that wasn’t holding its ground against the best that Barolo has to offer. Enter Sottimano and Andrea Sottimano, who has taken his family property from being considered passible to now being called one of the greatest producers of the region. Much of this has to do with his Burgundian approach to all things from the vineyard to the cellar. There is a small amount of new oak here, but that is a broad statement in the terms of Sottimano. His approach in the winery includes extended macerations, stems and experimentations with barrels and aging. The 2011 Pajore below was mind-blowing. Young to be sure, but worth tasting now on it’s brilliance and purity. This is a great bottle of Barbaresco and worth every penny.
2011 Sottimano Barbaresco Pajore – At first shy on the nose, it blossomed in the glass to reveal dried cherry and tart raspberry fruit, rosy floral notes, and spice, along with hints of sandalwood and balsamic tones developing over time. It was beautifully finessed on the palate with silky, polished textures ushering in tart red berry, leather and spice with minerals lingering long through the structured finish. The Pajore is quite enjoyable now for its layered and radiant bouquet and polished textures, yet it should mature beautifully in the cellar. (95 points) @Morrell
Not Quite Cult Status—Yet
Have you ever heard of the cult wine producer Sine Qua Non? I find that most people have, even though the majority of them have never had a chance to taste this expensive wine of prestigious and exceeding rarity. However, what I was very happy to explore this year were the wines of Maggie Harrison, who spent eight years working and learning at Sine Qua Non before going off on her own to create Lillian. Today, Maggie has garnered considerable attention from the press and consumers, but in the grand scheme of things, these are still quite affordable. Lillian does New World Syrah in serious style. They are gorgeous wines and well worth checking out.
2007 Lillian Winery Syrah – This was just stunning with an intense nose of fresh, ripe black fruits and dark spice which seemed to pull you deeper into the glass. On the palate, it was rich and silky in texture yet perfectly balanced, showing dense layers of red and black fruits, earth, charred meat and sweet herbs. It remained fresh throughout the dark fruit finish with a bitter twang, which added a brilliant finale. (94 points)
The Value of 2005 Bordeaux
Speaking of 2005 Bordeaux once again, the greatest thing about this vintage is how the quality was so high across the entire appellation and in nearly all price points. Kirwan (a third growth) is made in a slightly rustic style, which I find quite attractive. The blend is heavy on Cabernet and Merlot, and it comes from one of the highest altitude parcels within Margaux. The 2005 is just entering its drinking window yet has decades of enjoyment for the patient collector, and the price simply cannot be beat.
2005 Château Kirwan – The bouquet seemed to reach up from the glass with dark red fruits, cedar, intense dusty spice notes, and a rich mix of sweet herbs. On the palate, silky textures gave way to dark fruit, dusty spice, stony minerals and hints of cedar with a coating of tannin contrasted by brisk, mouthwatering acidity, providing a truly enjoyable experience. Nothing seemed out of place, as this finished on dark fruits with hints on tannin. This is perfectly enjoyable now and should continue to evolve for many years to come. (94 points)
A Work of Passion
The only producer who has managed to be mentioned twice in my best of 2015 list, Jean Louis Chave, not only produces one of the top wines of Hermitage but also one of the greatest wines from Saint Joseph as well. They are made from family-owned vineyards which are tended by hand and guided from vine to bottle, the same as their flagship wine, yet at a fraction of the price. Frankly, this has the potential to be the flagship wine, but the fact remains that the Chave family wants the price to remain fair in hopes of showing the world what these vineyards are capable of. It must be tasted to be believed.
2012 Domaine Jean-Louis Chave St. Joseph – The Chave for the rest of us? As a huge fan of Chave Hermitage, but not of the price and decades you need to wait while allowing them to mature, the Chave Saint Joseph is a great alternative. The bouquet displayed layers upon layers of dark fruits, roasted plum, grilled herbs, black earth, charred meats and dark floral tones. On the palate, it was lifted and finessed, but deceiving so, as its fruit intensity came forward with time in the glass. There’s a savory richness to its black fruits, which were strewn with chiseled minerality and inner floral notes. Dark floral tones, bacon fat, and the freshest, ripe cherry fruit you can imagine lingered on the finish. This is a serious wine that’s just waiting to be truly discovered. (94 points) @Morrell
Icons Old and New
Icons of the wine world give us all an example of what every region and producer can strive to be. They are often the most expensive, yet you get what you pay for. There are many wines in the world that fail to impress at their price point, but you won’t find any of those bottles here. These are some of the greatest producers in the world, and their passion and hard work have created a vinous experience like no other.
