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! Narrator: And they are not always just about the numbers. Either way, these all have something special.
Best Table Wines (in no particular order)
For the second straight year, I have to say that the Ports steal the show. It is the second year in a row when a classic Port vintage was declared. 2017, however, also produced some stunning table wines in red. They certainly have a right to a seat at the table. More than a few producers were thrilled. Many were pointing to the vintage as resulting in some of the best wines they ever made.
When tasted in Porto, this seemed brilliant. We’ll check in again when it is in the USA., but this is always a prestige brand. This wasn’t the only brilliant wine in the portfolio (including the wines under Quinta Vale D. Maria brand, which are now separately listed given Cristiano van Zeller’s merger with Aveleda), but it is a great representative.
As with the CV above, this is another big red that delivers. It’s made for the long haul. It does have some serious competition, though—Quinta Nova’s own Mirabilis Tinto, for instance, which might be every bit its equal.
In a year of published reviews where brilliant Douro performances (including some reevaluations) were often front-and-center, led by the Portos, let’s not forget about the rest of the country. I could go on and on in Douro, mentioning Crasto’s Maria Teresa and Honore, or the Vale Meão, João Brito e Cunha’s Vinha Ruy Francisco, Márcio Lopes’s best Douro performance yet (Proibido Grande Reserva), familiar icons like Pintas, Chryseia and many others, but the rest of the country was doing pretty well, too. This iconic Dão producer delivered, along with others like Falorca, Mouchão, Zambujeiro, Filipa Pato (December’s issue) and more.
Best of Fortified Wines (in no particular order)
The 2017 vintage was the second straight declared vintage for Port. People who more or less never declare back-to-back, did. My initial look was in the July interim issue based on June tastings: “2017 Ports: The Freak Vintage Comes Through.”
While I was not as enthused by the 2016s as some were, with the 2017s I had nothing to complain about. I think it is a great vintage, with the freshness of the 2016s, but often more power and concentration. That’s a generalization, to be sure. The point, however, is that there is no shortage of great Ports in this 2017 vintage. In terms of published reviews during 2019—that is, not just confined to the 2017 vintage—there were also some other great Ports like the Crasto Honore (a tawny) and some reevaluations (like the 2000 Taylor’s Vargellas Vinha Velha (100 points). In short, I could talk about the fortifieds for a very long time this year. Three selections is kind of sad. So, while I say this about everything, take these as some representative examples, not an exclusive list.
While the Nacional, below, is a great Port, its price is pretty great, too. There was no shortage of great Ports to buy at reasonable prices in 2017. My article, linked above, spotlights lots of relative bargains in this vintage, but this is one of the best. It was scored with a range solely because it had not yet been bottled and that is our normal practice, but it certainly seemed worthy of 100 points.
This is a great Nacional, and that means it is a great Port. There are many stunning and pricey specialty items in this great vintage. Graham’s Stone Terraces ($240), Taylor’s Vargellas Vinha Velha ($275) and the Vesúvio Capela ($180) from Symington come to mind. The top of the market performed brilliantly in this vintage. They are special. Bargain hunters might note that you can save big bucks by grabbing the “regular” Vintage Ports from some of those same producers, many of which performed rather brilliantly themselves. The regular Taylor’s, for instance, was rated at a mere 98-100 and costs only $120. One reason I call 2017 a great vintage is because of its consistency at all ends of the scale.
Well, I thought about giving this third spot to something other than a 2017. There were some candidates in White Port (Mario Braga) and 2016s (Ferreira’s Vinhas Velhas) and reevaluations (2000 Taylor’s Vargellas Vinha Velha), but in the end I couldn’t resist. Let this stand as an example of how fine a Port producer Wine & Soul has become—and also how many relative bargains can be found in this 2017 vintage. In this vintage, smaller guys collectively turned in some of their greatest performances, another reason I call 2017 a great vintage.
So, that concludes the painful exercise of only selecting three fortifieds this year. Still, I have been cheating liberally and tossing lots of other names in, just in case you hadn’t noticed. I should be ashamed. (I am not ashamed.)
