Wine Spectator’s 100 Top Wines of 2015: An Overview


On the surface, Wine Spectator magazine’s annual list of exciting wines seems to be another coronation of the fabulous Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and the luscious 2010 releases from the Brunello Di Montalcino region of Tuscany.  However, just below the surface is a story of tremendous diversity, both with varietals and regions in

fog descends on vineyard at Peter Michael Winery

fog descends on vineyard at Peter Michael Winery

California and throughout the world.

The 18 California wines on the list represents 10 different varietals and 10 regions.  Europe’s great appellations in Italy, France and Spain are all still dominant, but world demand is creating opportunities to successfully explore new terroir.  The French wine region  listed most often is “other,” more than Bordeaux, Burgundy, Rhone or Champagne.  This year’s list is an eclectic blend of tradition and the swell of wines from the New World, but let us begin with the time-honored California Cabernet Sauvignon.

2015 WS Wine of the Year

2015 WS Wine of the Year

All of the five California “Cab” on the 2015 list are well-known, pedigree wines, two of which have made it before and for the fifth time in its history, a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, the Peter Michael Cabernet Sauvignon Oakville Au Paradis 2012 (96pt/$195) is the magazine’s “Wine Of The Year.”

Over the years, Peter Michael has developed a

Sir Peter Michael

Sir Peter Michael

reputation for producing marvelous chardonnay and a top-notch red Bordeaux blend, “Les Pavots” from the Knights Valley region, due north of the Napa Valley.  The “Au Paradis” originates from an Oakville district vineyard in the Napa Valley that Michael purchased a few years ago, perfectly positioned to absorb the valley heat and the cooling breezes from San Pablo Bay, the quintessential terroir for a “classically structured Napa Cabernet.”

The Napa Valley was also aptly represented by the #57 Altamura Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2012 (95pt/$90) and the #65 Chappellet Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Signature 2012 (93pt/%56), one of the best values on the list whose 2006 vintage made the top ten in 2009.  Although their estate vineyards are in different parts of the valley, both are diverse in ripe characteristics, paired with perfect stock.

The northerly Alexander Valley appellation bestowed the #59 Rodney Strong Cabernet Sauvignon Alexander Valley Rockaway Single Vineyard 2012 (94pt/$75) and #(78 Chateau St. Jean Cabernet Sauvignon Alexander Valley 2012 91pt/$30), each from long-standing Sonoma County producers who are also celebrating the 2012 vintage of California cabernet sauvignon.

The three California chardonnay varietals on the 2015 list, each from separate regions,

Mount Eden Vineyards Chardonnay Santa Cruz Mountains 2012

Mount Eden Vineyards Chardonnay Santa Cruz Mountains 2012

clearly exemplify its diversity and long-standing presence statewide.  The routinely present #5 Mount Eden Vineyards Chardonnay Santa Cruz Mountains 2012 (95pt/$60) is arguably our best, vintage to vintage, and indicative of what a California chardonnay can be. This vintage is barrel fermented sur lie in French oak for 10 months with 100% malolactic fermentation, bringing back fond memories of past vintages.

The consistently good, very accessible #35 Rombauer Chardonnay Carneros 2013 (92pt/#36) comes primarily from the Sangiacomo Vineyard that supplies grapes for many creators of fine chardonnay.  Their traditional creamy, fruity style, again, comes from French oak, malolactic fermentation and periodic stirring of the lees. The diverse value-priced #48 Calera Chardonnay Central Coast 2013 (90pt/$20) blends vineyards from Monterey to Santa Barbara counties.

Other noted California varietals in include the #12 Limerick Lane Zinfandel Russian River Valley 2012 (94pt/$32), dry-farmed from century-old vines and winemaker Randy Mason’s #40 Pomelo Sauvignon Blanc California 2014 (90pt/$12), a white wine composed of grapes sourced exclusively from Lake County vineyards, an area recently ravaged by fire.

The petite sirah grape was also highlighted among 2015 releases beginning with the soft #17 Turley Petite Sirah Howell Mountain Rattlesnake Ridge 2013 (95pt/$44) from Napa Valley and Amador’s #42 Keplinger SUMO Amador County 2013 (95pt/$70) described as “a Cote Rotie twist on Petite Sirah,” blending petite sirah (76%), syrah (20%) and viognier (4%) to create a “massive, plush wine.”

Orin Swift "Machete" California Red Wine 2013

Orin Swift “Machete” California Red Wine 2013

Having enjoyed past wines from Napa Valley’s Orin Swift Winery, I was pleased to see the #97 Orin Swift “Machete” California Red Wine 2013 (93pt/$48) on the list, another earthy blend of petite sirah, syrah and grenache boasting floral notes with concentrated berry flavors and manageable tannins.

Italy contributed 20% of the wines on the list, mostly from Tuscany, more specifically, 2010 vintages from the Brunello di Montalcino region, landing three spots within the top 20 wines.

Having had an opportunity to taste the #4 Il Poggione Brunello di Montalcino 2010 (95pt/$85) at a sponsored tasting event in early 2015, I am aware that this

Il Poggione Brunello di Montalcino 2010

Il Poggione Brunello di Montalcino 2010

superb wine represents five generations of family ownership and over 300 acres of estate vineyards.  Following a time-honored process involving lengthy maceration on the skins and extensive aging, their history shows consistent brilliance. The #13 La Serena Brunello di Montalcino 2010 (96pt/$60) and the legendary #18 Altesino Brunello di Montalcino 2010 (98pt/$125) continue to highlight an excellent 2010 vintage for the region.

