My 2018 mantra continues into 2019: scores aren’t everything. Don’t get me wrong, the importance and power of scores are certainly not to be underestimated. I would argue that a wine review is not complete without a score. The problem is that scores in isolation can be misleading. Just as I believe a wine review to be incomplete without a score, likewise it is incomplete without a tasting note.
Scores are an essential part of a review, informing wine buyers where a wine sits qualitatively versus its peers. Robert Parker created and introduced the 100-point rating system back in 1978, when he published the very first issue of The Wine Advocate. He based his system on the American scholastic concept of grading students. This was firstly so that the significance of his wine scores could be easily understood. Secondly, the 100-point system offered a much more precise score range than the prevailing 20-point system of the time, which was initially devised by UC Davis as a means of weeding out faulty wines. Parker believed that with a 20-point system, scores could become too compacted (e.g. the ubiquitous 16.5 score) with many wines receiving the same score and therefore buyers were unable to clearly understand the relative quality level of similar wines being reviewed.
Just as a scholastic score evaluates a student’s performance in a particular subject, wine scores aim to comment on the collaborative qualitative performance of aspects such as site, vintage and grower/winemaker in terms of measurable quality factors within a wine, namely the absence of flaws, fruit ripeness, intensity, complexity, balance and length of finish, vis-à-vis its peers. And so, a student sitting an exam can achieve a grade of “100” if they answer all the questions correctly or if the quality of their work is of an infallible standard. Likewise, a wine can, exceptionally, achieve 100 points.
A grade on an exam or relating to a student’s performance in a subject isn’t everything; it is just part of the story. A test grade tells you nothing of the student’s personality, style or if you will even like them. Why? Because a score cannot begin to relate all those other qualities of a person or wine that are immeasurable.
Scores tell the reader nothing about the style and the character or personality of a wine. It doesn’t convey if the wine is light-bodied, perfumed and elegant or full-bodied, rich and generous. It doesn’t tell the reader if the wine is savory, fruity, spicy, herbaceous or toasty in character. It doesn’t convey if the wine is too young to drink, within its drinking window or over the hill. Now, if you just so happen to like absolutely everything when it comes to wine and you are ready to drink any style, any time, then scores in isolation may not pose a problem for you. But the vast majority of wine drinkers have specific style and character preferences, which can vary according to occasion and mood. This is why a well-written, accurate tasting note is as equally important as the score. Tasting notes should contain all the style, character and maturity information necessary to tell a potential buyer something about the experience she/he can expect from the wine and therefore—regardless of quality—whether they will like it. How can you know if you will like a wine if you do not know what it’s like?
Finally, scores cannot begin to convey to potential buyers the kind of emotional response the wine elicited in the critic and therefore might elicit in the reader who avidly follows the experiences of that critic. While issuing a score and describing the style of a wine should be relatively objective aspects of wine criticism based on components in the wine that are more or less measurable or can be described with some consistency, emotional responses are anything but. Anyone who has truly been bitten by the wine bug will know that some wines, like people, can most certainly trigger emotional responses. A wine can be a mind-blowing, sensual, mesmerizing, haunting, jaw-dropping and heart-stopping experience or innocuous, boring, confusing and just plain awful. A score can’t describe these feelings that a wine can evoke. A score cannot rate the emotions that a wine elicits.
The “Best Of” articles that each of our Wine Advocate reviewers pens every year is an opportunity to share some of the highest quality wines we discovered—and this is largely based on the scores. But for my picks, I’ve taken excerpts from the tasting notes I wrote for each of the wines so that readers can get a taste for the styles and personalities of the wines too. Enjoy!
I couldn’t have picked a better year to take over Bordeaux coverage if I’d planned it. New releases this year included the 2015s and 2016s in bottle—both potentially spectacular vintages—as well as the truly interesting, unprecedented nature of the 2017 vintage tasted from barrel.
