Best of 2017: Mark Squires

Standard disclaimer:  I'm sure every reviewer finds these limited selections really hard to make because there are so many options. Sometimes (not always), I pick things to make a point or spotlight a winery or region, rather than just toss out the highest scoring wines from the same places over and over again. I have agendas. And they are not always about the numbers. Either way, these all have something special.

PORTUGAL 

Best of Table Wines (in no particular order)

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Álvaro Castro and daughter Maria in Dão—lots of new labels this year, lots of overall excellence, too, for both new and old labels.

This year, it is back to the basics. Many "gold label" producers had tremendous vintages in 2015, many of which were reviewed as they were released in 2017. Perhaps the best summaries on the 2015 vintage (for both Port and table wines) are in my August issue articles on Port and Portugal. In sum: a very elegant year, fresh, lifted fruit and intensity of flavor. The 2008s might be the closest comparison for table wines, but I think the 2015s have more intensity of flavor. They seem to me to be better, at least at the moment. 

There were many contenders for this year's "best of" list. There were certainly others that could have taken the place of the three listed (usually but not necessarily from the 2015 vintage), from Falorca to Álvaro Castro (special mention for his many awesome new labels) to Quinta Nova and João Nicolau de Almeida's Monte Xisto (the personal project of Ramos Pinto's former managing director) to Niepoort's Quinta de Baixo project and many others. 

Then, there were many magnificent performances in Vinho Verde—2015 was a great vintage there, better than in Douro. While many of the unoaked 2015s came out earlier, this year we saw a slew of the specialty wines, or later-released items, like 2015 Parcela Única from Anselmo Mendes, Quinta de Soalheiro's 2015 Alvarinho Primeiras Vinhas, 2015 Limited Edition from MQ Vinhos, plus 2016 Sem Igual from João Miguel Rocha and many others. (By the way, 2015 looks great in Bairrada and Dão, too.)

Alas, I have to narrow it down to three. Here you go:

This a bit fuller bodied than the winery's Manoella Old Vines, while the Manoella typically has a bit more finesse. They are both gorgeous this year. I could make a case for either, but I have to pick one.

I've always been a fan of this bottling. In this fresh year, it has more finesse than normal, too.

Although this was originally seen as a 2015 pre-release, I finally got a chance to see it again this year. This iconic old producer struck gold in 2011. It's pretty brilliant. It's worth mentioning it again.

Best of Fortified Wines (in no particular order)

As with the table wine component of this article, the 2015s play a prominent role here. The 2015 Ports are a fascinating story, set out here: The 2015 Vintage - Undeclared and Unashamed. There were many good choices. It was a great vintage for smaller producers in particular (like Crasto and Vallado), but several bigger boys stood out, too.

Niepoort had some of the best results. This is a beauty, one of the benchmarks of the vintage.

I admit to being in love with Ports from this Quinta. Taste this sexy beast and see why. But in this vintage, it also has a certain elegance I liked a lot, too.

In a year when Graham's wasn't declared (see the aforementioned article featured earlier), this Graham's component seemed stunning in its purity of fruit, freshness and intensity of flavor.

Region to Watch Out For

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Winemaker-owner Rui Reguinga pointing out his very old Portalegre hilltop vines.

I just made this category up. But in Alentejo, the large region south of Lisbon, the relatively Northern sub-region of Portalegre is becoming hot. It is a very different vision of Alentejo. The vines have more altitude (if you're used to driving in flat Alentejo, try taking a trip up the Portalegre hills) and the wines have more of a cooler Dão-like feel to them. Suddenly, it seems everyone is looking in that direction. Some current producers to look out for include Susana Esteban, Rui Reguinga and Hill Valley (with winemaker David Baverstock). There aren't a lot just yet, but more are coming. Most notably, the Symingtons recently bought 45 hectares. In the meanwhile, while you are waiting for this sub-region to hit full stride, don't forget Estremoz, a more established sub-region in Alentejo. The vines there also have altitude and the wines also have a somewhat cooler feel. Plus, there are already many top producers and wines, including Mouchão, Dona Maria, J. Portugal Ramos, Mouro and Luis Louro.

