Standard disclaimer: I'm sure every reviewer finds these limited selections really hard to make because there are so many options. So, 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 just about the numbers. Either way, these all have something special.
Best Of Table Wines (In No Particular Order)
In a declared vintage year, the Ports will take center stage this year, but there are more than a few terrific table wines. Let’s do different things because Portugal is about diversity. Ungrafted Baga? An RD sparkler from Douro? Cooler-climate Alentejo? You have questions. I have answers.
Bairrada and Baga are almost as successful as Bogie & Bacall these days. I heard someone recently saying that Portuguese wines were too warm and rich for them. Some are. However, you cannot generalize. There are many wine regions that are nothing of the sort, so let’s spotlight a few of them in this “Best Of” edition.
Luis Pato is the traditional old-school standard. When I revisited this 2011 in Portugal last summer, it was stunning. This is Pato’s Baga from ungrafted old vines. This 2011 vintage may not be the most classic ever—it was a big, big year—but this is certainly one of the most concentrated Bagas that I’ve ever seen. This is not a grape or region that is famed for concentration—more so acidity, structure and silky texture. So, yes, this 2011 is a bit of an odd duck, especially considering how I started this discussion. It’s still a fascinating one. Some time in bottle has made it approachable on this reevaluation, but this should continue aging for a very long while.
In a more classic style that will meet demands for elegance and mid-palate finesse, both Patos (Luis and daughter Filipa, with husband William) did marvelous things with their more recent and more graceful 2015s. The recent reports on Niepoort’s 2016s at Baixo were pretty impressive as well. But let’s stop here. We can’t let Baga have everything.
This is a great project, but let it also represent the increasing prominence of the once obscure region of Northern Alentejo that I’ve been writing about: Portalegre. You’re in on the ground floor. This is your chance to be the cool kid. If you’re not familiar with Portalegre—that’s the part of Alentejo with higher altitudes and cooler temperatures. The wines are crisper and elegant. It sure won’t seem like stereotypical Alentejo. They often feel more like Bairrada or Dão than the typical stereotype of Alentejo. (In fact, big Alentejo is many regions—you cannot paint with a broad brush.) Other interesting wineries include Howard’s Folly and Rui Reguinga. The Symingtons will have wine from there soon. Others have been sourcing wine from Portalegre even if not located there.
This particular project merges two famed winemakers into a dynamic force. Both Susana Esteban (her own winery in Portalegre) and Sandra Tavares (Wine & Soul, with her husband; and her family winery Chocapalha) are better known for other projects. This is perhaps the biggest breakthrough for this young joint venture so far. They make a Douro bottling as well.
2000 Caves Transmontanas Vértice RD ($100)
This producer, most famous for its Espumantes, has been making great sparklers in Douro for a long while now. It was created with the help of Jack Davies (of Schramsberg fame). This new release is their very first RD. It is arguably the best sparkler they have ever made, and that’s saying something considering how good the Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Gouveio have been lately. It is Malvasia-dominated, with healthy chunks of Touriga Franca and Gouveio, among others. (You’ll get the score in the December Issue for a reevaluation.) It won’t be cheap, but it is fairly priced considering that it spent 17 years on the lees.
Best Of Fortified Wines (In No Particular Order)
The 2016 vintage was a declared vintage for Port. My initial look, at a very early stage with many not quite in bottle yet, was in the July Interim Issue based on June tastings.
As the months (and years) go on, we will continue looking at them as they change and develop. Port, slow-developing and long-lived, is often a moving target when young. (The December Issue will have some of those second looks as well as new wines. Plus, there will be many Ports of other types, from LBVs to Tawnies.)
From the Symingtons, this has become a perennial favorite with me for its aromatics and intensity of flavor. Few Ports are quite this sexy. As we see an increasing number of single-plot and single-vineyard Ports be released, this has established itself as one of the biggest stars. I saw this very early on and wanted to be conservative on it, but if I had to pick just one—this would be my pick at the moment for the wine of the vintage. One quasi-secret to its success—it is predominantly Touriga Nacional. The Symingtons also scored big with the muscular and much bigger 2016 Quinta do Vesuvio “Capela” Vintage Port, in a completely different and more aggressive style. It’s good to be open minded and diverse. The flavor intensity of the Capela is pretty special too.
Yes, I could mention lots of other terrific 2016 Vintage Ports, but you already have that idea. It was a year for great tawny releases as well, and some of those are stunning. In the long run, my heart often belongs to tawny. This was specially bottled in 2018, a selection of the oldest wines from the company for its 100th anniversary. The average age of the components is 90 years. It’s terrific.
