‘Tis the season for VinePair’s end-of-year, 50 best lists. Just last week, our editorial team shared our picks for the 50 Best Wines of 2021, inspiring hosts Adam Teeter, Joanna Sciarrino, and Zach Geballe to devote this week’s episode of the “VinePair Podcast” to discussing the best wines of the year.
Learn how VinePair compiled the list — including some insider details about the tasting process — and how the list represents current trends in the wine world. Plus, Sciarrino and Teeter give their tips for bottles to bring to the upcoming Thanksgiving feast.
Tune in for more.
Or Check Out The Conversation Here
Adam Teeter: From VinePair’s New York City headquarters, I’m Adam Teeter.
Joanna Sciarrino: I’m Joanna Sciarrino.
Zach Geballe: And in Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe.
A: This is the “VinePair Podcast.” Guys, we made it to the end of November, which is pretty crazy. I feel like we’re already in January. People have already blown past December. People are going to start checking out in the next two-ish weeks.
J: It’s so busy, though. It’s such a busy time of year.
A: I just have been nonstop, nonstop. It has been nuts. Zach, how are you?
Z: You missed podcasting, that’s how busy you were. You couldn’t even make it for the podcast.
A: I couldn’t make the podcast. Isn’t that terrible?
A: Thanks Joanna, I’m so glad you said yes. Zach is probably like, this is the best day of my life.
Z: No, you were very much missed. I mean, let’s be clear. Tim and Keith are both wonderful, but they’re not you.
A: Thank you. No one’s me, Zach.
Z: We won’t comment on whether that’s a good or a bad thing.
A: It’s a great thing; I’m a unique butterfly. It is funny. I did get a lot of reactions in my Instagram feed like, my DMs, as well as some emails about how apparently passionate I got on the tipping episode. I was like, look, sometimes you just got to make a case.
J: Well, the moment called for it.
A: Thank you.
Z: Yeah. I feel like it’s a holiday season story now. I’ll say this: As a service professional for a long time, this time of year was always the best and worst all at once. I got some of my most satisfying and remunerative, fulfilling experiences in the holidays, but also some of my absolute worst service experiences happened this time of year. So it’s front and center. Not that the service industry and tipping isn’t always a subject, but it seems like everyone is kind of picking up on this. Like, holy sh*t, it’s brutal out there right now.
A: Yeah, it really is brutal out there right now. I’m not going to complain about service experiences recently, so let’s get into it instead. Zach, what have you been drinking, man?
Z: Oh, that’s a great question. So a couple of things I’ve tried. We did the taste test of a couple of the canned cocktails from Tip Top a few episodes ago. They very kindly sent me four of the six that they produce. I relatively recently tried the Margarita and the Old Fashioned, which we did not do on the podcast. I think both of you have had the Old Fashioned before. It was very good. I don’t know if it’s the best in terms of the best canned rendition of the cocktail because I think actually an Old Fashioned is maybe the easiest one to make work in the canned format.
A: But there are so many sh*t ones.
Z: I have tried fewer than you, so I will definitely take your word on that.
A: Oh, there’s so many that just taste like watered-down, sweet whiskey.
Z: Yeah, that’s true. And the sweetness balance is spot-on in this one.
A: This tastes like an Old Fashioned, that’s what I think they do well. What I like about it is that it has an orange hue, so you know there’s Angostura in it, which I think a lot of the other ones don’t get right, either. I think it’s interesting what you say because you would think it’s the easiest cocktail to make. But it’s gets f*cked up so much. Okay, so what else did you get sent?