Value Wines(in no particular order)
Table Wines ($30 or under SRP)
As threatened last year, I’ve increased this to $30 instead of $25. For one thing, remember that the number I get is always a “suggested retail price,” meaning it is typically inflated, like most list prices, and doesn’t always represent the shelf price. So, this is more realistic, and shelf prices will often be pretty close to $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, but in some ways more rewarding. P.S. I left out Vinho Verde again—if I didn’t they might all be Vinhos Verdes, which tend to particularly dominate lower price points. The best producers make great wines for very little money. If you want to take that $30 down to $20 or less, Vinho Verde is a key place to start looking.
Dirk Niepoort called this the best in this brand so far. He may be right. It will age well and effortlessly. We might be talking about how it is developing in 2040, and wondering how many more years it has left. It’s not the type of big and fat wine that hits you over the head—so if that’s what you’re looking for, look away—but it is beautifully constructed and will become more complex. I thought about giving this spot to Casal Sta. Maria’s Late Harvest Petit Manseng (94 points, $25), but dessert wines in general and Petit Manseng as well are a smaller niche. And that’s the price for a half bottle. But I’ll cheat and drop the name anyway.
This producer is one of the most famous sparkling producers in Portugal, certainly the best known in Douro. Their wines tend to be underpriced. This merely spent around 70 months on the lees. There were just 8,000 bottles produced. And all for $25.
Fortifieds ($30 or under SRP)
For the fortifieds, mentioning LBVs is like talking about Vinho Verde and value—it’s a broken record, particularly, to mention traditionally-styled LBVs. They 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: "LBVs - The Old Yeller of Port."
Another fine LBV from this house, this is also a traditional LBV. It is beautifully balanced and aromatic. The 2015 Sandeman (also part of the Sogrape family) is equally fine and a $1 cheaper. I personally preferred the Ferreira, but that is just personal taste.
Best Of(in no particular order and subject to disclaimer at the top of this article)
Skouras has been making this bottling, a solera, for awhile now. This includes vintages from 1999 to 2014 (hence the “9914”) of his Megas Oenos brand. The wines have more freshness these days, but still have added complexity.
This brilliant barrel fermented white is a good example of how well Assyrtiko can handle wood. Also in this year’s reviews was a reevaluation—the 2007 of this same wine, which got the same score. They age well. They improve. On release, that 2007 was $30. I told you many times the prices on Santorini would be going up. I assume you bought in quantity and your cellar’s full.
There were higher rated reds in this year’s reviews, but this reevaluation lets me make a good point—how well the wines can age. This (Syrah-dominated with 20% each of Merlot and Xinomavro) has simply become beautiful with a little cellar time. It has improved a lot. The price merely references the original release price.
If you don’t know Robola, you should start learning. I like the grape, and this producer. This is a consistent value. There were some competitors for this slot. In the “something different” line of thought, you might also try a 2018 Mylonas Naked Truth Savatiano ($19, 89 points). It’s not a grape I like as much, but this is a fine version. Or, take a look at this powerful Malagousia: 2018 Moraitis • Malgousia Ysterni Single Vineyard (90 points, $16).
An equal blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Assyrtiko, this is a solid blend at a nice price. In a similar vein, and as an alternate selection, the Biblia Chora Areti white (90 points, $23) is an 80/20 blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Assyrtiko. Both of these illustrate how well Assyrtiko is doing off of Santorini and as part of blends.
We have to have one red, right? There were actually many good choices. Some alternate selections would include Kir-Yianni’s Naoussa Cuvée Villages ($20, 90 points), or the 2013 Wines of Adam Refosco (91 points, $24), or the 2017 Chrisohoou • Xinomavro ($18, 89 points), but let’s go South and give Agiorgitiko some love. (Nasiakos is part of Semeli these days.)
NEW YORK, VIRGINIA & “OTHER” USA
Best Of (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. This was a year in which the Finger Lakes was featured in a large report, so don’t be surprised to find this dominated by Finger Lakes (“FLX”) wines.
