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Get ready for 2008 Champagnes. It is approaching fast and set to be a great year. One of the best. 

Mr Champagne is aware we are on the cusp of 2016 and that the year of the Beijing Olympics is so last decade. He’s talking about the 2008 vintage, which champagne houses are releasing now to hit the all-important festive season. Bottles from this vintage are set to be far better than 2006 vint­ages, still widely available.

“It’s exciting,” Tyson Stelzer declares. “It’s a good time in Australia for champagne at the moment. There’s so much interest around varieties of champagne, especially among those who have a bit of understanding.” Which, let’s face it, is not most of us. But this, he says, is changing.

“We are drinking double the amount of champagne we were drinking five years ago. But at the same time we are drinking 8 per cent less sparkling wine in general. Sparking consumption has decreased, champagne consumption has increased, which overall is a trade-up to more expensive wines.”

 

Stelzer has spent the past month around Australia and in London conducting tastings, launching his book The Champagne Guide 2016-2017 and filming his television series People of the Vines. And he and his wife have just had their third child.

He’s tall, thin and angular, looks a bit like a high school science teacher — which he was. The world of wine, particularly champagne, was a hobby that became a career. His reputation is on the up; wine critics afforded his first champagne guide the same reception they give a standout shiraz, and the wise men of wine, such as James Halliday, regularly name-check him in their writings.

Stelzer cautions that the greatness of 2008 presents a bit of a double-edged sword. “At the moment we need to be a little more selective about the champagnes that are coming through,” he warns. Yes, 2008 is one of the best vintages in decades, and many non-vintage wines from the past two years have that “awesome year” as their base. But now many non-vintages are based on the “very difficult” 2010 and 2011 harvests, so be selective.

Australians love their champagne. Buoyed by a strong dollar we have risen to become the sixth biggest export market, punching well above our population weight. But our consumption is lopsided.

“We are drinking big company non-vintage entry cuvees,” Stelzer says. “And the proportion of (champagnes from single) growers we are drinking is among the lowest of all of the big champagne markets. The proportion of roses we are drinking is low, the proportion of vintage wines we are drinking is low, the proportion of anything but the top five champagne houses is low.”

So well done to Moet & Chandon, Veuve Clicquot, Nicolas Feuillatte, GH Mumm and Laurent-Perrier. “Those top five are just kicking goals. They are selling much more here as a proportion than anywhere else in the world, which is fascinating.”

Like students, we have the enthusiasm without the knowledge.

 

Stelzer champions the excellent but unknown. Now the dollar has fallen, his window of opportunity to do so is a narrow one.

“Because our currency has taken a plunge, we will see some prices on some champagnes increase significantly in the next year or two,” he says.

Those that are to suffer most are the grower champagnes, the vineyards that bottle their own grapes rather than sell to larger houses. We drink half the number of grower bottles than several years ago. Our currency woes have snuffed out some experimentation, and Coles and Woolworths, through the ownership of big liquor chains such as Vintage Cellars and Dan Murphy’s, have gone for cheaper houses.

So is expensive champagne good and cheap champagne nasty? “No, thankfully. There are incredible growers out there such as Gimonnet, which used to be $35 to $45 when it was available from Coles. There is still some stock and it is brilliant, outstanding tiny grower, great vineyards, fanatical attention to detail. You can get awesome champagne for $35. For some people that is not cheap; you can buy a bottle of (sparkling Australian) Janz non-vintage for $25, which in my mind is better than anything of champagne for $25 on the shelves right now.”

Stelzer fell in love with wine during a decade as a teacher and department head in mathematics and physics. He wrote a bit online and, after a school holiday research project about screw cap technology, produced a booklet as thirst for knowledge about the new method of stoppering wine exploded. The booklet sold in 20 countries; conference invitations from South Africa, Japan, Britain and New Zealand flooded in.

On a trip to France’s Champagne region in 2010 he noticed the dearth of information on the myriad growers and houses and later produced his first Champagne guide.

I attempt to take him to task about the 100-point ranking system so beloved by wine writers. Surprisingly, he agrees.

“It is completely nonsensical to assign a two-digit score to a thing as complex as wine, let alone the grand complexities of sparkling wine, which is one of the most difficult wine styles in the world,” he says. “But unfortunately I am locked into a global regime where others have set the scale. The scale itself is ridiculous.”