At the same 2015 event, I also tasted the outstandingly balanced #8 Amarone della Valpolicella Classico Serego Alighieri Vaio Amaron 2008 (95pt/$85), from another family producer in the Veneto region of northern Italy that uses a traditional “appassimento” process of drying the grapes for 90 days before pressing, then committing to five years in the barrel, usually resulting in a memorable wine.

Throughout its tremendous growth, Washington State has proven to have the diverse

Quilceda Creek Cabernet Sauvignon Columbia Valley 2012

Quilceda Creek Cabernet Sauvignon Columbia Valley 2012

terroir to support many varietals.  That being said, the 2015 star is the #2 Quilceda Creek Cabernet Sauvignon Columbia Valley 2012 (96pt/$140), celebrating their third top ten designation since 2006 with the annual reviews of a collector’s classic.

Placing in the top ten in 2011, the Bordeaux-style blend, #28 BAER Ursa Columbia Valley 2012 (94pt/$39) combines 40% each of merlot and cabernet franc with small amounts of cabernet sauvignon and malbec.  Experts speak of herbal aromas, layered chocolate and cherry flavors in a wine that will soon be in short supply.  The moderately priced #34 Tenet Syrah Columbia Valley “The Pundit” 2013 (92pt/$25) is yet another in a growing line of good syrah from the region.

Washington’s Walla Walla area has grown exponentially over the past decade and is the source of two wines on the 20125 list, the #22 Gramercy Syrah Walla Walla

K "The Creator" Walla Walla Valley 2102

K “The Creator” Walla Walla Valley 2102

Valley “The Deuce” 2012 (95pt/$52) and #31 K “The Creator” Walla Walla Valley 2012 (94pt/$55), a blend of cabernet sauvignon and syrah, co-fermented in stainless steel tanks.

With all the industry “buzz” regarding the vintage 2012 Oregon pinot noir, it is no surprise that the Willamette Valley provided five wines including the most talked about of all, the #3 Evening Land Pinot Noir Enola-Amity Hills Seven Springs Vineyard La Source 2012 (98pt/$70), Oregon’s highest

Evening Land Pinot Noir Enola-Amity Hills Seven Springs Vineyard La Source 2012

Evening Land Pinot Noir Enola-Amity Hills Seven Springs Vineyard La Source 2012

rated.  Having tasted past first-rate vintages of Evening Land pinot’s, obtaining a bottle of this wine, from a unique geological site within the mid-Valley Seven Springs Vineyard, remains clearly in my sites.

From the Yamhill-Carlton appellation, the #38 Solena Pinot Noir Willamette Valley Grand Cuvee’ 2012 (92pt/$25) and  the #11 Big Table Farm Pinot Noir Willamette Valley 2012 (95pt/$40) are highly rated wines at very reasonable prices, the latter noted for complex, concentrated fruit and spice flavors.

From the Valley’s Ribbon Ridge appellation and possibly my favorite Oregon point noir producer, the #14 Bergstrom Pinot Noir Ribbon Ridge Le Pre’ Du Col

Willamette Valley vineyard

Willamette Valley vineyard

Vineyard 2013 (95pt/$60) is one of many single-vineyard pinot’s, all with exceptional structure and balance.  The Bergstrom tasting room experience, which includes chardonnay as well, is something not to be missed if you are in the area.  From the neighboring Chehalem Mountains appellation, the #45 Colene Clemens Pinot Noir Chehalem Mountains Margo 2012 (93pt/$36), is a fairly new player that deserves attention.

Aside from France’s acclaimed #9 Clos Fourtet St. Emilion 2012 (94pt/$72) from Bordeaux, I was intrigued with two wines from the Bandol region, having spent a week

Domaine Gros Nore Bandol 2012

Domaine Gros Nore Bandol 2012

in Cassis a few years ago.  One of the top scoring wines from the region, the #94 Domaine Gros Nore Bandol 2012 (93pt/$39) is an engaging blend of mourvedre, cinsault and grenache that sells for a reasonable price.

Provence has secured itself as, arguably, the best new producers of rose’ wines and in 2015, the Domaine Tempier Bandol Rose 2014 (92pt./$40), a mourvedre, grenache, cinsault and carignane blend, aged in concrete vats, could be the best of the best.


The ten Spanish wines on the list originated from a variety of regions including Ribera Del Duero that contributed the #6 Bodegas Aalto Ribera Del Duero 2012

Bodegas Aalto Ribera Del Duero 2012

Bodegas Aalto Ribera Del Duero 2012

(94pt/$54) made from 100% “tinto fino” or tempranillo grape.  Following the CUNE Rioja Imperial Grand Reserva 2004 (95pt/$63) as 2013s Wine of the Year, the tempranillo-dominant blend #56 CUNE Rioja Imperial Reserva 2010 (93pt/$44), produced near the town of Haro, lends proof of their reputation for consistent, fine wines.

The growing quality and popularity of New Zealand wines is revealed on the 2015 list through a sauvignon blanc from Marlborough, a chardonnay from Auckland and two

Escarpment Pinot Noir Martinborough Kupe Single Vineyard 2013

Escarpment Pinot Noir Martinborough Kupe Single Vineyard 2013

pinot noir from different regions including the 70% whole-clustered #7 Escarpment Pinot Noir Martinborough Kupe Single Vineyard 2013 (95pt/$69, originating from the southern tip of the northern island.  Another fine white, the complex  #21 Cloudy Day Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough 2014 (93pt/$28) is generally available in most wine outlets.

Each year, the list clearly illustrates the expanding global reach of the wine industry.  Today, our favorite wines have an equal chance of originating from Australia, South America or South Africa than California, France or Italy.  I applaud Wine Spectator’s effort in reviewing thousands of wines and continuing to open doors to discovering new, dynamic appellations, varietals and blends that encourage more exploration of the 2016 releases and beyond.

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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