The 10 winemakers, owners and directors who took the stage truly spanned the globe, from Australia to Chile to California to the classic regions of Europe, with an unusually large contingent from Portugal. What tied so many disparate producers, working with so many different grape varieties, together? The Wine Experience's two-part Top 10 Wines of 2014 tasting—and the distinctiveness of the sites each family-run estate credits for their success.
Out of 18,000 new releases Wine Spectator reviewed in blind tastings last year, the Top 100 were selected as the most exciting wines, taking into account quality, value and availability. The Top 10, chosen in a double-blind tasting by the senior editors, "are the All-Stars, the Oscar winners," said senior editor Alison Napjus. "We're focusing on what's in the glass and want these wines to wow us."
Introducing No. 10, senior editor James Molesworth called second-growth Château Léoville Las Cases "the wine that embodies what is great about Bordeaux. It is regal, it is structured, it is dense." Pierre Graffeuille, managing director of Domaines Delon, described the château's location at the extreme north of St.-Julien, at the border with Pauillac, near the Gironde River. Its famed L'Enclos vineyard, shared with Château Latour, contains 12 different soil types. He noted, "This diversity of terroir is reflected in the complexity of Las Cases wines." And in 2011, the old-vine grapes "achieved full maturity, producing a polished expression of Cabernet."
Another Cabernet, the flagship of Chile's largest wine company, followed at No. 9. Concha y Toro's Isabel Guilisasti dedicated the tasting of the 2010 Don Melchor to her brother, José, a leader in organic and biodynamic viticulture who died in December 2014. The historic Maipo Valley estate has layers of volcanic, alluvial and other soils in its Puente Alto vineyard. "Due to its proximity to the Andes, Puente Alto is the coolest area of the valley. There's a huge oscillation between day and night temperatures," Guilisasti said. "These conditions are the soul of Don Melchor." The cool 2010 vintage—when an 8.8 magnitude earthquake struck just before harvest—gave them a wine with "complexity, balance, finesse and depth."
A California Pinot Noir blended from two vineyards came in at No. 8. Greg Brewer, half of the winemaking team that started Brewer-Clifton with $10,000, applies Burgundian methods in the 8-mile stretch known as the Sta. Rita Hills. Their vineyards, on marine soils, are 10 miles from the ocean; the hills run east to west, channeling the ocean winds, giving the area a very cool climate. For fermentation, "We rely wholeheartedly on whole clusters," Brewer said. He and Steve Clifton don't use new oak since "we're sourcing the tannins in the wines from the cluster itself." He explained, "The stem inclusion provides architecture to the wine," adding savoriness and texture. "It's like having beautiful curves and harnessing them with a corset."
No. 7 brought a familiar face, as Clos des Papes has appeared in the Top 10 seven times in the past 10 years. Molesworth welcomed "the guy who is excellent year-in and year-out," Vincent Avril. The big advantage of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the winemaker said, is the ability to blend on many levels—from 13 different grapes, grown on clay or sand soils, in early- and late-ripening parcels. "When you blend, you create complexity in the product." Clos des Papes owns 86 acres in 24 parcels; despite low yields and strict selection, Avril makes the most of that variety. With 2012's small crop, his red's composition had significantly less Grenache than usual and more Mourvèdre and Syrah, for a spicier character.
Calling Castello di Ama co-owner Marco Pallanti a "master of single-vineyard Chianti Classico," senior editor Bruce Sanderson noted that he and his wife, Lorenza, are "blessed with some of the most beautiful high-altitude vineyards in the zone." Of them, Wine Spectator's editors chose the San Lorenzo as No. 6 for its value. Through his 34 harvests, Marco said, his goal has been to "know as much as possible about Sangiovese … to find those places where Sangiovese can express its full potential"—identifying the best soils, training methods, rootstock and clones—the way the conductor of an orchestra helps translate a score into a complete performance. With the 2010, he achieved that, making the top-scoring Chianti reviewed in 2014.
The only white, No. 5, came from western Australia. Simone Horgan-Furlong, co-CEO and daughter of Leeuwin Estate's founders, recounted how its opulent, ageworthy Art Series Chardonnay was born "by accident," because her father loved to surf, and the Margaret River region has a great break. Denis Horgan bought a plumbing business that came with an undulating parcel of farmland, in a sunny, breezy, Mediterranean climate, where the Indian and Southern Oceans meet. Then Robert Mondavi came to explore Australia's potential. "My dad knew nothing about wine … but they struck up a friendship," and the famed California vintner mentored the family, who debuted their first vintage in 1979. For the Chardonnay, Horgan-Furlong said, "The clone is very important to us." The Gin Gin clone is prone to "hens and chicks," so "the acidity comes from the small berries and the beautiful complexity of fruit from the larger ones."
