The work of assembling VinePair’s Top 50 lists for 2020 was even more of a Herculean task this year than in years past. Most obviously, the need for social distancing and safety meant that any group tastings had to be more carefully organized. Beyond that, the introduction of a Top 50 Spirits list created an additional set of issues, as comparing whiskeys, tequilas, gins, vodkas, rums, brandies, amari, and more proved even more difficult.
That’s why Adam Teeter and Zach Geballe have devoted this week’s “VinePair Podcast” to exploring and explaining the Top 50 Spirits and Top 50 Wines lists. They discuss some of the true standouts, the unexpected regions that caught our eyes, the struggle between pure quality and value, and much more.
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Adam: From Brooklyn, New York, I’m Adam Teeter.
Zach: And in Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe.
A: And this is the “VinePair Podcast.” And Zach, before we get into today’s topic, which is going to be about the top 50 lists of wine, beer, and spirits that we put out this year, a word from our sponsor. Tequila Ocho is the world’s first single-estate tequila. I did make that tequila Negroni, by the way, and it was dope. Growing and harvesting only the very ripest agaves from their family-owned fields in the Highlands of Jalisco. One field harvested for each of their annual vintages. Where some take shortcuts, Ocho is made in the old-fashioned way and takes care of to ensure maximum agave flavor in your glass. They truly do. Every expression is certified. 100 percent additive free underlying the purity and ability of this magical tequila. And it is magical, ladies and gentlemen. I’m telling you. I’m not just saying this because they are a sponsor of this podcast. That liquid is dope.
Z: It really is.
A: It’s really good. So you should go out and get it. So besides me having that this week, Zach, what else have you been imbibing on?
Z: It’s funny. It’s Hanukkah, or at least it has been as we’re recording this. There’ll be the last night tonight. I have not been making a ton of the traditional Hanukkah foods, except for tonight, we’re having a little more traditional, with latkes and all that. But the one thing that I have been doing a lot of is thinking about, I guess this is sad but interesting, a lot of potatoes and sour cream. Not necessarily the latkes, but it has been one of the combinations that I’ve always loved. A baked potato with sour cream has always been one of my favorite foods. It’s a weirdly interesting thing to have with wine. Adam will laugh at me for this, butt in trying a lot of different wines with that combination of flavors in the end. I just keep coming back to Chardonnay, and in particular like white Burgundy, as being the thing that just works best with that. And there’s something about the earthiness that you get out of a good white Burgundy that goes with the potatoes, the creaminess from the sort of lees contact and barrel aging that you get out of those that work with the sour cream. So I’ve been drinking a lot of white Burgundy, which is bougie as hell, I know, but that’s how I roll. Again, my philosophy this year has been f*** it, I’m just drinking it. I’ve got the wine sitting around and if I don’t drink it now, sad to say, I don’t know if I’ll get the chance to drink it, so I’m going to drink it now. How about you?
A: So I’ve been drinking a few things. So obviously yes, I made some latkes, and I think that the best pairing there is sparkling wine. I top it with some delicious smoked salmon from Russ and Daughters. They’re the best smoked fish purveyors in the country. Just saying, if you get to New York, come get some Russ and Daughters. Or you can get them on GoldBelly actually, that’s not an ad, just a very strong endorsement.
Z: I will read it. Russ and Daughter is f****** awesome.
A: It’s just the best.
Z: Yeah, it really is amazing.
A: So this is now a total tangent, but when I lived in the East Village, I was near the original location. And when we moved to Brooklyn, to Fort Greene, Naomi and I were like, “Oh man, we’re not gonna be near the restaurant.” Let’s be clear, my wife doesn’t eat anything that’s living or formerly living, so she doesn’t eat fish. So she doesn’t eat smoked salmon, but she likes the bagels and the schmears and things like that. And it was cool. You want to take people from out of town there. And then we realized that we are now only a 10-minute walk from their factory, which is actually even better. It’s in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. So I had to walk there and there’s never a line, because almost no one seems to know about it, which is crazy. So you can walk right in and they have a full counter just like they do in the original store. And the bagels are coming right out of the oven there. It’s really cool. So, I actually had Champagne Taittinger with that, which was really tasty. I’m in a really nice pairing, a little rosé Champagne Taittinger.
