The Top 10 Wines of 2015 for Literature Lovers

Another year, another 135 wines!  Of course, ‘real’ wine critics often taste that many wines in a week, so my sample size is not huge. None-the-less, I have been collecting and drinking the fruit of the vine for twenty years, and have written nearly two thousand tasting notes in the last eight years, so I will claim some decent frame of reference! So, for the fourth time, I present my favorite ten wines of the previous year (see the 2014 list here, the 2013 list here, and the 2011 list here).

When creating such a list, it is easy to over-think things. What factors contribute what amount to the ranking? How does one rate simple enjoyment versus actual or perceived quality, especially in relation to price? How do you take personal bias towards varietal preferences out of the equation? How do you compare a properly aged wine of a certain quality versus a newer vintage of equal quality — is the one really better, or just different based on where it is in its maturity curve? How critical is typicity versus creativity? In any case, forget all of that. My list is based on nothing more than looking over the last twelve months and thinking of which wines stood out, which do I still remember most positively?

As I have said previously, there are many parallels between fine wine and fine books. Just as the world is awash in mass produced books (and ebooks) with zero thought given to quality, form or purpose, the wine industry is awash in mass-agricultural production of wine which lacks soul or meaning. Yet, like those craftsman who produce fine press books that are everything ebooks and paperbacks are not, artisan winemakers tend to their land and produce wine with meaning using centuries old techniques that have never been bettered. Vineyards cared for with little or no mass mechanization or chemicals, hand-picking and hand-sorting grapes, no manipulation from vineyard to barrel to bottle. Artisan fine wines reflect the time and place of its origin, and the best winemakers are master craftsman who know how to best let the wine speak for itself. Sound familiar?  For those with even a passing interest in finely made wines, please imbibe on this article from Books and Vines, which will increase your enjoyment level of drinking artisan wines while contemplating your artisan books!

While I have a slight preference for classic styles, I like and respect modern (or international) styles also. In the past I have referred to ‘Old World’ and ‘New World’ wine with the generalization being Old World was classically styled (fruit being just one equal component, lower alcohol, terroir based) and New World modern styled (more extracted fruit, riper, higher alcohol). However, these days there are many, many wineries in the Old World (France, Spain, Italy, etc) producing modern style wines and wineries in the New World (U.S., Australia, Argentina, Chile) producing classically styled wines, so I do not think that generalization is all so accurate any more.  Better to just say ‘classically-styled’ or ‘modern-styled’. As an aside, it is amazingly frustrating how many serious wine drinkers/collectors get hot-headedly religious on this classic versus modern debate. This seems especially true with classicists who think modern styles wines are a monstrosity and therefore anyone who drinks them are neophytes at best, or just cluelessly dumb, lacking taste. In fairness, plenty fans of modern styled wines think classic wines are overly acidic, tasteless plonk and think that those who love them are snobby pseudo-pedants who would not know a tasty wine if it bit them you know where.  Chill out all. World-class artisanal wines come in all styles and blindly parking yourself in one camp would be like ignoring everything written after 1900 or before 1800 for those who think 19th century literature the pinnacle of the art. Just as you should read what you like, drink what you like, not what others tell you that you should. On the other hand, don’t lose your intellectual curiosity as only with wide exposure can you appreciate all there is to offer.

In 2015, nearly half the wines I consumed were from the U.S. and the other half from France and Italy, with Spain, Australia, Portugal, Germany being represented by a handful of bottles.  Without further adieu, the wines of the year, from tenth place to first place are as follows.

{Ed. Note: You can use wine searcher to find who sells and ships these wines.}



#10 – 2010 Alban Vineyards Syrah Lorraine

Last year, two Alban wines placed #8 (2008 Reva) and #1 (2012 North) on my top ten wines of 2014. This year, the 2010 Lorraine (Syrah, from California’s Central Coast, Edna Valley) was my tenth favorite wine of the year. Proprietor John Alban is the original Rhone Ranger who has had significant influence on the American wine scene over the past few decades due to his advocation and mastery of the varietals Syrah, Viognier and Roussanne. These varietals were essentially unheard of in American production until, starting in the 1980’s, Alban showed how they could be produced here in a manner as good (arguably) as in France.  If you are not on his mail list, you should be! His wines are fully allocated, so good to get on the wait list now so some year you can get these at release price instead of on the secondary market for 2x the cost.

