Best of 2018: Joe Czerwinski

Outstanding New Releases from the Southern Rhône

The 2016 vintage is historically good, so much so that I gave out a couple of 100-point scores. Plus numerous 99s, and a few potential 100-pointers that weren’t bottled yet at the time of my June visit. These then, are the crème de la crème.

2016 Le Clos du Caillou Châteauneuf-du-Pape La Reserve – 100

When my notes include words and phrases like “magical” and “sheer gossamer perfection,” it’s a safe bet to say I loved this 60/40 blend of Grenache and Mourvèdre. Even better, it’s still available for under $200 in the United States.

2016 Domaine de la Janasse Châteauneuf-du-Pape XXL – 100

This is only the second time the Sabons have produced an XXL, which, contrary to the implications of its name, is extraordinarily elegant. Rarity no doubt explains why it’s now retailing for close to $500 per bottle.

2016 Les Cailloux (Lucien et Andre Brunel) Châteauneuf-du-Pape Cuvée Centenaire 98 – 100
Although this wine wasn’t yet bottled when I tasted it (and several other wines equal it, ratings-wise), the Cuvée Centenaire makes the list because I tasted it blind, not at the domaine. This year’s tasting at the Fédération in Châteauneuf-du-Pape included many incredible wines, and yet this one still stood out. Thus far, the only place I have seen it offered for sale is at Farr Vintners in London.

Outstanding New Releases from the Northern Rhône

The 2016s in the Northern Rhône are victims of the quality of the surrounding vintages. It is likely the weakest (red) wine vintage of the last four (2015 – 2018), but to say that does it a disservice—there are many delicious, top-scoring wines.

Young Pierre Rostaing seems to have found another level of elegance in the wines he’s making from the terrific parcels of vines his family owns in Côte Rôtie. I’m not embarrassed to say that one of my original notes on this wine read simply, “pretty [expletive] great.”

My favorite of Chapoutier’s single-parcel bottlings, this wine perfectly balances richness and power with refinement and structure in the essence of granite-grown Marsanne. You could drink it now for its sheer mouthfilling decadence, but I suspect it will be at its best around 2040.

Looking back, I find myself wondering, “What was I thinking?” when I miserly awarded this stunning wine “only” 99+ points. This then, is an attempt to correct the record without tasting it again, which is probably a long shot. When a wine can deliver this much intensity without any sense of heaviness, it’s the result of a truly special combination of site, season and winemaking.

Outstanding New Releases from Australia and New Zealand

This year, I spent six weeks in Australia and New Zealand, scoping out those countries’ best new releases. 

2015 Clarendon Hills Astralis Syrah (McLaren Vale, Australia) – 100

This was a terrific vintage for Roman and Alex Bratasiuk at Clarendon Hills, and the Astralis—so pure, precise and chiseled—is destined to be a legend. Anise, pepper, mint and blueberries are borne on a velvety-rich (yet never heavy) palate and a near-endless finish.

2016 Standish The Relic Shiraz-Viognier (Barossa Valley, Australia) – 99

I stingily rated three of Dan Standish’s current releases at 99 points, so I could’ve chosen any of them for this list. The Relic is simply the most approachable now. For aging, don’t miss his 2016 Lamella Shiraz—all whole-bunch, from Hutton Vale—or 2016 The Standish Shiraz—sourced from Greenock.

2016 Pegasus Bay Encore Riesling (Waipara, New Zealand) – 96

A stunning botrytis-affected sweet wine from the South Island, this wine can go toe-to-toe with any German beerenauslese. It’s got 210 g/L residual sugar, yet retains laser-like focus. Another great example is Framingham’s 2017 F Series Riesling Beerenauslese from Marlborough (95 points).

Greatest Value Wines of the Year

It came as no surprise to me that the best values I tasted all year came from the south of France. Land ownership costs are mitigated by multigenerational ownership, the climate is relatively easy on grapes and winemaking in the region is becoming more savvy. All should be available for less than $20.

This Kermit Lynch import is a consistent standout, and the 2015 doesn’t disappoint. Where else can you find a sturdy, rich red with a decade’s worth of aging potential for under $20?

Just to dispel the myth that Mediterranean France makes only red and rosé, I’ve included this brilliant white, a blend of Grenache Blanc, Roussanne, Viognier and Clairette. It’s plump and rich in the mouth, yet long and refreshing on the finish. Although I haven’t seen it in the U.S. market yet, it should arrive shortly.

This lush, quaffable red is equal-parts Grenache, Mourvèdre and Syrah, plus 10% Cinsault. Full-bodied, rich and velvety, it’s nevertheless easy to drink, and should last three to four years if you decide to spring for a case or two.