The 2015 Lafleur is profoundly scented of plum preserves, chocolate-covered cherries and blueberry pie with nuances of black olives, lavender, unsmoked cigars and cast-iron pan plus a touch of Indian spices. The rich, medium to full-bodied palate is completely packed with tightly wound fragrant earth, black fruit and exotic spice layers, supported by perfectly ripe, wonderfully velvety tannins and seamless freshness. The epically long finish delivers a sum that is greater than the many compelling characters imparted on the nose and palate, whispering promises of a whole myriad of provocative finishes to be discovered throughout this wine's very long future. This exquisite masterpiece is not to be missed.
A knockout—the 2016 Latour encapsulates this estate’s paradoxical signature of at once possessing jaw-dropping power with hauntingly gorgeous fragrance and finesse: Bordeaux’s iron fist in a velvet glove. Quite closed to begin, it slowly unfurls to reveal chocolate-covered cherries, licorice, red roses and violets notions with Indian spices, blueberry compote, blackcurrant cordial and cigar box plus wafts of pencil lead and iron ore. Medium to full-bodied, the mid-palate explodes with densely packed black fruits and tons of earth, mineral and spice accents, with a super ripe, fine-grained frame and seamless freshness, finishing very long and seductively perfumed.
The 2016 Pétrus slips effortlessly out of the glass with sanguine, seductive notes of kirsch, warm black plums, blueberry compote, red roses, Ceylon tea, violets, dark chocolate-covered cherries, licorice and cinnamon stick with wafts of iron ore, pencil lead, unsmoked cigars and crushed rocks. Full-bodied, profound and absolutely edifying on the palate, the densely packed, beautifully perfumed red and blue fruit layers possess a charge like defibrillators stimulating your heart to beat faster, each delivering achingly subtle floral and spice sparks, perfectly framed by very firm, very grainy tannins and bold freshness, finishing with incredible length and taking you to depths that extend to a provocative ferrous undercurrent. Stunning.
Haut-Brion’s 2015 Blanc simply sings with melodious notes of ripe Bosc pears, Golden Delicious apple slices, fresh pineapple and honeyed apricots, providing a highly emotive leitmotif of chalk dust, yuzu zest, shaved almonds and beeswax, not to mention the faintest tone of pure lime blossom. The medium to full-bodied palate contributes a compelling steeliness to all those incredible layers, plus a fantastic frame of freshness, finishing with multifaceted mineral and citrus accents. The many tightly wound nuances here, as well as the built-like-a-brick-house structure, promise to greatly reward the patient over the next 25+ years. Trust me, lovers of this style will be kicking themselves if they don’t purchase a few bottles of this amazing vintage while they can.
The Smith Haut Lafitte 2015 Blanc has an incredibly compelling nose of ripe apricots, passion fruit, honeyed lemons and crushed stones with a hint of lime blossoms. Medium-bodied, super intense and super minerally, the palate sings of stone fruit and citrus layers with plenty of zip and zing, finishing with incredible persistence, alluring fruitiness and a savory contrast that will keep you reaching for another glass.
The Pape Clement 2016 Blanc leaps from the glass with gregarious scents of ripe peaches, fresh grapefruit and key lime pie plus touches of cedar, honeysuckle and toast. Medium-bodied, the palate offers fantastic precision and depth, with layers of citrus and stone fruit flavors supported by a racy line of freshness, finishing very long.
The 2015 Château d'Yquem opens with electric notes of ripe pineapples, green mango, orange blossoms and lemon tart with hints of fungi, lime zest, crushed rocks and jasmine. The freshness on the palate is just astonishing, permeating and lifting layer upon layer of tropical fruits and earthy notions, all encased in a sumptuous texture and culminating in a very, very long, mineral-tinged finish. Truly, this is a legendary vintage for d'Yquem. I would not be at all surprised if our descendants are drinking this vintage well into the next century.
The 2015 Rieussec reveals a bright, pale straw-gold color and is a little closed at this youthful stage, yet it offers wonderful purity and depth, featuring notes of lemon marmalade, orange blossoms, beeswax and acacia honey with hints of preserved kumquats and peach compote. Very elegant and fine in the medium to full-bodied mouth, it features a racy backbone cutting through the earthy and citrus layers, finishing long and spicy.