A: Right. So that was good. And then I’ve just been playing around. It feels like the holidays are so close and also here. We’ve been in a more festive mood in the evenings and being like, “yeah, like, f*** it, let’s just open it.” So, I also had a really nice Barolo over the weekend. And then this week, tonight I plan to open some fun stuff and make a warming lentil soup, because it just snowed really heavily. And just playing around with a bunch of different stuff. It’s been a lot of fun. A lot of the stuff that I’ve been drinking wound up on our top 50 Best Wines list this year, because it reminded me how much I loved it this year. And now I got to go back to this before the year’s over and remember how delicious it all was. So, with that in mind, let’s get into it. I thought one of the first things we should hit on is obviously the wine list. Right. I think there’s some really interesting stories on this list this year. The first being that our statement was that Greek wines are something that people should pay attention to — especially Xinomavro, which we find to be one of the most exciting grapes that’s out there right now. And wines made from it that are still really affordable. Just absolutely delicious. And so when it came to trying to figure out what the best pick was this Alpha Estate Single Block Reserve Xinomavro. For us, it was head and shoulders above almost anything else we had tasted this year. And then when you look at the average price of $37, it just is something that everyone needs to go out and try to grab. It is one of the more well-distributed Greek wines in the U. S. right now. We had this big debate, and I’m curious what you think about this, Zach. When we talk about this wine, we feel it’s unfair. So I’m really avoiding saying that this is like the Greek Barolo or something. Because it’s not fair. Right? This is Xinomavro. This is the best red coming out of Greece, in my opinion. I think Xinomavro is the most beautiful, ageable red grape in Greece.
Z: Agiorgitikos fans, get Adam
A: Yeah, come get me. Look, no, no, no. No disrespect to those wines. I love Agioritikos, and I think that there’s, again, some producers around Nemea that are making amazing wines. But for me and my palate, what I’ve tended to enjoy, Xinomavro is amazing. I think for the majority of consumers, right? It’s why Burgundy prices are crazy. I think Xinomavro is going to get there. But I don’t want to say to you listening, “it’s the next Burgundy or Barolo.” Drink it if you like. Although I’m kind of saying it, right? But to me it’s just such an amazing, this, this wine is just stupid good.
Z: And to me, I think so, too. So to the question you asked initially, While I get the sentiment behind “we don’t want to call it the Barolo or the Nebbiolo of Greece. We want to call it its own thing.” The honest truth is that almost everyone in the world of wine, their frame of reference is going to start with things that they’re familiar with. And most people, if you haven’t been to Greece or you’re not interested in trying Greek wine, Xinomavro is probably not something you’ve tasted. You certainly haven’t tasted much of it. You don’t probably have a frame of reference for it, but if you’re a red wine drinker, there’s better than a decent chance that you’re at least somewhat familiar with Nebbiolo, principally through Barolo and Barbaresco, possibly through some other appellations. There is some real similarity. And I actually thought it was interesting to me because the Alpha Estate example is the most striking one, but on this list, there are a few different wines that I think kind of fall into this general red wine category that I would describe as not super deep in color, more red fruited than black fruited in terms of flavor, but with high acidity and high tannin or relatively high tannin. And this does not particularly include Pinot Noir, although Pinot Noir gets lumped in here sometimes because it has some of the other characteristics. But I even think about the 49th wine on your list here, which is a Blaufränkisch, a variety that I’m personally very fond of from Austria. So Blaufränkisch, Xinomavro, Nerello Mascalese from Sicily, I would argue Kotsifali which is from Crete in Greece, as well. There’s some others that you could throw in here that sort of nicely align in some way or some other ways, with what people expect from Nebbiolo. But each offers their own unique twist. And to me, the thing that is great about Xinomavro and what makes it so delightful and so enjoyable is that when you get it from good producers in Naoussa, you’re getting it from relatively high elevations, foothills, or even into the mountains. And it has a distinctive mountainous quality to it. The aromatics are really tart, berry fruit, like