Z: I got sent the Manhattan, the Old Fashioned, the Negroni and the Margarita. We’ve had so many conversations with canned cocktail or RTD cocktail producers on the podcast and citrus is the white whale for that category, right? Everyone has a different approach to it. You interviewed Aaron Polsky from Livewire, and they really don’t use citrus intentionally because they just don’t think it works in that format. The Tip Top one does; I think it’s good. Let’s be clear, if I was on an airplane or some of these other use cases that we talked about when we discussed them, I think I would be very satisfied with that Margarita. But my response, and my wife’s, was like, I could make a better Margarita at home because I can juice the limes at home. That’s not a criticism of the product. That’s just a reality. There are some things that a canned format is great for. And there are a lot of cases where you don’t want to have to do any of the prep, let let alone all of the prep. But a Margarita to me is one of those cocktails where I want to put the effort in. I’m sure that at some point we will find a time to drink all of these because like, it’s very handy to have, for sure. Then the other thing I had recently that I was really surprised by… There’s this growing trend of whole-cluster fermentation in red wines, in particular in things like Pinot Noir, Syrah, etc. But someone I know in the Washington wine industry makes a lot of really delicious Syrah that I enjoy. And on a whim, he made a carbonic maceration, whole-cluster Syrah. He gave me a bottle and was like, tell me what you think. I’m not really sure what I think of it, but I wanted to try this. I’ve had some examples of this kind of wine that I like, and a lot of the time I’d rather just have more conventionally made Syrah. But it was really good. It was fine. It was fresh, bright, and juicy and in good ways, but it had a good structure to it. But it wasn’t, to reference last week’s episode, funky. Maybe it was crunchy, I don’t know. We’ll see, but that was fun and a little bit out of my normal drinking repertoire.
A: I mean, a lot of people are doing whole cluster, but just because it’s the whole cluster doesn’t mean that it has to go through carbonic maceration. So carbonic is what’s so interesting to me because I had a winemaker recently, a winemaker who has a master’s degree in winemaking. So let’s be clear. He said to me that the issue he has with carbonic is that carbonic maceration does the same thing natural wine tactics can do where it is allowed in a compound. I can’t remember what the compound is, but it literally causes the creation of a compound that tastes like bubblegum. That’s why you can make a Zinfandel that tastes like bubblegum. It actually doesn’t taste like grapes. It literally morphs the grapes into tasting like bubblegum. So you get this juicy, tutti frutti flavor regardless of the grapes you’re using. So he’s like, I don’t do carbonic, because that’s not what I’m looking for when I’m making Syrah. I thought that was really interesting, I never knew that. I never knew that it actually causes this compound to be created that gives off aromas and flavors of bubblegum, and that that happens regardless of the type of red grapes you use. Which again, just goes to show that there are things that are trendy, but we don’t know why. And they’re all then creating wines that taste the same, it doesn’t matter what grapes you used. So anyways, I thought it was interesting.
Z: My experience with that bubble gummy flavor or aroma in these carbonic maceration wines is that it’s much more volatile, and it doesn’t linger in the glass for very long. So it’s like you open the bottle or you pour a glass and you get hit with that almost banana note. And it’s true. I think that’s very something about the fermentation method as opposed to the variety itself. But I don’t feel like it lingers too long, which I guess makes it tolerable as a component in the flavor and something that I can kind of get past. But there’s a reason why this is not the style of wine that I drink very often, right? For that reason or another. Joanna, what about you? What have you been drinking?
J: Well, I was a little under the weather last weekend, so I haven’t been drinking too much. But I’ve had a few very good Scotches lately. I don’t know if I’m allowed to share for various reasons. Some of which are coming up on our 50 Best Spirits list.
A: Maybe but don’t share that one, then.
Z: Have you been to Scotland before?
J: I have not. I would love to go.
Z: Yeah, me too. Adam, have you been?
A: I have been once with Josh for a very quick trip and basically we spent the whole time, oddly, in Edinburgh. It was with a brand four years ago, I think. We only went to one single malt distillery, and I could not tell you the name of that single malt distillery. Although I bought a tie because I really liked the pattern; I like their plaid. While I was in Edinburgh, we went to one of the original tasting rooms for BrewDog. This brand was like, “Oh yeah, come to Scotland and check out this new release we’re coming out with. Do your own thing during the day.” I think we went to one facility with them, went to dinner twice and then did our own thing. It was the chillest press trip you’d ever go on. So I’ve been once, and I would like to go back. Also, they have an insane cocktail scene with really incredible bars. There was one we went to that was a faux ice cream shop. Another had a vending machine where you can buy cocktails out of it. They really take their cocktail culture very seriously in Edinburgh.
