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Best of 2015, Part I
By Michael Franz
Dec 22, 2015
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As the very happy occupant of the World’s Best Job, it is good karma to reflect on the best performances that I’ve been fortunate to experience in my various wine adventures during the past year.  The list that follows is definitely not complete, but nevertheless, here are some reflections on stellar successes from 2015, with more to follow four weeks from now:

White Wine Producer:  Trimbach, Alsace, France

Trimbach continues to turn out stunningly tasteful, beautiful wines year after year and, indeed, generation after generation.  With production based on vineyard holdings of a little more than 100 acres (more than 30% of which hold Grand Cru status), this house has never seemed to slip since at least the 1970s.  I’m not old enough to vouch for wines older than that, but let’s just acknowledge that 45 years of unbroken excellence seems to indicate a trend.  Aside from a rather distractingly sweet Pinot Gris, the wines are all impeccably dry and marked by edgy acidity and prominent minerality.

Riesling is definitely the ticket for Trimbach, and at the single most electrifying tasting I participated in during 2015 (at TexSom in August), Jean Trimbach showed a retrospective lineup of Riesling Cuvée Frédéric Emile and Riesling Clos Ste. Hune that brought down the house (and the house was filled with 200+ wine trade professionals--who might be a bit jaded on other occasions, but were borderline worshipful in the presence of these wines).  Particular highlights:  Riesling Cuvée Frédéric Emile 2009 (95 points), 2005 (94), 2002 (95), 1998 (96), 1989 (96) and 1983 (95); Riesling Clos Ste, Hune 2009 (96), 2008 (97) 1990 (98), 1985 (99), 1976 (95!); Riesling Clos Ste. Hune Vendanges Tardives Hors Choix 1989 (98).  That these wines could be flown from France and perform like this is astonishing.  That Jean Trimbach could report that 2014 might be the best vintage for Riesling ever in Alsace makes my mouth water…four months later.

Comeback of the Year:  Delas Freres, Rhône Valley, France

Delas has been making wine for something like 160 years.  The house is based in the northern Rhône, which only has one-tenth of the planted acreage of the south.  Historically, this prompted Delas--along with famous wine companies such as Guigal, Chapoutier and Jaboulet--to produce domaine (estate fruit-based) wines from their holdings in the north, but also lots of negociant wines (made from purchased fruit) from the south.  Twenty-five years ago, only Guigal among these four was truly an outstanding company, with the others having slipped into mediocrity.  Then, in succession, Chapoutier, Jaboulet and Delas were all re-vitalized, and today, all three have joined Guigal as global leaders, making very good negociant wines and spectacular ones based on estate- or contract-grown fruit.

Delas’ comeback has been underway for years, started by the Lallier-Deutz family and then by the leaders of Champagne Louis Roederer, which purchased both Champagne Deutz and Delas in 1993.  The winemaking facilities remain modest but functional, and yet the focus on quality has seemingly sharpened each year under the direction of Fabrice Rosset and a winemaking team headed by Jacques Grange.  Because the comeback has been a gradual one, I acknowledge that it is rather arbitrary of me to mark 2015 in particular.  However, I had the opportunity to taste on-site this past March, and was struck by how strong the wines had become--even by comparison to the very best wines of Guigal, Chapoutier and Jaboulet.  Among the highlights were, among the whites, Condrieu “La Galopine” 2013 (93), Condrieu “Clos Boucher” 2013 (95), and--among the reds--Crozes-Hermitage Domaine des Grands Chemins 2012 (93), Crozes-Hermitage “Le Clos” 2012 (94), Saint-Joseph Saint-Épine 2012 (93), Côte-Rôtie Seigneur de Maugiron (93), Côte-Rôtie La Landonne 2012 (96), Hermitage Domaine des Tourettes 2011 (93) and 2012 (94), and Hermitage “Les Bessards” (99), which is tied in my mind as the red wine of 2015, based on an uncanny combination of finesse and power.

Fastest Rising Wine Type:  South African Chenin Blanc:

This is as clear a “call” as you’ll find in this annual run-down.  All the stars have aligned for SA Chenin:  Lots of old vines in the country, lots of young ones based on improved plant material, great growing conditions that assure full ripeness so that the wines can be finished essentially dry (unlike most French renditions) without the acidity seeming too screechy, and an extremely favorable currency exchange rate (Dollar versus Rand) that makes great wines affordable here and really good ones downright inexpensive.  Novices can cozy up to these wines easily, as they are clean and refreshing while showing the faintest floral and honey aromas, plenty of fruit, and crisp acidity on the palate even when they are finished with a few grams of residual sugar.  They’re very versatile with food, but great to sip on their own, too.

Not long ago, it wouldn’t have been possible to generalize about South African Chenin as I’ve just done, as producers were all over the map in how they styled their wines; some whacked their Chenin with new oak, others made overtly sweet wines, and still others made lean, mean renditions based on enamel-stripping acidity.  Today, the wines form a genuine category within more predictable stylistic parameters, yet particular wines still offer individual expressions.  I tasted dozens of delicious examples in South Africa in September, but some particularly memorable ones worth a search (with scores indicated for particularly outstanding wines) are:  Alvi’s Drift “Signature” 2015 (Worcester, 92), Beaumont “Hope Marguerite” 2014 (Bot River), Bryant MacRobert 2014 (Swartland), DeMorgenzon Reserve 2014 (Stellenbosch, 93), Jean Daneel “Signature” 2013 Western Cape), Kaapzicht “The 1947” 2014 (Stellenbosch, 93), Kleine Zalze “Vineyard Selection” 2014 (Stellenbosch 92), KWV “The Mentors” 2014 (Paarl; 92), Mulderbosch Single Vineyard Block W 2014 (Stellenbosch, 92), Perdeberg “Dry Land Collection” 2014 (Paarl, 93), Raats Old Vine 2013 (Stellenbosch, 92), Ken Forrester “The FMC” 2013 (Stellenbosch, 94), Spier “21 Gables” 2014 (Tygerberg, 93), Simonsig “Chenin Avec Chêne” 2014 (Stellenbosch, 93), Aeternitas 2010 (Swartland, 94), Stellenrust 2013 (Stellenbosch, 92).

