Critics Wine Challenge turns 16

By Panos Kakaviatos for

11 June 2019

For the third year in a row, I joined several judges in an intense, yet well organized and friendly one and one-half day tasting experience called the Critics Wine Challenge this past weekend, under the direction of Robert Whitley and Rich Cook.

This year, 13 judges assessed over 1,200 wines from all over the world. I was paired with writer Laurie Daniel and Joe Roberts, the one and only One Wine Dude. At our table, staff poured some 200 wines for us to evaluate, which we did using an Excel sheet. Wines that did not make at least 90 points we classified as “silver” or “no medal”, while top wines were either gold or (rarer) “platinum”. 

As you can see in the list above, judges included many fine wine tasters, from Travel & Leisure Magazine wine columnist Bruce Schoenfeld and wine writer Michael Apstein (including Boston Globe columnist) to The Robb Report wine columnist Sara Schneider.  Read More

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Hedonism and hard work

By Panos Kakaviatos for 

30 May 2019

I started reflecting on these two words while in Bordeaux during the famous Vinexpo event earlier this month. Every two years, this massive wine and spirits trade fair for professionals includes many fine lunches and dinners. I usually stay for the entire gig, but I was only there for two days this year, given my work for the Council of Europe in Strasbourg.

As ever, it proved to be a fabulous merry-go-round of lunches, dinners and fine to great wines. A kind of Cannes Film Festival but for wine geeks.

But behind the culinary glitz is hard work, on the part of many in the wine trade and in wine writing.

Hard-working, dedicated writers busily researched articles by meeting winemakers and distributors. Take for example Jane Anson, who is now working on a comprehensive book about Bordeaux in general, to be called Inside Bordeaux, modeled after Jasper Morris’ Inside Burgundy. My old friend and former editor Adam Lechmere was at the venue as well, recently named director of a brand new wine publication Club Oenologique.

Negociants, buyers and sellers were striking deals. It may seem like fun and games, the wine trade, but it is serious business. According to a report on the global wine market wine trade revenue was estimated as well over $300 billion last year and is expected to generate revenue of over $420 billion by 2024. Detailed business analyses like this one explain which markets are more export-friendly and which are up and coming.

And a certain fever is on for 2018 Bordeaux futures purchasing, given many rave reviews by influential critics.

In all this business, one cannot but recall how much a sensual pleasure that wine is. So why not take advantage of events like the media dinner during Vinexpo at the celebrated Château d’Yquem, set in the gently rolling hills of Sauternes?

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For hedonists and intellectuals: Bordeaux 2018

By Panos Kakaviatos for 

7 May 2019

My top barrel samples from 2018

Full tasting notes by appellation and area:

Pessac-Léognan+Graves (reds) / Médoc-Haut-Médoc-Listrac-Moulis / Margaux / Saint Julien / Pauillac / Saint Estèphe / Saint Emilion / Pomerol / Fronsac and other bargains / Dry whites including Graves / Sauternes & Barsac

NOTE ON SCORES: Dear readers, my scores are conservative when it comes to barrel tastings. The point is that I do not want to be seen as a “hypester” (or hipster). Once in bottle, I can be more certain of what the wine is as a final product, hence the stress on approximate hyphenated scores. For those estates that I grade lower, take heart that we all make mistakes. I know that there is much hard work to craft a vintage, which is like another child. The point is that I am being as honest as possible for consumers, who may read my impressions for buying futures, because such purchases are investments, too.


After an initial look at the 2018 vintage in Bordeaux last month, before I got through the bulk of my tastings, I struck a cautionary note, albeit extolling the virtues of Petit Verdot, which seems to have thrived in parts of Bordeaux in the 2018 vintage. After tasting the wines, I stick with some caution, because, here we go again: Bordeaux is communicating yet more “best ever vintage” talk.

Last year’s Janus-like vintage, with loads of rain in the winter and spring, followed by dry, hot weather up to the harvest, was in fact rather problematic. It included devastating hail and a virulent mildew attack. Some estates in Sauternes and Barsac made but minuscule amounts of wine, or none at all.

Widespread mildew ravaged especially organic vineyards, including such famous estates as Château Pontet Canet and Château Palmer, where you wind up with a “winemaker’s” vintage. Both estates, by the way, managed to make excellent wine!

But in terms of the weather, and ease of viticulture and winemaking, this ain’t no 2010 or 2009 or 2005 …

For more on the weather factors that make up 2018,  read this excellent report by Gavin Quinney.

In any case the dry, hot summer and harvest period made the vintage, and while talk of “my best ever” often is exaggerated (tailor made for bloggers and writers to echo), virtually no one talked about 2017 last week during the barrel tastings. 2017 is a respectable vintage that winemakers did not categorize as “best ever”. So, yes, there is something to 2018.

Much as there was something to 2016, 2015, 2010, 2009, 2005, 2003 and 2000. 😉

We see many potential 100 point scores for barrel samples that are not even halfway finished with their aging process before bottling. The overall high praise makes me think of this classic line from the great rock parody movie Spinal Tap: “It goes to 11”.

