All reviewers, I suppose, have some difficulty choosing the small number of wines we are allowed to pick for our part of the Top 100 Wine Discoveries of 2020 list. These are all very fine wines, but the group for this list must include the concept of discovery—not just “best of.”
It would be easy to say, “here’s a list of the highest-scoring wines,” but that’s not the idea here. For this list, selection is tougher, something that requires more thought. Why this and not that? It’s not so easy to decide! On the other hand, it becomes very easy to pick in another sense—namely, there are plenty of candidates. So, typically, as with my end-of-year articles in past years, I have an agenda (or two), something I would like to prove or spotlight. That is often how I decide.
Let’s take Portugal first. The Filipa Pato Nossa Missão 2016 is a Baga from 130-year-old pre-phylloxera vines. Vineyards like that are not easy to come by. (Father Luis Pato also has one, the Pe Franco Quinta do Ribeirinho.) It is a relatively new bottling with great promise. Expect it to be one of the consistent regional stars. Apart from this particular wine, it’s also worth knowing the region of Bairrada a bit better. It gets a bit lost in the shuffle in Portugal, but it is doing better than ever. This Atlantic-influenced region makes fresh, elegant wines with good acidity, including Baga. It is also a great source for crisp and typically inexpensive sparklers that provide a lot of bang for the buck. The region itself is pretty and historic, featuring everything from national forests to historic hotels built for royalty. And, of course, there are wineries all over the place.
On to Douro and Port. Well, Port, with its ancient traditions, can’t be a new discovery, right? Depends on how you look at it. The Kopke White Colheita Port 1940 represents two agenda points—Colheitas and White Colheitas. Colheitas are normally described as single-vintage tawny ports, but there are white ones too. Colheitas don’t get enough attention in the USA, and I once wrote a very long article on that. I love them. You should love them, too! However, even enthusiasts don’t encounter very many white ones, let alone great white ones. This was pretty terrific. It was worth spotlighting. Like the tawnies, it is what I tend to call a “process” wine—namely, a wine strongly marked by the manner of its production. They taste a little like the tawnies—but they tend to be lighter, not quite as rich. That, to be sure, is a generalization.
Finally, for Portugal, the Márcio Lopes Proibido Grande Reserva 2017 was something really new—Márcio Lopes is a relatively young, talented producer who is making his mark. The first sign was his fine work in Vinho Verde. Then came the Douro wines. This Douro red was elegant and refined, not to mention ripe and expressive. This is a good way to introduce such people. He is hardly the only one, but there’s always a New Wave coming.
In Greece and Cyprus, let’s start with the Cypriot, the Vouni Panayia Woman in the Wine Press 2017. Parenthetically, one of the fascinating things about these regions is the opportunity to learn about new grapes. If you’re really new to them, that may include grapes like Xinomavro and Agiorgitiko. Those already seem like familiar friends to many, but even enthusiasts can find new things to explore that are rather obscure. Here, you get Morokanella, sourced from 70-year-old ungrafted bush vines. What’s going to happen to it? Good question. Good things, I hope. It is fresh, crisp and precise and rather low in alcohol. It’s different on many fronts. If you’re looking for sweet and jammy, look elsewhere.
Turning to Greece itself, let’s start with Santorini and Assyrtiko, always near and dear to my heart. The Karamolegos Winery Papas 2016 is my symbol of a trend on the island—special bottlings that often highlight special terroir. Here, that means all of 1,200 bottles produced from a single vineyard of very old (150 years) pre-phylloxera vines in Megalochori. Less happily, these often come with higher price points, another and less happy trend. I believe this is the highest-priced Assyrtiko I’ve ever seen, particularly as a dry table wine ($160). It is pretty fine, though.
Assyrtiko, by the way, is certainly one of Greece’s indigenous grapes that has become famous internationally. Not surprisingly, it is spreading through Greece, too, and we are seeing better and better efforts off of Santorini (its home base). That’s a trend. One of my favorites off of Santorini is the Vriniotis Assyrtiko Sur Lie 2018. (Try Biblia Chora’s Areti, among others, too.) I wouldn’t say any one place or group is threatening the best of Santorini for overall quality or critical mass of producers yet, but we can easily see that the grape can indeed succeed elsewhere. This is an interesting trend to watch.
Finally, my favorite Greek red grape pops up too—but not in any typical way. (We’re all about discovery here.) The Oenops XinomavRaw 2018 is something of a “natural wine” concept in amphora. Xinomavro is often fresh and crisp by nature. Here, it is certainly a lighter-styled, fresh red that is lively, well structured and invigorating. It isn’t always classic Xinomavro, but it is different and special on its own terms. In this group selected for the Top 100 Discoveries, I have a few lighter-styled and fresh reds—like the Vouni Panayia or the Baga from Filipa Pato. That’s just the way it turned out, but it’s a good group for those who appreciate elegance and freshness.
Let’s head back to North America. One of my coverage areas used to be called “East Coast, USA.” But that has now morphed into “USA & Canada, Emerging Regions.” That keeps the spirit of the original section while expanding the geography notably. So, of course, a Canadian selection well demonstrates how this section has expanded. This winery, CheckMate, made quite a debut in our pages with the Queen's Advantage Chardonnay 2016 and its siblings. These are pricey boutique wines, but they are fresh, elegant and beautiful. It’s worth checking out some familiar grapes from a different place.
For New York, it was simply painful to limit myself to one selection, but it’s an intriguing one—from The Lenz Winery on Long Island, the Cuvée RD 2005. It is a Pinot Noir recently disgorged after some 15 years on the lees. The straightforward agenda here: to point out that New York has a lot of fine sparklers. I tend to lean to the Finger Lakes most for great sparklers in New York (on my last trip, offerings from Wiemer, Damiani and Ravines were especially interesting), but this RD is certainly a great example of something a little different that you might not expect on Long Island given its fame for reds made with Bordeaux grapes. Long Island, of course, is more than just Merlot.
In Virginia, I picked a wine that had three agendas. Who doesn’t like a three-for? The Glen Manor Dry Petit Manseng 2019 was super. Petit Manseng is a thing in Virginia—that’s one agenda point because I like it better than what is supposed to be the signature white grape of the state, Viognier. Glen Manor is, apart from this wine, one of the state’s top producers that you should really know if you are interested in Virginia (Agenda Point #2), and this dry version is new (Agenda Point #3) and excellent.
Finally, we have from Lebanon the Ixsir EL 2011. In Israel, too, we see innovation these days at various places (like Recanati), but I chose this relatively less-familiar producer. Lebanon isn’t just Musar, an important agenda point. There’s a French touch here with this young winery (founded in 2008)—the winemakers are Gabriel Rivero, who was at Château Sociando-Mallet, and Hubert De Boüard, co-owner and manager of Château Angélus. It has high-altitude terroir (including some vines at 1,800 meters in altitude, a vineyard that the winery advertises as one of the highest in the world), and there is typically a refined feel to these elegant and well-structured wines.
So, that’s the list. There are lots of fine wines. They also tend to be signposts on the “Road Less Traveled,” for those who love wine adventures.