He does review wines that he scores 80 points but never publishes them. “There are only so many plays on in Sydney every year. I have probably a million wines I could choose to include in my columns. The readers are not so interested in a bad review.” His advice? “Don’t spend too much time on the points, spend time focusing on the descriptions where you get a better feel for the cuvees.”

Just as Stelzer will champion an inexpensive wine, he gives some of the bigger maisons a score they judge beneath them.

“I am out of sorts with one or two chefs de cave at the moment who think my scores are too low,” he says. “That’s OK. They need to protect their territory and I need to be independent and honest, which I am.”

In his latest guide, after a tour of its command centre in Epernay, Stelzer writes that Moet & Chandon, the biggest house, is “one of the most exciting wine outfits in the world”, but still lowballs its Brut Imperial NV with a score of 87 points. “They’re not exactly my style, so the scores are lower than they would like them to be.”

He is frank about the price point of prestige cuvees. “Is a Ferrari really worth more than 100 times a Hyundai?” he muses. “Some of them are exorbitantly expensive and shouldn’t be. I have notes about some in the book that have a large amount of gangsta rapper following but not necessary the quality in the bottle.”

But other champagnes that cost hundreds are “absolutely world class”.

“There are some great cuvees starting to come through from 2008 — a very classic, very refined vintage. And long-lived; if you want to put something down for a child’s 21st, that’s the vintage to do it from, a beautiful vintage that I think will go down in time next to 1996 as one of the great vintages of the recent era.”

 

 

Vintage Report by Antinori / Italy

The season was characterized by an autumn and a winter which were not particularly cold and with little rain, conditions which favored a slightly early bud break compared to the preceding vintages. Spring, and the first vegetation, saw the appearance of adverse meteorological conditions, with frequent rainfall until the end of May which caused a slowing of plant growth, a slowing which, nonetheless, did not have harmful effects on vine health. June and July, instead, were warm and dry, while in August there was scattered rainfall which helped the vines to sustain regular growth of both the vegetation and the grapes.

The months of September and October were very favorable for harvest operations, thanks as well to temperature swings from daytime heat to nighttime coolness, optimal conditions for grape quality. Sangiovese was picked during the last ten days of September, while Cabernet continued to be harvested until the middle of October. From the very beginning of the harvest the musts showed very interesting colors and aromas, which indicated that the vintage was of very high level indeed.

 

 

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Vintage Report

Château Palmer / Characteristics of the vintage 2008
After a mild and dry late winter season, budburst was delayed by a cold spell that set in from mid-March to late April. A very rainy month of May ended with a hail storm that hit the south of the Médoc, including a few Château Palmer plots, which added to the stress that the vine was undergoing. Flowering took place in June under particularly unfavorable conditions of cool, rainy weather, which caused widespread coulure.
The mildew pressure was constant this year.
 

The weather in July plays an essential role in the synthesis of phenolic compounds and it was a beautiful month, for the most part. Summer started off nicely from the very beginning, with a long period of relatively dry, beautiful weather lasting from June 20 to August 10. The less favorable period that followed and lasted until September 14 made us forget those weeks to a certain extent, all the more so because we had to fight off diseases.
The cold, wet conditions in August and early September gave way suddenly and unexpectedly to a very sunny dry spell, as a northern wind set in from September 14 on, drying out the pockets of botrytis.

We were able to wait for the late maturities to complement each other, with no major sanitary concerns. The nights were cool. This lent itself to a gentle, harmonious maturation, which brings out in turn a very elegant aromatic expressiveness. A miracle as only nature knows how to produce them!
The Merlots displayed unexpectedly high levels of concentration, with degrees between 13.5° and 14.5°. The sugar content of the Cabernets sauvignon grapes hovered as usual around 12° and 12.5°. But there again we found a nice concentration of phenolic compounds and perfectly ripe tannins. They are velvety and display beautiful volume on the palate.

 

2008 Vintage by Château Margaux

As in 2006 and 2007, the chilly and damp weather conditions worked in favour of the Sauvignon Blanc’s aromatic expression; but the nice weather arrived too late and didn't allow the grapes to reach the same record levels of concentration, in spite of a low yield of 25 hectolitres per hectare. The three sortings we did in each of our plots turned out an average alcoholic degree of over 14, one degree less than in 2006 and of course 2007.