red berries that you might find in the mountains. There’s almost a florality, the kind of wildflower note and most of all, to me, an alpine forest piney note, not resin the way you would expect with Retsina, the big barrier to anyone’s enjoying Greek wine. Because when I tell people to try Greek wine, the first thing they say is, “I tried Greek wine once and it tasted like Pine Sol.” I answer, “OK, you tried Retsina, which is an adulterated wine. This is very different.” It does have a little bit of that pinier quality that I really find very appealing. And so I’m with you. Xinomavro has been something that I’ve started to add to my own personal collection a little bit. Unfortunately, as you mentioned, it’s actually pretty hard to find many examples. Alpha Estate. Kir-Yianni is another producer that I see pretty widely distributed. I’m teaching a class on Greek wine in February. I’ve been looking for what’s available here in the Seattle area and it’s actually kind of limited, unfortunately. So, importers, distributors, up your game. Look at this list. The people want Greek wine.
A: Look, I think that the problem is right. There’s really one main importer of Greek wine, Diamond Wine Imports. They have actually both Kir-Yianni and Alpha, and they’re an incredible importer. I think they were super awesome and rushing us a bottle of this at the last minute when we basically let them know, because they had submitted samples earlier in the year that we felt like it had done well enough that it should be considered for the list. They were super good about that. There can be more than them obviously, and there should be. And there should be more of this wine coming. Because when I’ve been to Greece the last few times, I’ve been blown away by some of these producers that I’ve gotten to try these wines by. You just can’t find them here. You’re lucky if you find them in a lot of different places. It’s time to get excited about the region, for sure. The other thing I think that was pretty interesting about this list and again, probably talks to where people’s palates are right now, especially on this tastings team, is that three wines in the top 10 were from Sicily. It’s another place that’s become pretty exciting when it comes to wines, both on the white and the red side. It’s another place that feels pretty undervalued and a place where you can find really delicious reds. In the same way that you have somms like, “oh my gosh, if you find a wine list, look for wines from Beaujolais, because those wines are going to be under-priced” — which really isn’t true anymore, but think there are still really great prices for wines from Sicily. The wines are always really just absolutely delicious. A lot of them have really beautiful high acidity, which is something that I’ve realized is very important to me when it comes to the wines that I love. It was just really shocking to us when we came together, and we were talking as this team: “Holy s***, do we have three wines on this list in the top 10 that are all from Sicily? Yes, we do.” So, it must mean that they’re doing, the island as a whole is doing something right.
Z: What’s cool about that is you have examples on the list of both the somm geeky, trendy part of Sicily, i.e. in Mount Etna, a Rosso made from Nerello Mascalese, principally, and an Etna Bianco made from Carricante. But also a wine made from Frappato, it’s kind of in the middle part of the island. And it’s important to note here that Sicily is big. It’s a big place and it has actually a really diverse wine scene. Etna, again, gets the love of the somms, including me, for sure. Because the Nerello Mascalese is such an interesting variety in particular on the red side, and there’s such a winemaking story and grape-growing story on Etna. There are all these very different growing conditions, depending on where your exposure is to the ocean or the sea, when the lava flowed over that part of the mountain slope, and how old the soils are and things like that are all really important. But there’s also this incredible wealth of winemaking and experience and interesting varieties off of Etna. That, to me, is something that’s been cool to see. Etna is awesome and it’s super cool to focus on, but I was really glad to see a wine from another part of Sicily on here, too. This is my little spiel on Sicily. Please people, go out and drink some Marsala. I know, sweet wines, fortified wines that no one wants to drink them. If you think, “oh, Marsala is just for cooking or for making chicken Marsala, or whatever,” you can certainly do that with it. It’s delicious. But if you like anything in the fortified category, Madeira, sherry, even port, there is a Marsala style out there for you, and they are stupid cheap and stupid good.