As for the 2010 Lorraine, it is presenting itself as quite young, which it is, but outstanding already. I was surprised that it was only medium to heavy bodied, not as big as the Reva. It is lush, though refrains from being overly decadent. Almost powerfully elegant if you will. Lots of dark fruits and spices, along with smoked meats. This will likely end up nearly spectacular given 5+ years and will last for decades. As I said last year on Alban, it is “big done right.” Like works from Alexandre Dumas, it is outwardly manly, big and strong, yet woven together gracefully. Vinous gave this a 93-95, Wine Advocate a 97 saying that it “has terrific elegance and purity in its sweet black raspberry fruits, crushed flowers, creme de cassis and subtle smoked meat characteristics“. I would give this a 94+, with significant upside potential, and is well worth the $145 release price (now $170+ on the secondary market) as a very special occasion wine.


2013 Gulfi Cerasuolo di Vittoria
#9 – 2013 Gulfi Cerasuolo di Vittoria

I love wines from Sicily, especially since many of them have terroir in spades and fly under the radar, resulting in very affordable world class wines. The Gulfi Cerasuolo di Vittoria is 50% Nero d’Avola and 50% Frappato. The wine is sourced from the vineyard Stidda (not irrigated), covering about one hectare in Chiaramonte Gulfi, at an altitude of 420 m above sea level. The climate is temperate, Mediterranean, characterized by significant temperature variations. The soil is calcareous clay. The result is low yields and excellent grapes.

Ian d’Agata of Vinous, one of the most respected Italian wine critics, gave the 2012 a 93 calling it one of the Italian wines of the year. While he has not rated the 2013 yet, the winery thinks it is even better, and they will not get any argument from me.  This may be the best <$20 bottle I have ever had. It has terroir in spades. Tastes of great and lively blue fruits, with lots and lots of spices, herbs and mint, with rocky minerality. There are a lot of rustic elements, though enough fruit to appeal to all. Great, great stuff for the price. I would give it 94 points, which at $20 is a steal. Back the truck up and buy cases! Then drink it while reading Alessandro Manzoni‘s The Betrothed, which it pairs with magnificently!


2007 Colgin IX Estate
#8 – 2007 Colgin IX Estate

Colgin is owned by Joe Wender and his wife, Ann Colgin, who are assisted by highly recognized and respected vineyard manager David Abreu, the well-known Bordeaux wine consultant Dr. Alain Raynaud, and winemaker Allison Tauziet.  Colgin IX Estate vineyard is 20 acres in size, at about 1200 feet elevation, above Lake Hennesey on a secluded mountaintop in the Pritchard Hill area of St. Helena. It’s rocky volcanic soils, and near ideal climate, produces some amazing fruit, as demonstrated in this wine.

Robert Parker gave the 2007 vintage of this wine his vaunted 100 point rating (Stephen Tanzer of Vinous gives it a 96), which, depending on your taste means you will love this or…not so much.   He calls it “staggeringly rich“, which it most certainly is. Some would say too rich, almost thick. Very extracted and very strong.  He also calls it “complex, harmonious, impeccably well-balanced“, which would be very hard to argue with. Typically I would not think this to be right down my alley, but like the Quilceda Creek later on this list, this wine was remarkably good. My notes said “stunningly rich, tons of black fruit and vanilla, with some cedar and herb notes. A bit big and perhaps not completely settled yet, but certainly tasty as can be with emerging complexity that will make this ultimately merit its high praise.” The finish was very long and very memorable. I would give a 95 with a lot of upside growth potential as it gets more years under its belt (it has a decade or two of growth ahead).

