Cabernets, Pinots and beyond.
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When it comes to red wine, there are a variety of classic grapes to choose from, including Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir. However, the style of each classic varies greatly from maker to maker. Take Pinot Noir, for instance—a hard grape to cultivate because of its delicate skin and difficulty ripening in areas that lack sufficient sunshine. The style of Pinot from California is typically ripe, powerful and fruit-forward. The same grape grown in the various Burgundy villages of France returns a much different style, wavering in degrees of ripeness, with some more fruit-forward than others, but also remarkably earthy and imbued with ample acidity and firm, taut tannins.
Taking all of the red wine grape varieties into consideration, here are some of the best red wines from around the globe. So, get that corkscrew ready.
Best Overall: Louis Latour Chateau Corton Grancey
One of the top names in all of Burgundy is Louis Latour, and one of the most unique wines they produce is this Chateau Corton Grancey—a blend of four Grand Cru vineyards (Bressandes, Perrières, Grèves and Clos du Roi).
Delivering profound notes of black and red currants, blackberry fruit, blood orange citrus, and dried raspberries underscored by baking spices and dried red florals, this Pinot Noir is also a textural masterpiece with mouthwatering acidity and grippy cedar-like tannins.
Best California Red: Charles Krug Cabernet Sauvignon 2017
Today, thanks to co-owner Peter Mondavi Jr.'s leadership, Charles Krug winery is a pillar of Napa Valley. With longtime winemaker Stacy Clark at the helm, the wines are utterly delightful, classically structured and decidedly age-worthy.
Sourced from five estate sites in Yountville, this 2017 has an incredibly modest price and impeccable pedigree. Wonderfully rich blackberry fruits mingle with brown spices, tobacco and vanilla bean. The Cabernet Sauvignon is full-bodied with black cherry, blackberry compote and black currants—all supported by lovely fine-grained tannins.
Best Organic: Larkmead Cabernet Sauvignon 2016
This winery, under the watch of winemaker Dan Petroski, doesn't just focus on making world-class wine. Petroski helps shed light on the necessary work for studying climate change, and in 2015, Larkmead converted to organic farming practices.
Cabernet collectors should stockpile wines from the 2016 vintage, which are high in naturally vibrant acidity due to a moderate growing season. Hallmark signifiers are deep, dark fruit and a distinct freshness, all of which the 2016 Larkmead has in spades. Adding to that are incredibly alluring brown spices, fresh-turned earth, and tobacco wrapped in dark chocolate, with mouthwatering purple violet notes and firm, dusty tannins. This is a wine to contemplate over many hours and ideally, over the next decade with a bottle or two every year.
Most Age-Worthy California Pinot: Frank Family Vineyards 2018
Proprietor Rich Frank, a former Disney executive, bought his eponymous winery in 1992 and released his first wine a year later. This 2018 release is a full-bodied Pinot Noir with lively red fruits, deep concentration, firm acidity and sturdy tannins, which will help it develop over a few decades in a cool, dark cellar.
Good to Know:
In May 2018, a vertical tasting with Todd Graff, the winemaker at Frank Family, confirmed that its Pinot Noirs stand the test of time. The oldest presented was a 1999 Pinot, which was alive, fresh and complex.
Best Super Tuscan: Ornellaia Bolgheri Superiore 2016
Most Super Tuscan wines are blends of Bordeaux varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot often blended with Sangiovese. One notable example is the 2016 Ornellaia Bolgheri Superiore, a blend of 51 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 27 percent Merlot, 18 percent Cabernet Franc and 4 percent Petit Verdot (with no Sangiovese).
From one of the best vintages for Bolgheri producers, it's deep, dense, powerful and tightly-wound. While the wine needs time to unwind, it displays a careful balance between power and finesse, revealing a wide fruit spectrum, along with a plethora of sweet and savory spices, while the structure is framed by firm tannins and a long finish.
Best New Zealand Red: Felton Road Calvert Pinot Noir 2018
With its cool, wine-growing regions, New Zealand is home to some of the world's best Pinot Noirs. Absolutely breathtaking, deep, dark-fruited, fresh and lively wines are being made in places like Central Otago. And in the heart of this region lies Felton Road, maker of some complex Pinots.
Their Calvert Vineyard rendition takes its charm from the “Bannockburn” soils, which is essentially lake-bed silty loam, gravel and schist. These soils do hold a bit of water and at lower elevations, helping grapes ripen evenly and fully. Coupled with biodynamic farming, the result is a deeply creamy wine with fleshy red berry flavors, dried cherries, subtly dusty tannins and a mocha-tinged finish, all supported by juicy and racy acidity.
Best Australian Red: Penfolds Bin 389 Cabernet-Shiraz 2017
Penfolds, unquestionably the greatest winemaking estate in Australia, is best known for its iconic wine, Penfolds Grange. Chief winemaker Peter Gago made it his mission to produce well-structured wines with deep flavors and as he puts it, “a propensity to age.”
While Grange is primarily Shiraz, with a splash of Cabernet Sauvignon sourced from specific sites in South Australia, Penfolds' Bin 389 combines 54 percent Cabernet Sauvignon with 46 percent Shiraz and is often referred to as “Baby Grange.” Plus, this wine comes at a more approachable price tag than the Grange.
