Is the Wine Spectator’s Top 100 a Reliable Guide?

top 100 wine SpectatorOver the weekend I finally had a chance to taste through a few entries on the Wine Spectator’s Top 100 list for 2017.

I’m often asked if the Wine Spectator’s annual list is a reliable guide to the best wines in a particular year. The answer is clearly “no” and they don’t claim to be. In their archives, the editors write:

Here, our editors survey the globe to bring you the most exciting wines blind-tasted in 2017, a selection representing the upper echelon of quality, diversity, and value.

In announcing their list they give us more specific criteria used to construct the list:

Each year since 1988, Wine Spectator has released its Top 100 list, where our editors select the most exciting wines from the thousands we reviewed during the course of the year. These wines are a diverse group—ranging from emerging labels and regions to traditional estates exploring new directions—and all generate the excitement we call the “X-factor.

Although the wines must meet a quality standard, it’s really a list of what the Spectator deems the 100 most exciting wines of the year. So the emphasis is on what’s new, promising, and reasonably affordable.

Given that standard the #1 wine, the 2014 Duckhorn Merlot Napa Valley Three Palms Vineyard, is curious. It may be a fine wine, but is a Napa Valley Merlot from an established, conventional producer exciting? Equally curious is #9 on the list—the 2015 Pahlmeyer Napa Valley Chardonnay. I have had the opportunity to taste this wine and it is indeed lovely. But it’s a butter bomb, a style of Chardonnay that harkens back to the dominant style of Chardonnay from the early 2000’s that has been widely panned in recent years.

The Wine Spectator sees itself as a trend setter, one of a handful of publications that helps define the direction of the wine world and acts as an arbiter of taste. In honoring these two wines in the top 10, the Spectator seems to be signaling a return to old glory, a retro trend venerating the nostalgic as the new cool kids. Although it’s nice to be reminded of where we’ve been, and I thoroughly enjoyed the Pahlmeyer, is there really great promise in these old war horses? I’m not quite feeling the excitement.

As to the rest of the list, for the most part the wines live up to their billing. Here is what I tasted over the weekend.

#3  2014 Château Coutet Barsac.

This is a drop-dead gorgeous Sauterne-style dessert wine, complex yet so light and refreshing it deserves any accolades it receives. This really is exciting, setting a standard for what a dessert wine should deliver.

#15 2015  Domaine des Baumard Savennières Chenin Blanc

Also worthy of its position on the list. Pleasantly plump and languorous but full of mineral spirits, a very unique wine, unlike anything I’ve tasted recently.

#31 2015  Forge Riesling Finger Lakes New York

Just outstanding with scintillating, layered textures and unmatched vibrancy. The best Finger Lakes dry Riesling I’ve tasted, and I spent a month there last year tasting most of the best examples.  This truly does meet the standard of “exciting” from an emerging region gaining the reputation for world class wines.

#36 2014 Tait “Ballbuster” Shiraz Barossa

It lives up to its name. Explosive and lively and at $23 an extraordinary bargain. Value is one of the criteria, so this is certainly justified.

#41 Bodega Garzón Tannat Uruguay Reserva

Ripe, rich and savory but with well-disciplined tannins. At $17, another bargain and it certainly qualifies as exciting, an under-appreciated varietal from an emerging wine region.

#46  Il Poggione Rosso di Montalcino Sangiovese

This was a real head scratcher. A second wine from a reliable producer of Brunello, this Sangiovese was bright and refreshing but so are thousands of other wines. There is nothing new and exciting about the varietal or this producer. It is certainly worth the $27 price tag and at over 16000 cases produced is widely available. But there is no reason to put this on the list.

My conclusion is that as long as the Wine Spectator’s list is not construed as the 100 best wines of the year, and as long as we keep in mind that value and excitement are important criteria, if you were to use this list to shop for wine you would find much to like, many bargains, and likely some new discoveries.  But some of the choices are just puzzling and as arbiters of taste going forward we should probably decline the Wine Spectator’s recommendations and make our own independent judgments.

The wine world is more interesting when trends bubble up from the bottom rather than being imposed by institutions.

Thanks to the Wine Elite San Diego for making these wines available.


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