This is a hard wine for me to associate with literature as more than one glass of it at a sitting, the words would start to blur! I suppose Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra comes close in that it is big, complex and does not matter if the words blur since blurry or not, it makes little sense. In any case, the wine is not inexpensive by any means. $300 or so on release, now $500 or so on the secondary market. That’s a lot of money, and hard to justify on any bottle of wine. Hopefully you have a good friend who happened to be on the allocation list some years ago!


2003 Comte Armand Pommard 1er Cru Clos des Epeneaux
#7 – 2003 Comte Armand Pommard 1er Cru Clos des Epeneaux

This was another surprise for me, mostly because the 2003 vintage is not a great one for many in Burgundy because of the excessive heat of the summer (excessive heat is particularly not good for the sensitive Pinot Noir grape). Those producers who managed to succeed did produce very good wines, albeit many more “California-like” than normal (a gross generalization meaning more fruit forward, bigger, more concentration, etc). I am not an expert on Burgundy by any means, but I have had many vintages of Comte Armand Pommard 1er Cru Clos des Epeneaux and have always enjoyed it. Typically at least 10 years of age is required, more better, but the 2003 vintage has one advantage in that most wines not only can be drank sooner, but need to be!

Domaine Comte Armand in Pommard has been under the ownership of the same family in an unbroken line since before the French revolution! Their 13-acre Monopole Clos des Epeneaux  is one of the most well known and outstanding 1er Cru in Pommard and, in fact, the Côte de Beaune. The vineyard is biodynamically farmed. Benjamin Leroux was the winemaker for the 2003. As for the 2003 Clos des Epeneaux, while Pierre Rovani, a former Wine Advocate reviewer, gave it a 93-95 on release calling it “dense, velvety-textured, and fresh“, Neal Martin (currently with Wine Advocate) reviewed the 2003 in 2013, giving it an 89 with some positive comments though saying it is “lacking some complexity.” I find it interesting that Clos des Epeneaux is harvested, vinified, and aged in three distinct batches, separated by age of vines (some about 20 years old, some ~40, some around ~60 and up) and then blended. It would be great to be able to try each part of the blend independently, but I am happy to get the blend itself!

I found the wine to be at a fantastic state, easily being able to go another 5-10 years. It had a huge funky nose smelling of fruit, earth and barn. It has great texture and mouthfeel, with red and blue fruit on the palate with some floral elements, light spice and a mushroom component. It has a nice long finish, with still a fair amount of tannin making itself known. I would give it a 95. At right around $100 on the secondary market, this is a steal for 13 year old red burgundy of this quality (assuming proper storage!). Drink this with Guy de Maupassant, it is nearly a perfect match!


#6 1994 Dalla Valle Cabernet Sauvignon#
#6 1994 Dalla Valle Cabernet Sauvignon

Dalle Valle vineyard is made up of 21 acres 400 feet above the Silverado Trail in Oakville, overlooking Napa Valley. It was planted in 1983 by Gustav and Naoko Dalla Valle. Naoko Dalla Valle remains the proprietor (Gustav passed away in 1995). Similar to the Colgin mentioned about, the soil is mostly fractured volcanic rock, made up of red stony soils with loam and clay, which is naturally low yielding. The winemakers for Dalle Valle over the years have been some of the best in California: Heidi BarretMia Kilen, and Andy Ericsson (who is the current winemaker).

I have had this wine four times in the last decade, each time leaving me wishing I had bought cases of it when it was released. It has been consistently fantastic, often being nearly perfect. Consisting of 91 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 9 percent Cabernet Franc, aged in a bit less than 60% new French oak, this is showing wonderfully. It is a beautiful cab that almost deserves to be called ‘old school’, despite being exuberant in its youth. Almost black in color, it has a fantastic nose of dark fruit, cedar, tobacco and leather. Flavors abound, with good minerality and still some tannins to give it structure. I do not expect any further improvement, but it certainly has some years left to go.  Most of the critics gave this scores in the 92-94 range, which is crazy! This is at least a 95, and is one great American cab. Unfortunately, it will now set you back about $150 and unless you bought years ago, you would have to worry about how it has been stored. But, if you come across a bottle with excellent providence, grab it and enjoy it on a very special occasion. This is wine to have with John Steinbeck, classic and quintessentially American.


