Though they represented six vastly different regions among California, France, Italy, Oregon, Spain and Washington, all the winemakers and winery owners on stage for the Wine Experience's two-part Top 10 Wines of 2013 tasting had at least one thing in common: a passion that drove them to excel, not just to be the best in their class, but to be the best in the world.
How did they do it? "The key is push it to the limit, but don't crash," quipped race-car driver–turned–Napa vintner Randy Lewis, who presented one of three different expressions of New World Cabernet Sauvignon in the lineup and one of eight wines from the 2010 vintage. Each of the featured wineries has pushed limits in its own way—taking risks, experimenting with new techniques or sites, going far beyond conventional effort and attention to detail, or holding firm to what they believe when others demand change.
Out of 20,000 new releases Wine Spectator reviewed in blind tastings in 2013, these 10 wines rose to the top based on quality, value, availability and "the intensity of interest that the wines excite because of their singularity or authenticity," explained editor at large Harvey Steiman.
First up was the velvety 2010 vintage of Quilceda Creek Cabernet from Washington, now one of the state's iconic wines. As general manager John Ware told the story, Alex Golitzin got his winemaking start in his suburban Seattle garage in 1979—becoming the 12th winery in the state—and won early acclaim. But Quilceda Creek almost failed in 1991. Alex's son Paul, now winemaker, joined the winery; Alex left his engineering job to give Quilceda Creek his full attention. The wines became better than ever—more supple and generous.
Following it at No. 9 was Lewis' full-throttle Napa Valley Reserve Cabernet from the mostly cool, damp 2010, which Lewis described as "definitely a vintage you could crash in—a lot of pitfalls [and] very tricky turns." Lewis attributed their success to a 24/7 rush to pick everything before heavy fall rains arrived, and then his team's unhurried process in selecting the best eight lots out of 24 to go into the final blend.
Tasted the following day, another 2010 Napa Cabernet came in at No. 4, the plush 2010 Hewitt from a vineyard first planted in 1880 at the northern end of the Rutherford Bench. Winemaker Chris Cooney said the winemaking team "had a lot of spirited debates" during the blending process. "It took us over 60 blends to arrive at one we could all agree on, that really captured the essence of 2010 in this special place." This wine marks another milestone for Cooney: A few months before harvest, he became the father of triplets.
Side-by-side were two 2010 reds from France's Southern Rhône appellation of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. No. 8 from the large, fifth-generation-run Château de Beaucastel, which helped introduce small cuvées to the Rhône with its Hommage à Jacques Perrin, and No. 7 from the smaller, newer Domaine de Pégaü, which makes wines in a throwback style. Winemaker Laurence Féraud said, "Pégaü is famous for having no effect of technology during the winemaking process."
Terroir also differentiated the two Châteauneufs. Beaucastel's vineyard is planted entirely on the local stones known as galets, while Pégaü's plots cover not just galets but also clay-based and sandy soils. But while their vines are rooted in different ground, their businesses are not: Both Pégau and Beaucastel thrive on multigenerational family involvement. "I think families are the real barometer for great wines," said Beaucastel's Marc Perrin. "They have the capacity to think long-term"—to plant vineyards for the next generation, to allow the vines time to develop deep roots for more complexity.
Over in Italy's Piedmont, Giuseppe Mascarello & Figlio combines innovation and tradition in its elegant, long-lived 2008 Barolo Monprivato, wine No. 6, aged for 36 months in big Slavonian oak vats. While Barolo historically blends wines from different communes, Mauro Mascarello started bottling wine from the family's top vineyard, Monprivato, as a separate cru in 1970, explained his daughter, Elena. However, he resists the trend of small new French oak barrels. When senior editor Bruce Sanderson asked about that during a visit to the winery, Mauro asked for time to reply. Six months later, when they saw each other at Vinitaly, Bruce reported, Mauro said, "Remember your question about Barolo in barriques …? It's not Barolo."