Z: What have you been drinking, Adam?
A: Oh God, guys, it’s been a long week.
Z: Well, you can start the list now. Hopefully we have time in the whole episode.
A: So on Tuesday, I went to one of my favorite restaurants and wine bars in New York City, LaLou in Prospect Heights. I talked to two friends who work at a very large spirits company there because they had never been there. So we went to LaLou and had some really amazing white Burgundy, and then we did that again on Wednesday night when we were in D.C. as a reward for the staff after an excellent event. Last night, I had another meeting where I went out with some really awesome people we also work with and we went to the Hawksmoor, which opened in New York. It’s a very well-known steakhouse in London. They’re very much known for their cocktail program. And I had the coldest Martini in New York City. They do it with the Martini, the Manhattan, and the Gibson. They’ve gotten a lot of press just for the Martini, but they do it with all three.
J: And what is that? What do they do?
A: So basically, they batch the cocktail. I had the Martini. They batch it, then they run it through an atomizer which actually brings it through with vibrations of water, and it mixes the cocktail. Then, they get it down to minus-12 degrees Celsius, so it doesn’t freeze because it’s all spirit, right? And then they transfer it to insulated thermoses, and they pre-dilute it. So they’re very clear with the dilution ratios. You could mess this up if you tried to do it at home, if you don’t get the dilution right, but they were very much encouraging that this is how you should serve Martinis at home if you have a party. And then they get it super cold in the freezer down to minus-12. Pull it out. Put it in thermoses for service, where it stays at minus-12, and they pour it directly from the thermos into the Nick and Nora glasses, which I love, with no garnish because it already has lemon oil in the Martini, and they serve it with a side of olives. The cold temperature creates this amazing viscosity that you just can’t get by stirring the cocktail. You’ll just never get it that cold. And it’s really, really cool. It was really delicious. One of the people that I was with had the Manhattan and was like, “Wow, this is the best Manhattan I’ve ever had.” It’s because they just get it so, so cold. And it just becomes really, really interesting and almost too easy to drink at that temperature. You kind of forget its spirit because all you get is the texture and the sweetness, and you get the lemon flavors and the botanicals of the gin. But you lose the recognition of there also being an alcohol burn, if that makes sense. It’s just really cool, really cool. That’s probably the coolest drink I had this week. So Zach, we’re talking about the Top 50 list.
Z: Let’s do it.
A: You can kick it off because you’re the one asking the questions.
Z: I am the one asking questions. For longtime listeners, you’ll know that every year when we release our Top 50 lists for wine, for spirits, etc., we love to unpack some of the bottles, some of the process. And I wanted to start there with the both of you. Assembling any list is always an arduous and maybe enjoyable task. But as far as the process for listeners goes, without getting into too much detail, what is the timeline on this? When did you guys start working on it and what does the process look like from start to finish?
J: So this is my first time doing it, since I started with VinePair in January of this year. But the process really does take the entire year, right? Because we’re tasting wines all year long, and we’re publishing reviews for those wines all year long. Then, we really start getting into it for the purpose of this list later in the year, where we do a call for submissions and have winemakers send us their wines for consideration for this list specifically. We taste through all of those wines, and it’s a lot. We shorten that list down to about 75 or 100 wines, and then we taste them all as a team, which is a very arduous process, as you said. It’s very challenging. Again, this is my first time doing it. It was really hard. Then, we decide on a top 50, and then we go through the process of tasting them all again and ranking them, which is also very challenging because there are a lot of great wines out there.
Z: Adam, is it harder to cut the list of 50 or to order those 50?