Greatest Wine Drinking Experiences of 2017

In a year of great tastings, this was a down year for me in terms of drinking, in which the experience often transcends the wine itself. For the experience to be special, there has to be something other than the quality of the wine in the glass to make it so, and I had fewer opportunities to share great wines with friends this year. Still, there’s no need to shed any tears for me just yet. 

2000 Sine Qua Non A Capella Shea Vineyard Pinot Noir (Willamette Valley, Oregon)
A friend sold me a bottle of this on release at cost, as she wasn’t able to justify taking her entire allocation. Not only did this wine sing at our Matter of Taste Singapore gala dinner, where I was delighted to share it with many of our readers, it was a poignant reminder of friendship shapes how we perceive wine. As an aside, it also drove home just how important good storage is when aging fine wine—this wine was still lush and fresh, contrary to several reports I’d read about it being on the downslope.

1999 Lagier Meredith Syrah (Mount Veeder, Napa Valley, California)
Another great MOT experience was sharing this wine from my cellar with attendees at our London event. Very few of the European attendees had ever had Syrah from California, let alone a great aged example. It was fun opening peoples’ eyes to the possibilities of the United States as a wine producer, not just as the world’s leading consumer of fine wines.

2017 Hervé Souhaut La Souteronne (IGP Ardèche) & 2017 Hervé Souhaut Syrah (IGP Ardèche)
Souhaut is something of a darling among the natural wine set, making wonderfully pure, whole-bunch red wines from Gamay (in the case of La Souteronne) and Syrah. It was great late-night fun discussing these two wines with a friend at Hellbound, a subterranean Adelaide wine bar. Checking the Wine Advocate database, I’m a bit surprised to see these wines haven’t been previously reviewed (ever!), so that’s a ready-made New Year’s resolution for me.
At Hentley Farm's restaurant, award-winning Barossa-native Lachlan Colwill turns out precise dishes highlighting local ingredients, like this grass-fed beef garnished with foraged flowers and herbs—one of the year's dining highlights.

Best Dinner of the Year

Contrary to popular belief, wine critics (at least this one) don’t attend a lot of formal dinners at fancy restaurants. I scrolled back through my Instagram feed to jog my memory, but most of the best dinners of my year were the simplest, often with family. I did have one especially big day in Australia…

Winding Up a South Australia Trip in Style
Through some actual planning, one of my Australia trips ended on a culinary note, with lunch at Hentley Farm’s exceptional cellar-door restaurant followed by dinner at Penfolds’s Magill Estate. Both menus were awesome, showcasing local produce and light, delicate presentations, plus a few decent wines. My bank account took a beating that day, as either of those meals on their own exceeded my Wine Advocate per diem, but it was worth it. And in the global scheme of things, the pricing wasn’t obscene, at $110 for lunch (four courses) and $190 for dinner (seven courses).

Best Vertical of the Year

This isn’t something I actively pursue. Like I wrote last year, there’s something self-serving about asking owners and winemakers to part with library stocks for personal tasting, and most visits don’t allow time for tasting through all of the current releases, let alone going deep into the archives. The only notable vertical I had this year came from a Napa Valley winery that brought a selection of wines to New York City for an invited group of press and trade.

The winery pared down the number of wines to include just the 1969, 1975, 1980, 1987, 1992, 1997, 2004, 2007, 2012 and 2016, but it was enough to provide a head-shaking journey through history. Although I can’t say I was enraptured by the wines as our official Napa reviewer, Lisa Perrotti-Brown, the 1969 (made by Philip Togni) lived up to its legendary status.
Hot chicken at Hattie B's in Nashville.

Best Wine Adventure of the Year

Slip-sliding around Provence in a freak February snow storm (pictured in the hero image above). With no snow tires on my Spanish rental car and no snow plows or road salt to be found, I had an exciting time getting around in four inches of snow, but managed to make all of my appointments. Meanwhile, all of the vignerons who were supposed to join me for dinner canceled, so at least I had a quiet evening. 

Best Get-a-Life Outside of Wine Things

These will be old news to anyone who already follows along on IG or FB, but these are the year’s highlights. Unfortunately, I didn’t get out and fish as much as I would’ve liked, so that’s something to work on for next year. All work and no play makes Joe a dull boy.

Spring Break in Nashville, Summer Vacation in Boston
When taking a 17-year-old college shopping, there are many worse places to visit than these two cities. It was our first trip to Nashville, but the vibe there was great. Just walking up and down Broadway was a blast, listening to all of the performers playing the honkytonks. Add in hot chicken and barbecue joints, and I was in hog heaven. I’ve even started to like country music.

With several schools to visit in and around Boston, it was less like summer vacation and more like work, but we managed to squeeze in a few good meals and a great whale-watching trip that included a humpback calf repeatedly breaching. Awesome!

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