At PUNCH, we’re reasonable skeptics when it comes to lists. Can the “best of” possibly be an objective best, if anyone even knows what that means?

At the same time, we believe deeply that the wine world is in a wonderful, if confusing, place these days, transitioning from the obvious old rules to dynamic new ones. For that reason, we figured it’s worth paying homage to the wines we find most interesting right now

Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean that we profess this list to contain the very best wines out there—again, what’s “best”?—nor is it the sort of countdown of obvious bottles that has dominated wine “best of” lists for a while now. We instead wanted to capture a snapshot of the wines we love drinking this very moment.  

And so, we present the PUNCH Hot 25.

The Hot 25 is based, in part, on regular PUNCH tastings, plus my tastings and visits all year on multiple continents. But we’ve also quietly been checking on the wines selected this year by some of the most talented sommeliers and wine buyers around the country, in cities from Minneapolis to New York to Houston and beyond. This was meant less as an affirmation of our choices than to take the temperature of current tastes. I know fully well, for instance, how good Benoît Ente’s aligoté is, but to find it on offer at The Morris in San Francisco, Denver’s Mercantile and New Orleans’ Herbsaint is a solid indicator that the wine is finding its deserved place out in the world. 

Needless to say, these choices are subjective. There were no formulas—our use of numbers at PUNCH is extremely limited and usually purpose-driven—but we couldn’t help but notice a few trends that help to explain the state of the modern American wine drinker. 

First, France is absolutely dominant. I wondered if that reflected my spending much of the year visiting French wine regions (certainly, that played a role), but it’s also clear as you look at wine markets across the country that the American love affair with French wine, which had fallen into a sort of stupor, has bounced back remarkably. Credit the new obsession with quality in familiar places like Champagne and Burgundy, alongside the simultaneous mainstreaming of things like cru Beaujolais and quality, affordable Loire reds. Add that to the naturalist quadrant of French wine, which has captivated a lot of new and curious drinkers and the growing embrace of once-obscure regions like the Savoie (even while others, like Bordeaux, fall into the shadows). 

But the love of Old World wine extends well beyond France. Spain and Italy are still in our hearts, even if it’s trendier to talk about Georgia and Croatia—whom we’re also rooting for, but who are earlier on the curve. And there’s Germany’s winning streak with a lot more than riesling these days, at a quality level that puts much of the world to shame. New Australia is poised to break through in 2017 as more wines from its avant-garde producers begin to arrive on these shores. Everything we’ve come to appreciate about the New California is taking place Down Under, perhaps even more dramatically.

Speaking of California, the state continues to be front of mind. The wines we’ve chosen here may not be the most obvious. That has less to do with ignoring the familiar than it does a long-awaited embrace by American drinkers of California’s more diverse portfolio, from valdiguié to vermentino. Frankly, with more space, we would have displayed other bouts of California love, including the long-awaited revival of the state’s romance with zinfandel 

We also couldn’t ignore how much chenin blanc, rather than chardonnay, has become the new clay for winemakers’ creativity. That the Hot 25 is a nearly chardonnay-free zone isn’t so much to dismiss that ever-popular grape as to acknowledge that there are new corners in which drinkers are seeking complex, richly textured whites. And chenin brings a lot of pleasure, although choosing favorites in this department is a Solomonic task. We equally could have talked about Division Winemaking Company in Oregon or South Africa’s Mullineux or the talented Stéphane Bernaudeau, whose Anjou whites are as dazzling as they are hard to find.

And while rosé’s hotness is like the sky’s blueness, 2016 also brought, amid oceans of crappy Provençal pink wine, lots of serious rosé that deserves respect. All year long, we found examples that charmed us. Same thing with skin-contact (a.k.a. orange) wines. Their fan base has been growing for years, and at last they’ve tipped into a place where they’re considered on their own merits.

Finally, 2016 was the year pét-nat found a mainstream footing. We’ve previously noted its coming of age, but there are two reasons it’s particularly thrilling: It’s being made in nearly every corner of the woke wine world (with America particularly of note), and pét-nat is, by definition, hard to produce in large quantities, which makes these wines particularly intimate expressions. Score one for artisanship.

So without further ado, meet the 25 bottles that represent everything that we love about today’s ever-expanding wine world. 