The second part of the tasting started off with the only white wine in the Top 10. At No. 5, the rich, Burgundian-style Kongsgaard Chardonnay Napa Valley 2010 is part of a small project from veteran winemaker John Kongsgaard and his family that took almost 40 years to bring from their first vineyard to full fruition. He keeps yields low and uses native yeasts; fermentations can sometimes take 18 months to finish. "Why did we plant Chardonnay in Cabernet country?" Kongsgaard asked. "The answer is André Tchelistcheff; the great Russian enologist was our neighbor. … He said to us, 'Your ash soil is to Chardonnay what limestone is to Burgundy. You'd better just do it.'"
The 2010 vintage was also challenging for Oregon's Domaine Serene, which Grace and Ken Evenstad started in the early 1990s, when there was virtually no domestic market for U.S. Pinot Noir. Despite poor fruit set, a cold summer, fall rains and migrating birds that ate too many grapes off the vines, their Pinot Noir Willamette Valley Evenstad Reserve reached No. 3, thanks to meticulous attention to detail. Today they have 275 acres of vines, with each block kept separate through fermentation until blending. "This year we have over 250 different Pinot Noir fermentations going in the winery at the same time," Grace said. "It's a lot of work. But our winemaking team embraces the challenge because of the blending opportunities it presents."
Bordeaux took the No. 2 spot with the 2010 from Château Canon–La Gaffelière, which German count Stephan von Neipperg took over in 1985 and revitalized into one of St.-Emilion's leaders. "It's not so very often the German people have some success in Bordeaux," he quipped. He brought on then-little-known Stéphane Derenoncourt and stopped using the chemical pesticides that he believed had stripped the soil and led to a decline in wine quality after the mid-1960s. As of 2014, the estate is certified organic. His goal is vines that produce thick skins for the Merlot and Cabernet Franc blend: "We are not fruit makers; we are skin makers. If you have outstanding skins, you have outstanding wines."
Introducing the Wine of the Year, the first to come from Spain, executive editor Thomas Matthews remarked that, as the taster of the country's wines for 20 years, "It gives me great pleasure to watch how Spain has evolved and progressed without losing that core of itself."
CEO Victor Urrutia, the fifth generation of the family to run the winery, spoke about how Cune had held a middle course during a revolution in style, amid heated debate over who or what was to blame for Spanish wine not achieving greatness, over whether adopting a modern style or hewing to tradition was best. Cune has fine-tuned its techniques but aimed for a consistent character. Its harmonious Rioja Imperial Gran Reserva 2004—largely Tempranillo—was aged extensively before its release and should continue to age gracefully for years to come.
"There is no villain in my story—no right, no wrong," concluded Urrutia. "We have a wine that has been made a certain way for 100 years that I hope we will make as long as possible." And that is something the audience could wish for all the wineries on stage.
The Top 10 Presenters (click to enlarge)
The Wines by Rank
Tasted in order from 10 to 1, over two days.
- No. 1 Cune Rioja Imperial Gran Reserva 2004 (95 points, $63)
- No. 2 Château Canon-La Gaffelière St.-Emilion 2010 (96 points, $103)
- No. 3 Domaine Serene Pinot Noir Willamette Valley Evenstad Reserve 2010 (95 points, $65)
- No. 4 Hewitt Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford 2010 (95 points, $92)
- No. 5 Kongsgaard Chardonnay Napa Valley 2010 (95 points, $75)
- No. 6 Giuseppe Mascarello & Figlio Barolo Monprivato 2008 (95 points, $110)
- No. 7 Domaine du Pégaü Châteauneuf-du-Pape Cuvée Réservée 2010 (97 points, $120)
- No. 8 Château de Beaucastel Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2010 (96 points, $120)
- No. 9 Lewis Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Reserve 2010 (96 points, $135)
- No. 10 Quilceda Creek Cabernet Sauvignon Columbia Valley 2010 (95 points, $135)