Pale lemon colored, the 2016 Climens has a super intense nose of lemon marmalade, candied orange peel, crystallized ginger and lime tart with touches of musk perfume and fungi. The palate is wonderfully intense and refreshing with loads of layers and an epic finish.
Northern California in 2018
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. My tastings of new releases out of Northern California this year were a tale of two vintages—one of the easiest and most effortless, followed by one of the most extreme and dramatic vintages in the region’s history: 2016 & 2017.
The 2016 La Muse comes strutting out of the glass with flamboyant crème de cassis, ripe plums and black cherries notes followed by nuances of aniseed, chocolate box, wild thyme, violets and chargrill plus a fragrant suggestion of potpourri. Full-bodied, rich and concentrated, the densely packed, perfumed black fruit layers are beautifully framed by perfectly ripe, finely grained tannins and fantastically knit freshness. It finishes long with the most incredible display of mineral sparks.
The 2016 Pinot Noir Joli Coeur reveals seductive exotic spices, raspberry pie and candied violets scents with a core of chocolate-covered cherries and tilled soil plus a waft of truffles. Full-bodied, super concentrated and impactful in the mouth, it has a solid frame of velvety tannins and an epically long finish.
The 2016 Zinfandel Jackass Hill is medium garnet-purple colored with a totally beguiling and sexy nose of potpourri, raspberry preserves, kirsch, cinnamon toast, nutmeg and sandalwood over a fruitcake and mincemeat pie core with a waft of milk chocolate. The palate is big alright, very rich and very full-bodied, sporting 16.7% alcohol, but forget all that—it totally seduces you in the mouth with soft, sultry tannins and plenty of freshness giving poise to all the rich, spicy, multilayered fruit, finishing epically long and wonderfully perfumed. Wow.
The 2016 Chardonnay Cuvée Indigène offers up a rock-star nose of beautifully expressed pear tart, peach preserves, spiced apples and key lime with suggestions of brioche, beeswax, nutmeg and honeysuckle. The palate is medium to full-bodied, elegant and tightly wound with amazing tension and depth, finishing with epic length and many, many mineral and savory layers. This should be very long lived.
The 2016 Chardonnay Point Rouge explodes from the glass with a myriad of citrus and stone fruit notes—grapefruit, lemon tart, key lime pie and fresh nectarines—with hints of baking bread, toasted almonds, crushed rocks, spice cake and wet pebbles. The palate is full-bodied, rich and totally decadent yet with bags of finesse and nuances in the tightly knit mouth, finishing very long and layered.
The 2016 Chardonnay Cuvée Cathleen is quite reticent at this youthful stage, slowly revealing notes of lemon meringue pie, lime cordial, spiced pears and apple tart with touches of chalk dust, marzipan, brioche and acacia honey. Full-bodied, rich and decadent in the mouth, it has oodles of freshness lifting the tightly packed flavors, with a very long, wonderfully layered finish.
The 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon Ark Vineyard is a total rock-star even at this incredibly youthful stage, strutting the stage with flamboyant freshly crushed red and black currants, black cherries, black raspberries and cassis scents with spectacular lilacs and fragrant earth accents plus sparks of cast-iron pan, garrigue and grilled meats. Medium to full-bodied, the palate is charged with amazing energy, packing wonderfully vibrant black fruits, red berries and mineral flavors into a firm, finely grained frame, finishing very long and beautifully lifted.
The 2016 Dominus is quite reticent at this youthful stage to begin, offering up subtle notions of potpourri, Indian spices, cigar box and iron ore over a core of crushed blackberries and black cherries with intermittent wafts of black and red currants, new leather and smoked meats. The palate is medium to full-bodied with a densely packed mid-palate and oodles of freshness, framed by very ripe, finely grained tannins and laced with compelling earthy accents. It offers incredible vibrancy with tons of black and red fruit sparkle in the mid-palate leading to a provocative mineral element on the very long finish. If I could give more than 100 for this one, I would. To be released in May 2019.
