To have a wine that has a cerebral effect on you is to experience a sip of greatness. While many wines can show complexity, balance, and character, it takes much more for them to have an impact so significant that a drinker’s perspective expands upon first taste.
Just ask sommelier Devin Reed. Having worked in fine wine for companies like Wally’s Beverly Hills, LVMH, and now his own 59Wines Rare Wine Concierge service, he’s enjoyed his fair share of really good wine. However, only a tiny few like the Heitz Cellar Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 have knocked him off his feet.
“I immediately knew that it was something different, something special. It was structurally sound. The fruit, the acid, the tannins, and the alcohol were all in balance. Nothing was too overpowering. I drank this, and it was like somebody was playing beautiful music in my mouth. It was just perfect,” Reed explains. “I’ll never forget that experience.”
Reed isn’t the only person to have a similar experience drinking that particular bottle and vintage of California Cabernet Sauvignon. The wine has repeatedly received 100-point scores, meaning critics have found the wine to be a perfect one too.
It’s not just bottles of Heitz Cellar that are receiving the highest scores either. In fact, following a string of good vintages from top producers, more than 50 California wineries were awarded 100 points in 2021, according to a recent Liv-ex report. Wines that were released in 2021 from 2016, 2018, and 2019 vintages, in particular, received the highest scores from highly-regarded critics.
What a 100-point score means
Simply put, a wine with a 100-point score means that it is “perfect by taste, perfect by structure, the best that you can get,” notes Reed.
Highly regarded wine critic Robert Parker, the creator of the Wine Advocate, popularized the 100-point system back in the 1980s to give consumers a quick and easy assessment of the quality and value of wines.
The scores are based on several aspects like overall quality, balance, depth, and complexity. Wines with 80-point scores are viewed as commercially acceptable and overall good, fault-free wines. Bottles that receive 95 to 100 points are of excellent quality and have left an impression on critics.
And wines that are awarded 100-point scores from multiple critics are a rarity. And they often indicate that a wine is worth collecting and bottle aging for years on end.
“The premise of wine scores is such a great thing because wine can be so intimidating. The field is so vast, and there’s new information every day. Even for someone like myself who does this for a living, it changes constantly,” says Matt Whitney, a sommelier who is also the general manager of The Tavern, a New York City restaurant owned and operated by Wine Spectator.
Whitney adds, “Wine scores can be incredibly beneficial because they inform the general public. It informs people who don’t have the time to sit and taste a bunch of wine that a publication or a critic whose palate they align with has given a wine a stamp of approval. It’s like a vote of confidence.”
What it means for U.S. wine
Since winning the 1976 Judgment of Paris, during which international critics blind-tasted wines from California and Bordeaux, California has maintained a reputation for producing wines of outstanding quality. Having a bounty of wines receiving top scores from critics only further pushes California into the fine wine zeitgeist.
However, it also helps expand the view of American-made wines as other states follow the benchmarks set by California winemakers.
“When you do see an American wine land at the top of one of the critically acclaimed lists, or land a 100-point score, it certainly adds to the dialogue on behalf of American wines,” Whitney says.
Whitney continues, “When you see these California producers get rewarded for their hard work, it certainly reinforces the state as one of the great wine regions of the world, but it helps push the conversation for other American wines too.”
100-point wines to try:
Ramey Wine Cellars Hyde Vineyard Chardonnay 2018 (~$75)
The Chardonnay grapes used for this Burgundian-style wine come from Ramey Wine Cellars vineyard blocks planted in 1997 and 1999, resulting in a wine that is fresh and vibrant with minerality, orchard fruit notes, and hints of toasted bread.
Patria Avoyelles Oakville Ranch Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2019 (~$200)
A Bordeaux blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and 5% Petit Verdot from the Oakville district of Napa, this garnet-purple-colored wine is made by Patria. The wine is layered with robust aromas and flavors of red and black fruits, dried herbs, chocolate, and minerality. It’s full-bodied, with solid tannins that will lead the wine to easily last for 15 to 20 years in the cellar.
Alpha Omega Beckstoffer To Kalon Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 (~$229)
Alpha Omega sources fruit for this Cabernet Sauvignon from its vineyards planted in 1994 near Napa’s Mayacamas Mountains. It ages for years in the barrel before the wine is ready for purchase, and even still, it has the quality and backbone to last for decades more in the bottle. The wine is deep red with complex nuances of cassis, red berries, licorice, and a heap of spice integrated with grippy tannins.
Heitz Cellar Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 (~$300)
Like its 2014 vintage sibling, this vintage of Cabernet Sauvignon produced by Heitz Cellar in Oakville is a stunner. It even landed the number three spot on Wine Spectator’s Top 100 Wines of 2021 list thanks to refined notes of wild black fruit lifted by an herbal and surprising melody of thyme, mint, eucalyptus, and bay leaf. The wine is polished with fine tannins and a finish that lasts forever.
Cliff Lede Vineyards Poetry Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 (~$310)
This wine by Cliff Lede Vineyards comes from the winery’s Poetry Vineyard in the Stags Leap District, which gets its name from the famous quote by poet Robert Louis Stevenson, “… and the wine is bottled poetry.” And it is exactly that. A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot, and Cabernet Franc, the wine is ripe with red and black fruit aromas and a bouquet of jasmine and lilac fragrances. On the palate, the wine is lush, showing red fruit and woody notes of cedar, sandalwood, and rose petals. The tannins are firm, lasting throughout the long finish.
Sine Qua Non Distenta I Santa Barbara County Syrah 2019 ($360)
Winemakers at Sine Qua Non used Syrah, Mourvèdre, Petite Sirah, Grenache, Muscat, and Petit Manseng grapes from four different estate vineyards to make this rich and powerful wine. Nearly purple in color, the wine displays intense aromas of floral and fruit followed by a wave of spices like mocha, cardamom, and star anise. The palate is washed with bright blue and red fruit, while fine yet solid tannins give the wine its sturdy backbone.
Accendo Cellars Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 ($362)
The year 2018 was a stellar one for Napa Valley vintners. That seems to be exceptionally true for winemakers at Accendo Cellars. With grapes sourced from multiple estate vineyards, this Cabernet Sauvignon is packed with savory aromas of coffee, cedar, and rosemary. The palate is awash with acidity and plush with blueberries, blackberries, and a hint of ginger. The tannins are grainy and dense, leading to an elegant yet powerful finish.
Kapcsándy Family Winery State Lane Vineyard Grand Vin Cabernet Sauvignon 2019 (~$556)
Deep purple in color, aromas of black and blue fruit, plum preserves, spice, and menthol in this Kapcsándy Family Winery Cabernet Sauvignon jump out of the bottle. The palate is layered with flavors that match the wine’s smell and accompanied by bold, grippy tannins that support the rock-solid backbone. The finish is incredibly long.
TOR Wines Black Magic Napa Valley Red Blend 2018 (~$730)
This mesmerizing blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, and Cabernet Franc is produced by TOR Wines with fruit sourced from Vine Hill Ranch and To Kalon vineyards in Napa. A poised red wine with plenty of tension, this Cabernet displays alluring layers and layers of flavors like baked plum, licorice, spice, and fresh-rolled cigars. Robust and full-bodied, the wine has dense tannins and an incredibly long finish that critics say will lead the wine to last in the cellar for 40 years or more.
Colgin Cellars IX Estate Red 2019 (~$950)
This inky, black-colored wine by Colgin Cellars is profound in opulence. Aromas of baked fruits, blackberry preserves, and hints of pencil shavings, sage, and lavender evolve on the palate and get a lift from fresh acid and ripe tannin. The finish is long and doused in earthy complexity.