If the Poças above doesn’t ring your bell, you’re dead to me—I mean, try this Kopke. This is a tribute to Cristiano Nicolau Kopke and the 380th anniversary of Kopke (a rather odd, no-doubt-marketing-driven anniversary—375, 350, 400—but 380?). The average age of the blend is 91 to 92 years, with wines from the 1920s, 1930s and older. Marketing oddities aside, this delivers.
Best Value Wines in Portugal (In No Particular Order)
Table Wines ($25 or Under SRP)
I’m eventually going to increase that value range to $30, since the “list price” concept of the suggested retail price cuts even more off of the $25. For the moment, let’s stick to SRP $25.
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, Setúbal, Lisboa and the like rather than Douro, but there are actually some very good values in Douro, too. Finding bargains is hard work.
This issue, let’s not fall back on the typical and obvious solution: Vinho Verde. How can anyone not buy things like Soalheiro’s classic Alvarinho or Ameal’s classic Loureiro every year, assuming you like fresh whites? I could name a zillion others.
In the “Best Of” section we talked about Douro sparklers. One region in Portugal that is really known for them is Bairrada. There were many examples in my August 2018 report that could’ve been here. Let this be a representative. Bageiras is another go-to producer for sparkling values, among others. The wines in Bairrada are often “no dosage,” which makes them crisp and edgy given the acidity the region and its grapes deliver. They’re also inexpensive.
Ok, normally I only do three picks, but Alentejo is such a great value region. There should be one representative—and Dona Maria had a fine 2015 vintage in general and with this elegant blend.
Best Fortified Wines ($25 or Under SRP)
For the fortifieds, one simple answer in our price range is always going to be LBVs (“Late Bottled Vintage Ports”). The best LBVs (usually, the traditional or traditionally-styled LBVs) are easier versions of Vintage Ports, seeming like just a different style. The best are some of the greatest values in the wine world. Some of them (not all) will head up to $30 as a list price and sneak out of our $25 SRP limit in this article by a measly few bucks. On the street, they are still pretty close to it. That’s not much for a wine that can age for decades. Traditional and traditionally-styled LBVs simply own the sweet spot between quality and price in the fortified world. For a tutorial on what "traditional" LBVs are, see my long article here.
But I’m going to avoid LBVs this time. I hate to sound like a broken record, and it’s too easy.
It is worth noting that Portugal does have fortifieds besides Port. This great Roxo producer is, alas, not imported, and that jaw-dropper of a price might not hold if they are. Still, this is an example of the type of value you can get at the lower level in the Setúbal region.
Yes, I did say I’d ignore LBVs. Well, that was a foolish promise! You’ll get a pony for Christmas, too. I promise. (The lesson for you—never trust wine writers.) In fact, just to rub it in, here are two LBVs from the June 2018 report. You really can’t ignore LBVs for fortified value.
It’s hard to ignore Santorini in a “Best Of” article on Greece. In my view, it is Greece’s most successful region, as small as it is, the one that has come closest to breaking through into the mainstream. In fact, I’d say it has. Some others may not be far behind, but there is no shortage of acclaim for Assyrtiko—on and off Santorini, in fact. So, analogous to LBVs in the fortified “value” category, we will have to pay some attention to Santorini again. We’ll probably pay some attention to Xinomavro again as well. Those two grapes certainly aren’t all of Greece, but they just as certainly are two key claims to fame. That makes them hard to ignore.
As I’ve been saying, Naoussa may be behind Santorini in international acceptance, but you can see the Northern wave coming. This is one of the best wineries in the region, showing off a great vintage. They age effortlessly. If you like Barbaresco, this is for you. They are great values, too, especially at the moment. We’ve been watching prices start to climb on Santorini, as predicted. Eventually, that will happen in Naoussa as well, but at the moment, the values are often ridiculous for wines that seem capable of aging effortlessly for a couple of decades or more.
Best Value Wines (In No Particular Order, $25 and Under SRP)
This time around, we’ll try to do the values without Santorini or Mantinia—two go-to regions for me at various levels—but I won’t promise to forget Xinomavro.
I started last year’s value list off with this winery’s Femina white, always a good choice. Let’s go red this time. This Cretan red is lighter-styled in the mid-palate, but persistent and intensely flavorful. It has fine structure. It delivers on many levels. I almost went white again with Douloufakis, this time for the interesting Vidiano (90 points, $16), but it’s good to point out this intriguing red. With this many great choices, it must mean this winery is firing on all burners these days.