2005 AR.PE.PE. Valtellina Superiore - Grumello Riserva Buon Consiglio
#5 – 2005 AR.PE.PE. Valtellina Superiore – Grumello Riserva Buon Consiglio

The Valtellina is a valley in the Lombardy region northeast of Milan, beyond Lake Como, in a transverse valley deep within the mountainous passes where Italy and Switzerland meet (Leonardo Da Vinci, in his Codex Atlanticus, wrote that Valtellina was a “valley surrounded by tall and fearsome mountains”). Wine has been produced in this area for far more than 2000 years. It is home to some of northern Italy’s most fascinating, dramatic and individualistic wines. In this case, Nebbiolo, which the locals call Chiavennasca. I should say Nebbiolo that Langhe’s top growers could  be jealous of!  It is grown on ultra steep terraces on crazily steep hillsides, often enclosed within walls. The vineyards typically run east-west along the north bank of the Adda River, with the vines facing out, therefore enjoying copious sun throughout the day.

The Grumello Riserva Buon Consiglio from AR.PE.PE. is a wine I have never had before, but will certainly try to track down more of. The wine is extremely coveted in Italy, yet barely known in the United States. Isabella, Guido, and Emanuele Pelizzatti Perego are the team who manage this estate, all children of the winery’s founder, Arturo Pelizzatti Perego. Vinification, élevage, and the resulting wines, are very traditional: long but slow macerations, extended aging (some oak, some acacia, others chestnut, and none new). Valtellina Superiore crus are aged at least 24 months, while “Riserva” wines like this one are aged at least 36 months.

The 2005 was simply mesmerizing.  I wish I had bought many more of these. This is excellent Nebbiolo with oodles of character. Lots of floral notes, with earth, red berries, a ton floral notes (especially roses) and some leather thrown in. Quite complex, good acidity, excellent palate presence. Went outstanding with pheasant, and I am sure would be just outstanding with any game, pasta, etc. Bravo! I would give it a 95+, and it has some years left to grow. Hard to find, but at $80 or so, this is about as good as it gets. If the Gulfi above goes with Manzoni, this is perfect with Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s The Leopard. A masterly classic of an age long gone.


2011 La Ca' Nova Barbaresco
#4 – 2011 La Ca’ Nova Barbaresco

So we are saying that all the previous wines sound great, but how about something affordable? Well, here you go.  The ancient home and vineyards of La Ca’ Növa, about 12 hectares is size, sits in a nearly perfect spot, on the ridge of a hill in the town of Barbaresco, between the Montefico and Montestefano, two of Barbaresco’s top sites.  Three brothers, Pietro, Giulio, and Franco Rocca produce traditional, classically built wines. The wines spend about 25 days on the skins and are aged in medium-sized casks.

Certainly my wine bargain of the year at $21, with the highest Quality to Price (QPR) ratio of anything I drank in 2015, the 2011 La Ca’ Nova Barbaresco is stunning. This Barbaresco is a blend of fruit from Montefico, Montestefano and Ovello, all of which are clustered together on the northern side of town. As Antonio Galloni of Vinous remarks in giving this wine 94 points, “La Ca’ Nova’s 2011 Barbaresco is a gorgeous, powerful wine, and a great introduction to the house style.”  I would score it a 95, as it dazzled me with its floral notes, herbs, tar, and great dusty red fruit. For a $21 bottle of wine, the terroir and typicity was unbelievable. Add nice acidity, not overwhelming tannins, and a long finish and this gets a big ‘wow’. I will say it again: this was simply excellent, and probably the best QPR I have had in a few years. There are Barbaresco’s that cost 4-5x as much that are not as thrilling. It is young, and will only get better over the next few years.  If you can find any, buy it by the case. I am thinking that Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio of Alberto Tallone Editore would be perfect with this!


