Top 10 Wines of the Year

Gavin Chanin, winemaker for Lutum.

© Andrew Schoneberger

By Ray Isle Posted December 21, 2015

The best wines F&W's Ray Isle tasted in 2015. 

I posted earlier about my favorite wine values of the year. Below are my favorite wines of the year—the best of the best out of what I tasted in 2015. However, I did restrict this list to wines that are actually available (albeit in tiny quantities, in some cases). I did taste a number of truly extraordinary older vintages this year that could easily have made this list—a 1975 Trimbach Clos Ste Hune, for instance, which was probably one of the wines of my lifetime, let alone this year—but recommending bottles only available at auctions, and rarely even then, seems unfair to our readers. 

2014 Thorne & Daughters Rocking Horse Cape White Blend ($32)
Yet another example of the extraordinary potential of old vine whites from South Africa. This remarkable blend of Chenin Blanc, Roussanne, Semillon Blanc and Gris, and Chardonnay, aged in old oak barrels, is texturally rich yet crisp on the finish, with layers of sweet peach, smoke and earth flavors. And it’s not even crazy expensive (though, unfortunately, there’s not much around). 

2013 Carlisle Two Acres ($40)
Mike Officer makes unapologetically intense wines from some of Sonoma’s greatest old-vine vineyards. (One of my favorite comments of the year: “I really don’t give a rat’s ass what the alcohol level is. Do I find the wine pleasurable? Is it balanced? I just leave it to my palate to say yay or nay.”) I particularly loved this red from a tiny plot of (mostly) Mouvèdre planted in 1910. Rich dark chocolate and kirsch flavors lifted by tangy acidity, mint and baking spice notes—it’s a “wow” wine that will take some finding, but it is worth the hunt. 

2011 Qupé Hillside Estate Roussanne ($40)
All tree fruit and spice—nectarines, pears, ginger and a light nuttiness—this is winemaker Bob Lindquist’s homage to or version of the white Hermitages of France’s Rhône Valley. It’s enthralling right now, but having tasted older vintages of this wine on many occasions, I can attest that it also ages far longer than you might ever guess. 

2013 Lutum Gap’s Crown Vineyard Pinot Noir ($60)
My favorite new California Pinot of the year, out of the God-knows-how-many we were sent (if there’s a brand proliferation problem in California wine, Pinot Noir is the proof). Winemaker Gavin Chanin crafted a spicy, silky, beautifully structured red with fruit from this Petaluma Gap vineyard. All of the wines from this new project impressed me, but this one was the standout for me.

2012 Ramey Rogers Creek Vineyard Syrah ($70)
Winemaker David Ramey is known for his remarkable Chardonnays, and at a tasting of his wines this year, a stunning, lusciously textured 2005 Hyde Vineyard Chardonnay showed just why. I would have put that wine on this list, except that vintage is long gone. Instead, I’ll pick a red: the intensely aromatic, peppery, savory 2012 Rogers Creek Syrah, from a cool, Sonoma Mountain vineyard. It was the best California Syrah I tasted this year. (Sold out at the winery, but still available in stores.)

NV Campbell’s “Merchant Prince” Rare Rutherglen Muscat ($100/half bottle)
Except for vintage port, I’m generally not a dessert wine drinker, but this Australian Muscat was just addictively appealing. With its rich, viscous texture, dark fig and date flavors with notes of lime and lime peel just to keep things interesting, creamy chocolate notes on the end, this Australian “sticky” was as intense as a PX Sherry but not cloying in the slightest. Unfortunately, it is rare—not much comes to the U.S. But if you see it, buy it.

2011 Le Macchiole Paleo Rosso ($100)
Cinzia Merli’s Bolgheri estate produces more expensive wines, but none (to my mind) that are better than her flagship Paleo Rosso, an Italian Cabernet Franc apt to redefine people’s understanding of that sometimes overlooked grape. From what she says was “one of the longest harvests I’ve had in my life” comes this mocha-scented wine full of chewy sweet cherry fruit, lifted by light Cab Franc herbal notes and vivid acidity.

2008 Fattoria dei Barbi Brunello di Montalcino Riserva ($120)
One of the three producers that pioneered production of Brunello di Montalcino at the start of the 1800s, Barbi’s wines are always impressive—intense but subtle at the same time. I loved the estate’s 2010 Brunello (their “basic” bottling, if you call it that), but the 2008 Brunello di Montalcino Riserva blew me away. From a dry, cool year, it has beautiful floral notes on the nose, then dark berry, peppercorn and minty herb flavors; wonderful now, it’s only going to get better with time.

2010 Guigal Chateau d’Ampuis ($180)
The estate has moved on to the (also impressive) 2011 vintage, but the 2010 transcends it for me: black pepper, dense dark berry fruit, notes of iron and licorice, gorgeous tannic structure. As Philippe Guigal said when I talked to him, “It was a good year to become a father,” meaning, if you want a wine to put away for 18 years, this is it. But seriously: drink it yourself. Don’t give it to the kid.

2011 Ponsot Clos Ste Denis Très Vieilles Vignes ($800)
I was fortunate to attend a Morrell & Co. tasting of Ponsot’s current releases earlier this year—fortunate because the wines are absurdly limited and also absurdly expensive. But good lord, what a great Burgundy: perfumed and exotic, such a pinpoint balance of saturated fruit and lifted acidity, and mysteriously drinkable now though it would be infanticide to do that. 

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