Vintage hype is not lacking, as I had addressed in my article for a great new UK publication called Club Oenologique.

“Did you taste Château Montrose, Panos?” one eager American buyer who had flown to Bordeaux last week asked me via WhatsApp.

“It’s tremendous”!

And a Bordeaux-based wine trader marveled at how “enthralled” the wine trade has been with Château Calon Ségur.

Other estates impressed tasters from barrel, too, but why focus on these two?

Because they have the highest alcohol levels I can recall ever tasting from barrel, from the Médoc.

Montrose clocks in at 14.8% alcohol. Calon ups the ante to 14.9% – in a blend that is 80% Cabernets (Sauvignons and Francs). If that is the new normal, well, welcome to climate change! By the way, as I write this, I learned that later in June this year, there is a symposium on alternative grapes for Bordeaux that would ripen less quickly … But that is another story, more related to a short text that I had published in Wine Review Online.

At Château Mouton Rothschild, with director Philippe Dhalluin and wine merchant Francis Anson.

At Château Mouton Rothschild, director Philippe Dhalluin cannot recall ever seeing such high alcohol levels for Cabernet Sauvignon, as his Cabernet Sauvignon-dominated blend (86% Cabernet Sauvignon, plus two per cent Franc) reached 13.8%.

In Saint Julien, Château Ducru Beaucaillou, with 85% Cabernet Sauvignon, reached 14.5% alcohol.

So high alcohol content matches the high level of buzz, as visitor records were said to have been broken: Some 1,300 people at Château Ausone in Saint Emilion last week broke a record, said co-owner Pauline Vauthier.

Larger tasting rooms at Médoc estates seemed more packed than in previous en primeur campaigns (the French word for barrel tastings of the latest vintage aging in barrels).

Hard to find a parking space at Cos d’Estournel

The 2,000 last week at Château Cos d’Estournel topped records. I do not recall seeing such a full parking lot there, with some 20 cars having to park along the D2 highway.


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Fine Fronsac and more 2018

By Panos Kakaviatos for 

7 May 2019

In a very good vintage, you can find economically priced wines, and 2018 is no exception. Once again, many Fronsacs assessed at the always well organized Grand Cercle tastings – this year at the lovely Château La Dauphine – proved yet again the quality of this appellation. As I have written in other media, including Somm Journal in the United States, Fronsac is an appellation for savvy wine consumers. The price tags still lag behind quality, and you can obtain wines from Fronsac that are better than many a Saint Emilion from more humble terroir, as Saint Emilion obviously has greater name recognition.

But readers should also look out for other so called satellite appellations on the Right Bank as well as Bordeaux AOC wines. Although I did not taste too many of the more humble Bordeaux AOCs from 2018, I will do so next year and draft a detailed report on these (along with the Bordeaux Superieurs) in Decanter in 2020.

These more humble estates are not part of the en primeur buying process, so there is no rush. I am sure however that consumers will find economically priced quality from increasingly improving producers here.


Château Dalem – This is quite inviting and warm, and smooth in tannic expression. A pleasure to drink, without being soupy. This has more grip than the wine below. 91-93 Read More

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Graves and Pessac-Léognan 2018 (reds)

Noteworthy vintage

By Panos Kakaviatos for 

26 April 2019

The hotter gravely soils of this famous appellation may have been too … gravelly and hot for the vintage. Here is a case where the question of 2016 is quite relevant. In some cases, I do think that 2016 may be a better vintage than 2018, as it seems to have more aromatic freshness. But let us not quibble: many wines in 2018 are potentially great, including the two that tie for “first place”: Château Les Carmes Haut Brion, pictured above, and Château La Mission Haut Brion.

Bravo to Château Bouscaut for a fine 2018 red.

Château Chantegrive (AOC Graves) – This has weight and power and yet not heavy handed. Still, I wonder if it could have used just a bit more freshness à la 2016. 90-92

Château Ferrande (AOC Graves) – Lovely ripe nose, one of the best in memory en primeur from this estate. There is ripe fruit, and a certain austerity that augurs well – not a drying sort. Just a certain tannic edge that one would hope to have from such a young not yet bottled barrel sample. Nice. 91-93

Château Rahoul (AOC Graves) – This also shows a ripe dark fruit aspect on the nose. Licorice. Quite a hefty expression of Graves to be sure, but remaining a Bordeaux. There is some alcohol however seeping through, so the danger is that you may end up thinking that you are drinking a Napa Valley Cab , which is not a bad thing per se, but you are – you know – in the Gironde area.

Château Bouscaut – This is showing some fine sap and mid palate juice. There is dry extract galore, ripe tannins and plenty of satiny fruit. Smooth. Nice job! 92-94

Château Carbonnieux – The nose is somewhat cranberry when compared to Bouscaut tasted just before. The palate shows off some fine ripe tannin. There is a fresh iodine aspect that could be due to earlier picking here? Not bad. Give it time in bottle. 91-93 Read More

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