Vintage of the Century (No, really)
I know that many of us are probably sick of hearing about how great the 2010 vintage was in Brunello di Montalcino, but the fact remains that it was simply outstanding. With that said, I’m not surprised at all to see two Brunello in my best of the best, Icons Old and New. Salvioni being the diehard traditionalist and part of a dying breed, and Stella di Campalto representing the new guard and forward-thinking progressive. Both wines were simply amazing. Money aside, these are the Brunello that I would be buying by the case.
2010 Cerbaiola (Salvioni) Brunello di Montalcino – Revelatory, and possibly the best young Brunello that I’ve had the pleasure to taste, the 2010 Salvioni displayed a multifaceted bouquet of bright red fruits, floral funk and spice which became deeper and richer over time, turning to dark, mulled spices, tobacco and rich fruits. On the palate, it was seamless as it hovered over the senses with sweet and savory cherry fruit, minty herbs and minerals. This went on and on with notes of cherry pit and inner floral tones. It was flat-out gorgeous, getting better with every minute spent in the glass. (98 points) @Morrell
2010 Stella di Campalto Brunello di Montalcino Riserva – Where do I start? What defines a Brunello? For the longest time, I would say a classic structure to age would be a point in the corner of a wine this young, yet here I found such a delicate nature and mesmerizing layers, that I’d find it difficult to leave in the cellar for longer than 5-10 years. Coming across more ethereal Burgundy than Brunello, the Stella di Campalto displayed a highly expressive nose, which seemed to continue opening with each tilt of the glass. There was earth, leather, crushed berries, dried flowers—which turned to deep and lively floral tones over time—as well as a savory toastiness, which wasn’t oak but something rich and warming. On the palate, it was soft, caressing, yet brilliantly focused in its ripe red fruits with sweet spice and herbal tones. The most elegant of tannin wrapped around the senses, yet were never drying. It clung to the palate throughout the finish with saturating dark fruits and fine tannin. (97 points)
Now at the 10-year mark, 2005 Bordeaux has been a big topic of conversation among wine lovers this entire year. Many 1-year retrospective tastings have been organized and finalized, and all with the same outcome—2005 really was a GREAT vintage for Bordeaux. There were certainly higher-scoring wines, but when I consider their cost versus what’s in the bottle, the 2005 Cos d’Estournel takes the cake. This is the 2005 Bordeaux to stockpile in your cellar.
2005 Château Cos d’Estournel – The nose was stunning with deep dark fruits, espresso and minty herbs, sweet berry, then turning almost savory with dark florals, smoke, soil and saline minerals—just gorgeous. On the palate, it displayed silky textures with velvet weight as intense dark red fruits saturated the senses, along with spice, bitter cocoa, sweet herbs, and minerals. The finish was dark, almost haunting, with a coating of tannin enveloped in rich fruit. The 2005 Cos d’Estournel is still incredibly youthful yet worth peeking in on and sure to be amazing for a decade or two to come. (97 points)
Not Just Hype
I’ve always heard about the greatness of Chave Hermitage, but it was only this year that I finally had a chance to witness it. Frankly, I had never experienced a northern Rhone red with this level of depth and bursting at the seams with potential. The best part is that this experience prompted me to dig further and begin exploring the range, which also led to another wine that you’ll see further down in my Best of 2015 List.
