The 25 Essential Wines of 2018

Meet this year's "Hot 25"—the bottles that represent everything we love about today's ever-expanding wine world.

For a generation or more, wines lived in a system guided by numbers—a rigid fortress built out of 100 points. The “how” of these wines—their creation stories—were secondary, if they got any sunlight at all. And often, well, those stories were kind of snoozy: Visionary Pursues Greatness, An Obsession With Quality, Modern Man Rescues Old Appellation.

For a variety of reasons, that fortress has been crumbling. Because of generational shifts, sure, but also because wine storytelling has come of age, as the industry always hoped it would. Today’s wine lover expects to discover an affinity with the people making the wine they drink. They’re less concerned with the throw-money-at-it tales of the past, and would rather spend their money on human-scale endeavors.

But a tale well-spun is only part of the equation. Today, we’re entering a different kind of precarious territory, where a jaunty tale and a meme-worthy label seem to be all it takes to deem a wine awesome. Taste is now a much harder conversation to have than it used to be.

What I mean is that quality still matters—maybe more than ever—and that more than anything  it is what unifies the wines in the 2018 edition of our Hot 25. We may be fighting out what “quality” means and sweeping away creaky notions of taste “objectivity,” but simply being different for the sake of it isn’t enough. In fact, placing quirk over quality is a first step toward a kind of alt-monotony in wine, where offbeat becomes the sole barometer.

So, in a year with no shortage of great wines, the bottles that rose to the top did so for two reasons: They told great stories, and then they backed those tales up with unmistakable mastery. Fulfilling both sides of that equation is crucial, because we’re not only at an exciting time in wine, but also a contentious one. There’s ever more sentiment that wine’s great recent exploratory phase has gone too far, become too weird, and that we need to just stick to the classics. That reactionary view hardly fits today’s wine world. But it’s also a direct result of a recent rash of too much story, without the deliciousness to back it up.

This year’s Hot 25 pays tribute to mastering both. Some of this year’s class are contemporary takes on classic wines—a Beaujolais that defines that region’s state of the art, or a Provençal rosé to remind us that not all pink wine need be summer water. Others find a brilliant new perspective—old grapes encountering a better life in the New World, or a renaissance of talent in overlooked spots like the Czech Republic or Portugal, or newfangled winemaking that proves Émile Peynaud’s assertion that tradition is simply an experiment that worked.

That experimentation, that charge toward the new, can be found anywhere. And this year’s class of wines demonstrates that perfectly.

Sparkling

Domaine Nowack "La Fontinette" Meunier Extra Brut Champagne

Vandières and the neighboring town of Châtillon-sur-Marne are spots that historically grew pinot meunier and other grapes in volume, all sold off to large Champagne houses. This makes the wines from Vandières’ Flavien Nowack all the more exciting—a sign of how Champagne’s new generation is taking root in unexpected ways. Fontinette is his wine from a 1965 parcel of pinot meunier in Châtillon. Meunier’s taut, spicy side is on display: poppy seed and mustard spice, and intense, tangy pomegranate-like fruit. Its power comes from concentration rather than any sort of flashy richness, another sign of how the meunier grape has been underestimated.

  • Price: $88
  • Vintage: NV
  • From: Floraison Selections

Jacquesson "Cuvée 741" Extra Brut Champagne

In this era of grower Champagne, sometimes the work of great small Champagne houses gets overlooked—especially Jacquesson, which owns many of its own vineyards but doesn’t quite fit into either the négociant or grower world. The quality of their “nonvintage” wine is unwavering every year—particularly the 741, with its lighter, harmonious pinot noir flavors: cumin spice and ponzu, plus a lemongrass-like savory side and a touch of citric juiciness at the end. The wine is decisive evidence for the art of blending Champagne the old-fashioned way, even if that storyline isn’t as fashionable today.

