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The Most Exciting Wines of 2013
By Michael Franz
Feb 11, 2014
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It is never too late to reflect on peak wine experiences, so please forgive the fact that I’m only now passing along my “greatest hits” from the past year.  My not-too-bad excuse is that I was waiting until I’d had a chance to present most of the wines at a class for Washington, D.C.’s Capital Wine School before running this column (so as not to deflate the surprise element of the tasting), but a snowstorm on the initial date caused a postponement of the class.  Better late than never, however, and I’d bet my life that a single sip of any of these ten wines would put you into an exceedingly forgiving mood:

Carl von Schubert / Maximin Grünhäuser (Mosel, Germany) Abtsberg Riesling Auslese #84 2011 ($100, Loosen Bros. USA):  I tasted hundreds of wonderful Rieslings during 2013 (including a vast number at Riesling Rendezvous, a remarkable international conference in Seattle at which extraordinary renditions of this peerless white variety were shown) but none of them were better than this one.  Carl von Schubert is unquestionably among Germany’s best vintners, and Abtsberg is certainly among the world’s top sites for growing Riesling, but there’s more:  This release of Auslese “#84” is drawn from a single exceptional barrel, and it is phenomenally complex and delicious.  It was harvested several days later than most of the grapes that went into the “regular” Abtsberg Auslese (which is also remarkable and certainly deserving of every one of the 94 points I accorded to it), with additional botrytis that makes it slightly sweeter but also significantly more intricate in aroma and flavor.  The fruit components recall both stone fruit flavors as well as subtle tropical notes and even a hint of baked apples, so we’re talking about a very complex wine before even addressing the complexities derived from minerals and botrytis.  It is almost scary to reflect on the fact that the wine will become even more complex in coming years, though it is worth noting that nobody who tastes it now is likely to be able to resist opening every bottle they can find in the very near future.  Sure, $100 is a lot of money for a bottle of wine, but that number isn’t all that daunting as a ticket to an epiphany regarding Riesling’s stature as the greatest of all white wine varieties.  98

d’Arenberg (McLaren Vale, South Australia) Grenache “The Beautiful View” 2009 ($80, Old Bridge Cellars):  One of the most exciting developments during 2013 was the apparent renaissance of high-end Australian wines in the North American market, and this lovely wine helps to explain the phenomenon.  For starters, the wine shows terrific balance, intricacy, and very high overall quality that would prevent any possible confusion between this and the various “Critter Wines” that undercut Australia’s reputation among novice wine drinkers.  Additionally, the wines outstanding delicacy distinguishes it very clearly from the sort of overwhelmingly ripe and chunky wines that make an older generation of tasters question the ability of Austrian wines to show a profile that would work well with a wide range of foods at the table.  It is rather modest in both color and weight, yet the aromas and flavors show plenty of punch from fruit recalling red pie cherries that were perfectly ripened--by which I mean that they show a light sweetness while also being exceptionally fresh and focused.  Spicy backnotes from oak are very subtle and beautifully attuned to the moderate weight of the fruit, and the wine’s general impression is one of supreme tastefulness.  I’d strongly recommend cellaring this for at least five years, though there’s no question that it can be drunk with great pleasure already.  93

Frankland Estate, Frankland River (Western Australia) Riesling “SmithCullam” 2012 ($65, Quintessential):  This rare wine (only 600 bottles made) is striking for its quality and also a departure from the general stylistic profile of the producer’s Rieslings.  It is quite notably sweeter than the others, but that fact could be terribly misleading if taken out of context, for two reasons:  The other Rieslings from Frankland Estate are among the driest-seeming in the world, and this wine will barely taste sweet at all to most who try it.  With only 9 grams per liter of residual sugar, this would pass muster as a dry wine under German wine law, and with a very high 8.9 grams per liter of total acidity, the sugar comes across entirely as fruit flavor, and very fresh flavor at that.  Complex aromas are very appealing, but it is the flavors and finish of the wine that really make it a standout, with stone fruit and citrus flavors and terrific tension between subtle sweetness and energetic acidity keeping everything in perfect balance through the 30 second-long finish.  Expensive, one must admit, but undeniably superb.