Bubbly

Laherte Frères Ultradition Extra Brut Champagne

It would have been only too easy to fill this list with Champagne, since that region is in the midst of a glorious transformation right now. Aurélien Laherte’s work in the Côteaux Sud d’Épernay has drawn attention to that generally overlooked corner of the region—and to a great emerging talent. I love the Les 7, which uses all seven Champagne varieties, but the Ultradition Extra Brut—his nonvintage bottling with a bit less sugar—encapsulates all that’s good in Champagne today. Nothing magic to the pinot meunier-based blend (disgorged in July 2015) except for its complexity, edged by smoky and spicy notes that bring depth in a completely modern way.

  • Price: $44
  • Vintage: NV
  • From: Polaner Selections

Day Wines Mamacita! Mae’s Vineyard Malvasia Pétillant Naturel

We found lots to like among the current crop of American pet-nat, but this bottle from Oregon talent Brianne Day was particularly irresistible. With this wine, Day shows a more playful, experimental side of the state’s wine culture, using malvasia—a grape ripe for the pét-nat treatment—grown in southern Oregon and made fizzy in the bottle. Mamacita! is everything pét-nat should be: full of heady jasmine aromas, with a leesy cloudiness that recalls freshly squeezed grapefruit juice.

  • Price: $30
  • Vintage: 2015

White

Terroir al Limit Pedra de Guix Priorat Blanco

When Terroir al Limit was founded by South African talent Eben Sadie and German native Dominik Huber in 2001, Priorat was in a curious spot: a previously obscure Spanish region chasing fame by emulating the flashy style of 1990s. Priorat’s fortunes have since reversed, and al Limit, which Huber now runs solo, has become a quest to find subtlety and distinction in the hills outside Tarragona. Huber’s whites are all excellent, but the Pedra de Guix is particularly epic, made from old pedro ximénez, macabeo and garnatxa blanca vines in homage to the oxidative style found in places like the Jura. The flavors are brooding and salty at one moment, tangy and lemony the next. It’s one of the most compelling Spanish whites of the past several years.

  • Price: $70
  • Vintage: 2013
  • From: European Cellars

Domaine des Ardoisières Argile Blanc IGP Vin des Allobroges

The town of Saint-Pierre-de-Soucy, across the Isère river from some little-known growing areas in the Savoie, is the definition of nowhere special. Yet it’s exactly where Brice Omont decided to plant on a mix of limestone and schistous marl, aiming to prove his point: that terroir, not varieties, matters most. His Ardoisières wines, hard to find even two years ago, have quickly gained a fan base around the country. The Argile white, a blend of jacquère, chardonnay and mondeuse blanche, shows a Chablis-like pungency but something else, too—a wintry herbaceousness and cool intensity that’s unmistakably alpine. A perfect example of innovation in the new France.

  • Price: $28
  • Vintage: 2014
  • From: Martine's Wines

Benoît Ente Bourgogne Aligoté

We’ve been keen on Ente for a while, and judging by the ubiquity of this wine on lists across the country, we’re not alone. Ente is an emerging star in Puligny, yet it’s his work with the other white grape of Burgundy that’s especially captivating, particularly as aligoté finds more respect among wine’s avant-garde. Ente himself talks about the grape’s historic importance, and rarely has there been a better specimen to make the case. Its generous, almost Baroque citrus flavors are balanced by a chalky intensity and a gingery kick, plus the irresistible smell of raindrops. So while chardonnay is great and all, aligoté is for closers.

  • Price: $25
  • Vintage: 2014
  • From: DNS Wines

Domaine Rietsch Demoiselle Alsace Gewurztraminer

Alsace is not without its troubles these days, but a handful of vignerons are doing things right, like Catherine Riss in Bernardvillé and siblings Jean-Pierre and Annelise Rietsch in Mittelbergheim. The Rietsches produce an orangeish pinot gris (Quand le Chat N’est Pas Là) and a standout auxerrois (Entre Chien et Loup) but most compelling is the Demoiselle, which single-handedly makes a case for this underappreciated grape, here from the grand cru Zotzenberg and a second parcel in Heiligenstein. It’s polished and opulent—lots of beeswax and dried apricot—but the freshness and a pleasant astringency make you wonder why all gewurztraminer isn’t made this way.

