Top 10 best wines of 2018

My year-end wine review found me leafing through notes on the 4,000 or so wines I tasted in 2018 to select my “best of the best.”

This year, it was surprisingly tough to choose only 10 top experiences, writes Elin McCoy. The pages of my notebooks are studded with stars, especially for vintages of fine Bordeaux (including 2016s), California cabernets from wineries celebrating 40th and 50th anniversaries of their founding, and luxury Champagnes from the superb 2008 vintage.

The wines that made the biggest impression, though, were those that made me reflect on where the wine world has been and where it’s headed.

This year, my picks range from a Champagne-quality blanc de blancs sparkler from New Zealand to a cult syrah from Washington state to an unusual bargain from the remote island of Pantelleria, along with a grand, sweet wine that’s one of the world’s best values.

Overlooked grapes, undervalued classics, dry wines from sweet wine regions, and new sparkling wines will help shape what we drink in 2018.

2016 Marco de Bartoli Integer Zibibbo ($30)

On my first-ever visit to the remote Italian island of Pantelleria, I found my bargain of the year: this fragrant, powerful, dry white, with citrus and chamomile flavors. It’s made from native grape zibibbo, used only for the island’s famous sweet passito wine until Sicilian winemaker Marco de Bartoli saw its dry-style potential. His son Sebastiano ferments the grapes for this wine on the skins, like an orange wine. We sipped this vintage on the winery terrace overlooking vines planted in volcanic sand.

It’s one more example of how sweet wine regions (think Tokaji) are making dry wines from their grapes.

2007 Klein Constantia Vin de Constance ($95, 500ml)

This opulent, apricot-colored nectar from South Africa is one of the world’s great sweet wines, prized by Napoleon and Queen Victoria. I’d never tasted this superb vintage until it was served at a small dinner at Pomerol’s Château Clinet, alongside the great 2007 Château d’Yquem.

It stood up to the comparison. The Vin de Constance was as complex and rich but at one-fifth the price of Yquem—which doesn’t have to battle baboons to survive.

NV No. 1 Family Estate No. 1 Reserve ($96)

My surprise of the year was a brilliant sparkling wine discovered on a weeks-long tasting tour of New Zealand. I sampled it with winemaker Daniel Le Brun after he knocked off the neck of the bottle with a saber.

The crisp blanc de blancs has deep lemony fruit and toasty notes; like his fabulous, impossible-to-find luxury cuvées Virginie and Adele, it rivals Champagne quality. Le Brun, a Champagne native, pioneered the traditional sparkling-wine making method in Marlborough decades ago.

1990 Mount Eden Cabernet Sauvignon Old Vine Reserve ($150)

I attended half a dozen retrospectives of California cabernets this year, but the one that most stood out was at Mount Eden Vineyards, perched 2,000 feet up in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Luckily, my rental car had four-wheel drive for the two-mile ascent on a twisting dirt road. Longtime winemaker Jeffrey Patterson lined up vintages 1990 to 2000 of his estate cabernet sauvignon and Old Vine Reserve cabernet for me to compare.

The 1990 Old Vine Reserve was one of my several favorites, with cigar box and berry aromas and layers of deep, rich fruit—proof that Napa cabernets are not the only ones that age with dignity. It’s nearly impossible to find outside online auctions, so look for the 2011, 2012, or 2013 estate cabernet, for about $75 a bottle.

2014 Cayuse Syrah Cailloux Vineyard Walla Walla Valley ($270)

At Matter of Taste, a wine weekend put on in New York by Robert M. Parker’s The Wine Advocate, Washington state vigneron Christophe Baron presided over a rare seminar on his cult syrahs.

All had the spicy complexity of the best northern Rhône reds. I loved his best-known wine, Bionic Frog, but gave the edge to this structured yet succulent syrah from a single vineyard that showed a plush core of fruit overlaid with leathery notes.

Washington state wines should be more widely loved!

2015 Bonny Doon Vineyard Popelouchum Grenache (not yet priced)

This delicious grenache was an exciting taste of the future: an experimental first vintage from winemaker-pundit Randall Grahm’s new project on California’s Central Coast.

The ambitious idea behind his Popelouchum (Pop-loh-shoom) estate is to create an American grand cru—a unique, great wine that reflects American terroir.

He also wants to “outsmart” climate change, partly by using biochar (a charcoal product) to help soil retain water. With pure red-fruit and licorice flavors and the succulent texture of a Burgundy, it’s Grahm’s best wine yet.

It’s not available commercially, but the 2019 vintage will be.

1947 Château Smith Haut Lafitte Rouge (about $500)

Just before the official en primeur tasting week in Bordeaux, the owners of Château Smith Haut Lafitte, Florence and Daniel Cathiard, invited me to a vertical tasting of their red—eight vintages that end in the number seven, from a barrel sample of 2017 back to one from 1947.

Most were poor years—until the final one in the lineup: The year 1947 brought one of the few legendary vintages of the 20th century for Bordeaux. The 71-year old wine was still brimming with life, spice, leather, and fading cherry aromas, soft red fruit flavors, and a long, long finish.

Of the others, 1977 was the worst; it was green and not attractive.

The years 1957, 1967, and 1997 were slightly better; 2007 was light but pretty, while 1987 still had lovely savor and fruit. The 2017 was looking good, with a silky texture and attractive notes of fruit and cassis.

Why do  this? It’s a great way to show how the wines of the estate, even in poor years, have evolved.

1995 Louis Roederer Cristal Vinotheque ($1,300)

Last summer, I lunched with visionary winemaker Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon at Maison Louis Roederer’s elegant 19th century Hôtel Particulier in Reims, filled with contemporary art.

We sampled several grand vintages of Cristal Champagne, including the 1995 Cristal Vinotheque, a new, further-aged version first released last year. Only 400 bottles were made.

It’s wonderfully seductive, combining ultra-fine bubbles with a silk and velvet texture, aromas of truffles, and enormous complexity.

2015 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Romanée-Conti ($25,000)

For a Burgundy aficionado such as myself, Domaine de la Romanée-Conti’s annual pre-release tasting is special, a rare chance to compare the same vintage of all the domaine’s eight wines, each from a grand cru vineyard.

2015 was a perfect year, with the best growing conditions in 50 years—so said co-owner Aubert de Villaine, who’s not given to exaggeration.

This one, from the Domaine’s tiny Romanée-Conti vineyard, was vinous perfection, with amazing floral aromas and layers of opulent, savory fruit. Will it be as legendary as the 1945, which sold for $558,000 a bottle at auction this year? Maybe. We’ll have to wait a few decades to see if it stays fabulous as it ages.

1846 Old Sercial Madeira (5-gallon demijohn, at Christie’s auction, $39,500) 

I was one of few people to witness the recorking of a demijohn of this 19th century Madeira in a cold warehouse in New York’s Bronx borough and later to sample it at a pre-auction tasting at Christie’s.

Dry, tangy, rich, and salty, with piercing acidity, this was a taste from another time—172-years-old—with a violets-and-vanilla aroma that lingered, even in an empty glass.

Discovered hidden in New Jersey’s Liberty Hall Museum, the wine underscored the notion that Madeira is  immortal.

Read: These are the best wines in South Africa in 2018

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Top 10 best wines of 2018