Always a fine value pick for a fresh summer white, this Assyrtiko-dominated blend (plus 20% Robola) has stuffing and reasonable structure. This was a good year for it. The more recent 2017 showed well, too.
I almost avoided this because it is yet more Xinomavro and I wanted to diversify. Yet, it is Xinomavro from Amyndeon, not Naoussa. So there. It’s a little lighter and crisper, more understated. It’s pretty terrific in its silky and ethereal style. So maybe it is worth a mention. There were some other fine Xinomavro values in 2018 as well—from Dio Fili (also not in Naoussa), the Foundi Naoussea and Dalamara, among others.
New York, Virginia & Eastern U.S.A.
Best Wines (In No Particular Order)
As always, these aren't always the highest scoring wines overall, but they each make a point in their special categories. There will be a few extra slots since I’m combining New York and Virginia. I hold out the hope of getting some “other” non-traditional (i.e., non-West Coast) U.S.A wines in here eventually. That’s coming—I could have chosen one or two, but they ultimately lost out for various reasons (not just the score). I loved the 2013 The Infinite Monkey Theorem • The Bubble Universe, for instance, from Colorado. There was a terrific 2015 Pinot Noir “Pheasant Hill” from Unionville and a fine sparkler from Heritage (New Jersey), among others. December’s Issue will include some other super Colorado wines, including a pretty serious Syrah from Monkshood. I was impressed with a few others, too. It is remarkable progress that names like New Jersey and Colorado are breaking into the conversation. This year’s focus was also on Virginia, which gave that region a leg up.
RdV has some serious red competitors in Virginia, particularly Barboursville, but it is hard these days to find anyone with a more consistently fine expression of Cabernet in a state that is not particularly famed for it. This is a left-bank Bordeaux-style blend. It needs time. It is made to age. The 2014 may be just as good—but at the moment I’d take the 2015. Come back in a few years for a better comparison. They are both powerful and nowhere near approachable just now.
Petit Manseng in all incarnations has become a go-to white for Virginia. There are quite a few fine producers, but since I would usually have Linden here for one of the great Chardonnays (and there were quite a few in 2018), let’s beat a different drum.
Pinot Noir is officially a “thing” in the Finger Lakes and this fanatical producer is on the path to stardom. This, by the way, was only one of their fine Pinots reviewed in 2018. They have something to prove in the cellar, but they are very much on the right track.
2015 Glen Manor • Hodder Hill (91+ points, $50) Sometimes a terrific winery can get a little lost in the shuffle. I feel, to some extent, that’s happened to Glen Manor. Owner Jeff White is making some pretty fine stuff these days in red and white (his Sauvignon Blanc and Linden’s may vie for the state’s best). This is just one of the fine examples from 2018’s reviews.
Long Island and Merlot is a thing, too, and this top-level bottling seems to be pretty terrific. We’ll see where it goes in time, but there is no rush. In fact, it needs time to show its best. This winery has proven over the years that the wines age exceptionally well. If you want to make wines in this price category and be considered a serious player, of course, the wines have to do just that. This will start to acquire complexity and finesse closer to 2023, I suspect. This is a pretty good choice for a Long Island representative this issue, although hardly the only possibility.
There were some Rieslings in the Finger Lakes with terrific ratings, but you know all about Riesling and the Finger Lakes, right? World class region. Yawn. You’ve already got that down. Well, I hope you’re also following New York sparklers, both in the Finger Lakes and Long Island. Here is just one fine example from last year’s reviews (December 2017 disgorgement with 40 months on the lees). Other worthies included Sparkling Pointe, Ravines and Paumanok, among others.
Best Value Wines (In No Particular Order)
These are a little more New York-centric, even though I spent more time in Virginia this year, but that’s for a simple reason—the Finger Lakes in particular has a lot of terrific values.
Dry Riesling in the Finger Lakes is simply one of the East Coast’s best values, as I’ve been saying for awhile. From top producers like Anthony Road, they consistently overachieve.
2015 Bookcliff • Cabernet Franc Reserve ($25, 90 points)
I’ve actually been rather impressed with what I’m seeing from Colorado. It’s not all the way there yet, but there are some impressive offerings. It’s worth giving Colorado a little attention. (The full review will be published in the next Issue—stay tuned!)
