Karen MacNeil’s Top 10 Wines of the Year

Veteran wine writer Karen MacNeil shares insights with subscribers in her weekly newsletter, WineSpeed. Read excerpts from this week’s edition below.


(Willamette Valley, Oregon) $85 (750ml)

Big Table Farm’s Chardonnay is my pick for Wine of the Year—not only because it is an amazing wine (which it is). But also because, in a sea of utterly ordinary chardonnay, it reminds us just how inspiring artisanal chardonnay can be. Here’s my review from a previous edition.

To say that this chardonnay is closer to great white Burgundy that any other American wine I have ever tasted is true; but it may not give the wine enough credit, for Elusive Queen is an otherworldly ascent into complexity and hedonism. The wine, rich and languorous, seems held together by shimmers of energy. The golden flavors, laced with minerals, are impeccable and intriguing. This is not a typical chardonnay; this is exquisite and daring music.

98 points KM

Available at Big Table Farm


(Howell Mountain, Napa Valley, California) $85 (750ml)

Atomic density is the middle name of wines from Howell Mountain, and this La Jota Merlot is no exception. It thunders out of the glass with vividness, intensity and astonishing precision. What is most remarkable, however, is that the wine also possesses a sense of beauty and ease. For a merlot born in fierce volcanic mountain rock, it is surprisingly robed by soft finesse.


(Pantelleria, Italy) $40 (375ml)

A masterpiece of beauty, Ben Ryé (the name means “son of the wind”) is one of the most exquisite, artisanal and rare wines in the world—a wine that isn’t so much sweet as it is rich (and devastatingly delicious with hard cheese). It’s made from zibibbo grapes on the windswept volcanic island of Pantelleria off the coast of Tunisia. Half of the grapes are laid out by hand on mats to dry in the sun for several weeks. The resulting wine—langorous and almost neon orange—must be tasted to be believed.


(Napa Valley, California) $175 (750ml)

The 2013 vintage of Kongsgaard’s “The Judge” may well be the only chardonnay in Napa Valley with a waiting list as long as the ones for the cabernet sauvignons from superstars Harlan and Colgin. A mere 330 cases are made (hence the price). The Judge is unlike any California chardonnay I have ever experienced. The flavor equivalent of a tightly woven golden-colored tapestry, it is a wine of unbelievable textural sumptuousness with long lines of intensity punctuated by pinpoints of what can only be described as energy.


(Napa Valley, California) $200 (750ml)

A thought in honor of Valentine’s Day: like wine, love might just get better with time. As for this Dominus, there was no question. In fact, it was one of the most sensational cabernets I’ve tasted in many years. At 30 years old, it was nothing short of ballet-like, moving over the palate in magical choreography. The flavors—echoes of spices, pipe tobacco and deep forest undergrowth—were straight out of the Bordeaux playbook. Indeed, this early Dominus was made by Jean-Claude Berrouet, former winemaker for Chateau Petrus. Inimitable.


(Jerez-Xérès-Sherry, Spain) $50 (375ml)

On International Sherry Week, I couldn’t resist telling you about Apóstoles, one of the most wildly seductive Sherries in existence. It comes from a solera set up in 1862, and only very small amounts are bottled (in half bottles) every year. The color of burnt oranges with a neon green tinge at the edge, Apóstoles tastes of dark roasted nuts, tangerine rind, brown butter, sea salt, crème brûlée and caramel. The flavors are so vivid and concentrated, they have an almost gravitational pull on the taster. The texture is pure satin. Sherries such as Apóstles are primordial in their appeal, and no wine lover should miss them. Drink this slightly chilled as an aperitif on a cold night.


(Rioja, Spain) $50 (750ml)

Muga (which I’ve drunk for 25 years) is one of the top producers of traditionally styled Rioja. These are wines evocative of rich coffee, old leather-bound books, unlit cigars, cool dirt, spicy incense and a subtle sweet vanilla-cherry character that is mind-blowingly delicious. Primarily a blend of tempranillo and garnacha, Prado Enea is an utterly silky Gran Reserva that spends four years in barrels of different sizes, before being aged by the bodega for another three years in bottle. It tastes like it costs twice as much as it does, and is a wine that invites surrender.


(Châteauneuf-Du-Pape, Rhône Valley, France) $55 (750ml)

Great Châteauneuf-du-Pape has a lusciousness and beauty that is show stopping. And Les Cailloux (“The Round Rocks”) from the Brunel family is one of the best. Penetrating and intense, it rides on rich waves of ripe dark fruits, violets and white peppery spice. There’s a wildness and energy to this wine, as if something untamed was suddenly unleashed. But there’s also exquisite finesse. Wines of this distinctiveness, at this price, should not be missed.

AO YUN | 2013

(Shangri-La, China) $280 (750ml)

Just now released, this is the first vintage of Ao Yun, the Chinese cabernet sauvignon from Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton. Made from vineyards at 8,000 feet on the edge of Tibet in the Himalayas, the story of the creation of Ao Yun is straight out of Indiana Jones (among other things, the wine was made without the benefit of electricity or running water). The intensely earthy, chocolatey wine is black and deep—not just in color—but in character. Drinking it makes you feel like you’ve been pulled down into the dark body of the earth itself. Despite the wine’s power, structure and full body, it also has a freshness and sense of aliveness. A new chapter in the book of cabernet has just been written. Extremely limited production.


(South Downs, United Kingdom) $60 (750ml)

Britain’s sparkling wine vineyards sit in the same limestone soils, in the same geological strata, from the same era, as do the vineyards of Champagne. It’s no surprise, then, that the best UK sparklers are immaculate wines of finesse and precision. The utterly delicious Wiston Estate 2010 Blanc de Blancs has a wonderful “starched” crispness, and aromas reminiscent of seashells and lemon meringue. It’s delicate and pure. It feels like one is drinking snowflakes.

“The pop of the cork should sound like a gunshot with a silencer.”

—Clovis Taittinger, Taittinger Champagne


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