A: Yeah. Very true. Before we move on, Zach, because I know I don’t want to spend the entire podcast talking about the top 50 wine list. Was there anything, though, on the list as well that caught your eye?
Z: I think the only other thing that I wanted to talk about really quickly was, there’s a really interesting mix of white varieties called out here. You all listening know me: I love white wine. It’s really my heart in a lot of ways, but there is Semillon, there’s Friulano, there’s Grüner Veltliner. Just an interesting wealth of white varieties. And yeah, there’s Sauvignon Blancs. There’s Chardonnay on here, too, of course. But it is really refreshing to me to see a top list that isn’t just like, here are the 18 best Chardonnays and Sauvignon Blancs, and I will throw a Riesling or two in there, because someone expects it. It is a really diverse set of white wines on here. And I love that, and I think that’s something to commend you guys for. It’s important when looking at white wine that we not just focus on two, three, four varieties.
A: Thank you very much. I really appreciate that, Zach.
Z: I’m sure that was all Tim. You had nothing to do with it.
A: Yeah, that was all Tim. I think we all share your passion for white wines. We really love them. And I think there is something to know, all of us came into wine in various different ways. Tim through the chef route. Keith through Italian wine. Me through music and things like that. So we didn’t come through a traditional path where you also were taught from the very beginning that like the best whites are Chardonnays and Rieslings. And so I feel like, while we appreciate those, we are also able to love other whites from other places that may not get as many accolades but absolutely should, and are extremely interesting in their own unique ways. So I think the only other thing that you probably saw that I was waiting for you to say, and you didn’t, and that’s the No. 2 wine was from Virginia. But that’s cool.
Z: We talk about Virginia wine on the podcasts way too much already.
A: It is pretty dope though, man, you gotta get your hands on it. So let’s move on. Let’s let’s talk spirits.
A: So this was the first year we ever did the Top 50 Best Spirits list. We’re obviously going to keep doing it moving forward. I have to tell you, this was the hardest list to create out of the three.
Z: Oh, I think it’s insane that you guys did this. I’m glad you did, but when you told me that you guys are doing a top 50 spirits list, I was just like, “man, wine is hard enough, but spirits?”
A: This was really hard. And it was hard for a lot of different reasons. I think the main reason is for me, when I taste really great wine, I know if it’s great. Whether it’s going to sit at 50 or it’s going to sit at one, there is a way that we can sort of figure that out in our brains. Spirits are really hard to figure out what is better than what, especially when you’re dealing with different spirits, and especially when we’re looking at a whiskey and then we’re saying, “OK, is this better than this gin? Or is this better than this tequila?” It was crazy, man. We did a social distance tasting on the roof of all these spirits that we tasted throughout the year. We tasted them again, which also is weird. It’s very odd spitting spirits. You wind up still feeling buzzed. And then we debated. We went home, we’re on Zoom. We debated for longer. Then the next day we kept debating. It took a really long time to figure this out. Also because everyone’s all over the place. And I feel for whatever reason, because it’s spirits, price and money just comes into it in a very different way, you know? Some of these spirits were incredible but are very hard to find, highly allocated and also crazy expensive, you’ll probably never pay market price for them. That started weighing on where they should actually fall on the list. Obviously a brown spirit would be No. 1. I mean, that’s where we are, right? And in just the world of spirits, whiskey is going to be up there, whiskey seems to do better than anything else. And that was still the case here. I was proud of us, though, that we really did feel very strongly that a tequila should be No. 2. I think what we’ve seen in the world of spirits right now and just how dominant tequila is becoming and how many people are entering the category, how many tequilas are coming to the market that are less manipulated and really, truly speaking of a place. I think tequila is going to continue to evolve as a collector’s spirit. They’re definitely some surprises there. I’m curious what your impressions were when you saw this list.