Value Wines (in no particular order)

Table Wines
Standard disclaimer: If it is difficult to pick "best of" listings, it is nearly impossible to pick "best value" wines in Portugal. There are so many in so many regions and so many categories. Portugal is a bargain hunter's paradise. Mostly, you should focus on regions like Bairrada, Dão, Alentejo, Lisboa and the like rather than Douro, but there are good values in Douro, too. Random thoughts follow, with prices representing "suggested retail," unless otherwise noted, meaning that they are list prices that may actually be cheaper on a shelf.

Global Wines, formerly Dão Sul, owns several properties around Portugal. This property in Dão always seems to produce lovely bargains, and Global Wines always seems to deliver value at the lower end. Do you really have a tight budget? For $8, there is a lot of bang for the buck from this fresh, elegant and easy-drinking red.

Arinto, a grape that always has good acidity, is one of Portugal's most respected white grapes, with a history going back several centuries. (Most famously, in the now-sleepy region of Bucelas, the producers brag that it was mentioned in Shakespeare.) It ages well, it becomes more complex in time. It is used all over the country, helping to make compelling wines in Bairrada, Alentejo, Vinho Verde and elsewhere. Chocapalha's is pretty consistent and always well priced. This was tasted next to the 2008, which was still lovely.

This dry Moscatel from Vallado is a perennial favorite. This is a fine vintage for it. I love fresh whites like this. I think they are worthy of respect and too often underrated. Verticals have proven that it ages surprisingly well, too.

Fortified Values
For the fortifieds, one simple answer is LBVs. The best LBVs (usually the traditional or traditionally-styled LBVs) are basically Vintage Ports in a different style. They aren't the only values, but they are amazing ones. For a tutorial on what "traditional" LBVs are, see my article here: LBVs - The Old Yeller of Port

This is a traditional LBV from one of the best traditional producers. 2013 is not a great Port vintage overall, but it was certainly possible to make fine wines.

This is a relatively young Colheita, but it overachieves. It's not the most complex, but there is a lot of stuffing here.

2012 Noble & Murat Late Bottled Vintage Port (91 points, $25) 
This was my first look at this producer. This traditional LBV showed great.

GREECE

This year, this section should be subtitled "The White Album," because whites are what you're going to get. In many issues, I tend to fixate on Santorini. There's a good reason for that. If any region of Greece has broken through, it's Santorini. The vines are very old (I joke sometimes that on Santorini, the young vines are 40 to 50 years old) and pre-phylloxera. The soil is volcanic. The terroir is fascinating overall. The signature grape is Assyrtiko. It's not the only one, but it is by far the major one. (And the island's production is overwhelmingly white.) 

I have beaten the drum loudly, but the wines now have been generally acknowledged as world class. I have opened up the scoring range, too. Many are stunning, multilayered to the point where I often decant them when I see them on release. This tiny region doesn't have a lot of producers (although there have been some new ones lately) and even fewer truly great producers, but the top producers are making top-level whites. So, there must be a few Santorinis in a "best of" listing.  (2017 was also a year in which there were fewer compelling reds reviewed, generally speaking, while Santorini was rolling out some gorgeous gems.) 

Put all that together, and you know what's coming next, right?

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Some of the Santorinis reviewed this year.

Best Of (in no particular order and subject to disclaimer at the top of this article)

For many, Sigalas is a key benchmark. This sure shows why, although his specialty Santorinis this year were equally stunning (the barrel fermented 2016 and the 2015 Kavalieros). 

Producers are not monolithic--there is a surprising amount of diversity on the island. This ripe and sexy beast couldn't be more different than the concentrated Sigalas. They both excel. (As you no doubt know, this is also a sad note--the owner died this year.)

This is an oaked version. It is probably the best wine I have ever seen from this co-op. This also demonstrates that Assyrtiko can easily handle wood.