  • Price: $22
  • Vintage: 2015
  • From: Severine Selections

Arbe Garbe Sonoma County White

Native Friulians Enrico Bertoz and Letizia Pauletto have a remarkable love for their adopted California, and they continue to show it with this white-blend tribute to their Italian homeland. This new 2015 is a great demonstration that California wine can be energetic and sumptuous at the same time. It’s built around malvasia bianca, which offers up the musky scent of flowers, kept company by what tastes like lemon syrup and an intense stony aspect. Ribolla gialla and tocai friulano make up the rest of the blend, and all the grapes are left to briefly soak on their skins.

  • Price: $35
  • Vintage: 2015

Ciro Picariello Irpinia Fiano

Campanian whites are beloved for their freshness and affability with seafood on the nearby coast. But for years, those who know the wines have sensed that fiano can offer something more—not just its typically musky, nutty aromas but an ability to be both firmly mineral and lusciously textured—the time-honored combo that defines most great white wine. In just over a decade, Picariello has become a master of this grape—aided by late harvests in high-elevation inland vineyards (the Irpinia is from Summonte, at around 2,000 feet above sea level) that bring both ripeness and complexity. You wouldn’t go wrong with his refined Avellino bottling, but as a theoretically simpler offering, this is nothing of the sort.

  • Price: $19
  • Vintage: 2015
  • From: Polaner Selections

Luneau-Papin Clos des Allées Muscadet Sèvre et Maine Sur Lie

Muscadet is one of the great unheralded success stories of modern French wine—although, judging by the proliferation of exceptional bottles now being featured across the country, it’s far more heralded than it used to be. Few in the Muscadet region are more obsessed with quality than Marie Luneau and her family, and they’re understandably proud of this bottle from a historic parcel of 45-year-old vines on mica schist near Le Landreau. Its refined mineral side, curry spice and a lemon-pulp fruitiness (reminiscent of great Chablis) are all testaments to how profound Muscadet can be.

  • Price: $19
  • Vintage: 2014
  • From: Louis/Dressner Selections

Weiser-Künstler Estate Mosel Riesling

If you wanted one wine that embodies Americans’ current view about German riesling today, this is it. Alexandra Künstler and Konstantin Weiser have been one of Germany’s great recent successes, with their revival of parcels near the overlooked but historic Mosel town of Enkirch. This estate bottle is just shy of dry, a style currently finding favor on wine lists coast to coast. Plus, it has the benefit of the gorgeous 2015 vintage, here yielding a mix of tea-like delicacy and an aggressively tangy, fruity side—not sweet, but with just a wisp of sugar to match the intense minerality. A next-gen riesling if ever there was one.

  • Price: $20
  • Vintage: 2015
  • From: Vom Boden

Benoit Courault Gilbourg Vin de France

Bonnezeaux once was considered one of the great sites for (sweet) chenin blanc-based wines in the Loire, but it has long since fallen into the shadows. That is until Benoit Courault, a soft-spoken alumnus of the well-known L’Anglore in Tavel, set up shop just beyond Bonnezeaux’s boundary to make world-class dry wines from almost the same soils. Gilbourg is from old vines grown on schist, picked well before the prevalent botrytis, which made the area so great for sweet wines, sets in. And the 2015, currently en route from France, is everything right about Anjou chenin blanc: classy, expansive and marrying the plumpness of a Puligny-Montrachet with chenin’s precision, acidity and savoriness.

  • Price: $30
  • Vintage: 2015
  • From: Avant-Garde Wine & Spirits

Dominique Belluard Grandes Jorasses Savoie White

Even a few years ago, the Savoie wasn’t considered a place for serious wine, which is why the handful of wine nerds who’d tried Dominique Belluard’s wines were frustrated that no one was paying attention. That sure changed. The wines today are in extraordinary demand, and the tiny town of Ayze, near the Swiss border, will henceforth be on our mental maps of France’s great white-wine terroirs. Any of Belluard’s wines could be here, but the Grandes Jorasses, which is all altesse—a grape not known for its depth—shows an intense Ricola-like herbal side and the structure you’d associate with great Rhône whites like Hermitage Blanc. It’s impeccable proof that the Savoie might well be the alt-Rhône.

  • Price: $38
  • Vintage: 2014
  • From: Selection Massale

Domaine Berthaut Fixin Les Crais

With so much of Burgundy catapulted into one-percenter territory, what’s left to actually drink? We’ve been considering this question all year, and the small appellation of Fixin, just north of Gevrey-Chambertin, is an excellent answer. At just 28, Amélie Berthaut has not only made her family’s estate the symbol of what could be in Fixin, but has also proved herself to be one of Burgundy’s great emerging talents. Any of her wines could make this list, but I’m partial to the Crais, from a cobble-y alluvial site in the village’s lower portion. It yields a saline, delicate wine with tannins just stoic enough to handle the rush of fruit that sneaks up on you. This isn’t just masterful; it’s a new way of seeing a very hidebound place.