Georges Vernay, Rhône Valley (France) “Les Chaillées de l’Enfer” 2010 ($114, Simon N Cellars): This is, quite simply, the best wine made from Viognier that I have ever tasted.  This producer is an absolute master of this grape variety, as is demonstrated by the Vin de Pays releases, which were better than almost anyone else’s Condrieu releases in 2010 and 2011.  With that said, however, the wonders worked with the variety in Condrieu by Georges Vernay’s daughter Christine, her husband Paul, and her brother Luc are just astonishing.  This wine is extremely rich and concentrated, yet it never quite seems heavy, as the famously fresh acidity lent by the 2010 vintage supports the wine’s weight from the first sip right through the finish, which lasts for more than a full minute.  Floral aromatic notes get the wine off to a great start, yet they aren’t excessively pungent, and the perfume is really beautifully balanced with fruit-based scents.  Stone fruit flavors recalling peaches and apricots are fresh and precisely delineated, with very prominent mineral notes riding along with the ripe sweetness of the fruit and providing a savory counterpoint throughout this wine’s unbelievably long string of taste sensations.  This is not just a great wine, but an eye-popping, jaw-droppingly great wine. 

Hacienda Araucano / François Lurton (Colchagua Valley, Chile) Carmenere “Alka” 2009 ($50, Winesellers, USA):  My considered opinion is that Carmenere is a considerably more noble and promising variety than most wine writers seem to recognize, and this terrific wine provides an extremely strong case in point.  Entirely free of any hint of the green, weedy character with which some writers associate Carmenere (mistakenly, since this results from under-ripe grapes rather than any intrinsic attribute of the variety), this shows gorgeous aromas and flavors of blackberries and dark cherries, espresso beans, dark chocolate and toasty oak.  Deep and persistent in flavor, with full body and striking intensity, it is nevertheless not overbearing in any respect, and would be a near-perfect partner for a charcoal-grilled steak.  Outstanding!  94

Joseph Voillot (Pommard 1er Cru, Burgundy, France) Les Pèzerolles 2011 ($120, Vintage ’59 Imports):  This supremely delicate and tasteful wine has at least two lessons to teach:  Joseph Voillot is one of the best growers and winemakers in Burgundy’s Côte de Beaune, and 2011 has produced some gorgeous wines that should not be eclipsed by the two remarkable vintages that preceded it.  Voillot’s “Le Pez” 2011 shows much more aroma and flavor than one would expect from a conspicuously light-colored wine, and indeed the only thing accurately conveyed by the wine’s appearance is that it wasn’t over-extracted from an excessively aggressive maceration.  The fruit component recalls red cherries above all, though there are also hints of cranberries as well black cherries.  Subtle spice and toast notes--as well as nascent minerality--lend complexity without obscuring the fruit, which is fully ripe but also quite bright.  The wine’s excellent balance and freshness presage a very long period of development before it reaches its apogee, a process that will take a full decade but be well worth all of the patience you can muster.  94

Marziano Abbona, Barolo (Piedmont, Italy) “Pressenda” 2007 ($80, Frederick Wildman and Sons, Ltd):  I adored this wine when I first tasted it in Italy in May of 2011, scoring it at 94 points during four days of blind tastings alongside roughly 250 other 2007 vintage releases from Barolo.  The only problem is that my score was too conservative, based on how strongly the wine is now performing.  It has totally absorbed all overt oak notes, which can now be sensed only as subtle traces of smoke and spices that are perfectly integrated with the wine’s fruit component and its savory undertones.  Admirably concentrated but not heavy, this shows perfectly ripened Nebbiolo character, with striking aromatic expressiveness and great intensity of flavor flowing from a core that is remarkably graceful and really only medium-bodied.  Dark fruit tones are beautifully accented with notes of cured meat, wild mushrooms and saddle leather.  Some critics have written this vintage off as having been too hot, and I remain alert to that reservation, but continue to find that many of the wines are undeniably delicious.  This one is particularly convincing, and if it were possible to wring out one more drop from an empty bottle, I’d still be wringing this one. 