Nor did that short spell of fine weather enable all the plots to achieve perfect ripeness. Subtle differences could easily be noticed between different terroirs and between younger and older vines, so we had to carry out a drastic selection, only keeping 45% of the crop. 2008 will therefore be the smallest vintage we have ever produced.

Such severe measures have allowed the making of a wine that is close in quality to the previous vintages. Although less powerful than the 2007, the 2008 is fresher and perhaps more balanced. It has incomparable finesse, subtlety and aromatic complexity, proof of the perfect ripeness of the grapes we brought in. Great terroirs usually express their true personality in such borderline conditions. (January 2011)

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Vintage Report

The year 2008 reminded Napa Valley producers of the climate conditions their European colleagues often battle. The wild weather put the vineyards to the test and required more measures than usual to ensure an optimal harvest. Due to the exceptional weather conditions, the terroir played a significant role in shaping the character of the resulting wines. Some of the influencing factors were soil quality, vineyard-specific weather patterns, the age of vines and the farming methods used. After the extensive 2008 Napa Cabernet tasting, there were no great qualitative differences, however, as the wines at the tasting all represented some of the best that these top producers have to offer. Although the scores ranged between 86 and 96 points, the differences will even out through longer ageing, as the wines will reach their optimum drinkability within 10–15 years. It was wonderful to note that a great deal of the wines were characterised by a seductively succulent fruitiness, which made many of them enjoyable already – more than half of the wines have scored 90 or more points, despite their young age. Whereas the great 2007 vintage contains very refined and long-lived wines, the 2008 wines charmed tasters with their open and generous style, even though their best days are still far in the future.

 

2008 from the producers’ point of view

“Happily, Continuum’s estate vineyards on Pritchard Hill were protected from most vagaries of the weather as a result of our higher elevations and westerly aspect. A heat spike during flowering in May did lower our crop levels but weather patterns were fairly mild from that point until late August, when a week-long temperature jump pushed picking forward. However, no sooner did the heat arrive than it left again and the remainder of the harvest proceeded in a cooler than normal climate. All the fruit was harvested over a period of five weeks, from September 18 until October 25. Overall, the fruit quality from the estate was very good to excellent in 2008.”

Tim Mondavi, owner and winemaker, Continuum Estate

 

“This spring was one of the driest on record, and so vines pushed buds early. Then, a prolonged series of frosty nights kept us working hard in the vineyard to protect the young shoots from the cold. This was followed by a hot and dry spring that led to a lighter crop-load than usual with small, intensely flavoured berries that ripened relatively early. A warm and moderate summer naturally down-regulated the vigour of the vines, so that they could focus efforts on fruit maturation. This meant that a smaller but very intensely flavoured crop was picked mostly in the latter two weeks of September. For us, the 2008 Screaming Eagle would be considered a very characteristic vintage, having all of the freshness, floral and perfume elements, as well as finesse, that is classic for this estate. The 2008 vintage, although showing quite beautifully already, is likely to develop some nice nuances over the next 15–20 years as well.”
Nick Gislason, winemaker, Screaming Eagle

 

“After the early start to the growing season, the Eisele Vineyard harvest began slightly earlier than normal, with the first block of Cabernet harvested on September 11 and the final grapes picked on October 1. The 2008 was unlike any vintage we have experienced since 1991, which was our inaugural vintage.

A seriously challenging beginning to the season, but very fine growing conditions from veraison to harvest resulted in one of the best wines we have ever produced.”
Bart Araujo, owner, Araujo Estate

 

Lower than normal rainfall (28.9 inches) in the winter and a dry spring; bud break on April 1. There was a very erratic weather pattern throughout most of the early growing season. Temperatures fluctuated from extreme lows to extreme highs throughout the spring and early summer. This vintage gave us ten days over 38C between May and September and an equal number of days below 21C for the same period. This unusual pattern was followed by a cooling trend in mid-September, which allowed for a slow and deliberate harvest, and September finished with about eight days of between 32C and 37C. The end of this season was perfect for yielding optimal maturity in most of the lots.