2012 Quilceda Creek Cabernet Sauvignon
#3- 2012 Quilceda Creek Cabernet Sauvignon

Quilceda Creek Vintners was founded in 1979 by Alex Golitzin (whose son Paul is the Director of Winemaking), and has become one of the most critically acclaimed wineries in the United States. Three times their Cabernet Sauvignon has earned the coveted 100 point score by the influential Wine Advocate of Robert Parker, with 13 other vintages being awarded 95 points or better (the last 13 vintages have all been scored 96 points of higher). The style is unabashedly modern, with copious amounts of delicious fruit being the primary component.

The 2012 is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon from Champoux, Klipsun, Palengat and Wallula vineyards. It was aged in 100% New French Oak for twenty months and bottled unfined and unfiltered.  It was given a 96 and rated as the second best wine of all of last year by the Wine Spectator.  Wine Advocate gave it a 98, while the International Wine Report gave it a 99 saying “the wine was so incredibly complex and rich, it was difficult to find the slightest flaw“. I would give it a 96, though very young so with huge possibility for improvement. I had decanted for 3 hours prior to drinking. It was very dark purple, nearly black. There was a huge nose of dark fruit, graphite, spice and coffee, all of which carried through to the hedonistic palate. Very big and opulent, but, incredibly, very smooth and balanced. The first sip sort of slaps you across the face making you take notice, but after which it settles in and is marvelous.

I am lucky to be on their allocation list (have been for 10 years), and so am able to get a handful of these each year at the release price of $140. Good thing, as they quickly jump in price on the secondary market, with the 2012’s typically at $230 or more. A very special wine to pick up for special occasions, and this will last for 20-30 years, so no rush. This wine is Ernest Hemingway, a ‘mans man’ wine. Powerful, to the point, yet deeply complex when given appropriate thought.


2012 Bevan Cellars Oscar Sugarloaf Mountain Vineyard
#2 – 2012 Bevan Cellars Oscar Sugarloaf Mountain Vineyard

Bevan Cellars is one of the most sought after newcomers to the collectable Napa Cabernet market. While their first vintage was 2005, their 2012’s were my first experience with them. I immediately pleaded and begged to get on the allocation list. Proprietors Russell Bevan and Victoria De Crescendo source their grapes from small vineyards in Napa and Sonoma, such as Showket, Sugarloaf and Kick Ranch, and own a 2-acre vineyard in Bennett Valley that was originally planted to Syrah but now is being grafted to Cabernet Franc. They leave no stone unturned to maximize quality. They inspect every grape after it has been removed from the stem, discarding every one that doesn’t meet their standards; typically sacrificing six to eight percent of their fruit during this process. Bevan employs cold soaks and extended maceration to create wines that are unabashedly modern in their richness, while somehow retaining refinement keeping it from going over the top and, in fact, giving some classical aspects to it. Their Cabernets are aged in new Darnajou, Gamba and Taransaud French barrels.

As for the 2012 Bevan Sugarloaf, it scored 100 points by Robert Parker. Parker said:

Another perfect wine is Bevan’s equal part blend of Merlot and Cabernet Franc, the 2012 Proprietary Red Sugarloaf Mountain. Notes of unsmoked cigar tobacco, forest floor, pen ink mulberries, blackberries and spring flowers soar from this inky/purple-colored 2012. The wine possesses great intensity, remarkable unctuosity and thickness, and perfect integration of acidity, alcohol, tannin and wood. Aged in equal parts new Gamba and Darnajou barrels, there are 225 cases of this fabulous wine. Drink now-2032.

Antonio Galloni of Vinous gave it a 95, with these glowing words:

The 2012 Red Blend Sugarloaf Mountain (Cabernet Franc/Merlot) is another drop-dead gorgeous beauty. Savory herbs, smoke, tobacco, menthol, graphite, red cherries and plums blossom in a powerful, intense wine that grips all the senses and never lets up. A crescendo of aromas and flavors builds to the layered, voluptuous finish.

