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The Curse and Mystery Of The Top 100 Wine Lists

December 5, 2019 4 comments

Lists and numbers – who doesn’t like that? We, humans, are all about lists, we like to sort things out – to-do lists, shopping lists, “best” lists, “best of the best ” lists, Top 10 lists, Top 100 lists. No area of people’s interest is immune to the lists – and of course, the world of wine is no exception – come to the end of the year, and you are guaranteed to see lists and lists of the lists, ranking wines, wineries, regions, winemakers, what have you.

I don’t know how much attention you are paying to the top wine lists. Talking about myself, I like to ponder at the Top 100 lists, especially the one produced by Wine Spectator – not because it is any better or different than the others, but simply because I had been a subscriber for a long time, and it formed more into a habit. My main interest is to see what wines can I recognize, and then to play with the data a bit – countries, prices, grapes. I’m a number junkie. It is always fun to organize numbers in a few different ways, no matter if it means anything or not, and so the Top 100 lists present a good opportunity to conduct such a “research”.

Before we delve into the numbers, let’s talk about the Mystery. What is mysterious about the top 100 wine lists? I would say most everything? How the wines are chosen? How wine #1  is decided? According to the information on the James Suckling web site, they select the top 100 wines out of the 25,000 wines tasted throughout the year. How do decide on 100 out of 25,000? Do you run a separate list of potential candidates throughout the year, or do you sit down at the end of the year and try honestly recall the most memorable wines of the year? What role the ratings play?

Here is what Wine Spectator says on the subject: “Each year, Wine Spectator editors survey the wines reviewed over the previous 12 months and select our Top 100, based on quality, value, availability and excitement”. I like the “excitement” part, this is how I decide on my top dozen wine of the year. The other two publications I studied with Top 100 lists don’t talk about their methodology, they just talk about the content of their lists.

So here are some stats we can gain from looking into the details of the Top 100 lists.

Wine Spectator:

Wine Spectator offers two lists – the regular Top 100 Wine and Top 100 Value Wines, which includes wines priced under $25 (you can find all the lists here). I didn’t spend time with the top value list, so all the numbers below are related to the Top 100 list:

  • Distribution by country: France – 23, California – 22, Italy – 21, Spain – 7, Australia and Oregon – 5 each, Chile and Portugal – 3 each, Austria, Germany, New Zealand, and Washington – 2each, Argentina, Israel, and South Africa – 1 each
  • Distribution by the wine type – 74 reds, 21 whites, 1 Rosé, and 4 Sparkling.
  • Prices – most expensive – $197, least expensive – $13. 14 wines are priced above $100, 13 wines are in the $75 – $99 range, 11 wines are in the $50 to $74 range, 27 wines are priced in the $25 – $49 range, and 35 wines are in the $13 – $25 range.
  • Ratings: the top score is 98, the lowest is 90. There is only one wine on the list with a rating of 98, 6 wines have a rating of 97. The ratings of 96, 95 and 94 are assigned to 14 wines each. 11 wines have a rating of 93, 10 wines each have ratings of 92 and 91, and 20 wines have a rating of 90.
  • Wine Spectator’s top wine of the year 2019 was 2016 Château Léoville Barton St.-Julien with a rating of 97 and priced at $98.

Wine Enthusiast:

Wine Enthusiast produces not one, but 3 Top Wine lists – Top 100 Wines, Top 100 Best Buys, and Top 100 Cellar Selections – these links will allow you to retrieve PDFs for each list. General notes on Wine Enthusiast site say that more than 24,000 wines are tasted during the year and afterwards condensed into the 3 Top Wine lists. Note that Wine Enthusiast Best Buys list covers only wines under $15. Focusing on the Top 100, I did a limited analysis, using the data already provided in the PDF file:

  • Distribution by country: California – 18, Italy – 17, France – 16, Australia, Oregon and Spain – 5 each, Argentina, Chile, Portugal and Washington – 4 each, Austria and Germany – 3 each, NY State and South Africa – 2 each, Georgia, Greece, Israel, Uruguay and Virginia – 1 each
  • Prices – most expensive – $114, least expensive – $16. Only one wine is priced above $100, the majority of the wines are less than $50 with an average price of $33.
  • Ratings: the top score is 99, the lowest is 90. There is only one wine on the list with a rating of 99, 3 wines are rated at 98, 5 wines have a rating of 97, 8 wines are rated at 96. Most of the rated wines fall in the 91-93 range (55 wines)
  • Wine Enthusiast top wine of the year 2019 was NV Nino Franco Rustico Brut Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore with a rating of 94 and priced at $20.