Best Argentinian Red: Achaval-Ferrer Quimera 2014
Achaval-Ferrer's Quimera blend is a wine of remarkable precision—co-founder Santiago Achaval, one of the most respected winemakers in Argentina, and winemaker Roberto Cipresso comb the vineyards, tasting grapes and hand-selecting vines specifically for this blend. In 2014, they conceived a dynamic and complex blend of 50 percent Malbec, 24 percent Cabernet Franc, 18 percent Merlot and 8 percent Cabernet Sauvignon.
Loaded with blackberry fruits and marvelous spices, this wine is intensely concentrated with layers of black cherry compote, salted dark chocolate and cedar spices weaving in and out of vanilla and clove. There’s a palate-coating richness that builds to a serious 60-second finish with rose petal and dried herb flourishes.
Best Spanish Red: Vega Sicilia Unico 2009
If Spain classified its wineries as they do in Bordeaux, with “First Growths” dominating the pyramid of wineries ranked from first to fifth, Vega Sicilia would be at the top. This winery is owned by the Chaves family and is located in Ribera del Duero.
A decade in the making, this 2009 vintage is a blend of 94 percent Tempranillo with 6 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, aged six years in oak prior to bottling, remaining another four years in the bottle before being released. Beautiful ripe flavors fill the mouth, redolent of red cherries and spiced plums, while the palate reveals a fresh yet elegant wine wavering between deep forest underbrush, cigar box and muddled blueberries. A special (and expensive) wine, this should really be enjoyed on a special occasion.
Best Value Bordeaux: Barons de Rothschild Legende Bordeaux Rouge 2016
Perhaps the greatest new Bordeaux release in decades, Légende wines come from the exceptional Bordeaux house of Domaines Barons de Rothschild (owners of First Growth Lafite). True value-driven wines, they represent the expression of Bordeaux’s notable appellations, from the Médoc and Saint-Émilion to Pauillac. This Bordeaux Rouge is packed with red berry fruit, warm wild berry compote, vanilla, earth and sweet oak spices. Best of all, this wine falls just under $20.
Runner-Up, Best Value Bordeaux: Château Ormes de Pez 2017 Saint-Estèphe
Situated in Saint-Estèphe, Château Ormes de Pez is perhaps one of the finest Cru Bourgeois estates. And it’s been in very good hands since 1940, when the Cazes family, owner of Lynch-Bages (a Fifth Growth) bought the winery.
From 79 acres of prime, gravel-soil vineyard land, grapes are hand-harvested, fermented in stainless steel, then aged in neutral oak barrels that once housed Lynch-Bages wine. This 2017 combines 42 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 51 percent Merlot, 6 percent Cabernet Franc and 1 percent Petit Verdot into a full-bodied, black-fruited French red. It has intricate toasted oak notes, Madagascar vanilla bean, along with pops of blueberry, black cherry and incredible persistence.
Best Dry Red: Chappellet Cabernet Franc 2017
The best dry red wines are those that have no residual sugar, with the perfect balance between aromas, flavors, alcohol, acid and tannins. They are complex and profoundly interesting, and winemaker Phillip Corallo-Titus of Chappellet, a winery situated on the world-renowned Pritchard Hill, is a master at crafting long-lasting Cabernet Sauvignon wines. Although known for their Cabernet Sauvignon, Chappellet turned out a Cabernet Franc in 2017 that's just dynamite. Rich, dark cherry fruits, crème de cassis and olive tapenade mingle with wild sagebrush and terrific baking spices underscored by crushed stone mineral, espresso bean and spice notes.
Good to Know:
In 2018, Chappellet introduced the Chappellet Grower Collection, a lineup of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir wines from Sonoma, including some famous vineyards like Dutton Ranch and Sangiacomo Vineyard. Having sampled every vintage since the debut, I can vouch that the entire range offers deeply complex, well-structured and lively renditions of California Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
Best Dessert Wine: Dow's 2017 Port
Although Port houses don’t always declare a vintage, the Symington family bottled a vintage in 2017 for the Port houses they own, including this wine for Dow’s. The 2017 vintages are all concentration and power thanks to drought-like conditions during the season, which produced small grapes with a more skin-to-juice ratio than is typical.
“These need years in the bottle to come around to a more smooth and approachable style,” says Rupert Symington. Still, it’s delicious now with blueberry and violet florals, with brambly herbs and a mouthful of blueberry liqueur—delivering a minute-long, berry-driven finish. Service slightly chilled with an array of cheeses, nuts and chocolate.
Best Under $20: Prats & Symington Prazo de Roriz 2016
Also owned by the Symington family, Quinta de Roriz first produced port two centuries ago, and today, the estate encompasses some 222 acres. Even more, half of it is planted to Touriga Nacional and Touriga Franca vines—Portugal’s widely planted and most popular red table wine grapes.
This 2016 Prazo de Roriz is a remarkably complex red wine for the price, showing gorgeous medium to deep ruby hues in the glass. Bright, wild berry aromas and fine French cedar spices join cranberry and raspberry with a touch of blood orange and baking spices on the palate, supported by firm tannins.
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Jonathan Cristaldi has written about wine and spirits for over a decade. He regularly tastes wines from around the globe, and personally tasted every wine in this roundup, except for the Ormes de Pez and Unico. Cristaldi was named a "Wine Prophet" by Time Out New York for his witty and often avant-garde approach to wine education.