It is worth noting, as I have, that Long Island makes some pretty respectable Riesling as well. It might lean more to Pfalz-style, said Paumanok winemaker Kareem Massoud. Long Island will not rival the Finger Lakes for Riesling, but they are not chopped liver. Roman Roth, at Wölffer Estate on the South Fork, weighed in with some nice ones, too. This Paumanok is impeccably balanced.
The Finger Lakes tends to impress me more with the Dry Rieslings as the “signature” category, but more than a few producers have proven that the semi-dry version can be very well done, too. This year, I liked Silver Thread’s Semi-Dry better than the Dry (slightly).
In no particular order and subject to that earlier advice that it is not always just about the numbers.
Perhaps my favorite white in Israel, although these days there are some very interesting contenders. This is mostly Sauvignon Blanc with a big hit of Chardonnay.
It’s nice that whites in Israel these days aren’t just Chardonnay, Chardonnay and Chardonnay (usually with a lot of wood). Since this is a representative of a trend and a category, it is worth mentioning a few others. Another super white is Tulip’s White Tulip. Often, either that or the Flam would be my go-to in fresh whites, with the advantage being that the Tulip is a little less expensive. Maia’s Mare White (in the December Issue, owned by Tulip) is a blend of Marsanne and Colombard, and it is really coming on. Castel now has a spicy and reasonably priced white dominated by Sauvignon Blanc! (Yes, Castel. See the December Issue). The days when Israel seemed to be Chardonnay, Bordeaux blends and not much else have drawn to a close. (Note #5 on this list…) I’ve beating this drum since I started reviewing Israel over a decade ago. There were always some bits and pieces of other things and some outliers, but it’s a Brave New World now for sure.
I’m seeing evidence that Israel can do well with this grape. You shouldn’t think every place in the country is just flat and desert-like in relentless heat, by the way. This relatively under-the-radar producer has been doing great work.
This relatively young winery owned by the Massoud family is already making a mark. The Massouds are indeed related to the Long Island Massouds (Paumanok) who appear elsewhere in this report, in case you were wondering.
Best Vertical/Retrospective Tasting of The Year
This goes to Greece this year—with an array of stunning Vinsantos from Estate Argyros in Issue 235. If you like stickies, these are thrilling.
Best Get-a-Life Outside of Wine Things of This Year
In Movies and Television
I judge these things based on when I get to them, which doesn’t always match their release dates. (I often have quite a backlog!) There was no shortage of intriguing movies in different genres in recent releases, though. Many had a lot to offer—the understated Personal Shopper, the intense Backtrack, the remake of the classic My Cousin Rachel, the off-the-beaten track The Autopsy of Jane Doe, the dramedy Lady Bird with Saoirse Ronan, the relentless performance in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and The Unknown Girl (Belgium).
They were all strong contenders, but none of those ultimately won my copyrighted “Is it Worth Watching on a Phone in a Hotel Room?” award, although they were all worthy contenders.
Here are the lucky winners.
For Most Emotional Impact & Overall Winner: The Florida Project
It explains what life is like for some. It will have resonance for some, create horror for others. Making viewers uncomfortable…that's what a serious art film should do.
For Most Old Fashioned fun: Avengers: Infinity Project
No analysis required.
For Most Likely to Get You Killed if You Don’t Watch: An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power
As I was typing this, literally, a new governmental report came out suggesting that climate change could deliver a 10% hit to the Gross Domestic Product by the end of the century as temperatures skyrocket.
For Best Series: The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
It’s only available on Amazon Prime—and worth signing up just to see this. It was probably my favorite series, although honorable mention to Santa Clarita Diet, Season 2 (Netflix—another fine example of how TV has changed). Admittedly, Season 2 was not quite as great as Season 1.
Yes, I did discover a few others, from the new (Julien Baker, Turn Out the Lights) to the somewhat older that I just got around to (Jessie J, Price Tag). It was a busy music year.
Mystery writer Sue Grafton passed in 2018. I went back and caught up on a few Alphabet Murders I’d missed. I hadn’t finished the series. Now, neither will she. She was pretty good.
A serious topic, with lots of climate change info in passing, told in a readable fashion: The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of a Lost World, by Steve Brusatte. This guy sounds cool. I wish he’d been my teacher in college.
A topical topic: Russian Roulette: The Inside Story of Putin's War on America and the Election of Donald Trump, Michael Isikoff & David Corn. Times move so fast, it almost seems outdated already and I just read it in March.
I would like to tell you that all my reading was serious, but new releases by favorite fantasy authors like Keri Arthur and Patricia Briggs, et al mean that would be a lie. Sometimes, you just need a break.