FLX dessert wines were pretty impressive this year. This was the highest rated, but the Sheldrake Ice Wine wasn’t far behind (95 points, $60) and was around half the price, I might note. Actually, as I look at it, my six highest rated USA. wines in 2019 were all dessert wines (Wiemer, Keuka Spring, Weiss; and a Diosa from Wölffer on Long Island). Hmmm. Well, it was an interesting group.
This spot on the list shows off my appreciation of FLX sparklers—and what great deals they can be. This beauty was on the lees for 72 months and it is only $35. Brilliant. A close competitor was the 2012 Damiani (92 points, $34), which was on the lees for a mere 71 months. On these two wines, I hope you saw the original reports and bought all you could afford.
You’ve heard that FLX does Riesling? There were many fine Rieslings this year, but they do other things, too. Let this slot stand for the “other.” This is a library wine, but at least when tasted, the winery still had some to sell at the library price indicated.
Best Values ($30 or under SRP)
These remain New York-centric given my long report on the Finger Lakes.
Wagner does values and Wagner does Riesling. The two often go together well. Of course, Riesling values are all over the Finger Lakes. It is a claim to fame. The 2014 Fox Run Hanging Delta was just $22 (92 points). The 2017 Red Newt was 92 and $17. The McGregor Semi-Dry (91, $18). The Boundary Breaks 198 Reserve ($19 and 92 points). Anthony Road’s Semi-Dry was 91 points and $17. Or Chateau Lafayette Reneau had a couple over 90 and $15-$16. Then, there’s the Forge Classique for 91 and $19. Are you getting the picture yet? I don’t want to reproduce the whole report. The Finger Lakes region is a fine value region. Prices are climbing in certain areas, but you can drink well for modest money.
This grape is starting to get to some attention, at least from me. There were some fine ones at various levels, including some super late harvest versions (McGregor, 91 points, $25; 2015 Anthony Road • Martini-Becraft Selection Vignoles, 91+ points, $65). But we’re in the values section. This 2017 was a fine value and a fine wine. It wasn’t my favorite Vignoles on this spring trip (that would be the 2007 Keuka Lake Vignoles Reserve), but that was a library wine at $70.
Best Get-a-Life Outside of Wine Things of the Year
Movies & 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!)
As you know, it is hard to win my copyrighted “Is it Worth Watching on a Phone in a Hotel Room” award. It creates great anticipation around the world. The envelope, please.
Here are the lucky winners. Each Director will be entitled to a special prize. (I wonder if they like cereal, which often has great prizes.)
Best Comedy Series:Fleabag, season 2, narrowly edging out The MarvelousMrs. Maisel, season 3.
For Most Old Fashioned Fun (a) in a series:The Expanse: As revived by Amazon Prime, (b) as a movie:Avengers: Endgame. No analysis is required or permitted in this category.
For Most Likely to Predict Where We End Up:3%, Season 1, Netflix
Best Foreign Film: Microbe & Gasoline (French). A little comedy. Gentle and amusing.
Best Non-Comedy Series:Counterpart, Season 2. Parallel worlds were never so much fun.
Best Weird Series I Liked a Lot:Russian Doll (Netflix).
Somewhat late, I was introduced to folkie-type Lucy Spraggan. Some of the songs are touching ("Tea & Toast"), and some are laugh out loud hilarious ("Last Night a.k.a. Beer Fear"). Young artist Lily Kershaw produced a new album, Arcadia, that I rather liked. Her voice is distinctive. Melody Gardot added a bonus edition or Part 2 to her exceptional Live in Europe album. Billie Eilish did something different with her When We Fall Asleep album. And I discovered that Nat King Cole had a brother Freddy Cole, who sounds a lot like him and is still recording. Huh. How did I miss that?
Once again I find myself catching up to old stuff I missed. Lene Kaaberbol’s The Shamer Chronicles is something creative, different and well written. In theory a YA series, it works on many levels.
James S.A. Corey’s The Expanse series makes for good tv, but the books are far better. The pacing is better, the story is better told. Again, why did I take so long to try one? Hmmm.
David Wallace-Wells’s The Uninhabitable Earth is, alas, not a science fiction tale.
That’s a wrap. See you next year. Have a great 2020.