Top Wines of 2012 are “Relentless”





Shafer “Relentless” Napa Valley 2008


Clos des Papes Chateaunef-du-Pape 2009

It began in late November, as it does each year. Wine Spectator magazine unveiled wines #10-6, then #5-1 and finally their entire 2012 top 100 list of “the year’s most exciting wines”, an apt description.  If previously rated quality was the only factor, we would be surrounded by the Clos des Papes Chateaunef-du-Pape 2010 (98pt/$128) and Spottswoode Cabernet Sauvignon St. Helena Family Estate 2009 (96pt/$145), both very fine, but expensive, or the highly touted wines that are nearly impossible to find.  Besides, we can’t overlook price, uniqueness or our personal preference for a specific varietal.  Kudos to Wine Spectator for annually undertaking this arduous task and giving us a global snapshot of the releases in 2012. One can purchase a copy of their latest issue for the complete details or read the following synopsis from someone who enjoys analyzing national, regional and varietal trends.

Without question, my major takeaway from the list is that 2012 is the “Year of Syrah.”  To prove, or at least defend my moniker, nine (36%) of the top 25 wines included syrah as a single-varietal or in a blend.  To be fair, France’s Southern Rhone Valley, using syrah in their mélanges, had a good year.  However, included in that same top 25 were single-varietal syrah from Paso Robles, Edna Valley and the magazine’s “2012 Wine Of The Year”, Napa Valley’s Shafer “Relentless” Napa Valley 2008 (96pt/$60), a blend of mostly syrah with 18% petite sirah.  Finding the #1 wine in the Napa Valley is fairly common, the fact that it was syrah, not cabernet sauvignon, is a headline.  The real story here is the meticulous winemaker Elias Fernandez.

Born to an immigrant father and locally raised mother, both farm laborers, Elias Fernandez grew up in the Napa Valley vineyards before leaving to pursue a Fullbright music scholarship at the University of Nevada, Reno.  Missing his roots, he eventually transferred to the UC Davis, earning a degree in winemaking studies. Since graduation, he as worked closely with the Shafer family as an assistant before becoming the winemaker in 1994.  He pushed for the expansion of syrah vineyards and was relentlessly hands-on in every aspect of the wine of the year.

Shafer winemaker Elias Fernandez

Shafer winemaker Elias Fernandez

ET COSME GIGONDAS 750 ML 09, page 1 @ Preflight

Chateau de St.-Cosme Gigondas 2010

While we again see the Chateaunef-du-Pape region displayed throughout, the #4 Clos des Papes Chateaunef-du-Pape (98pt/$128), a former wine of the year and recurring top ten designee, stepped aside as the neighboring Gigondas appellation produced the #2 Chateau de St. Cosme Gigondas 2010 (95pt/$41) assuming stature as the top French wine. Certainly, at less than one-third the cost of its famous neighbor, this Grenache-based Rhone Valley blend was attractive to the judges.  Demonstrating the global strength of syrah, the #3 Two Hands Shiraz Barossa Valley Belle’s Garden 2010 (95pt/$69), one of the best 21st Century wines, comes from the acclaimed Australian winemaker that performs miracles with the varietal.

The Reverence of Napa Valley



Beringer Cabernet Sauvignon Knights Valley Reserve 2009

In a year of surprises, the Napa Valley maintained its supremacy with the Wine of the Year, two Cabernet Sauvignon, two merlot and a Carneros chardonnay, all from established vineyards.  The #8 Beringer Cabernet Sauvignon Knights Valley Reserve 2009 (94pt/$45) puts the time-honored winemaker back on the list after a long absence. Aged for 15 months in mostly new French oak, several periodicals have generated flattering reports of the wine’s texture and flavors.  St. Helena’s Spottswoode Winery, long-time producer of fine quality Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc, earned a spot on the list with the #80 Spottswoode Cabernet Sauvignon St. Helena Family Estate 2009 (96pt/$145).  I am very familiar with this “liquid velvet” wine that has moved into icon status within the high-end market.

The #63 Neyers Chardonnay Carneros 2010 (93pt/$29), a reliably good wine, was the sole chardonnay from the Napa Valley

Neyers Chardonnay Carneros 2010

Neyers Chardonnay Carneros 2010

and only one of two on the list.

Celebrate the French

 Without fail, great wines are produced, vintage-to-vintage, in France.  Twenty-two wines on the list were French and, more impressively, three of the top five and six of the top 20.  Aside from the aforementioned classic wines from Bordeaux and the Rhone Valley, the list included very reasonably priced wines such as the #39 Domaines Schlumberger Pinot Gris Alsace Les Princes Abbes 2010 (92pt/$20), with forward flavors pleasingly influenced by local volcanic soil.