  • Price: $79
  • Vintage: NV
  • From: David Bowler Wine

Julien Braud "La Bulle de l'Ouest" Méthode Petillant Brut

Braud has gotten exposure for popular and perhaps controversial projects, like Forty Ounce Wines. But that should not overshadow his talent as one of Muscadet’s great up-and-coming producers. He makes some stellar single-parcel white wines, but also this pure-fun bottle of bubbles made from the melon de Bourgogne grape. Don’t let the cartoon cowboy on the label fool you: This is serious stuff, with a creamy lees presence that nods to one of Muscadet’s key characteristics. It’s every bit as refined as Champagne, just with a different origin story.

  • Price: $24
  • Vintage: NV
  • From: Verity

La Vignereuse "Mayga Watt" Pétillant Rosé

There’s so much pét-nat in the Loire that it can overshadow the southwestern French region of Gaillac, which has long made naturally fermented sparkling wines. Marine Leys is a relative newcomer, and gamay isn’t exactly a typical grape in the region. No matter. The Mayga Watt shows off ripe, plummy flavors hitched to a tinge of tomato-leaf herbaceousness and a charming touch of lingering sugar. Leys calls it her “adult grenadine,” although it’s even more irresistible than that.

  • Price: $28
  • Vintage: 2017
  • From: Jenny & François Selections

White

Jean-Baptiste Arena "Grotte di Sole"

Antoine Arena, the maestro of northern Corsica, has been handing off his holdings to his two sons. The eldest, Jean-Baptiste, took on the south-facing Grotte di Sole parcel, which can grow particularly ripe vermentino. Jean-Baptiste’s latest bottling is an astonishing example of that grape, one of the best I’ve had in a long time. It’s big and luscious, full of white peach fruit with the texture of light agave syrup. But it’s also nearly electric in its minerality and the warm, resinous aspect that great vermentino exudes. Exhibit A in one of my favorite arguments: that vermentino should unquestionably be added to the roster of the world’s best white grapes.

  • Price: $45
  • Vintage: 2017
  • From: Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant

Luis Seabra "Xisto Ilimitado" Branco

Making the case for great white wine from Portugal—outside its popular vinho verde—has often been an exercise in futility. Perhaps that’s finally changing, in part because U.S. tourism to Portugal is booming, and in part because of wines like this one. A prime exemplar of the New Douro from the former winemaker at Niepoort, this is meant to be a modest “village-level” bottle, but it achieves so much more. Made of rabigato, côdega, godello and viosinho planted on mica schist and fermented mostly in old barrels, it has the lemon-mineral punch of great Burgundy, plus a ripe pear fruitiness, white poppy spice and a chewy density to its texture.

  • Price: $23
  • Vintage: 2017
  • From: Obrigado Vinhos/Olé Imports

Domaine du Closel "Eau de Pluie" Verdelho

Evelyne de Pontbriand of Domaine du Cosel—a reigning queen of chenin—came upon her family’s parcel of verdelho, a grape typically found in Madeira but also in small amounts in the Loire, where it reputedly was brought by an 18th-century ampelographer. De Pontbriand decided to vinify the verdelho on its own, dubbing it “rainwater,” after a light style of Madeira. It’s a fun tale, but the wine itself is a revelation, showing the irresistible lime-blossom fruitiness typical of the variety, matched to the austere dark mineral punch that Savennières’ soils can offer. Consider it a missing link in the tale of Loire whites.

  • Price: $29
  • Vintage: 2016
  • From: David Bowler Wine

Domaine Eleni et Edouard Vocoret "Le Bas de Chapelot" Chablis

As members of Chablis’ new cohort, this husband-and-wife team devised a style that’s postmodern in the best way, polished in its texture and yet luminous—as if, like all great Chablis, their wines are radiating brightness. The Bas de Chapelot is just below the premier cru Montée de Tonnerre, and it’s balanced between ripeness (think honeydew and pomelo) and the essential chervil-like greenness and mineral thwack that defines a great Chablis vintage.