                      Overall, truly a moderate climate for Napa Valley, however the method with which it was achieved was truly unique. Harvest began on September 2 and finished on September 29. Average yield: 1.5 tonnes per acre. During fermentation, the wines showed very forward fruit with very soft and supple tannins. As the wines aged in barrels they gained in both complexity and concentration. The end result shows wines with great finesse and density, sharing both an early approachability and a long lived capability. It would be difficult to duplicate the growing conditions we experienced in 2008 and it would have been difficult to predict the outcome of such a weather pattern on wine quality. However, we couldn’t be more pleased with the outcome.
Bob Levy, winemaker, Harlan Estate

 

 

“The 2008 growing season was generally drier than average. The valley experienced no significant rainfall after February, so soils all over the valley, and especially in the hillsides, dried out earlier and the season got off to an early start. Because of the dry soils, vines were low in vigour and consequently produced a smaller amount of fruit. There were fewer berries per cluster and the berry size in general was much smaller. The result is a greater ratio of skin to juice, technically speaking. And from a winemaking point of view, it gave us wines that were dense in concentration with aromas that truly centred on the terroir where the fruit was grown. There are more soil-driven aromas in our IX Estate Red wine in 2008, such as clay, mineral and crush rocks, than in most vintages. Concerning a comparison vintage, I’d say every vintage is unique and one could never make a comparison. However, if I was pushed, I’d -
say that 2008 has the richness of the 2004,
with the earthy aromatic profile of 2002.
We generally recommend cellaring our wines for at least 5 to 10 years and they will age for twenty years or more.”
Allison Tauziet, winemaker, Colgin

 

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Germany Vintage Report by Wilhelm Weil: At first glance, 2008 seemed like such a wonderfully “normal” year. Nevertheless, and despite many a cloudy day in summer, the weather during the growing season was once again noticeably warmer than the long-term average. The somewhat above-average amount of rain during summer was good for both soil and grape.

The vines were in full blossom two weeks earlier than the 30-year average, and yet the main harvest didn’t begin until the second week of October. This meant that grapes remained on the vine for a long time, at least 120 days. Because sugar development proceeded slowly, the 2008 crop was able to reach an outstanding level of physiological ripeness.

This could be tasted during the harvest. Both grapes and grape musts were remarkable for their concentrated aromas, good body and high level of complexity. Even the grapes for our Gutsweine (“house wines”) reached high-end Kabinett must weights. This bodes well for the wines’ future development.

Most important of all, though, particularly in our stony parcels in the upper reaches of slopes, grapes once again remained healthy for a long time. As a result, we were able to harvest grapes suitable for producing great dry Rieslings – up to and including “Erstes Gewächs” – from our steep Kiedrich sites Klosterberg, Turmberg and Gräfenberg.

Despite all best efforts to achieve the highest quality possible, damp weather during the harvest naturally reduced the quantities of grapes we could harvest that would be suitable for our finest dry, as well as lusciously sweet, wines.

Nevertheless, Weingut Robert Weil once again was able to harvest grapes that qualified for all Prädikat levels, up to and including Trockenbeerenauslese. And this, for the 20th consecutive year – an unparalleled feat worldwide that underscores the special terroirs of our sites at higher elevations.

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VINTAGE 2008 by Penfolds Grange / Declared a vintage of two distinct halves, with well-balanced fruit at optimum baume levels achievable with an early harvest. A seamless growing season with steady, early season growth and healthy canopy development. Cool and dry conditions during the start of summer meant that vines were poised for a textbook harvest and conditions were conducive to excellent flavour, colour and phenolic development. New Year temperatures would eventually crescendo in ensuing months, dry conditions would persevere and March the 3rd served as a pivot point—cleaving the vintage into the two well defined halves resulting in a profound difference in quality of fruit picked. Old vines with balanced canopies capitalised on the perfect growing conditions preceding the heat spell. “Weighted-average vintage charts may not do justice to the South Australian harvest in 2008. Penfolds reds will.”