Sweet Wine of Year:  Robert Weil, Rheingau (Germany) Riesling Eiswein Kiedrich Gräfenberg 2012

($365, imported by Loosen Bros. USA):  There’s no doubt that this wine qualifies as a splurge by dint of its price tag (especially in a 375ml bottle), but it provides a revelatory experience for those able to pony up for it.  Only tiny amounts of it are made, so this won’t be easy to find; if you see either the Beerenauslese or Trockenbeerenauslese bottlings from this house and vineyard from 2011, 2012 or 2013, don’t hesitate to snap those up, as they are flat-out amazing wines as well, albeit in a different style.  The BA and TBA wines from Weil are spectacularly layered and complex, whereas this Eiswein is all about purity.  That may seem a little surprising, given that the wine is extremely rich, and our tendency is to associate succulence with sin rather than purity.  However, the fabulously opulent fruit (recalling baked apples and the best peach you ever ate in your life) is interlaced with such wonderfully energetic acidity that the overall sensation is one of striking crystalline clarity.  The balance is perfect and the finish is seemingly endless.  I scored this at 98 points in February of this year, and if I missed the mark on that, I missed on the low side.  Even better news:  All the Robert Weil wines are impeccable, and that goes for ones like the dry-style Rheingau Riesling Trocken, generally priced in the high-teens.

Stalwart Producer:  Penfolds

Sadly, Australian wine continues to struggle under the cloud of Yellow Tail, which has undermined the quality reputation of the whole country’s wine industry (at least among the impressionable and inexperienced…which constitutes the majority of America’s wine consuming public).  Thankfully, hope springs eternal on account of producers like Penfolds.  Under the winemaking leadership of Peter Gago, this country makes terrific wines at ever price level every single year, ranging from affordable lines like Koonunga Hill ($12 or less) to Grange, which is undoubtedly the single best wine of the entire southern hemisphere. 

Fine wine drinkers should target the "Penfolds Collection" (a.k.a the “Bin Series” wines) and higher-end bottlings, which aren’t all expensive, but are all superb examples of their type.  On the more affordable end of the spectrum, Shiraz “Bin 28” South Australia 2012 checks in at 92 points and is a steal for $30.  Riesling “Bin 51” Eden Valley costs a little more at $40 but scored 93 for now--with at least a decade of improvement ahead of it.  Both Cabernet Sauvignon “Bin 407” 2012 (93) and Cabernet / Shiraz “Bin 389” (93) are more expensive than in decades past at $69 suggested retail pricing, but both now show even more concentration and age-worthiness than in earlier years.  At the higher end, Shiraz “St. Henri” South Australia 2011 (94) is the most approachable of Penfolds’ big-ticket red wines, and yet it never seems to dry out or tire with time in bottle, and can improve for three decades.  Which makes a retail price of $99 seem pretty reasonable.  Shiraz Magill Estate 2012 earned the same score of 94, and though it rings up for $130, it may well surpass the St. Henri if given a couple of decades to unwind all of its nascent complexities.  In this price range, Shiraz “RWT” Barossa Valley 2012 may be the best value of all at $150, earning 96 points thanks to almost unfathomable depth of flavor.  This ultra-concentrated wine has already soaked up most of its oak, and though it is phenomenally powerful, there’s nothing chunky or obvious about the wine.

Penfolds’ flagship white is Chardonnay “Yattarna” South Eastern Australia 2012, assembled from top sites (including cool climate ones) and showing a combination of penetrating fruit flavors, refreshing acidity, and a multiplicity of complex accents from ultra-fine oak.  It is already thrilling to taste (96) but will unquestionably improve for another two decades.  Priced at $130, it is worth every penny, and I’d trade almost any Burgundy producer’s Grand Cru Batard-Montrachet straight up to acquire this bottle.

Cabernet Sauvignon “Bin 707” South Australia 2012 (97, $350) won’t hit its apogee for at least 25 years, and though this is also true of a top wine from Pauillac in an excellent vintage, the 707 will be truly enjoyable in 5 years, whereas the Bordeaux will require 15.  At the very top end, Shiraz “Grange” South Australia 2010 ($850 suggested retail) was tied at 99 points (with Delas Hermitage “Les Bessards” 2012 as my choice for Best Red of 2015.  Grange 2010 is so dense, deep, penetrating and persistent that it almost defies comparison with any other wine.  Indeed, if it were not also so beautifully balanced and proportional, it almost wouldn’t seem like wine at all, but rather like something else entirely.  In light of the foregoing verbiage, it might seem silly to score the wine at 99, and my only defense is that this is just a nick shy of 1982 Cheval Blanc when I tasted that wine at 5 years of age in terms of sheer gorgeousness.  However, of those two wines, the Grange has more latent capacity to improve over a very long span, so we shall see.  Let’s talk again in 30 years.

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Questions or Comments?  Write to me at michael@franzwine.com