A: It’s both. Contrary to popular belief, unlike other publications, our list has no bearing on whether or not you advertise with us. Our list has no bearing on whether or not we have a relationship with you. We very much believe with everything we do editorially, there’s a massive separation between church and state here. That also becomes challenging because you think about, were we sent these by someone because they think that we should include it? I think we really try throughout the entire year to open every bottle that we’re sent and taste it. We obviously remember it through the ratings of the tastings team and then revisit it. But it does become really difficult. As with any list, the other thing that we take very seriously is availability. So what is different from us compared to maybe a wine publication you may know for people in their 70s is that we’re not, we’re not going to feature a wine that there are only 500 bottles of or a thousand bottles of. It’s just not our style. We want you to be able to get these wines. Obviously, there will be wines where the vintage is done right by the time the list comes out. We have no control over that. But we want you to taste these wines, and we also want to feature wineries and wines that we think you should be aware of that you may have just even an unconscious bias about. One of the wines I think that is purposefully on this list is Vox Vineti, and it is purposefully here because they are making some of the best wine on the East Coast — and they’re in Pennsylvania. They’re making their Nebbiolo, but we think they’re making lots of other great wines as well at the property. And they’re proving that you don’t have to go to California to make great wine, that you can make it in other places in the country. Is it harder? Yeah. I think the team there works really, really hard to make really great wine because of all of the issues that you have in Pennsylvania with freezing temperatures and then it can get hot and humid during the summer and can be wet some years. But they’ve done a really great job, and that was important to us to say, OK, let’s highlight wine from Texas. We really are trying to show that there’s a lot of really incredible wine out in the world and that it’s not just focused on France, Italy, and California. But it’s really hard. It’s really hard.
Z: I’m both jealous and glad that I’m not a part of it. It feels like there’s so much that goes into putting together a list. But there is also this other stuff.
A: You’re always going to piss people off. Well, I sent you this and I don’t understand why this didn’t make the list. Because we taste thousands of wines. Your wine probably is really great. We did taste it, we did like it. But we tasted a lot of other stuff that we also loved. It’s really hard because I know that these lists are great for producers as well because they help sell bottles, and it’s great recognition. But they’re really hard because there is a lot of great wine out there. I mean, there’s also a lot of sh*t wine out there. I like to believe there’s more great wine that sh*t wine though.
Z: Yeah. So, let’s talk about trends or maybe even specific wines on this list. The thing that I said before we started recording to you, Joanna, is that the first thing I noticed when I scrolled through the list when it came out the other day is that Pinot Noir has shown well this year. Obviously, Pinot Noir is very popular and makes excellent wines. But, is there something that you felt about Pinot Noir in particular that felt like, OK, we’re going to have a good number of Pinot Noir-based wines on this list? Or is it just that’s what happened this year?
J: There are five Pinot Noirs on this list. I think they’re all from California. As we were tasting, we were like, Oh, this is really good. Oh, it’s another California Pinot Noir. So we definitely tried to be mindful of that. But I think ultimately, like Adam said, it just came down to these wines that we really loved. So I think what’s important about this list is that, like you said Zach, Pinot had a great year and that is reflected in this list. We wanted to be mindful of that and how many we included, but also didn’t want to say we can only have one. Because there were a lot of good ones.
A: And I want to be really clear, I think what sets us apart as well as a publisher is we don’t have this list be determined by people on our tastings team who are experts in the region. So I guess what I’m trying to say is I know other lists have been built where, for example, the person who runs the tastings for California and Bordeaux puts up their wines. These are all the wines that the tastings team loved this year, and they taste from all over the world. We don’t have anyone who specializes in a region. But then when we do the full creation of the list, the entire editorial team joins, including people from our art department and people who write more about spirits or beer. I actually think it gives a much more diverse set of opinions, which makes the list so much more interesting because you don’t have someone ever in the creation of this list who says, none of you like this wine but I’m a specialist in Napa and you’re f*cking wrong. Because I’ve been tasting Napa for 20 years and this is the best expression I’ve ever had in my career. Because again, this list also should reflect that if you buy any of these, you will think they are f*cking delicious. That’s really important to us — whether you are a collector, which a lot of collectors do read this list. We know that we know people who go out and buy lots of bottles of these once they’ve seen them on the list. But you should also be able to use this if you are a casual reader of VinePair and you’re trying to figure out what bottles to bring to Thanksgiving or what wines you want to give people, etc. That’s really important to us, and that’s why we have such a large group of people who taste and help order the list at the end.