  • Price: $45
  • Vintage: 2014
  • From: Becky Wassrerman / David Bowler Wine

Orange, Pink, Etc.

Schlossgut Diel Rosé de Diel Nahe Pinot Noir Rosé

It would be easy to talk about Caroline and Sylvain Taurisson Diel’s work with riesling (they make some of Germany’s most renowned). But we realized a couple things this year. First, if you truly love rosé, then the Teutonic realms are where you’ll find many of the world’s best. And second, the Diels do pink wine astonishingly well. This is pinot noir from dedicated parcels in the Nahe, and while it’s intellectual (with chamomile and a coppery, mineral side), it’s also totally pleasurable—full of ripe blackberry and a semi-cloaked sweetness. We’d have drunk this for Thanksgiving. We’d drink it for Christmas. We’d drink it for breakfast.

  • Price: $25
  • Vintage: 2015
  • From: Terry Theise/Skurnik Wines

Forlorn Hope Dragone Ramato Rorick Vineyard Pinot Gris

Matthew Rorick’s acquisition of a mountain vineyard in the Sierra Foothills has given him more fruit to work with, and made the wines a bit more accessible in the market. We’re admittedly suckers for the ramato style of pinot gris—doing something noble with an unloved grape—and Rorick outpaces most Italians at their game, making this one of our favorite orange wines of the year. Led by a dark, salty side and fresh mandarin-orange fruit, this is a fine New California reference point.

  • Price: $26
  • Vintage: 2014

Los Bermejos Lanzarote Listán Rosado

The Canary Islands have gotten so much attention in recent years that it’s easy to see this remote Spanish outpost as a fad. Then you re-taste the wines that remind you of why people started paying attention in the first place. That’s what happened with the latest vintage of this wine from Ignacio Valdera’s Los Bermejos, made from the indigenous listán negro grape. Its substantial, meaty side is on display as always, as is that balance of iodine and peaches. It’s one of our top two pink wines of the year.

  • Price: $22
  • Vintage: 2015
  • From: David Bowler Wine

Red

Broc Cellars Green Valley Solano County Valdiguié

In the 1970s, it was easy to locate California bottles of the Languedoc grape known as valdiguié. You just wouldn’t have found it by that name; dubbed “Napa gamay” for much of the latter 20th century, it was the Golden State’s answer to Beaujolais. Then it fell into obscurity after a case of mistaken identity was solved. If anyone deserves credit for its revival, it’s Berkeley’s Chris Brockway, who’s been making one since 2011. Broc’s version is from old vines in the no-man’s-land of Solano County, east of Napa near the freeway to Sacramento. It’s everything California wine should be today: fruity, bright, generous, violet-scented, with a touch of grip to its texture, but nothing too serious. Undoubtedly the happiest wine of the year.

  • Price: $27
  • Vintage: 2014

Château de Brézé Clos Mazurique Saumur Red

The villages just south of Saumur are quickly becoming the central Loire’s motherlode, thanks in part to the now famous Clos Rougeard. But a handful of other stars are emerging, including Arnaud Lambert, who leases vineyards from this 15th-century château. I could easily have chosen one of his chenins, like the luscious Clos David, but this red shows the pitch-perfect beauty of cabernet franc in what’s often considered white-wine terroir. Grown on classic tuffeau and silex soils, it’s smoky and chile-spiked and warming in its fruit—in other words, everything franc should be.

  • Price: $19
  • Vintage: 2015
  • From: The Source European Wine Imports

Tom Shobbrook Poolside Barossa Syrah

The New Australia is coming on fast and I could easily be highlighting Ochota Barrels or The Other Right or Sami-Odi. But Shobbrook is doing crucial work in the Barossa. He takes a quietly quixotic approach, with everything from ancient-vine cinsault to a quirky take on sherry, but also this wine: Poolside, a Barossa shiraz channeling Jura poulsard. Barely more than a rosé and full of fresh pomegranate fruit and pepper spice, it’s not so much that Poolside is masterfully done as that it’s a complete reconsideration of what the Barossa can be.