Z: Well, I think I want to add one other note of potential complexity, which I’m sure you considered, but probably just didn’t feel like mentioning. With wine, you can be pretty confident that when you’re putting together a list or beer, that someone is going to consume that liquid, they’re going to open that bottle or can, and either drink directly from it or pour it into a glass, and drink it. And with spirits, especially some of these, are you talking about the best gin for a gin and tonic, the best gin for a Martini, or the best gin for a Negroni? I mean, it’s very difficult. And I am glad that the VinePair team did this. I think it’s a kind of a crazy notion again, it’s hard to quantify. And so in some ways I get why some of the high-end brown spirits are easier to do, because really, people are probably drinking those neat or on the rocks. Maybe they’re making, I would even say it’s unlikely that someone’s making much in the way of a cocktail, maybe a Manhattan or something, if you really love that. But I think a lot of these are meant to be enjoyed that way. I think that the two things that stood out to me at the top of the list. One of them is, I have often felt that they are like an underappreciated distillery: Evan Williams is on here relatively high up.
A: Oh, I’m so glad you said that. I’m so glad you said that.
Z: There are a few things when the restaurant bar programs that I felt strongly about, to the point of, “I think this is how you should do it.” But evidently, Evan Williams being the well bourbon, wherever I worked was a big piece of it. It consistently delivers, it’s affordable, it works really well as a cocktail partner. And it’s at a slightly higher ABV level than like the minimum for bourbon. It’s, I think, 43 or something like that. And so in cocktails, in particular, it doesn’t, the downside to a lot of other sort of similarly priced, well-applicable bourbons, they just really kind of fell flat in cocktails, because they’re just a little bit lower proof, and Evan Williams always felt like really stood up nicely and cocktails and granted for a lot of cocktails that we were making, well bourbon was not the call. It was usually going to be something else. And especially if your well drink is an Old Fashioned or something like that, I just love it. And I have not tried the 2012 single barrel, but I’m just really glad to see Evan Williams on here.
A: Let’s be clear, right? Evan Williams. Everyone basically said when we tasted, that this bourbon for the entire tastings team was a bourbon they returned to throughout the pandemic. Right? It is 30 bucks. This is a single barrel. The amount of s*** that is romanticized by bourbon geeks that this whiskey has, for the price, is stupid. And we actually feel across the board that Heaven Hill is the most underrated whiskey distillery, bourbon distillery in America. For as much attention as Sazerac gets, which they deserve a lot of attention, but a lot of it also comes to the fact that they do produce Pappy. Let’s be clear. That attention overshadows a lot of other distilleries that are producing liquid that is just as good, if not better, but cannot for that reason connect itself back to Pappy. So the No. 1 whiskey on this list, Old Fitzgerald, is Heaven Hills wheated bourbon, that is $200, not a few thousand, and it is on par with Pappy. They release two releases a year. They release a spring and fall bottling of Old Fitz. It’s always anywhere from 14 to 16 years old. The bourbon is absolutely gorgeous. It basically has a very similar mash build as Pappy. We think it’s a bourbon that probably will become very collectible very soon. There’s Evan Williams, there’s Elijah Craig, a lot of the bourbons that this place produces are just all incredibly solid. And I do agree with you, Zach. It’s a lot easier to look at the brown spirits, because for the most part, people are going to consume them straight. To be fair, it made a lot of the tequilas easier because especially when you start playing in the world of reposado, but even in blanco, nowadays people are drinking it straight. It was much harder when thinking about the gins and the rums. Because the gins and the rums were very much “so why are we saying this is so good?” It’s just so good because it would make an amazing Daiquiri, right? Does that make it the best white rum? Just because it’s probably the best white rum in the world for a Daiquiri? We decided that, yes, that was the case. We think that the white rum was created for the Daiquiri base or the Daiquiri is created for the white run. You know what I mean? And that was how we wanted to go. And other things, there was a huge, massive debate on the roof. Tim’s going to kill me for this. Of people talking about gin and gin and tonics, and then gin and Martinis. And Tim is not a gin and tonic fan, which I think is very interesting, cause he’s a