Merry Edwards (Russian River Valley) Coopersmith Pinot Noir 2011 ($60):  If there’s any one proposition to which every contributor to Wine Review Online could be relied to agree upon, it is that Merry Edwards is a consummate master when it comes to crafting Pinot Noir.  Probably America’s single most accomplished crafter of this famously difficult grape variety, she turns out numerous different renditions in each vintage that show varied nuances but also amazing stylistic consistency within an identifiable profile:  Wonderfully expressive aromas and penetrating, persistent flavors--but also an uncanny delicacy with no extraneous weight and no hint of anything chunky or obvious.  All of these atrributes are brilliantly evident in the 2011 Coopersmith bottling, which is really only light-medium in body, but nevertheless packed with pure flavors.  The accents from oak are just prominent enough to be notable in augmenting the fruit’s complexity, yet they never obscure the beautiful purity of the fruit.  On top of all this, one must also say that Merry Edwards’ Pinots are without peer in the USA in terms of their ability to show endearing openness in their youth while also proving remarkably capable of positive development while ageing over the course of many years.  96

Nickel & Nickel (Oakville, Napa Valley) Martin Stelling Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 ($155):  The Cabernet from this vineyard is the flagship wine of Nickel & Nickel, which is already saying something since this is one of the most outstanding wineries in Napa, but there’s more to be said:  This was the single most impressive Cabernet that I tasted in 2013, out of a set including hundreds of wines.  Featuring gorgeous fruit recalling blackberries, black cherries and black currents, it is accented with lovely notes of spices and toast as well as subtle backnotes of cocoa powder and espresso beans.  The wine’s fruit and structural components are so finely woven that it is already fabulously delicious, and yet it will only get better for a least another decade--and perhaps much longer.  To put the wine’s price into context, this is a worthy competitor to the wonderful first- and second-growth Bordeaux wines made in 2009 and 2010, and yet it costs less than one-fifth of the pricier Bordeaux wines from those great vintages.  97

Paixar (Bierzo, Castilla y León, Spain) Mencia 2009 ($90, Grapes of Spain):  Paixar is two things at once:  A very obscure wine in terms of the awareness of the average wine lover, but also one of the greatest wines of the entire world--much less Spain.  Bierzo is a very remote location in the northwest of Spain (which perhaps helps to explain why its wines have only recently been introduced to the wider world) and Mencia is a variety that isn’t found almost anywhere else around the globe, so the obscurity of Paixar is easy enough to understand.  But with that said, the wine’s completely compelling character and obvious greatness keeps it surrounded with an air of mystery, since tasting it makes it seem impossible that it could still be flying under almost everyone’s radar.  The 2009 is a worthy successor to the greatest renditions made since Paixar’s relatively recent debut, namely, 2001, 2004 and 2008.  Like most of the world’s great reds, the 2009 is impressively dark in color and exceedingly deep and persistent in flavor, but what is unusual is that there’s no hint of over-ripeness or over-extraction, which are two chronic shortcomings in “statement wines” that are reaching for the stars.  On the contrary, Paixar 2009 is almost perfectly natural-seeming, with wonderful freshness from acidity that is impeccably balanced in relation to the wine’s fruity sweetness.  Moreover, an intense minerality makes the wine seem much less a product of tricks in the cellar than a marvel drawn directly from the vineyard (and its very old, extremely low-yielding vines).  This attribute is reinforced by exemplary balance between fruit- and mineral-based flavors and spicy, toasty, but very subtle oak notes, and indeed the wine has already soaked up almost all of its overtly woody accents, resulting in a seamless character which is very striking in a young wine of such complexity.  I’m not sure I understand how a wine can be completely amazing and completely convincing at the same time, but in this instance both of those reactions are what result from direct experience of it.  99

Pecchenino, Barolo (Piedmont, Italy) Le Coste 2008 ($65, Vias Imports):  Pecchenino is a producer associated most closely with Dolcetto made in the Dogliani district just south of the Barolo region, but Orlando Pecchenino also makes two superb bottlings of Barolo from the Monforte d’Alba sub-district.  Both of them were among the very best 2009 vintage wines that I tasted out of hundreds of new releases in May of 2013, but for now, you’d be very well advised to seek out this wine, which is the current release in the USA.  The 2008 Le Coste is a little less ripe and soft than the 2009 (a notably warmer vintage), yet it more than makes up for that with superior freshness, greater age-worthiness, and equally spectacular aromatic complexity.  Scents of fresh flowers, red and black fruits, incense, subtle spices and saddle leather are all extremely appealing, and a hint of sweetness counterbalances the wine’s appropriately robust tannins very effectively.  Cellar this for five years or as many as ten, and then prepare yourself for a truly divine experience when pairing this with a veal chop.  95