Value (in no particular order)

Dare I mention Santorini again? I could. It is true that prices are starting to climb. The specialty wines, in particular (like Sigalas' Kavalieros), are sporting heftier price tags. Still, there are many fine bargains on Santorini and the regular-level bottlings are still reasonably priced. Of course, Santorini has no monopoly there, so let's look elsewhere this time. There is, after all, more to Greece than Santorini. But the White Album theme will continue.

This winery's most interesting wine might well be its Assyrtiko—yes, it is spreading rapidly beyond Santorini—but this value was hard to beat. It is a blend of Monemvasia and Aidani (that last, another grape popular on Santorini).

Moschofilero is a lighter styled wine than Assyrtiko, but it also has far more personality. From high-altitude vines, its crisp and aromatic demeanor is always appealing. The one thing you don't want to do is use any oak, right? Well, I once thought so. But Tselepos makes a consistently compelling bottling here with oak. They age better than you think, too, but don't hesitate to drink them young when they are fresh and exuberant.

This Malvasia from Crete has become a perennial favorite—and overachiever.

ISRAEL/LEBANON

Best Of (in no particular order)


As always, subject to the disclaimer above—these aren't necessarily the highest scoring wines overall, but they each make a point in their special categories.

It's worth mentioning this to feed into the next point: Israel often seems to have little identity. With Carignan it might yet have one. The country needs more top producers, but with this grape, many actually have old vines, too. Another nice one—coming up in February 2018's issue—is from Jezreel.

Simply, the best pink in the country. Most years, it is so solid, so complex and so refined, that it is just a lighter styled red.

In some ways, I have to mention this just because I'm always amazed at what Carmel does with this bottling. Recent years have been drier. Older vintages have held up well. I really like the drier versions, though. The 2016 (also in the February 2018 issue) is super, too. It might just be better one day.

Value (in no particular order)


Israel is not the best value region in the world, but there are some that are reasonable.

A relatively new producer, Vortman did a great job here.

A blend of Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc, this should be a consistent go-to bargain in Israel.

Tabor takes some major steps forward in our February, 2018 issue, but there were some nice offerings in 2017, too. Its terroir series, focusing on different soil types, is also fun for geeks.

EAST COAST, U.S.A.

Whenever I rhapsodize about the old days—at least I had hair!—I also remember how bad "off region" wines were in those days. There is some pretty serious stuff coming out of New York and Virginia, in particular, these days. You cannot overlook them anymore.

Best Of (in no particular order)

I could nominate other Finger Lakes' wines, but let's take this beauty. It should age brilliantly and become better in time. There were lots of other Finger Lakes choices, too, from Wiemer, Anthony Road, Tierce, Red Newt and others, but this is a pretty good (if rather pricey) representative. The regular Riesling Noble from Wiemer seemed about as good, too. It deserves an honorable mention. No, it's not cheap, but it is less expensive.

This muscular Merlot needs to be tossed in the cellar. Come back in a few years. It was a fine vintage on Long Island. 

There were a lot of other great choices for a Long Island representative in terms of 2017 reviews/releases—the 2013 Mattebella Old World Blend, the 2014 Paumanok Cabernet Sauvignon Tuthills Lane Vineyard, the 2013 Shinn Estate Grace, the 2010 Lenz Merlot Old Vines and others. You can't ignore Long Island any more. It's a good thing when picking a representative for a "best of" list creates waffling and angst in an East Coast region.

For our Virginia representative, this should do the trick. I put it third only because this was a review of an oldie. It is quite a blockbuster, though. Honorable mentions on more recent releases might go to Barboursville's 2014 Nebbiolo Reserve, Barboursville's 2013 Paxxito Passito, the 2015 Horton Petit Manseng and others.

Value (in no particular order)


As in the "best-of" category, I'll include a representative from the Finger Lakes, Long Island and Virginia. That's not entirely fair to the Finger Lakes, though. For super values, that would be the one I'd focus on first—not only, but first.

The Finger Lakes is chock full of values. I've often said the Dry Riesling category is great for them. But this year showed some very nice Semi-Dry offerings that did great, too. (Try the 2016 Keuka Spring, for example, as well.) They are well worth a look. This iconic winery shows off here.

