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2008 California Wine Experience: The Top 10 Wines of 2007

Tasting provides attendees the rare chance to compare and contrast the best wines of the previous year

Alison Napjus
Posted: October 20, 2008

The Wine Experience was described as the "Academy Awards for the wine industry" by Michael Twelftree of Two Hands winery, one of the panelists at Saturday morning's tasting of the Top 10 wines of 2007. If that's accurate, then the annual Top 10 Tasting is the presentation for Best Picture, except that 10 wines are honored, and event attendees can taste and experience all of these exciting wines in one sitting.

The Top 10 of 2007 reflected the diversity in today's global world of wine, coming from six different wine regions and four countries. Each of the wines was selected by consensus among the senior editors for their combination of quality, value, availability and excitement.

Led by senior editors James Molesworth and Kim Marcus, the tasting of these 10 wines was organized to provide the opportunity to compare and contrast duos of like wines side by side: two super Tuscans, Cabernet blends from Bordeaux and Napa Valley, two Châteauneuf-du-Papes from France's Rhône Valley and two Australian Shiraz.

Before any conclusions could be made about these pairings, the tasting began with two rarities in what is often a red-dominated lineup: a Champagne and a dry white.

The powerful Krug Brut Champagne 1996 (wine No. 10, 99 points, $250) was the first Champagne to ever be selected for Wine Spectator's Top 10, pointed out Olivier Krug, director of Champagne Krug. He called 1996 "one of those rare vintages ... [in which] nature gave us something that probably never happens." The growing season's generally warm, sunny days and unusually cool nights produced extraordinary ripeness in the grapes partnered with very high acidity.

Not since 1999 has a dry white appeared in the top five, but the Ridge Chardonnay Santa Cruz Mountains Santa Cruz Mountain Estate 2005 (wine No. 2, 95, $35) earned its high spot for its distinctive character and great value. Veteran California winemaker Paul Draper explained that though Ridge is better known for its red wines, the winery has been making Chardonnay since 1962. The rich, smoky 2005 came from 12 parcels of vines in Ridge's Monte Bello estate.

Paul Draper presents the Ridge Chardonnay, which earned the No. 2 spot in the Top 10.  

The tasting moved on to the reds with the Antinori Toscana Tignanello 2004 (wine No. 4, 95, $79), presented by owner Piero Antinori. He called the first vintage of Tignanello in 1971 the "beginning of a new era ... the Renaissance of Italian wines" because it diverged from traditional styles and launched Italy's "super Tuscan" wines. The 2004 blended Sangiovese with Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc from the 116-acre Tignanello vineyard and showed impeccable balance and silkiness.

Another super Tuscan followed, the Tenuta dell'Ornellaia Bolgheri Superiore Ornellaia 2004 (wine No. 7, 97, $150). Director and co-owner Lamberto Frescobaldi noted that, in 2004, a dollop of Petit Verdot was added to the Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc blend, and he felt this addition gave the wine a "three-dimensional touch and taste." The Ornellaia offered power in a restrained package, while the Tignanello overall was elegant in style, but with underlying strength.

The Château Léoville Las Cases St.-Julien 2004 (wine No. 6, 95, $90) from Bordeaux was the next wine of the flight, presented by Yorick d'Alton, brother-in-law of owner Jean-Hubert Delon. The 2004 season was cool and wet, and is sandwiched between the classic 2003 and 2005 vintages, but Las Cases produced a well-balanced and complex red. D'Alton credited the estate's exceptional terroir with its success in that vintage.

  The crowd gives a standing ovation to the memory of Robert Mondavi.

The Léoville Las Cases provided a classic Old World-New World comparison with the Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Reserve 2004 (wine No. 9, 95, $125). The Mondavi blended 86 percent Cabernet Sauvignon with Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot, offering complexity akin to the Las Cases, but the currant and black cherry flavors were more forthcoming in the California Cabernet. The 2004 vintage was the last in which the Mondavi family was involved before selling their company, and winemaker Genevieve Janssens offered an emotional tribute to the pioneering spirit of Robert Mondavi, who passed away in May of this year. The audience joined Janssens with a toast and a standing ovation in Mondavi's memory.

The next wines tasted were both from the Châteauneuf-du-Pape appellation in the classic 2005 vintage: Le Vieux Donjon 2005 (wine No. 3, 95, $49) and the Wine of the Year, the Clos des Papes 2005 (wine No. 1, 95, $80). Claire Michel, daughter of winemaker Lucien Michel, explained that, while Le Vieux Donjon's winemaking is modern, their philosophy is traditional. Many neighboring estates now produce several cuvées each vintage, but Le Vieux Donjon stands by the idea of "one estate, one wine."

Vincent Avril of Clos des Papes presents the Wine of the Year.  

This mentality is shared by Vincent Avril of Clos des Papes, who blended 65 percent Grenache, 20 percent Mourvèdre, 10 percent Syrah and other grapes to produce the No. 1 wine. Avril expressed the importance of the blend in Châteauneuf, of the 13 grapes allowable in the appellation and of grapes from different parcels of the same grape variety, saying, "The blend creates the complexity of the wine." The Clos des Papes showed a bit more finesse than the gutsy Vieux Donjon, largely due to the decision at Le Vieux Donjon to ferment their grapes with the stems (Clos des Papes does not), which provides additional structure to the finished wine.

Grenache is the dominant grape in red wines from the Southern Rhône Valley appellations such as Châteauneuf, while the northern part of the region is the traditional home of Syrah. But the Aussies took Syrah, dubbed it Shiraz and started turning out remarkable wines with their own distinctive characters, including the two final wines of the tasting. The Two Hands Shiraz Barossa Valley Bella's Garden 2005 (wine No. 5, 95, $60) was first, presented by Twelftree, who co-owns the company with Richard Mintz. The wines in Two Hands' Garden series are made from purchased grapes, but they maintain consistently high quality, and Twelftree said he felt the rich, layered 2005 Bella's Garden is one of their best wines to date.

  Back row (from left): Piero Antinori, Oliver Krug, Kim Marcus. Middle row: Vincent Avril, Clos des Papes; Lamberto Frescobaldi, Ornellaia; Yorick d'Alton, Léoville Las Cases; Michael Twelftree, Two Hands. Front row: Paul Draper, Ridge; Claire Michel, Le Vieux Donjon; Sarah Marquis, Mollydooker; Genevieve Janssens, Mondavi; James Molesworth.

The final wine of the tasting was the Mollydooker Shiraz McLaren Vale Carnival of Love 2006 (wine No. 8, 95, $80). Husband-and-wife team Sparky and Sarah Marquis produce this label (named for the Australian slang for left-handed, which they both are), and Sarah explained, "To make great wine, you can't expect to do it if you use the same techniques and processes as everyone else. You need to do something different." To that end, they developed a regimen of strict canopy management and an intensive watering program designed to produce grapes with good ripeness and lots of fruit flavor, even from the young, 6-year-old vines that were the source of the grapes for this powerful wine of immense depth.

Sarah Marquis ended the tasting by proposing a toast (left-handed, literally), to the magazine, but more importantly to the winemakers who created the exceptional wines included in Wine Spectator's Top 10 of 2007.

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