Domaines Schlumberger Pinot Gris Alsace Les Princes Abbes 2010

Domaines Schlumberger Pinot Gris Alsace Les Princes Abbes 2010


Presence of the Central Coast

 With the typical Northern California powerhouse regions in mind, the fact that half of the California wines on the 2012 list originated from vineyards located between northern Santa Barbara County and the Santa Cruz Mountains illustrates a shift that sees new terrior matching the standards of the old.  On a more local shift, nearly all of the five Paso Robles releases on the list included syrah, a change from the typical Rhone’s and Zinfandel.  The exception #72 Turley Zinfandel Paso Robles Presenti Vineyard 2010 (93pt/$35) marks a successful turn since the Turley Family purchased the old Presenti Family Vineyards years ago.

One of the highest rated wines on the roll is the #21 Saxum James Berry Vineyard Paso Robles 2009 (97/$85), making successive appearances since being named 2010 Wine of the Year. Yielding less than 1,000 cases, this acclaimed wine is rarely available.  While wines like the #19 Booker Syrah Paso

Booker Syrah Paso Robles "Fracture" 2010

Booker Syrah Paso Robles “Fracture” 2010

Robles “Fracture” 2010 (96pt/$70) and the #76 Austin Hope Syrah Paso Robles Hope Family Vineyard 2010 (93pt/$42) have emerged onto the scene, I was delighted to see the #40 Eberle Syrah Paso Robles Steinbeck Vineyard 2010 (93pt/$24), from a well-respected, long-term eastside winemaker, gain recognition.  All of his wines are worthy of your palate and the cave tour is excellent.

Good value Pinot Noir, at times an oxymoron, truly personifies three Central Coast wines that represent much of the region.  Sourced from vineyards in San Luis Obispo to Gilroy, the grapes that encompass the #28 Calera Pinot Noir Central Coast Thirty-Fifth Anniversary Vintage 2010 (93pt/$24) are fermented and aged separately, then blended to age harmoniously in the bottle for nearly a year.

Located at the intersection of its namesake, the Clark and Telephone (Rd.) Vineyard is a coastal property in north Santa Barbara County, owned by Belle Glos Winery, that produces the sweet spice-driven #77 Belle Glos Pinot Noir Santa Maria Valley Clark and Telephone Vineyard 2010 (93pt/$44).  Located one hour north in Monterey County’s Santa Lucia Highlands, Morgan Winery

Morgan Pinot Noir Santa Lucia Highlands Twelve Clones 2010

Morgan Pinot Noir Santa Lucia Highlands Twelve Clones 2010

sourced grapes from notable vineyards, Garys’, Tondre Grapefield and their own Double L for the #83 Morgan Pinot Noir Santa Lucia Highlands Twelve Clones 2010 (92pt/$32).


Two classic wines and consistent delegate’s to the list represent the Santa Cruz Mountains region, above Monterey. The #26 Mount Eden Vineyards Chardonnay Santa Cruz Mountains 2009 (94pt/$55) belongs in any discussion of California’s best and the historic #94 Ridge Monte Bello Santa Cruz Mountains 2009 (95pt/$150) whose early vintage was the top wine of the 2006 Reprise Paris Tasting.



Evolution of the Pacific Northwest

Nine percent of this year’s most exciting wines were produced north of California with Oregon honing their classic red grape and Washington expressing their diversity.

Oregon placed three pinot noir wines on the list, each from a different region and two wines, the #7 Shea Pinot Noir Willamette Valley Shea Vineyard

Shea Pinot Noir Willamette Valley Shea Vineyard Estate 2009

Shea Pinot Noir Willamette Valley Shea Vineyard Estate 2009

Estate 2009 (94pt/$40) and the #14 Maysara Pinot Noir McMinnville Estate Cuvee 2009 (94pt/$32), were included in the top twenty. Both wines are reasonably priced and representative of a tremendous vintage statewide.  Argyle, another top pinot noir producer, once again contributed the #18 Argyle Extended Triage Willamette Valley 2002 (96pt/$70), always aged and, arguably, our country’s best sparkling wine.

Argyle Extended Triage Willamette Valley 2002

Argyle Extended Triage Willamette Valley 2002

Washington State contributed four different varietals, a cabernet sauvignon, merlot and rose’ from the Columbia Valley and the acclaimed #22 Cayuse Syrah Walla Walla Valley Cailloux Vineyard 2009 (96pt/$75) from their neighbor to the east.

Amidst these great wines that reflect trends of the 2012 releases is the #51 Bodega Norton Malbec-Mendoza Reserva 2010 (90pt/$18), vintages consistently available at local outlets for under $20.  I enjoy this wine occasionally, receiving a bottle as a gift at least once a year.  Here’s to a fantastic 2013.



About Lyle W. Norton

Lyle is a freelance writer who specializes in “lifestyle” issues like wine, food, travel, music, film and memoir. He currently writes “On The Vine,” a weekly wine column for the San Francisco Examiner. View all posts by Lyle W. Norton

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