  • Price: $38
  • Vintage: 2017
  • From: Grand Cru Selections

A Los Viñateros Bravos "Granítico" Blanco

In our consideration of the state of the New Chile earlier this year, this wine particularly stood out. Made by Leonardo Erazo, a protégé of soil consultant Pedro Parra and a winemaker at Argentine malbec powerhouse Altos Las Hormigas, it relies on a rarity: white grapes from the (mostly red) old bush vines that are driving Chile’s wine revolution. This mix of moscatel and semillon makes for a remarkable specimen with a strong muscat perfume but also a musky richness, like bacon fat, and ripe quince fruit that brings a mix of lushness and mineral intensity.

  • Price: $16
  • Vintage: 2017
  • From: Ripe Wine Imports

Dönnhoff "Oberhäuser Leistenberg" Riesling Kabinett

One thing about German wine’s nit-picky taxonomy is its exacting quality order. Late-picked spätlese rieslings were historically intended to be “better” than earlier-picked kabinett, which often meant that the latter style—picked at normal ripeness, slightly fruity—often hasn’t gotten its due. This wine from Cornelius Dönnhoff, one of the true modern masters of riesling, shows kabinett’s inscrutable charms: citrus fruit and smoky savory tones and crackling minerality that catalyze perfectly, thanks to a dry, exceptional vintage. It’s good enough to renew faith in a style of wine that’s due for a revival.

  • Price: $28
  • Vintage: 2017
  • From: Skurnik Wines

Azores Wine Company "Arinto Dos Açores"

The remote Azores islands, a part of Portugal in the midst of the north Atlantic, once had a wine trade as important as Madeira’s. The volcanic island of Pico contains the majority of the island’s remaining vines, planted like wild, sprawling bushes in endless tiny plots. This wine, based on a unique sub-variety of arinto, bursts with a sense of aridity and saltiness alongside dried lime and black sesame, lifted by intense acidity. The closest comparison might be Spain’s Canary Islands, but Pico wines have a bit more power and depth—and truly are a unique remnant of a long history that’s belatedly being revived.

  • Price: $54
  • Vintage: 2017
  • From: Obrigado Vinhos

Pink, Orange, Etc.

Delinquente "Pretty Boy" Nero d'Avola Rosato

The Adelaide Hills area catches most of the buzz for New Australia right now, and yet some of the most interesting examples are found elsewhere. Take this wine, part of a particularly winning trend of Italianate wines from the Riverland, a warm region where a lot of grapes for wines of the Bad Old Australia came from. But several growers have begun working with people like Delinquente’s Con-Greg Grigoriou, who made this pink take on Sicily’s hearty red grape. The label, from Adelaide artist Ankles, might resemble Freddy Krueger’s progeny, but this is deeply pleasurable rosé, full of generous blood-orange flavors and a caraway kick.

  • Price: $18
  • Vintage: 2017
  • From: Hudson Wine Brokers

Damijan "Kaplja"

We’re big fans of orange wine, but we also believe skin-contact wine needs to do more than just make a statement. It can’t just be orange for orange sake, and that sense of purpose can be hard to find amid the crush of new skin-contact wines arriving today. That is why it’s sometimes worth revisiting the old school. Damijan Podversic is perhaps less well known than fellow Friulian producers like Josko Gravner or Stanko Radikon, but he has a similar tale. The Kaplja, a blend of chardonnay, friulano and malvasia Istriana, has been made since 1999, a prime example of orange wine (“golden,” if you ask Podversic) that’s quieter than some. But its finesse, and its subtle roasted orange (sorry!) flavors, provide huge charm.

  • Price: $40
  • Vintage: 2013
  • From: Omniwines

Château Pradeaux Bandol Rosé

Bandol hasn’t been immune from the thirst for meh Provençal rosé, so it can be easy to forget what real pink Bandol—the serious, age-worthy stuff based on the stoic mourvèdre grape—is like. At this 400-year-old property in Saint-Cyr-sur-Mer, Étienne Portalis still makes what he calls a “rosé de gastronomie,” which has barely begun to show it’s stripes after a year, and will improve for several more. That “blue steel” side of mourvèdre is on display: sanguine, feral, full of mineral rage and a grapefruit-pith bite. This is big, dramatic and umami-filled, and is exactly what rosé should be when taken seriously.

