The year in wine brought no shortage of news, trends, controversies and quarrels on which to weigh in—and Wine Spectator's editors were more than happy to do so. Some discovered new wines that impressed and excited them, while at least one was feeling let down. Others examined closely held beliefs about tasting, terroir and winemaking techniques. But perhaps most vital this year were the voices of our California editors, who became part of the year's biggest story in wine when the historically brutal Northern California fires flared up in their neighborhoods. They reported on the fallout—and resilience—in their communities.
Ordered alphabetically by editor, here are our top blog posts of 2017.
From the wine bars of Brooklyn to the banks of the Loire Valley, "natural" wine was on everyone's lips in 2017, but the "non-interventionist" methods applied in the cellars remain controversial for sometimes producing flawed wines. It was still, perhaps, a surprise when contributing editor Robert Camuto found a doubter in none other than Mathieu Lapierre, son of the late Beaujolais star Marcel Lapierre, who became internationally known as one of the pioneers of "natural" winemaking beginning in the 1980s. “The term ‘natural’ is a bit extreme today. I don’t like it,” said the younger Lapierre, who has been at the helm of the family's Morgon domaine since his father died in 2010. Like many of his fellow vignerons, Lapierre farms organically and biodynamically, fermenting with native yeasts, but, as he told Camuto, it's far more important to let the wines express their local character than to adhere rigidly to one set of techniques. Is he staying true to his father's ideals?
California's wine-country fires of mid-October were among the most damaging and deadliest in state history. Huge swaths of the North Bay were affected, and Sonoma-based senior editor Tim Fish was among the tens of thousands of people forced to evacuate their homes. The Santa Rosa resident painted a dramatic picture of the chaos on the night of Oct. 8: "As we hastily packed, the power blinked out, and we rushed to our cars and drove to a safe place." Fish was among the lucky ones but, he wrote, "amid loss of this scope, luck feels shallow." Reflecting upon all the damage, he concluded, "In the end, it has to be about people"—people like chef Guy Fieri, who had mobilized to feed first responders and the homeless, and like Fish's son-in-law Nick, a firefighter who was on the frontlines of the blazes.
Writing three days after the outbreak of the wine-country fires, Napa-based senior editor James Laube surveyed the scene at a time when much was still uncertain. Likening the experience to a horror film, Laube wrote of neighborhoods reduced to rubble, long lines at gas stations, emptied grocery stores, smoke hanging in the air and ash on the ground. "Most of this year's grape crop had already been harvested by the time the fire began Sunday night, but not all of it. There's still some prized Cabernet Sauvignon hanging in Napa and beyond," wrote Laube. "That matters less today as people scramble to reconstruct their lives." But, smoke taint was still a concern, and since wine is the region's economic driver, he worried about the future.
In an earlier popular post, Laube assessed another development in the world of Napa Cabernet: the sale of cult darling Schrader to behemoth Constellation Brands. What would the watershed sale mean for To Kalon vineyard, source of most Schrader grapes; for winemaker Thomas Rivers Brown; and for high-end Napa wine on the whole?
A battle of philosophies—traditional versus modern—has been playing out across the wine world, and it can feel especially extreme in Rioja, wrote Thomas Matthews, executive editor and lead taster for the wines of Spain. But leading bodega La Rioja Alta, he wrote, "is pursuing a difficult—and admirable—path: It’s searching for the middle ground." To assess Rioja Alta's progress, Matthews attended a dinner in New York celebrating the 75th anniversary of Viña Ardanza, the bodega's most popular label, and showcasing five vintages from 1989 through 2008. Matthews shared his notes and scores for all the wines. What did he conclude about the cuvée's relationship to the Aristotelian ideal of the Golden Mean?
