The Top Wines of 2016, Tasted by Critic Elin McCoy
To come up with this list of my most memorable wines, I scrolled through the tasting notes of nearly 4,000 wines from around the globe that I sampled in 2016. The following highlights are those I marked with additional stars, which meant I was seriously impressed, seduced, or totally bowled over. The wines range from a great vintage of a Rhône classic to a savory white from emerging wine territory in the Azores to an uber-historic California cabernet.
All wowed me, but they also reflect what’s new and important in the world of wine—and what might happen next. The influence of hot new winemakers, the emergence of new regions and grapes, and the rediscovery of old classics will help shape what we drink in 2017.
2015 Azores Wine Company Arinto dos Açores Pico Branco ($50)
Finding a new spot that makes exciting reds and whites is one of wine’s great pleasures. My discovery of the year is a bright, pure white from a tiny, remote volcanic island in the Azores; it’s made by a young winemaker on a mission to reclaim Pico Island’s centuries-old, dry stone-walled vineyards. Arinto is a native white grape, and the wine’s aromas recall salty sea spray and cool lemons. It’s spicy, mineral, racy, and rich-textured.
2014 Cantina Maeli Dilà Metodo Classico Brut Nature ($50)
This dry, golden Italian sparkling wine made from yellow muscat (moscato giallo) grapes has the kind of heady floral aromas, lush peach and herb flavors, and sheer deliciousness I like to savor at a lazy brunch. I tried it at a seminar in the stone castle in Barolo during Il Collisioni, the town’s annual rock music, literature, and wine festival. This gentle bubbly comes from northeast Italy, not far from Venice, and will become available in the U.S. in February.
2014 Drew Morning Dew Ranch Pinot Noir ($60)
Mendocino is much in the shadow of neighboring Sonoma, but on a tasting tour, I found the most compelling California pinot noir I sampled this year. It’s from the “deep end” of cool Anderson Valley: a blend of two clones, one allegedly from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti’s La Tache vineyard. Intense and savory, with a taste of pomegranate and plums, it’s filled with tension and energy, the best vintage yet of this wine.
1969 Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon ($110 and up at auction)
Robert Mondavi winery celebrated its 50th anniversary this year by hosting a weekend of tastings in the Napa Valley. I grabbed the opportunity to savor Napa history. The most fascinating tasting featured 24 vintages of Mondavi's flagship Cabernet Reserve, whose grapes come from the famous To Kalon vineyard. The oldest wine I sampled was of the first vintage (1966), but my favorite was the super elegant 1969, still lively with scents of dried herbs and cherries, cocoa and plum flavors, and ultra-fine, soft texture.
2010 Domaine François Raveneau Chablis Montée de Tonnerre ($200 to $250)
I paid my first-ever visit to this celebrated domaine in 2016. The wines, almost all premiers and grands crus, are famous for their layers of steely complexity, depth, and longevity. After sampling the superb 2014 and 2015 vintages from barrels in the revamped small cellar, I had lunch at a local bistro with Isabelle Raveneau, granddaughter of the founder. She brought along this deep, vibrant, mineral-ly premier cru for us to drink. Frankly, I don’t remember what we ate.
1985 Paul Jaboulet Ainé Hermitage La Chapelle ($225 to $400)
This intense, luscious red, from one of the greatest estates in the Rhône Valley, has always been a favorite. So I was keen to compare a dozen vintages in the office of Jaboulet’s New York importer with winemaker (and owner) Caroline Frey. So many vintages showed the wine’s typical suave texture, seductive power, and rich complex leather and dried berry flavors that it was hard to pick. But this magnificent 1985 was perfect right now, and it showed what aging can do to a great syrah.
1966 Chateau Leoville-Las Cases ($200 to $450)
During a long boisterous evening of multilingual conversation and a half-dozen other grand bottles at a château dinner in Bordeaux, the classic second-growth red from St. Julien stood out, even at 50 years of age. I reveled in its delicious tobacco and cedar aromas, its still vibrant core of currant-y ripe fruit and silky texture. This may have been one of the best bottles around; it had been resting in the château’s cellars for years and offered a lesson in how much storage counts.
1983 Casa Ferreirinha Barca-Velha ($600)
The first new-era Douro Valley dry table wine, this iconic Portuguese red debuted in 1952; a mere 18 vintages have been made, and few reached the U.S. Having pined to taste this for years, no way I'd miss a dinner in New York that featured several vintages, from 1965 to a just-released, still too-young 2008. Made from the same grape varieties as vintage port—touriga nacional, touriga franca, tinta roriz, and tinta cão—the 1983 Barca Velha is deep and plush, with flavors of iron, earth, chestnuts, and rich, exotic fruit, and it's a reminder of how many great wines still lurk under the radar.
1937 Quinta do Noval Colheita ($660)
Ready-to-drink tawny ports have been making a comeback. Unlike a vintage port, tawnies mellow for decades in oak casks before being bottled; they are usually released in 10-, 20-, 30- and 40-year old blends. Can the rare colheita version—a tawny port that comes solely from a single vintage—do the same? To celebrate the 300th anniversary of famous port house Quinta do Noval, Managing Director Christian Seely uncorked some recent and older examples of its colheitas. This vintage wowed me with its aromas of dried figs, nuts, and sandalwood, along with layers of rich, intense, spicy flavors. It seemed ideal for sipping while discussing timeless topics and musing on the state of the world 80 years ago. (The more available 2000 vintage, at $100, is a steal.)
2014 Domaine Leflaive Chevalier-Montrachet ($800)
Anne-Claude Leflaive, one of Burgundy’s most highly regarded biodynamic winemakers, died last year. I thought of her as I swallowed every drop of this spectacular wine from her last vintage at a dinner at Eleven Madison Park in New York. Silky and seamless, with complex lemon and earth flavors and aromas of white flowers, grilled almonds, and ginger, the grand cru Chevalier Montrachet was the standout at the debut of seven premiers and grand crus wines from 2014. Despite the prices, great white Burgundy remains irresistibly seductive.