  • Price: $30
  • Vintage: 2017
  • From: Rosenthal Wine Merchant

J. Mourat "Collection" Val de Loire Rosé

Winemaker Jérémie Mourat is having a lot of fun with this wine, which hails from the “Loire Méridionale” (“southern Loire”), about an hour south of Muscadet in a place not particularly known for wine. This combines three Loire stalwarts—pinot noir, cabernet franc and gamay—and adds little-known negrette, a specialty of the area. Don’t get distracted by the weird flared bottle—rosé is all about the flair these days—and consider its awesome mix of pulpy peach flavors and a coppery iodine tang, plus an eyeopening basil herbaceousness.

  • Price: $13
  • Vintage: 2017
  • From: Williams Corner Wine

Nestarec "Běl"

The Czech Republic’s Milan Nestarec has arguably become the portrait of the new central European wine with his cuvées like GinTonic (sauvignon blanc) and WTF (flor-aged grüner veltliner). But there’s also something irresistible about the 1-liter Běl, which showcases both skillful winemaking (Nestarec studied with Aleš Kristančič of Slovenia’s Movia) and the very subtle side of skin-contact wine. This is his basic white, made of müller thurgau, grüner veltliner and welschriesling and macerated for about a day, which provides a bit of extra texture and depth to the salted nectarine and exotic herb flavors.

  • Price: $26
  • Vintage: 2016
  • From: Jenny & François Selections

Jolie-Laide Rosé of Valdiguié

I drank this rosé every time I encountered it this summer. Jolie-Laide’s Scott Schultz not only has some pretty crazy ideas (who else would have gotten fruit from the City of 10,000 Buddhas retreat in Mendocino County?) but is also skilled enough to make them delicious. Valdiguié is the grape once known as Napa gamay, the Beaujolais of California, and it’s making a comeback—in rosé as well as red. This pops out of the glass with delicious mandarin orange and black-sesame aspects, and makes a strong case that pink valdiguié should be a key part of this variety’s return to the California roster.

  • Price: $28
  • Vintage: 2017
  • From: Verity

Red

Domaine Chapel "Côte de Bessay" Juliénas

Just another one of those wine stories, you know? Girl meets boy, girl follows boy to Beaujolais, and they end up making one of the most impressive examples of that region’s quality renaissance. David Chapel and Michele Smith-Chapel met while working as sommeliers in New York; then Chapel, whose father Alain Chapel was one of France’s top chefs, returned to study winemaking at some the region’s best properties, including Domaine Lapierre. Their wines are already nearing parity with those famous names, including this bottle from a steep slope in northern Juliénas, with schistous “blue stone” soils of volcanic origin, that packs in subtle strawberry flavors and the savor of caraway and dried mint.

  • Price: $32
  • Vintage: 2017
  • From: Grand Cru Selections

Jaimee Motley Wines "Argillet" Mondeuse Noir

Motley has gotten tutelage from a true pro in Pax Mahle, whose syrahs have been some of California’s best. Her abilities with a related grape, mondeuse—which is either syrah’s partial sibling or grandparent—might even teach the Savoyards, for whom this grape is native, a thing or two about how to make it with subtlety and dusky charm. From a small parcel near the Santa Maria Valley’s Bien Nacido vineyard, this wine offers spice that’s syrah adjacent, with charcoal and bright salt to match its wild blueberry fruit. Yet its feet never touch the ground; the tannin that can turn mondeuse into a monster leaves more a phantom impression than anything.

  • Price: $40
  • Vintage: 2016

G.D. Vajra "Claré J.C." Langhe Nebbiolo

The latest twist of our lighter-styled wine times has been a rediscovery of “claret”—that is, the buoyant red wines, a couple steps past rosé, common prior to the 20th century, especially in Bordeaux. The idea has similarly migrated to Piedmont, and to the nebbiolo grape. The mischievous Giuseppe Vajra did deep historical research to attempt to rediscover the style of nebbiolo made in the 17th and 18th centuries (the “J” is for Jefferson, who described such wines, the “C” for wine savant Darrell Corti, who helped with research). Vajra used a light touch in vinifying fruit from younger vines in Barolo and nearby, and bottled it quickly, resulting in nebbiolo that shows more of orange-blossom fragrance than the grape’s usual burnt-orange low tones, plus a whispery mineral aspect and little of the grape’s aggro tannins. Think of it as nebbiolo masquerading as Beaujolais.

