Wine helps. And great wine can work miracles. I consider myself immensely lucky to have traveled to some amazing wine country and wrapped my palate around some epic wines over the past 12 months.
Interesting how it worked out, but all of my favorite wines this year came from two specific events.
The first was my inaugural trip to the Portuguese island of Madeira. This has been a bucket list trip of mine for at least a decade, since I first saw pictures of volcanic cliffs dropping off into deep, pristine Atlantic surf.
In February, I spent a week there, touring and tasting most of the island’s producers, who make the most unique and age-worthy wines in the entire world. (That’s my opinion, but it’s also as close to absolute truth as one can get with sweeping statements about certain wines).
Most of these earth-shattering wines came from the historic Madeira producer D’Oliveiras, where I tasted a bunch of wines from the 19th Century. (Click here for my primer on this historic island’s wine.)
The rest of my favorite wines came from a vertical tasting of the heralded Second Growth Bortdeaux estate, Chateau Cos d’Estournel. Vertical tastings are always enlightening, and tasting this many wines from one epic estate is wine nerd heaven.
Below are the notes on my top wines of the year.
1850 D'Oliveiras Madeira Verdelho (Portugal, Madeira)
It's so difficult to wrap my head around an historic wine like this. First of all, it's an intellectually fascinating experience, which evokes dreams of centuries past. I won't claim to be able to separate the historical significance of the wine from the sensory experience of tasting the wine. But, tasting the wine itself is one of the most amazing experiences in my wine lifetime. I'll attempt to describe this thing. First off, it still has fruit on the nose, kind of like quince paste and preserved lemon, but I get complex elements of clove, old furniture shop, cigar smoke and wood varnish. On the palate, this wine shows a pleasant bitterness, while the sweetness balances perfectly with the high acidity. One flavor evolves into another, and into another, and then back again, like a blissful circle. I'll throw some words at a few of these flavors: caramel, varnished wood, cigar box, candle wax, leather, sea salt, yellow raisins, candied lemon peel, old library books, sweet floral potpourri, spiced tea. The complexity is ridiculous. So, this is an incredible intellectual experience in and of itself, but the aromas and flavors of this wine are ethereal. Perhaps the best thing to ever grace my palate. (99 points)
1954 Justino Henriques Madeira Verdelho (Portugal, Madeira)
The aromas on this wine are complex, intriguing and sort of ridiculous. Clove, almond, anise, flowers, potpourri, all sorts of nuances. So pure and silky on the palate, the balance is impeccable. Smooth but complex, bright but rich, such a sexy and fascinating wine. Flavors of yellow raisin and dried pineapple are pure and delicious, followed up by waves of caramel, wax, almond, sea salt. So insanely complex that I would need a long time to analyze this wine and pull out all the nuances. But, in the end, it’s just a supremely enjoyable wine to sip. One of the best wines of the trip, and actually one of the best wines I’ve tasted in years. (98 points)
1927 D'Oliveiras Madeira Bastardo (Portugal, Madeira)
I am so blown away by this wine. It's not just intellectually and historically fascinating, it has amazing and haunting aromas and flavors, and the complexity is ridiculous. On the nose, I get dried fruits, nuts, surprisingly fresh flowers, salt air, white pepper, all of it nuanced and gorgeous. The palate is silky but tart, and I can't believe the liveliness, purity and vibrancy on this wine. The fruit is not just kicking, it comes out swinging with oranges, sliced pears and dried mango. The complex elements of smoke, nuts, spice and earth are profound. So balanced and elegant, so long and pure. Unbelievable stuff. (98 points)
1894 Henriques & Henriques Madeira "Founder's Solera" (Portugal, Madeira)
One of my favorite wines of the trip. What a stunner. Aromatically, I get old leather, cigar lounge, brown sugar, musk, eucalyptus and floral potpourri. Full and so complex but the brightness is incredible. Flavors of musk, leather, library dust, clove, cinnamon and coffee. But it's still so vibrant with these elements of orange marmalade, cocoa and white flowers. So long and pure. Whoa. (97 points)
1907 D'Oliveiras Madeira Malvazia (Portugal, Madeira)
So dark colored. Sharp aromas (the volatile acidity is evident) but it’s packed together with hay, floral tea, cigar shop and smoking jacket aromas. Rich but so floral on the palate with a dizzying array of complex flavors: spiced tea, graham cracker, cigar smoke, sweet coffee, dried roses. So alive, complex and long, a pure joy to sip. (97 points)
1890 D'Oliveiras Madeira Verdelho (Portugal, Madeira)
A real treat to taste. I get some orange peel, honeycomb, caramel and green coffee aromas. So pure and smooth on the palate, I can't believe how balanced and precise this wine is. Filled with tobacco, peppper, floral spice, roasted chestnut and coffee bean. No real fruit here, but the other flavors are rocking and the wine stays bright and tangy. Long finish with notes of mineral and quinine. Wow. (97 points)
N.V. Barbeito Madeira Malvazia Over 40 Years Old "Mãe Manuela" (Portugal, Madeira)
What an absolutely gorgeous wine. Props to Ricardo Freitas for putting this wine together to honor his mother – it’s an amazing tribute. Smells of sweet clove, complex almond and pecan, baked squash, dried apricot, polished wood and anise. On the palate this is waxy and sweet but the balance is pristine. The complexity of flavors nears the absurd: nuts, dried fruits, minerals, sea salt, rooibos tea. Smooth, sweet, tangy, precise. This is phenomenal stuff. During an epic Madeira trip, this was one of the highlights. (97 points)
2005 Château Cos d'Estournel (France, Bordeaux, Médoc, St. Estèphe)
A textbook example of near-perfect Bordeaux, as far as I can tell. Concentrated but elegant aromas, rich black cherry and currant fruit, accented by gorgeous earth, incense, dried floral and complex spice tones. So elegant on the palate despite the firm structure. Seems perfectly balanced between acid, tannin and fruit. Black and hints of red currant, the fruit is so pure and precise, and backed up by curling waves of incense, cedar, fallen leaves, graphite, mocha and cardamom. Simply phenomenal, and I bet it's just getting started. My wine of the night. A real treasure to taste. (98 points)
2010 Château Cos d'Estournel (France, Bordeaux, Médoc, St. Estèphe)
A bit "brighter" than the 2012 aromatically, but also intense and quite compact at this young age. Dense black cherries and currants on the nose along with coffee, roasted nuts and rich earth. Full and chewy with dense tannins but there's also a vibrancy and cleanness to the wine that makes it incredibly attractive. Rich black cherries, currants, loaded with coffee, roasted nuts, gravel, cocoa, violets, pepper glaze. Long, full, incredibly long finish. Amazing aging potential here - it's almost a shame tasting this so young, but it's an awesome experience to taste this wine at this point in its lifespan. Ridiculously good. (97 points)
1985 Château Cos d'Estournel (France, Bordeaux, Médoc, St. Estèphe)
This wine stands out for its bright, red-fruited approach. Smells tangy and herbal with bright red currants, red apple peel, violets, bay leaf, cigar smoke, floral perfume - an incredibly complex and elegant nose on this beauty. Bright and clean on the palate, with refined tannins and fresh acid. The red currant fruit is laced with rose hips, white pepper, cardamom, floral perfume, oregano and tobacco. Long, crisp finish, full of complexity. So bright and sexy, and showing wonderfully. Not the most heralded wine in the lot, but for my palate, the freshness on this wine is so damn attractive. (97 points)