Following the 2017 harvest in France, senior editor James Molesworth, lead taster for the wines of Bordeaux, found vintners taking the good with the bad. A historically intense April frost hit the country's wine regions hard, and in Bordeaux, the damage ranged from little in the Médoc and Pomerol to total in other parts of the Right Bank and in Sauternes. Overall, crop size for the region was about half the average. A warm summer helped salvage quality, and Molesworth interviewed winemakers who were optimistic, like Laurent Fortin of Château Dauzac in Margaux, who said his early tastings showed "nicely balanced wines that have very smooth tannins." But Molesworth also heard from vintners who had a harder go of it. Barsac vintner Bérénice Lurton found the season was ultimately unsalvageable: There will be no 2017 Climens.
Earlier in the year, Molesworth visited Bordeaux to taste the young 2016 wines in barrel and came away with a much happier story then: It's potentially the best vintage since 2010, with successes among Pauillac, St.-Estèphe, Right Bank superstars and beyond.
At the outset of 2017, things were looking rosy in Burgundy's Chablis region. Senior editor Bruce Sanderson, Wine Spectator's lead taster for Burgundy, met up with Didier Seguier, director of William Fèvre, which holds 119 acres and more grand cru vineyard land than any other domaine in the region. Seguier was excited to present his range of 2015s, "a year that conserved good freshness [despite the heat]," he told Sanderson. Even the lower-tier Chardonnays impressed Sanderson, who tasted through grand cru whites like Les Preuses, Cote de Bouguerots, Les Clos and Valmur, which displayed "a mix of power and finesse" that foretold promising futures for these wines.
"Experienced wine hands may say 'duh' to this news," began editor at large Harvey Steiman, but a study published in late 2016 was apparently the first time anyone had scientifically determined that humans can smell the distinctions between wines made from different grapes and grown in different places. The study, led by researcher Francesco Foroni, put 32 participants through 96 smell tests. Each participant was presented with a pair of glasses containing Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot from two obscure regions of northeastern Italy, 15 miles apart. Sometimes the wines were identical, other times different in variety or place of origin. Significantly better than random chance, the 32 panelists identified distinctions between grapes, and, even more frequently, between terroirs. Even wine novices could spot the differences. Concluded Steiman, "Trust your palate."
Austria is primarily white-wine country, where distinctive, aromatic Grüner Veltliners and Rieslings reign. But assistant editor Emma Balter noticed a growing development: The rise and improvement of red wine from the country's easternmost state, Burgenland, owed to an increasing appreciation and understanding among both winemakers and drinkers of its star grape, Blaufränkisch. "Blau," as it is affectionately known, is described with a "triangle" comparison: "The grape has the elegance of Burgundy Pinot Noir, the pepperiness of Northern Rhône Syrah, and the structure of Nebbiolo from Piedmont." What's fueling Blau's moment? Balter explains—and recommends a handful of producers leading the Blau brigade.
Imported rosé sales have doubled in the U.S. over the past five years, noted news editor Mitch Frank, proof positive of a country of wine lovers clamoring for quality dry rosé. The competition within the category led producers to up their game in quality—at first, anyway. But during the 2017 rosé season, Frank began to notice the inevitable gimmicks. "The first time I saw a chalkboard outside a café touting 'frosé' I said, 'Uh oh,'" wrote Frank. Then an importer friend emailed: "Have you heard anything about a glut of rosé?" Just as rosé had finally come into its own as a serious fine wine, it was being coopted by peddlers of cheap plonk—and drinkers didn't seem to care. Will the surge of elegant quality rosés be washed over by a tidal wave of cheap pink swill? What do you think?
In June 2016, California winemaker Dave Phinney sold his Orin Swift brand to wine giant E. & J. Gallo, joining a wave of boutique wine brands being snapped up by larger companies. But when Phinney met with associate editor Ben O'Donnell, he explained that the deal made sense to him, not just as the recipient of a hefty haul but also as a guy who just wants to make wine without the headaches of the business part of the equation. He relished the opportunity to work with Gallo's formidable toolkit of vineyard and winery resources: “I [didn’t] have the assets they do, the barrel trials, the R and D.” While the years-ago acquisitions of Robert Mondavi and Seghesio had messy fallouts, O'Donnell wrote, Phinney's situation reflects a new dynamic in winery sales.