  • Price: $23
  • Vintage: 2017
  • From: Vajra USA

Nicolas Carmarans "Mauvais Temps"

Far up in the remote Aveyron department of France, Carmarans has embraced one of the country’s more difficult varieties: fer servadou, a grape that is particularly divisive thanks to its tendency to taste like metal shavings. Carmarans, though, has turned it into the base material for something extraordinarily refined. Mauvais Temps is simultaneously rugged and subtle, with exuberant scents dried violet and tangerine rind, and a clear tannic bite that’s never aggro. It’s proof not only of Carmarans’ abilities, but also a sign that southwest France, with its difficult and rustic grapes, has the potential for a different path ahead.

  • Price: $33
  • Vintage: 2016
  • From: Fifi’s Import

Château du Champ des Treilles "Le Petit Champ" Bordeaux

Bordeaux is quietly making a comeback, driven in large part by small producers—and by modest wines from important addresses. This wine is a reminder of a well-known region’s ability to surprise, even when we think its fortunes are sunk. Champ des Treilles is the personal farm of Jean-Michel Comme, the director of Paulliac’s famous Château Pontet-Canet, and his wife, Corinne, a respected biodynamic consultant. They farm their five hectares in Sainte-Foy, one of Bordeaux’s mostly forgotten eastern outposts, and produce this merlot- and cabernet franc-dominant wine. It’s got everything good Bordeaux should: a bit of fruit flesh, a hint of earthiness, robust dark fruit and toasted rye spice and a dark mineral edge.

  • Price: $18
  • Vintage: 2016
  • From: Savio Soares Selections

Inconnu "Kitsune" Red Blend

Laura Brennan Bissell is among the new contingent of Californian minimalists, having learned from talents like Steve Matthiasson and Mick Unti. Her small label, Inconnu, focuses primarily on drink-now wines, but Kitsune (the next vintage, 2017, is about ready now) is a wonderfully stoic example of red wine from the much-maligned Carneros appellation. One thing that thrives in the cooler stretches of Carneros is merlot, and that makes up the bulk of this (with cabernet sauvignon the rest); Kitsune has the perfect black-tea and cherry duskiness that great merlot displays.

  • Price: $30
  • Vintage: 2014

Comando G "La Bruja de Rozas" Garnacha

The Viños de Madrid area is a mountainous region outside Spain’s capital. There, a few diligent producers have tapped great old vines—mostly garnacha—to make wines that balance the power of 2000s-era Spain with today’s expectations of nuance. Fernando García and Dani Landi’s Comando G—a collection of rugged, organically farmed parcels in the Sierra de Gredos mountains—is perhaps the best argument for how quietly gorgeous wine from here can be. The Bruja is their “village” wine, from a mix of sites near 2,800 feet in elevation. It exudes both the wild, sun-touched side of garnacha found in these mountains with a quiet red fruit that walks lightly without being weak, plus intense accents of toasted black mustard seed and iodine.

  • Price: $28
  • Vintage: 2015
  • From: European Cellars

Jutta Ambrositsch "Rakete" Roter Gemischter Satz

The Viennese tradition of gemischter satz—white field blends—has gotten a lot of airtime lately, and Ambrositsch is one of its best practitioners. But this is something a bit different: a red field blend, which might not be that unusual in, say, Sonoma, but is for sure a rarity on the slopes of the Austrian capital. From the sandstone soils of the Kahlenberg, Rakete combines Austrian varieties like zweigelt and St. Laurent with merlot and even white grapes with a short four-day maceration. The resulting wine exists in that limbo between rosé and red and is dense with cherry fruit and buoyed by heady rose and lilac aromas.

  • Price: $22
  • Vintage: 2017
  • From: David Bowler Wine

Related Articles