  • Price: $30
  • Vintage: 2015
  • From: Severine Selections

Giacomo Fenocchio Barolo

I have a deep sentimental love for Italy’s Piedmont, even if the prices of wines like Barolo are spiking and the region’s culture itself is changing. Having acknowledged that, I wanted to prove to myself that Piedmont still had untapped treasures. Which led me yet again to the wines of Giacomo Fenocchio, from Monforte d’Alba, which I first encountered several years ago in San Francisco. Fenocchio makes classic nebbiolos from important sites like Cannubi and Bussia for prices far lower than the norm. But his normale, from a small plot of younger vines in Pianpolvere, is brooding, tar-edged and brightly fruited. It’s Barolo in drink-now form that’s still staunchly traditional in style.

  • Price: $30
  • Vintage: 2012
  • From: Skurnik Wines

Adegas Guímaro Finca Capeliños Ribeira Sacra

I’ve adored the Guímaro wines, grown in the remote Ribeira Sacra region of Galicia, for nearly a decade. But it was only when winemaker Pedro Rodríguez took me on a sweltering July day to see the steeply terraced vineyards above the river Sil, cascading down a near-cliff, that I understood the nearly superhuman effort required to make these wines. The Capeliños, from a tiny, 95-year-old parcel, explodes with violets and olives and has a subtle vegetal side—all accenting velvety fruit. Sometimes the mencia grape is compared to syrah, and a couple weeks later I got to test that theory on the precipitous slopes of the northern Rhône. Ribeira Sacra more than held its own.

  • Price: $42
  • Vintage: 2014
  • From: José Pastor Selections/Skurnik Wines

Holger Koch Kaiserstuhl Baden Spätburgunder

Baden and the nearby regions of southern Germany remain the country’s untapped vein for world-class wine, particularly for reds. Holger Koch works the Kaiserstuhl, a set of volcanic mounds just across the Rhine from Alsace. His wines, from a mass selection of old German vine material, easily rival some of the most revered names in Burgundy—save for the price. This one is exacting in its flavors, plummy and full of coriander spice. Alsace has been making noise about its pinot, but with all due respect: we’d suggest you also look across the river.

  • Price: $20
  • Vintage: 2014
  • From: Selection Massale

Richard Rottiers Dernier Souffle Moulin à Vent

The great embrace of Beaujolais as next-gen Burgundy is well underway, but some corners of the region (Morgon) have found more of a fan base than, say, Moulin à Vent, traditionally the hardest-edged of the region’s 10 crus. That’s why I grow ever fonder of the wines of Richard Rottiers, a Chablis native who works in an old cow shed near the Georges Duboeuf compound. Dernier Souffle (“last breath”) is named, morbidly, for this sandy parcel of 60-year-old vines behind the local cemetery. This new vintage—even more than the 2013 still on shelves—bursts with vibrancy, full of celery seed spice, meatiness and a polish to its tannins that shows why Rottiers is one of Beaujolais’ great talents.

  • Price: $25
  • Vintage: 2014
  • From: T. Elenteny Imports

Enfield Pretty Horses California Tempranillo

John Lockwood has made a habit out of defying convention in California. Who else could craft cabernet from the edge of the Pacific Ocean that outdoes much of Napa? If more Rioja properties could make a tempranillo this subtle and lovely, that part of Spain would re-emerge triumphant from the shadows of the 1980s. This hails from two sites in the Sierra Foothills, and it nails the deviously tough balance that tempranillo always wrestles with, between juicy fruit, not-rowdy tannins and spice. Wines like this make me believe that tempranillo, a grape with identity issues to fill an Almodóvar film, really could find a successful place in the New World.

  • Price: $28
  • Vintage: 2014

Pedro Parra y Familia Imaginador Itata Cinsault

There’s always the question of when South American wine will synchronize with the rest of the wine world. “Terroir” consultant Pedro Parra, who consults in his native Chile but also Burgundy and elsewhere, is one of the people likely to get it there. He’s known for his work with the Clos des Fous project in remote corners of the country, but less known is his own label, including this cinsault (with some other random grapes) from very old vines in the Itata Valley, one of the original colonial vineyard locales. It’s a slightly inky take on an often simple grape, full of robust blackberry fruit—a sibling to other outperforming cinsaults like Turley’s Bechthold—and a sign of what could be coming from Chile.

  • Price: $25
  • Vintage: 2015
  • From: Ripe Wine Imports

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Tagged: California Wine, French wine, Jon Bonne, wine, wine recommendations

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