Z: It very much shines through when you look at these lists every year that there’s no slotting. There’s no, we need to have five wines from Napa and four wines from Bordeaux. There’s none of that. It’s whatever you guys think the best wines of the year were on the list, and it doesn’t matter if it’s five California Pinot Noirs or if it’s a Saperavi from upstate New York. It’s just whatever you think is best. I think that’s a very commendable thing and something that most listeners are not going to be aware of. Definitely some of the other lists have a lot more spots reserved for certain types of wines.
A: Yeah, I think that makes it additionally challenging because we want to have some amount of balance. But that’s how it comes out.
Z: One of the most interesting categories that’s represented here and in a few different ways is sparkling wine. In particular, a lot of sparkling rosé. Is there something about pink bubbles that’s happening that’s having a moment in 2021, too?
J: That is a good question. I didn’t really notice that.
A: I didn’t notice that either, actually.
J: There were definitely some standouts. We did try a lot of sparkling wines as well. And the Dom Maria Brazilian Sparkling Rosé, we thought was really interesting and something different. That’s why we wanted to add that to the list. For the others, I think we just really liked them.
Z: The question that I should have asked before but it comes up is, are wines that have been on the list in the past excluded? How does that work in terms of not having the same wines? Because I’m sure that some of the wine lists in previous years are still great.
A: I want to be very clear: Cogno is still one of my favorite Barolos. It was the No. 1 wine a few years ago. We’re not mad at Cogno. It’s just really hard; you’re getting into the politics of list creation here.
Z: That’s what’s interesting.
A: Once you’re No. 1, we can’t put you No. 1 again for a very long time. We also can’t demote you. Right. So we can’t be like, this wine is now No. 7, but we put it at 1 in 2017. That, to us, feels really weird. How do we justify that? Are we going to say that something happened in the winemaking? Was it a bad vintage? If we were to drop you, we better have a really good reason why. The other thing is if a wine makes the list again, it’s because it’s come up in rankings. You might see something that was in like the 20s or the teens that gets into the single digits in a future year. But more often what happens is you will see a wine potentially from the same producer, but a different wine featured. It’s very rare that you would ever see the same wine featured from the same producer. We really try not to do that. It can be difficult sometimes. For example, is it possible that another Hirsch, which is the No. 1 wine of the year this year, is featured in the list in the future? Yeah. Will it be the Hirsch Pinot Noir? Probably not. Hirsch, enjoy that, saying that you were the 2021 wine of the year. Oh, my God, I love that wine so much. How can we make that No. 7 in 2023? It just doesn’t make any sense. We’re saying this is the best wine of the year, so just hold your spot, man. It’s like when you have a championship, you may not win it again.
Z: I have two last questions for each of you on this list. Obviously, there’s so much more to get into and obviously, if you haven’t taken a look at it, you should definitely look through and read the reviews. First question is for each of you: Outside of the top 20, give me one wine that you like. Obviously, people are going to look at the whole list, but they’re going to focus on the top. That’s generally what people do. But something from No. 21 to No. 50 that you’re like, go try this, it’s awesome, give it a shot.
J: I really enjoyed all of them. But the Hungarian Somlói Vándor Hárslevelű was really delicious, and that’s at No. 25. Also the Brazilian sparkling rosé that I mentioned as well, that’s at No. 21.
Z: Plus, you get to practice your Magyar pronunciation.
J: Was that OK?
Z: I think it was good. I’m no expert, but it sounded plausible to me. How about you, Adam?