Brit. Some other people in the tasting team like gin and tonics, and we’re talking about these gins. That shouldn’t be amazing. I would love it. And Tim said, “that’s bollocks, this gin is not as good as the gin I’d use in a Martini.” Everyone who has ever listened to him on this podcast knows that he’s a massive Martini fan. So that was hard, right? Exactly what you’re talking about happened. It was difficult. It was really difficult to figure out where everything should lie. I will say, it’s not surprising that the majority of the list is brown, as we’ve said before. But there are some standouts here, like Tanqueray No. Ten. I mean, this gin is really beautiful. It has everything a traditional gin drink would want. But it also has all these components of what is really trendy right now in gin. So it’s like that perfect liquid for people who want to see why gin is having this massive renaissance. Have this gin and you’ll understand why. It’s perfect in a Martini, but it’s also delicious in a gin and tonic and Negroni. It’s a great liquid and you can find it everywhere. We did have this debate, with things like Monkey 47, right? It’s an amazing gin, but it’s very expensive, it’s a very expensive gin. So where does that go? Another thing I think about gin now, I’m getting on the gin train. It was interesting to realize that a lot of the gins we like this year were all coming out of Japan. And it’s interesting, Japan is establishing itself as a location for producing not just amazing whiskeys, which is what has become known for over the last few decades, but now also becoming really well-known as a country that produces really amazing gins and gins that are very uniquely Japanese, which I think is interesting. The Japanese whiskeys, they were going to say, we’re going to go out to make Scotch, but better. And these gins are all their own thing, which I think is really cool.
Z: Well, I think it’s a sign and an exciting thing. And I look forward to this expanding even further because one thing that’s very true is, as gin has more of a renaissance globally, more and more places around the world, here in the U.S., in Europe, in Asia, and in other parts of the world. Gin more than almost any other spirit is such an incredible platform for expression of place, because you can infuse a gin with so many different potential botanical herb, barks, fruits, et cetera, and produce something that’s still kind of is recognizably gin, but is also have a place in a way that, it’s harder to do that with other spirits, especially spirits, that are aged in barrel, where the barrel character is going to take over to some extent. I think it’s exciting and I think it’s one of the great things about this list I was thinking about, the great thing about looking into potentially shopping off of this list, as opposed to the wine list is, you can come back to these things over and over again, right? You can come back to the bottle of whiskey, of tequila, of gin, of rum, et cetera. And you can compare and contrast side by side. You can say, “Hey, I want to get a couple of these gins” and you might feel that one is better for a gin and tonic, one is better for a Martini, one is better for a Negroni and that’s all super valid. And I think that’s what’s cool about looking at this list and maybe it makes the price point a little bit easier to swallow, even if it’s higher-per-bottle cost than the wine list, for sure. You can revisit these in a way that a wine, you got a day or two with it at best.
A: Of course. Well, so Zach, we’ve drawn on about these lists and I realized we’re kind of running out of time, and I don’t think we’re going to get to the beer list this time. Maybe that’s something we talk about with Cat in early 2021 and talk about this. Because that was actually just published today. So no rush, but I would encourage you, if you have enjoyed this podcast, go out and look at these two lists. The spirits and the wine, we are very much proud of both. And I encourage you to buy some of the liquids and let us know what you think. Tell us, do you think that where certain things on the list you agree with or disagree with? Hit us up [email protected]. We would just love to hear your thoughts. And Zach, I’ll get back with you next week.
Z: Sounds great.
Thanks so much for listening to the VinePair Podcast. If you enjoy listening to us every week, please leave us a review or rating on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever it is that you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show. Now for the credits, VinePair produced by myself and Zach. It is also mixed and edited by him. Yeah, Zach, we know you do a lot. I’d also like to thank the entire VinePair team, including my co-founder, Josh and our associate editor, Cat. Thanks so much for listening. See you next week.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.