2005 Domaine Jean-Louis Chave Hermitage – The 2005 Chave Hermitage seemed to literally blossom in the glass with a bouquet, which spoke to everything I love about the northern Rhone. Initially it was very much rooted in the earth with dark soil tones, brown stems and herbs, yet it turned deeper and richer with air, as notes of crushed red berry, exotic spice, violet florals, minerals and hints of animal musk lifted from the glass. On the palate, this gave the impression of a never-ending veil of silk being gently pulled across the senses—seamless came to mind. Its dark red fruit gave way to cascading layers of savory herbs and red floral tones as it came to a finish with dusting of mineral-tinged earth. (97 points) @Morrell
Drink Riesling, taste Riesling, collect Riesling, cellar Riesling—and reap the benefits. Can I put it any more clearly? If you still haven’t been turned on to the wonders of Riesling, then you simply need to continue exploring. This category presents a vast range of incredible wines that can easily compete against the greatest white wines of the world. The Keller G-Max happens to be one of the iconic wines of the region, but there is an ocean of great Riesling that can be had for a fraction of the price. That said, cost aside, the G-Max is one of the greatest bottles you can hope to ever taste.
2009 Weingut Keller Riesling G-Max – Words like layered and intense simply do not do this justice. The ’09 G-Max displayed a collage of ripe stone fruits, while hints of brown sugar and honey added depth, then masses of flowers, citrus rind and crushed stone joined the fray. There was so much tension on the palate, as it displayed angular citrus-driven textures, which seemed to explode into riper tropical fruits, spice, and minerals. Tart citrus saturated the senses throughout the finish, offset by tongue-curling acidity and lingering minerality. This is an amazing bottle of Riesling. (97 points)
Off the Beaten Path:
If there’s one lesson that I would wish to teach to every wine lover, it’s that you must be willing to explore. Trust me, I understand the lure of comfort and knowing that a wine I already like will give me pleasure. I also know how disappointing it can be to open a wine that you really don’t appreciate. However, by not exploring, you may end up missing out of some of the world’s greatest wines.
Carole Meredith and Steve Lagier don’t pay much attention to the ever-changing fads in Napa Valley, because they simply don’t need to. Lagier Meredith started as a small project and what probably seemed like a long shot at the time. In 1986, Carole and Steve bought a piece of Napa Valley land, high up on Mount Veeder; a piece of land that it seemed no one else wanted, but what they’ve done with it is amazing. Today, Lagier Meredith is producing some of the most exciting Rhone-inspired wines in California, but the wine that excited me the most at a recent tasting was their Mondeuse.
Mondeuse is a cousin variety of Syrah, which Carole had decided to work with some time ago. Production is tiny, with only 97 cases made in 2012. This wine screams of the Northern Rhone.
2012 Lagier Meredith Mondeuse Noir – The nose showed masses of ripe black fruits, spiced berry, violet floral tones and a hint of wild herbs. On the palate, it displayed rich textures with saturating dark fruits, citrus and spice. The senses seemed to be coated in sappy black fruit throughout the finish yet still with a sensation of balance, as inner floral tones and spice lingered long. (93 points) @Morrell
My Value Wine of the Year:
Yes, it’s Riesling, and for a very good reason. Today’s Riesling producers have shown us that greatness is within reach, as a focus on terroir and the production of dry wines has swept across the region. At $35, the Schäfer-Fröhlich Vulkangestein provides and intriguing bouquet, serious depth, balance and the potential to mature in the cellar. It’s a wine that draws you closer to the glass and satisfies you with every sip. I’ve already added a stash to my cellar.
2014 Schäfer-Fröhlich Riesling Vulkangestein Riesling trocken – The nose was savory and mineral-driven with smoke, crushed stone and cheese rind. On the palate, it was focused and intense, showing lemon-tinged apple and minerals with masses of inner floral tones. It was long and saturating on the finish with tingling acidity, which seemed to touch upon all the senses. (93 points) @Morrell
If you made it this far, then you are truly committed and I thank you. In closing, this year has been an epic rollercoaster of tastings and events. I’ve tasted many of the greatest wines I’ve ever encountered in my life and from nearly every region in the world. That said, my heart still resides in Italy, as I believe it provides some of the best drinking for your money, and wines that can be enjoyed both young and mature. As for this list, I really hope you’ll choose to add some of these wines to your cellar—I assure you that I have already. Enjoy!
Article and tasting notes by: Eric Guido