A: I’m going to try and give you one from each of the other sections. First of all, everyone should know the 50th wine because it was in our Top 25 Rosés this year. That’s a dope wine, and Alpha made the No. 1 wine last year. No. 43 Chapel Down is further proof for anyone who wants to try to understand why everyone’s so excited about sparkling wine being made in England. It’s just a really amazing, non-vintage brut. Yes, I get it’s 43 bucks and you can get non-vintage Champagne for around that, but not at this quality for that price. So you should get this. It’s a really cool bottle. And again, it’s a really great conversation starter. Just really, really amazing. No. 39 is a Scribe Pinot Noir. If you can get it, it’ll show you what the fuss is about. It’ll show you why people are obsessed with the winery. It’ll totally make you understand why people are just so rabid about it. It’s just a really beautiful wine. I’ve already talked about No. 37 but again, just f*cking expand your palates and understand that they can make good wine in Pennsylvania and stop coming at me telling me that you don’t believe me.
Z: You’ve also always championed Nebbiolo outside of Italy.
A: Yeah, totally.
Z: In Virginia as well, if I recall.
A: Does this Nebbiolo taste like Barolo quality or even Lange quality? No, it doesn’t. It tastes completely different. It’s being grown in Virginia. It has a little bit more of — and this is going to be only for a very small subset of our listenership — a quality like Valtellina. But it’s really delicious. The thing that’s kind of missing from it is the really aggressive tannins. It has much more of a very light, Pinot Noir style to it being grown here with really beautiful, bright acidity and notes of strawberries and really bright red fruit. But the tannin aggressiveness isn’t there as much, which I thought was really interesting. And it’s much lower in alcohol. Also in the 30s, but get that C.L. Butaud from Texas. And then you know I love her so I’m going to call it out, No. 26 Inman Family Whole Buncha Love. I think Kathleen Inman is one of the most exciting winemakers in Sonoma. She deserves a lot more attention than she gets. She’s just a really great person. She’s a beautiful winemaker. She’s making wines that everyone would qualify as natural, but they are just beautiful and clean. I love this wine so much, and it was really beloved by everyone on our team. Those would be my specific callouts for anything above No. 20.
Z: My last question for both of you, since this is running right before Thanksgiving is: What is a bottle not yet mentioned that you would like to drink at Thanksgiving?
J: Good question. I think I would take the Halcyon Wines Cab Franc.
A: I was hoping you’d say that one.
J: Yes, it’s very light-bodied. I think it would go with a lot on the Thanksgiving table, and it’s very juicy as well.
A: So can I not mention it because I already mentioned it as No. 1? I can’t say Hirsch.
Z: That’s correct.
A: Ah, you f*cker. I would totally do Carlo Giacosa Barbaresco. I mean, y’all know that Nebbiolo is my favorite grape. This is an amazing, amazing wine. He’s really neck and neck with Hirsch. People love both. As you can see there, the Carlo Giacoso is about half the price of the Hirsch. Especially if you’re a Nebbiolo fan, go get this bottle of wine, it’s just stunning. And $46 is a pretty fair price for high-quality Barbaresco.
J: I want to say one last thing because I would also like the Anselmo Mendes “Tempo” orange wine, which is No. 3 on the list, was also amazing and one that I wanted to mention because I think that could be a fun and flirty Thanksgiving pick.
Z: Yes. Flirty is not usually my Thanksgiving speed, but that’s because I’ll be kicking my feet up with some Charles Heidsieck Blanc de Blancs because it’s perhaps my favorite of the big-house producers in Champagne. It’s always cool to look at the list and be like, Oh, here’s a bunch of stuff that I’ve never tried. Then, there are always some wines out there that I’m very familiar with, and that is definitely one of them.
A: I just want to go drink wine now.
Z: I think we should.
A: All right guys, this has been fun. Have a really happy Thanksgiving. I’ll talk to you on Friday.
J: Thanks, guys.
Z: Sounds great.
Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast.” If you love this show as much as we love making it, please leave us a rating or review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever it is you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show.
Now for the credits. VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City and Seattle, Washington, by myself and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I would love to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all of this possible, and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director, who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team, who are instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.