When our bottle was first opened, I was a bit skeptical.  I could tell some serious stuffing was there, but it was reticent. However, after an hour or two in a decanter, it blossomed into being really, really, really (etc., etc.) good! It was medium-full bodied with tons of red and blue fruit, yet not overly extracted. In fact, as time went on I would call it fresh and lively. It carried with it some olive, tobacco and herb notes, and perhaps some cocoa. I kept going back to it and could not believe the complexity for such a young wine. I wrote at the time, “This is really fantastic, a stunning wine.”  Get on Bevan’s mail/allocation list, you will not regret it! The cost was around $170 on release, but is well over $300 on the secondary market.


#1 - 1935 Château Mossé Rivesaltes
#1 – 1935 Château Mossé Rivesaltes

My number 1 wine of the year was a revelation to me. After drinking wine for 20+ years, I stumbled upon a Rivesaltes, a wine I knew next to nothing about, nor had ever drank before.  Rivesaltes is a naturally sweet, fortified wine made in the Languedoc-Roussillon wine region of France. Rivesaltes is made from Grenache of all three forms (NoirBlanc and Gris). Wine Searcher explains that these wines are made by mutage, a process of stopping must fermenting while there is still a high level of natural sweetness. With their high levels of residual sugar (a minimum of 100 g/l) and alcohol (between 15% and 17% ABV), these wines are sweet and relatively viscous.

The Rivesaltes I drank was from 1935, by Château Mossé. It is not everyday that I get to drink an 80 year old wine. Even before smelling and tasting, the mind boggles thinking about the fact that certainly everyone involved in picking the grapes and making the wine have almost certainly been dead for quite some time. This wine is from pre-WWII, created in the midst of the Great Depression. Here, 80 years later, an American far removed from the time and place of this wines genesis, for some brief moments, was transported to the time and place of its founding. The experience is somewhat transcendental, especially when one inhales the aromas of the wine, and tastes the myriad of flavors that had been evolving so patiently, for this moment. The wine had a medium amber color. It is an awesome drink, with a finish of walnuts, toffee and raisins that lasts for at least five minutes. It is extremely well balanced with fantastic acidity. It is thought-provoking and provides greatness on the palate. The finest vintage Port or Madeira have nothing on this. Nothing, except higher cost. These bottles are rare and getting rarer as times goes on. Yet, this cost me $120, hundreds and hundreds less than a comparable Madeira (and Port would rarely last this long, and if did would cost 5x-8x as much).

Neal Martin of the Wine Advocate said of this Rivesaltes by Château Mossé, in giving it a 94:

Chateau Mosse was sold last year, the last vintage produced being the 2013, although Philippe Gayral mentioned that there are still a few wines that he might still be able to purchase. Then they’ll be no more. The 1935 Rivesaltes has a lucid amber color. The nose is resinous with beeswax, smoked walnut and raisin – much more Madeira-like in style for a Rivesaltes compared to the younger vintages from Sesqueille. The palate is well balanced, smooth and harmonious: nutmeg, walnut, red peppercorns and raisin with a very understated and yet intense finish. It is almost easy to miss the charms of this nigh 80-year old Rivesaltes: nuanced and effortless like a vintage Bentley. (drink 2014-2035)

Neil gives a good description of the wine, but is off quite a bit on the score.  I gave this a 98, which is probably unfairly low. Despite the age, this wine loves oxygen, so one can nurse their bottle, having a drink from it daily over a couple weeks without it degrading.

In short, this wine is astoundingly good. By far the best wine I had in 2015, and probably the most eye-opening and revelatory in a large number of years (probably only the 1912 D’Oliveiras Madeira Verdelho I had a year or two back is in the same league). The 1935 Château Mossé Rivesaltes is why one drinks wine. It combines gastronomical greatness, with history, allowing one to reach back into time and share the time and place of its founding from those who created it. In some ways, this wine matches with Albert Camus, in its deeply thought-provoking presentation. However, it would also go very pleasantly with Alexis de Tocqueville as it is great history, just in bottled form.

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