Since I was operating on a Semi-dry Riesling theme in the Konstantin Frank entry above, it might be worth pointing out that Long Island does do some respectable Riesling, too. (Suhru does a nice job, too, but that is Finger Lakes fruit.) Kareem Massoud, winemaker and member of the family that owns Paumanok, will point out to you that his, from fully mature vines, is a somewhat different style of Riesling, more Pfalz than Mosel. He makes nice stuff.

2016 Horton Vineyards • Viognier (89 points, $20) 

For our Virginia entry, this is a reliable and consistent choice. It is certainly one of Horton's best wines (although I'd say the Petit Manseng is their best). The price is pretty right, too. 

Best Vertical/Retrospective Tasting of the Year

I usually, not always, put these in the October issue. This year featured nice verticals from Quinta do Mouro, Wine & Soul's Pintas Port and Alfrocheiro from Quinta das Marias. It was great to see the development of Pintas Port, going from some early, simpler examples to bottlings that eventually seemed to whisper of great things. Mouro was less exciting only because I've seen most of them so many times, but if you're looking for a great Alentejo producer, this is a fine starting point. Later in the year, I also ran through some of Cortes de Cima's top wines, which were aging well.

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Oddly, though, my favorite was the Alfrocheiro vertical from Peter Eckert's Quinta das Marias in Dão. (Eckert and the Alfrocheiros—in the photo above). I love the grape, the producer and the region. I doubted whether these would age well. I was proven wrong. There's a reason owner Peter Eckert is grinning.


Best Get-a-Life Outside of Wine Things of the Year

Movies/TV
Hotel Beau Séjour, a Belgian murder mystery with a twist—the ghost of the teenage victim helps solve the crime. This mini-series presents it straight up—no spookiness, a normal appearance of the victim-as-ghost. A lot is never explained, but it is always interesting as it peels away the layers of a young life lost and the little scandals and mysteries of a small town.

Twinsters: a documentary on a simple but amazing event. One day, the sibling of a French girl, adopted from Korea, notices an American-Korean actress who seems to be his sister's twin. Separated at birth and shuffled off to different families around the world, fate brings the twins back together. This probably drags on a bit too long, but it's amazing to watch and a little surreal.

Santa Clarita Diet, a mini-series on Netflix. Mom has a problem. She's a zombie. But otherwise, like totally normal. Played for laughs, this has great scenes. With Drew Barrymore, Timothy Olyphant.

There were others worth mentioning, including Netflix's The OA, and, if you have kids in particular, Anne with an E—an updated version (from Netflix) on Anne of Green Gables. No kids? Well, the best Y.A. stuff works on many levels.

Music
You+Me, by rose ave. This duo includes Alecia Moore, a.k.a. P!ink, and Dallas Green (City and Colour). More in the pop-to-folkie genre than P!nk's normal stuff, it has atmospheric things like "From a Closet in Norway," the silky harmony of "Gently" and others.

Julie Byrne's Not Even Happiness. If the rose ave. selection touches on the folk genre, this goes whole hog, with a New Age overlay. Listen to the solemn declaration "I Live Now as a Singer." Found this on bandcamp.com. If you like to keep up with new stuff, it's a good source.

P!nk. Well, it's worth mentioning Beautiful Trauma, the first new solo album in years, with the great new song "What About Us?"

Other artists discovered this year included Sara Swenson (including her album "All Things Big and Small"), Kirty (for the album "All I Really Know"), Matthew Ryan, with his Springsteen-like voice (for albums "Mayday" and "Hustle up Starlings"), Natalie York (for albums "Promises" and "Threads") and St. Vincent (for various songs on "Marry Me" and "Masseduction").

Books
These days, politics seems to dominate a lot of thoughts. And a lot of books. I continue to go off on science fiction and fantasy zigs-and-zags for relaxation, but when it comes to books, some non-fiction material goes to the top of the list this year. Jane Mayer's Dark Money should be read with David Daley's Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn't Count and Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway's Merchants of Doubt.

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