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The best wines of the 2008 vintage

Name Tb Producer Location
1 Hill of Grace 96.7 Henschke Eden Valley, Australia
2 Pétrus 96.3 Château Pétrus Pomerol, France
3 Corton-Charlemagne 96.0 Domaine Bonneau du Martray Burgundy, France
4 IX Estate 96.0 Colgin Cellars Napa Valley, United States
5 "Silberlack" Riesling Erstes Gewächs 96.0 Weingut Schloss Johannisberg Rheingau, Germany
6 Chateauneuf-du-Pape Pignan 96.0 Château Rayas Rhône, France
7 Viña El Pisón 96.0 Artadi Laguardia, Spain
8 Montrachet 95.9 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Burgundy, France
9 Dana Lotus Vineyard 95.8 Dana Estates Napa Valley, United States
10 La Romanée 95.8 Domaine du Comte Liger-Belair Burgundy, France
11 The Armagh 95.7 Jim Barry Wines Clare Valley, Australia
12 Le Pin 95.7 Le Pin Bordeaux, France
13 Pingus 95.7 Dominio de Pingus Ribera del Duero, Spain
14 Montrachet Marquis de Laguiche 95.7 Joseph Drouhin Burgundy, France
15 Château Haut-Brion Blanc 95.5 Château Haut-Brion Bordeaux, France
16 Clos-de-la-Roche Vieilles-Vignes 95.5 Domaine Ponsot Burgundy, France
17 Chambertin 95.5 Domaine Armand Rousseau Burgundy, France
18 Cuvée L'Apôtre 95.5 David Léclapart Champagne, France
19 Corton-Charlemagne 95.5 Coche Dury Burgundy, France
20 Cabernet Sauvignon Beckstoffer To Kalon Vineyard 95.5 Paul Hobbs Winery Sonoma Valley, United States
21 Cristal 95.5 Louis Roederer Champagne, France
22 Château Haut-Brion 95.4 Château Haut-Brion Bordeaux, France
23 Barolo 95.3 Bartolo Mascarello Barolo, Italy
24 Cristal Rosé 95.3 Louis Roederer Champagne, France
25 Château Ausone 95.3 Château Ausone Bordeaux, France
26 Grosset Gaia 95.3 Grosset Wines South Australia, Australia
27 Château Margaux 95.2 Château Margaux Bordeaux, France
28 d'Yquem 95.2 Château d'Yquem Bordeaux, France
29 Dominus 95.2 Dominus Estate Napa Valley, United States
30 Cuvée Spéciale Les Chétillons Le Mesnil 95.1 Pierre Peters Champagne, France
31 Clos de la Roche 95.0 Domaine Armand Rousseau Burgundy, France
32 Riesling G-Max 95.0 Weingut Keller Rheinhessen, Germany
33 Château de Fargues 95.0 Château de Fargues Sauternes, France
34 Meursault Les Chevalières 95.0 Coche Dury Burgundy, France
35 Cuvée Elisabeth Salmon Rosé 95.0 Billecart-Salmon Champagne, France
36 Barolo Monfortino Riserva 95.0 Giacomo Conterno Piedmont, Italy
37 Steinberger Riesling Trockenbeerenauslese Goldkapsel 95.0 Kloster Eberbach Rheingau, Germany
38 Bin 620 95.0 Penfolds South Australia, Australia
39 B-20 95.0 Sine Qua Non California, United States
40 Château Laville Haut-Brion 95.0 Château Laville Haut-Brion Pessac Leognan, France
41 Bâtard-Montrachet 95.0 Vincent Girardin Burgundy, France
42 Barolo Rocche dell'Annunziata Torriglione 95.0 Roberto Voerzio Piedmont, Italy
43 Romanée Conti 95.0 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Burgundy, France
44 Châteauneuf-du-Pape La Reine des Bois 95.0 Domaine de la Mordoree Rhône, France
45 Barbera d'Alba Cascina Francia 95.0 Giacomo Conterno Piedmont, Italy
46 Grange Hermitage 94.8 Penfolds South Australia, Australia
47 Amour de Deutz Brut 94.7 Deutz Champagne, France
48 Vina Cubillo 94.5 Lopez de Heredia Rioja, Spain
49 Montrachet 94.5 Maison Louis Latour Burgundy, France