The 2016 Scarecrow Cabernet Sauvignon comes sashaying out of the glass with tantalizing notions of violets, lavender, Black Forest cake, mulberries, tobacco leaf and fragrant earth with a core of warm cassis, kirsch, Chinese five spice, rose hip tea and cedar chest. The palate is full-bodied and super concentrated yet possesses great energy with vibrant red and black fruits and loads of mineral accents, framed by very ripe, super fine-grained tannins and fantastic freshness, finishing very long with the most incredible perfume. Hedonistically, undeniably and deliciously perfect.
Best of Napa Valley (Whites)
It’s no surprise that the selection of best Northern California whites has been taken over by Chardonnay this year, as usual, continuing to demonstrate that Northern California is right up there with the best spots in the world for the queen of white grapes. Readers might notice an absence of 2016 Aubert offerings, which is due to the fact that I have not had the opportunity to taste those wines in bottle yet, although I have done barrel tastings of the 2017s. I wasn’t shown the bottled 2016s when I went to taste the 2017s in barrel last year and, when I offered to stop by to taste the 2016s in November, I was told that the winery was too busy getting the 2017s ready for bottling. So, the bottled 2016 scores will need to wait until 2019. However, the silver lining with Aubert out of the running for my best of 2018s is that an opportunity has opened for two spectacular new Chardonnays from Hudson Vineyards to grab two of the Napa white spots!
The 2016 Chardonnay The Judge opens a little reticently, with slowly unfurling notions of lime leaves, yuzu and freshly squeezed lemons with notes of honeyed white peaches and crème brûlée followed by crushed rocks, lemongrass and praline plus a waft of peach blossoms. Full-bodied with fantastic richness and so many layers, the classic The Judge savoriness comes through in spades in the mid-palate, with a seductively silken texture and epically long, mineral and spice-tinged finish.
This is one of two brand new, very impressive, single Hudson Vineyards barrel selection Chardonnays being released this year. Little Bit comes from a southwest-facing hillside planted to Larry Hyde selection shot Wente clone. The bouquet bursts out of the glass with exuberant notes of ripe apricots, green guava, honeycomb and lime blossoms with nuances of allspice, brioche and popcorn plus a touch of candied lemon peel. Full-bodied and super intense in the mouth, the palate explodes with bold stone fruit and tropical flavors complimented by loads of citrus and savory sparks. Framed with fantastic freshness and the sexiest satiny texture, it finishes with epic persistence.
A little reticent to begin, with coaxing the 2016 Chardonnay Ladybug opens out to reveal beautiful white and pink grapefruit aromas with scent layers of white peaches, lemon curd, honeysuckle, jasmine and baker’s yeast plus wafts of toasted almonds, nutmeg and paraffin wax. The medium to full-bodied palate has compelling elegance and sophistication, with a quiet intensity that builds on the palate into stacks of citrus and mineral layers, framed by a silken texture and seamless freshness, finishing on a long lingering chalky note. 112 cases were made.
Best Value Wines of 2018
Let’s face it, you don’t get much bang for your buck these days in Bordeaux, Napa or Sonoma, but bargains are still to be had. Here are my top tips for super affordable wines at around $25 and under.
The 2016 La Prade bursts boldly from the glass with notions of chocolate-covered cherries, blueberry compote and plum preserves with suggestions of eucalyptus, espresso, licorice and cedar chest plus a waft of violets. Full-bodied, rich and plushly textured, the decadent black fruit and spicy layers deliver a very long, impactful finish. This is so tempting to drink right now, but it will age beautifully.
The 2016 La Vieille Cure has quite a savory nose of chargrilled meats, tapenade, beef dripping and dried herbs over a core of plum preserves and Black Forest cake. Full-bodied, rich and packed with black plums and savory layers, it has a firm, velvety frame and fantastic length.