Three of the top five wines came from Portugal's 2011 vintage, an ideal growing season for the country's iconic Ports and its burgeoning dry reds. "It's rare that one vintage can do so much for a country so small," said Wine Spectator managing editor Kim Marcus.
Wines Nos. 4 and 3 illustrated the Douro Valley's diversity. Established 120 years ago, Quinta do Vale Meão sits in the remote upper valley, "the wildest part of the Douro," said winemaker Francisco Olazabal, whose family sold the grapes until starting the label in 1999. The site is geologically distinct, he explained: "Other quintas have huge variation in altitude, which we don't have, but we have a huge variation in soils." Adding to its complexity is the range of native grapes. Vale Meão's flagship blend incorporates Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Barroca and Tinta Roriz. Olazabal ferments in stone lagares with foot trodding but ages in new French oak. The result, Marcus said, is a rich wine notable for its power.
In contrast, Chryseia comes from the valley's heart and aims to "bring Bordeaux elegance to the native power of the Douro," said Marcus. In 1998, the famed Port-producing Symington family teamed up with Bruno Prats after he sold Bordeaux second-growth Château Cos-d'Estournel. "I think my grandfather and great-grandfather would be turning in their graves" at us making still wines, quipped winemaker Charles Symington. A blend of Touriga Nacional and Touriga Franca aged entirely in new French oak, Chryseia gains depth by sourcing from two terraced sites. The riverfront Quinta de Roriz, with tin in the soils, contributes minerality, and at the higher-altitude Quinta da Perdiz, in a cooler area, the same varieties ripen two weeks later. "This property is not more than 5 miles from the other one," Symington commented. "It's quite amazing how the different microclimates in the Douro can affect maturation."
Wine No. 2 returned to Australia, this time McLaren Vale. Mollydooker's owners "do not make wines like anyone else," said editor at large Harvey Steiman, introducing Sparky Marquis, no stranger to the Top 10 with the no-holds-barred Carnival of Love. Working the crowd like a motivational speaker, Marquis expounded rapid-fire on the Marquis Flavour Curve™, backed up with PowerPoint graphs. Sparky and his wife, Sarah, seek balanced structure (alcohol, acid and tannins) and 10 primary flavors in the Shiraz, from red cherry to spice and tar, which they call "complete flavor." Many winegrowers pick at a sugar level of 23 Brix. "I wouldn't get out of bed for 23," declared Marquis, who picks at 26, about 15 percent potential alcohol. "Most wines have a higher structure level than a flavor level," he said, so the couple tailors their vineyard irrigation to align sugar and flavor development. "We want to have a higher flavor level than structural level."
Portugal starred again as the Wine of the Year: Dow Vintage Port 2011. An incredible 25 Ports scored 95-plus points in the 2011 vintage, with Dow topping them all. Managing director Rupert Symington, who works with four cousins, including Charles, took the audience on a history tour, from 1915 to the new automatic lagares that mimic feet for crushing grapes. The Dow Vintage Port, dominated by Touriga Nacional and Touriga Franca, comes from the family's prized Quinta do Bomfim and Quinta da Senhora da Ribeira. "Our yields are some of the lowest you're going to find anywhere in the wide world," Rupert claimed.
Built to last 100 years or more, Vintage Port is made only in the best growing conditions, about once every four years. "The selection is incredibly rigorous. We're probably choosing only about 15 percent of what we make." Symington concluded, "With this amazing accolade, the Dow is probably at its highest level ever."
Tasted in order from 10 to 1, over two days
1. Dow Vintage Port 2011 (99 points, $82)
2. Mollydooker Shiraz McLaren Vale Carnival of Love 2012 (95, $75)
3. Prats & Symington Douro Chryseia 2011 (97, $55)
4. Quinta do Vale Meão Douro 2011 (97, $76)
5. Leeuwin Chardonnay Margaret River Art Series 2011 (96, $89)
6. Castello di Ama Chianti Classico San Lorenzo Gran Selezione 2010 (95, $52)
7. Clos des Papes Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2012 (97, $135)
8. Brewer-Clifton Pinot Noir Sta. Rita Hills 2012 (94, $40)
9. Concha y Toro Cabernet Sauvignon Puente Alto Don Melchor 2010 (95, $125)
10. Château Léoville Las Cases St.-Julien 2011 (95, $165)