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Review of Wine Spectator Top 100

This is the time of year that the Wine Spectator puts out their best of the year issue.  Prior to the magazine release they tease them out by issuing a few at a time, day by day.  In earlier days I used to really look forward to the list, as I expected it to be a showcase of what was truly great in the world of wine.  The winner of the coveted top spot is ensured a great deal of free publicity and a guaranteed run on their wine.  What does it really mean however?  How do you interpret this list?  Do you run out and immediately buy the top ten or twenty because they’re too good to miss?  Let’s take a look at that, because it’s not that simple, and all you have to do is look at the list and the other wine ratings in the same magazine to realize that.

Let’s take the top twenty wines from the 2012 list.  If you break them down you get:

4 Rhone reds – the Rhone Valley has been on a roll of late and we love Rhone reds.

2 Syrahs

2 Pinot Noirs

1 Cabernet Sauvignon

1 Red Bordeaux

1 Sauternes

1 Port

1 Barbaresco

1 Brunello

1 Australian Shiraz

1 Blend

1 Malbec

1 Merlot

1 Touriga Nacional from Portugal

1 Sparkling Wine

Now, aside from 4 Rhones, could this be any more spread out?  It seems like it is the political correct vision of the top twenty where all wine areas and types  are valued and highly regarded for their contributions to the wine world.  You’d be hard pressed to spread the credit out any further.  Maybe this wasn’t by design and is just a coincidence, but it certainly seems strange.  So let’s take a look at how they pick them, that might give us some clues.  I mean really, a port, a sparkler, a sauternes and only one red Bordeaux?

The Spectator says “we continue to focus on value”, “…Yet while value is an important criterion for the Top 100, no equation determines the final selection.”  So they basically put in the ones they want.  It is the editor’s “judgment and passion” that determines a wine’s place and rank in the Top 100.  Well that’s fine, it’s their magazine so they should order them any way they want.  It’s clear that value is a big part of the judgment call, since the average price for the top 100 is $46.  Obviously there are not an overabundance of Grand Cru Burgundy, First Growth Bordeaux and cult California Cabernet in there.  This is appropriate in our eyes as we also stress value, although our value points would fall considerable below what the editor’s of Wine Spectator would likely consider price wise.

Yet there is a $9 wine sitting there at #41, a Chianti.  Other notable high ranked, relatively low priced wines include $12 at #33, $20 at #31 and $32 and #14 (this is the Maysara Pinot Noir that garnered 94 points).  So they do like and include reasonably priced wines.  This is good.  It immediately makes me start to look around for some to try in my cellar.  Fortunately you won’t have to look too hard because a lot of wine sellers will start to advertise wines in the Top 100 and make it easy for you.

Unless you’re after #1.  This can be a different story.  I remember in 1999 when the Chateau St. Jean Cinq Cepages Cab was number one and carried a release price of $28.  We thought “we can get a few of these” and I went right to my wine retailer and asked.  Indeed, they were scheduled for a shipment some time in the near future.  They would not, however, take my order and hold some for me.  They were somewhat evasive about when they might be in.  I never saw a bottle, and presumed that they went to friends and family of the owners, and can you blame them?  So it can be elusive to nab that bottle of #1, and it can be expensive as the price tends to climb north right after the list comes out.  (We actually did get a bottle of the Cinq Cepages at a restaurant a few years later.  Armed with a $150 gift certificate we basically used it on the wine.  It was fabulous.)

We’ll probably look for a bottle of the Shafer Relentless, which they list at a release price of $60.  That’s at the top of our range for any wine, so I suspect it’s already priced higher than that, but a wine-searcher try will prove that out.  How about the rest of the list though, do the remaining 99 represent something you should go out and buy?

For comparison, let’s look at a couple of cases.  Number 9 on the list is a 94 point Brunello that lists at $60.  Yet number 86 is a 94 point Maremma Toscana that also lists for $60.  Same score, same price, even the same general area in Italy, yet a whopping 75 places separate them on the list.  What drove that?  Personal preference for sure played into it, but how do you have any idea what the better value is?

For further confusion look at page 182 in the same issue.  This is the list of all the classic scoring wines for the year, or everything that scored 95 points and higher.  Some things jump right out at you.  There are two 99 point Rhones at list prices of $95 and $75.  These didn’t make the top 100, but a wine that scored 95 points and cost $150 did (Ridge Monte Bello – #94).  That doesn’t make sense to me.  So I thought maybe it’s the production that really seals the deal, since some of these high scorers are low production wines that might be impossible to find.  This does make sense to me, since if you are steering this toward value you kind of have to be able to actually find the wine as well.  A little analysis shows the lowest production of the top 100 to be 754 cases (the Cayuse Syrah at #22), however most are over 1000 cases.  There are a few that list imported amounts and several are less than 754 cases, but I suspect the production is much more than that.  Then I look at page 182 again and try find other wines that were scored at 96 or higher, costs less than $100 and had a production of at least 750 cases.  I find the 2010 Domaine de Beaurenard CDP (97 points, $70). Why didn’t this make it?  I can’t tell you, but it might be worth buying a bottle if you can find it reasonably.  I don’t find too many more.  It seems that 96 points, a price under $100 and a production of at least 750 cases (preferably more) is a pretty good formula for inclusion.

My suggestion is to peruse the list and look for what might fit your price range.  Some of these are pretty ubiquitous and you should be able to find them.  I’d wager they’re all good.  We’ll look for that #1 but also the Beringer Cab at #8 and the Saxum (#21) if we can ever find it on sale.  The Saxum seems to be becoming a fixture in the top 100, and was wine of the year in 2010.

And what’s up with only four red Bordeaux in this list?  2009 was the best vintage in years and according to Robert Parker, the best vintage he has ever tasted.  Oh, but wait, he doesn’t write for the Wine Spectator.

A votre santé!

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