The 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon Olema features textbook cassis, warm plums and blackberries notions with hints of cedar, sandalwood and menthol. Medium to full-bodied, it bursts in the mouth with juicy, crunchy fruit, framed by soft tannins and a lively line, finishing on a refreshing minty note. 10,000 cases produced.
Best Value White Wines
2017 Walter Hansel Winery Chardonnay Estate, Russian River Valley – 91
The 2016 Chardonnay Estate offers up notes of white peaches, apple pie and green guava with hints of lightly browned toast and allspice. Medium to full-bodied, it is beautifully silky in the mouth with great vivacity and a long, pure citrus and stone fruit-layered finish.
Containing 10% Sémillon, the 2017 Sauvignon Blanc Bridesmaid comes leaping from the glass with vivacious notes of white peaches, lemon curd, fresh grapefruit and lime leaves with a waft of chalk dust. The palate is medium-bodied with loads of citrus fruits and mineral layers leading to a very long, lifted finish. Yum!
The 2017 Sauvignon Blanc Wild Oak Vineyard is scented of grapefruit, green apples, lime leaves and lemongrass with touches of chalk dust and baking bread. The palate is medium-bodied with impressive restraint and well-played freshness, finishing with a lively herbal lift.
Best QPR Wineries/Ranges
This is a new category I added this year, mainly because I thought these ranges of wines knocked it out of the park for what I consider to be incredible “quality price ratio.”
Producing lots of small lots of wines from a small selection of different grape varieties (Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Viognier and Syrah)—the standard of quality and expression of site is phenomenally consistent at DuMOL with too many great new releases to recommend individually. What’s more, the prices for the quality (most wines are $60-$80 per bottle on mailing list release) will blow you away. This is one mailing list you don’t want to miss being on.
Every time I taste this range with Paul Hobbs, I ask him, “Are you sure that’s the price?” He positively beams at the compliment, taking great pride at overdelivering on quality at very affordable price points. This tight range includes a Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc and two Cabernet Sauvignons (one from Sonoma and another from Napa) and, at all $55 and under, provide amazing value across the board.
Établissements Jean-Pierre Moueix (Bordeaux)
Christian and Edouard Moueix—Pomerol’s dynamic father-and-son duo—produce some of the most iconic and breathtaking wines of Bordeaux’s Right Bank, but they also produce a stunning array of great value wines that are well worth seeking out. 2015 and 2016 were particularly strong vintages for them, meaning that even their more modestly priced wines should age gracefully, offering a good 15-20 years of cellaring potential. Some of their most impressive QPR wines (priced around $30-60 per bottle) include: La Serre, Clos Saint-Martin, de Bel-Air, Plince, Lafleur-Gazin, La Grave and Bourgneuf.
Best Vertical Tasting
I can’t pick just one, because both of these complete retrospective tastings will sit among the most memorable wine tasting experiences of my life:
There wasn’t a whole lot of time for me in 2018 for “get-a-life-outside of wine” activities, but I was able to squeeze in some quality binge-TV time on flights by downloading them onto my iPad. Here were three of my favorites this year:
Loved the book, loved this TV series adaptation for HBO. Featuring a very strong female cast, Amy Adams gives an incredible performance, bringing a whole new layer to the haunted lead character, Camille Preaker. A dark, sinister psychological thriller, the last 30 pages of the book and the last two episodes of the TV series are absolutely riveting.
All good things come to an end. Last year featured the rollercoaster finale of The Americans—a very clever and incredibly well-acted, six-season TV series about a family of undercover KGB spies operating in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. during the 1980s Cold War. The last episode delivers all the nail-biting, gut-wrenching, heart-breaking goods in spades.
This is a classic, thoroughly enjoyable ghost story with a couple of seriously twisted twists, perfectly timed to air around Halloween. A labyrinthian tale that keeps you on the edge of your seat, it doesn’t scrimp on character development and yet manages to get you with the odd jump-scare when you least expect it. Easily the best TV series of this genre since season one of American Horror Story (Murder House).