For those who revel in great wine, 2018 was a splendid year for the wine industry. From the hundreds of new releases that I tasted and reviewed over the course of the past 12 months, I’ve singled out the two wines, one domestic and one imported, and the two foreign and domestic wineries that impressed me most.
These are exceptional wines and truly great wineries, all deserving of the most enthusiastic accolades.
Domestic Wine of the Year
Once upon a time, California winemakers were wary of merlot, despite its undeniable success on the Bordeaux right bank. You would have been hard pressed 40 years ago to find a bottle of 100 percent merlot made anywhere in the United States.
Louis Martini made a merlot, but typically blended it with other grapes. There may have been a handful of others. Mostly, merlot grapes were added to cabernet sauvignon blends to “soften” the muscular cabernet-based wines that were becoming popular in California.
Merlot, it was thought (erroneously I might add), didn’t have the structure or complexity to stand alone.
Then along came Duckhorn and Matanzas Creek, two California wineries that took a strong position in merlot. Merlot has been Duckhorn’s money grape for more than three decades now. The Napa Valley winery went against the conventional wisdom at the epicenter of the cabernet sauvignon boom.
Duckhorn succeeded because it took merlot seriously, treating it with all the respect and tender loving care others showered on cabernet. The flagship merlot in the Duckhorn stable then, as now, was its Three Palms single-vineyard merlot.
The Three Palms Vineyard, near Calistoga, also defied the conventional wisdom. Merlot is thought to do its best in a cool climate, at least a climate cooler than the warm end of the Napa Valley, where Three Palms is planted.
This truly amazing vineyard should be declared a national treasure. It rarely if ever disappoints, and the 2015 vintage from Duckhorn (suggested retail $98) is a stunning wine. I tasted it twice, the first time giving it a score of 96 points based upon its impressive structure, complexity and long-term potential.
I took another pass at the Duckhorn 2015 Three Palms in November and had to reassess. The wine had evolved magnificently in the intervening months, blossoming into a wine with profound depth, structure and complexity. I then upgraded my score to a perfect 100.
This remarkable wine from this historic Napa Valley vineyard is my 2018 Domestic Wine of the Year. It is a true collectible that is a wine for the ages. You could drink it now, or you could drink it 20 years from now. Either way, you will have tasted one of the finest red wines ever produced in the United States.
Domestic Winery of the Year
My 2018 Domestic Winery of the Year was a relatively easy call. The Merry Edwards winery, located in California’s Russian River Valley, enjoyed a stunning level of excellence that should be the envy of the U.S. wine industry.
I tasted and reviewed 13 Merry Edwards wines over the past year, rating all 91 points or better. I scored two at 98 points, two at 97, one at 96 and three at 95. To recap, this incredible run of exceptional wines included the 2016 Coopersmith Pinot Noir (98), 2015 Olivet Lane Pinot (98), 2016 Sauvignon Blanc (97), 2017 Sauvignon Blanc (97), 2015 Olivet Lane Chardonnay (96), 2015 Coopersmith Pinot (95), 2015 Klopp Ranch Pinot (95), 2015 Meredith Pinot (95), 2015 Georganne Pinot (94), 2016 Georganne Pinot (94), 2015 Flax Vineyard Pinot (93), 2015 Russian River Valley Pinot (91) and the 2015 Sonoma Coast Pinot (91).
The Merry Edwards winery is owned by the legendary winemaker Merry Edwards, often called the Queen of California Pinot Noir. Merry retired after the 2017 harvest but continues to oversee the winery she founded following brilliant runs at Mount Eden Vineyards and Matanzas Creek Winery.
Merry Edwards, the winery, specializes in single-vineyard pinot noir and chardonnay, but also produces some of the finest sauvignon blanc in the world. Merry Edwards, the winemaker, is demanding of herself and meticulous both in the vineyard and the winery. Her wines, as the scores would suggest, are impeccably made. They range in price from $40 to $70 and highly allocated because of limited production.
This year the remainder of her wines from the 2016 and 2017 vintages will hit the market. I suggest you buy them up, because they will be the last from the deft hand of Merry Edwards, the winemaker.
Import Wine of the Year
Sorting through all the stunning foreign wines available to U.S. consumers to find the absolute best in a single year would ordinarily be a daunting task, ultimately coming down to a matter of personal preference in that sea of glorious wines.
My pick for 2018 Import Wine of the Year is a superb Brunello di Montalcino from Tuscany’s Castello Banfi. I readily admit a fondness for Brunello. In a world where the price of collectible Bordeaux and Burgundy is insane, Brunello provides a beautiful alternative. The finest vintages can improve in the cellar 15, 20, even 30 years. And though not inexpensive, the prices are lower than even a modest Bordeaux from a so-so vintage.
So, settling upon the 2013 Castello Banfi Poggio alle Mura Brunello di Montalcino was a relatively easy call, aided by the fact that the wine also won raves from a brilliant panel of professional sommeliers at the 2018 Sommelier Challenge, where it was the highest-scoring wine with 98 points. The suggested retail price of $100 is modest for a wine of such great potential and quality, and far less that you would pay for a first-growth Bordeaux.
Poggio alle Mura is a special bottling of Brunello sourced from the vineyards surrounding the castle on the Banfi estate. Its stiffest competition for wine of the year came from another Banfi Brunello, the 2013 “normale,” or regular Banfi Brunello from the outstandind 2013 vintage. Those looking for added value should note the “normale” retails for about $20 a bottle less than the Poggio alle Mura.
Import Winery of the Year
It was a bountiful year for Castello Banfi, the American-owned treasure in the Montalcino District of southwestern Tuscany. Not only did the winery celebrate the 40th anniversary of its purchase by the brothers John and Harry Mariani of New York, it released two blockbuster Brunellos from the exceptional 2013 vintage and continued to excel from top to bottom, with its entry level Centine wines ($11 retail) leading the way.
The overall excellence of the Banfi wines across the board, including its two reds from the Chianti Classico district (a normale and a riserva) and the lovely San Angelo Pinot Grigio, prompt me to crown Castello Banfi my Import Winery of the Year.
Banfi got a leg up early in the spring of 2018, claiming the top prize for imported wines at the 2018 Critics Challenge in San Diego with its 2013 Brunello di Montalcino ($80). At the time I considered it one of the finest Brunellos from Banfi in years. I still believe it is the finest “normale” since the incredible trio of vintages from 1997, 1998 and 1999.
Then spring turned to summer and the annual Sommelier Challenge rolled around the following September. There, another Banfi Brunello rose to the top as the Castello Banfi 2013 Poggio Alle Mura Brunello di Montalcino ($100) was proclaimed Best of Show red wine with a score of 98 points. Poggio Alle Mura is made from sangiovese grapes grown in the vineyards that immediately surround the castle on the Banfi estate.
The normale wasn’t exactly shut out at the Sommelier Challenge, taking a platinum medal with a score of 97 points. Banfi went on to score numerous other medals at the Sommelier Challenge and was named import winery of the year. The takeaway: The Banfi wines currently in release are very good, occasionally phenomenal and consistent across all price points.