50 Corton 94.5 Maison Louis Latour Burgundy, France
51 Château Angelus 94.5 Château Angelus Bordeaux, France
52 Pinot Noir Cuvée Elizabeth 94.5 Kistler California, United States
53 St. Peters Shiraz 94.5 Seppelt Great Western, Australia
54 Riesling ‘Vinothekfullung’ Smaragd 94.5 Emmerich Knoll Wachau, Austria
55 The Dead Arm Shiraz 94.4 d'Arenberg South Australia, Australia
56 Harlan Estate 94.3 Harlan Estate Napa Valley, United States
57 Barolo Romirasco 94.3 Poderi Aldo Conterno Piedmont, Italy
58 Pinot Noir “Arley’s Leap" 94.0 Cameron Winery Oregon, United States
59 Gran Reserva Blend 94.0 Bodega DiamAndes Mendoza, Argentina
60 Art Series Cabernet Sauvignon 94.0 Leeuwin Estate Margaret River, Australia
61 Morstein 94.0 Weingut Keller Rheinhessen, Germany
62 M3 Chardonnay 94.0 Shaw + Smith Adelaide Hills, Australia
63 AAA Shiraz Grenache 94.0 Paxton South Australia, Australia
64 The Stocks Shiraz 94.0 Woodstock South Australia, Australia
65 Cabernet Sauvignon Atlas Peak 94.0 Au Sommet California, United States
66 La Carrière Chardonnay 94.0 Peter Michael Winery Sonoma Valley, United States
67 Les Pierrieres Extra Brut 94.0 Ulysse Collin Champagne, France
68 Romanée Saint Vivant Grand Cru 94.0 Domaine Hudelot-Noëllat Burgundy, France
69 Number 12 94.0 Kracher Neusiedlersee, Austria
70 Screaming Eagle 94.0 Screaming Eagle Napa Valley, United States
71 Mazy Chambertin 94.0 Domaine Armand Rousseau Burgundy, France
72 Ovid 94.0 Ovid Vineyards Napa Valley, United States
73 Clos St Alphonse 94.0 Chateau Ksara Bekaa Valley, Lebanon
74 Vitaroccia 94.0 ICARIO Tuscany, Italy
75 Torre Muga 94.0 Bodegas Muga Rioja, Spain
76 Vintage 94.0 Louis Roederer Champagne, France
77 Meursault 1er Cru Les Bouchères 94.0 Maison Leroy Burgundy, France
78 Tokaji 5 Puttonyos 94.0 Tokaj Oremus Estate Tokaj-Hegyalja, Hungary
79 McLaren Vale Shiraz Old Vines 94.0 d'Arenberg South Australia, Australia
80 Clos de Tart 94.0 Mommessin Burgundy, France
81 Les Crayères 94.0 Marguet Champagne, France
82 Reserve des Célestin CNP 94.0 Henri Bonneau Châteauneuf du Pape, France
83 Amour de Deutz Rosé 94.0 Deutz Champagne, France
84 1er Cru Aux Malconsorts Cuvee Christiane 94.0 Domaine de Montille Burgundy, France
85 IX Estate Syrah 94.0 Colgin Cellars Napa Valley, United States
86 Chevalier-Montrachet 94.0 Bouchard Père & Fils Burgundy, France
87 Barolo Le Rocche del Falletto 94.0 Bruno Giacosa Barolo, Italy
88 Blanc de Blancs 94.0 Deutz Champagne, France
89 Lenswood Giles Vineyard Pinot Noir 94.0 Henschke Eden Valley, Australia
90 Meursault 1er Cru Poruzots 94.0 Domaine Antoine Jobard Burgundy, France
91 Nuits St Georges les Pruliers 94.0 Domaine Louis Boillot Burgundy, France
92 Basket Press Shiraz 94.0 Rockford South Australia, Australia
93 Montrose 94.0 Château Montrose Bordeaux, France
94 Barolo Serre 94.0 Poderi Gianni Gagliardo Piedmont, Italy
95 Bâtard-Montrachet 94.0 Domaine Leflaive Burgundy, France
96 Barolo Cannubi Boschis 93.9 Luciano Sandrone Piedmont, Italy
97 Château Mouton-Rothschild 93.8 Château Mouton-Rothschild Bordeaux, France
98 Domaine de Chevalier Blanc 93.8 Domaine de Chevalier Pessac Leognan, France
99 Unico 93.8 Bodegas Vega Sicilia Ribera el Duero, Spain
100 Mount Edelstone 93.8 Henschke Eden Valley, Australia

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