James Suckling:

This one is the most exclusive Top 100 club in a number of ways. First, you need to be a subscriber to see any wine details. Second, all the wines on the Top 100 list are rated 98-100 points. This is the only stats available from the James Suckling Top 100 Wines website: “We have 41 100-point wines in the list and another 35 with 99 points. The rest of the wines scored 98 points. All the wines were produced in quantities of 300 cases or more.”

Let’s leave James Suckling Top 100 list aside and talk about Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast lists. The makeup of both lists is quite similar when it comes to the countries – California, France, and Italy represent at least half of the Top 100 wines (2/3 in case of Wine Spectator list). Where the list differ quite a bit is in the pricing – 14 $100+ wines on the Wine Spectator list versus only 1 on the Wine Enthusiast. But the biggest difference to me is the Wine #1 – Grand Cru Classé versus Prosecco. Okay, call me a snob or whatever you want, but I’m really missing the point of the Wine Enthusiast choice. To my defense, I can only say one thing – I tasted this wine. Nino Franco Rustico is a nice Prosecco, and but it is really, really far away from the memorable, exciting wine. Here you go – another case of the wine list mystery.

I also wanted to talk about the “curse” of the Top 100 wine list, for sure when it comes to the one from the Wine Spectator. As soon as the wine makes it on that list, it instantly becomes unavailable. Adding to the mystery side, it is a mystery to me why an average wine consumer puts such a value on the Top 100 list nomination. But talking about availability, are we looking at the scalping phenomenon in the works? Buy bulk and resell for a quick buck? This is annoying, and it is a real problem for the wine retailers who can’t find enough of those top wines to offer them to consumers. It also gets worse every year – a friend of mine, who has a wine store in Stamford, was able to assemble about 40 Top 100 wines to offer to his customers last year – this year he will barely make it to 20.

There you have it my friends – a deeper look into the mystery (and curse) of the Top 100 wine lists. Do you pay attention to those? What do you think of this year’s top wines? Do you see any trends? Cheers!

Daily Glass: Pizza and Wine

December 2, 2019 3 comments

What do you think of pizza and wine – a perfect combo, right? Let’s talk about it.

On Friday, kids requested pizza. I’m generally not craving pizza (unless it is Frank Pepe White Clam), but I don’t object to it too much. Especially when I have two wine samples which should work well with pizza – Prosecco and Barbera.

The world loves sparkling wines, with consumption growing consistently year over year – you can find some interesting stats here. For the last few years, Prosecco bypassed Champagne as the world’s best selling sparkling wine in terms of volume – a bottle of Champagne is at least 3-4 times as expensive as Prosecco, so in terms of revenues, Champagne is still ahead. But let’s not get hung up on numbers.

Prosecco is made from the grape called Glera (the grape itself used to be called Prosecco, but it was renamed to make Prosecco a protected name, similar to Champagne). Prosecco is made using the method called Charmat (patented in 1907), where the second fermentation is taking place in the pressure-sealed tank as opposed to the bottle in Méthode Traditionnelle. Fermenting in the tank allows to significantly reduce the cost of the sparkling wine, as the whole process is a lot less labor-intense.

In 1919, Antonio Franco founded the Cantine Franco winery in Valdobbiadene in Northern Italy. In 1966, his son Giovanni (Nino) renamed the winery into Nino Franco di Franco Giovanni and went on producing white and red wines. In 1971, Nino’s son Primo, who studied enology, began working at the winery, focusing on sparkling wines – this was a pivotal moment, converting Nino Franco into the Prosecco powerhouse it is today.

Prosecco’s success is not given – it is a result of belief, hard work, obsession, and dedication. This year marks the 30 years since Prosecco first appeared on London markets, and it had not been even that long since its introduction in the USA (1992/1993) – all largely thanks to the efforts of people such as Primo Franco and Gianluca Bisol. Think about the success of this simple sparkling wine in just 30 years – it is definitely something to be proud of.

Before I share my tasting notes for Nino Franco Prosecco Rustico Valdobbiadene Superiore DOCG (11% ABV, SRP $19.00, 100% Glera), I want to mention that there are two occasions to celebrate as it relates to this wine. One is more general – it is the 100th anniversary of the Nino Franco wine company, a great achievement in itself. The second one is directly related to the wine, and it is even more impressive – Nino Franco Prosecco Rustico became the wine #1 on the Wine Enthusiast Top 100 wines of the year 2019. Wine Enthusiast folks review tens of thousands of wines every year – to snatch the top position of the 100 most impressive wines of the year is not an easy fit and serious accomplishment.

How was the wine? Upon opening and pouring into the glass, the wine first filled the glass (I was using standard Riedel wine glass, not the flute) with a foam – not just a little “hat”, but almost a full glass of foam. The nose had very expressive aromatics of apple, peach, and guava. The palate was fresh and crisp, with more of the apple notes, tiny bubbles, and good acidity. All-around a good Prosecco, definitely more voluptuous and assertive than many. (Drinkability: 7+/8-).

Okay, now it is the Barbera time. Barbera is one of the well known Italian grapes primarily growing in Piedmont. Barbera d’Asti or Barbera del Monferrato would be a perfect accompaniment for a pizza, but the Barbera we are talking about today hails from … Lodi in California.

I never get tired of expressing my love and admiration of the Lodi wine region in California. Lodi is uniquely un-Napa in most everything – from the winemaker attitudes and low-key wineries to the focus on the Mediterranean grape varieties. Lodi is often considered to be a land of Zinfandel, but truth be told, Tempranillo, Syrah, Sangiovese, Cinsault, Carignan, Albarino, Grenache Blanc are really running the show there. And Barbera, let’s not forget Barbera.

Barbera wines are clearly outshined in Piedmont by the famous siblings, Barolo and Barbaresco, both produced out of Nebbiolo grape. I was unable to find the fresher set of data, but at the beginning of the 21st century, Barbera was the third most planted grape in Italy after Sangiovese and Montepulciano. Barbera grapes are naturally high in acidity, and it is acidity which often needs to be tamed when it comes to Barbera wines. Compared with the finicky Nebbiolo, Barbera does quite well in the new areas, so over the past 30 years, it spread through Australia, Argentina, California, Israel, Texas and other places where this grape was never known before.

Starting from 1860, the land where Oak Farm Vineyards is located was simply a farm in the Lodi region of California where the cattle were raised. In 2012, Dan Panella, third-generation California farmer, replanted 60 acres of the old vineyard on the property, and this was the beginning of the modern history of the Oak Farm Vineyards. There is a wide range of wines produced at the winery starting from California staples Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Zinfandel to the hardcore Italian range of Fiano, Barbera, Primitivo, and Sangiovese.

It is 2017 Oak Farm Vineyards Barbera Lodi California (15% ABV, $25, mostly Barbera with a small percentage of Petite Sirah for color and structure, 20 months in French, American, and Caucus (24% new) oak barrels) that we are talking about today. In a word, the wine was superb – dark garnet color, intense nose of cherries and tobacco, and mind-boggling concentration and interplay of flavor in every sip – cherries, tar, tobacco, roasted meat, perfect balancing acidity and 100% delicious wine. (Drinkability: 8). I would greatly drink this wine again at any time – with or without the food.

Oh, I guess I promised you some pizza. Yes, there was cheese and bacon/mushroom/onion pizzas. I have to say that prosecco was rather ambivalent to either, but Barbera worked quite well with the combination pizza.

There you have it, my friends. Italy meets California and vice versa, in many ways. But the important part is two delicious wines which you should find and experience for yourself. Cheers!

 

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