Sweet Sixteen (Highlights From The 2019 Critics Challenge Wine Competition)

Vinted on July 3, 2019 binned in on the road, wine industry events, wine review
San Diego 2019

A few weeks ago, I visited San Diego for yet another stint of judging at the annual Critics Challenge International Wine Competition, now in its sixteenth year. As is always the case with CC, the organization, staff, and execution were all top-notch, allowing us critic-judge-types to give the wines their fair due under the palate evaluation microscope. As is always the case with CC, I count myself extremely fortunate to have once again fooled everyone into thinking that I have some talent been invited to join such a finely-tuned event.

Critics Challenge 2019
Joe big wine
It was a big time, when little guys drank big wines…

For those who are new to CC, a quick word on the format: judges are usually paired (or in some rare cases, trio-ed) into panels and judge several flights of wines blind. All of the judges are wine critics with wine competition experience, and judge all of the wines independently, awarding Silver, Gold, or Platinum medals (there is no Bronze category in CC). For each wine, the highest medal awarded “wins,” so judges in the same panel need not agree for a wine to be awarded a medal (in my experience, we do often discuss the results and generally agree about 80% – or more – of the time).

Now that the results have been published, I can share some of my thoughts on a few of the excellent wines that my panel were able to taste, and to Platinum (which, in wine judging parlance, is absolutely a verb; as in “did you Platinum anything this morning?” and – with the appropriate past-tense – “yeah, we totally Platinumed some killer dessert wines in that last flight”).

And so, here are a handful of interesting wines that stood out to me over two days of evaluation, with the more interesting result being that they are from less than a handful of producers…

Fleur de MEr

2018 Fleur de Mer Rosé (Cotes de Provence, $20)

An absolute delight from start to finish, this showed as fresh, floral, fun, and friendly, with touches of red berry fruit and wet stone. Basically, a textbook example of why everyone ought to start their rosé exploration with Provence as the benchmark, and then expand their journeys from that due north reference point.

Navarro 2018 Late Harvest

2018 Navarro Vineyards Gewürztraminer Late Harvest Cluster Select (Anderson Valley, $35)

You are about to get very sick and tired of seeing the word “Navarro” in this post, but I can assure you the repeat mentions were well-earned. Navarro absolutely killed it in this year’s CC, taking home several awards, and wowing my panel several times. From its lychee and ripe pear nose to its lime candy finish, this dessert sipper is pure luxury. Speaking of that finish… it’s long. As in, really, really long. Longer than that. Keep going. No, seriously.

2018 Navarro Vineyards Riesling Late Harvest Cluster Select (Anderson Valley, $35)

Navarro’s LH magic extended to this other storied white grape; in this instance, it might be a hair less complex than its Gewürz sister, but it’s also a hair more vivacious on the palate, with stone and citrus fruits, candied lemon peel, and white flower aromas to spare.

Navarro Muscat 2018

2018 Navarro Vineyards Dry Muscat Blanc (Anderson Valley, $22)

Speaking of white flowers… Also: hey, I warned you that this portion was gonna get repetitive! Anyway, Navarro wasn’t just appealing to my CC panel’s collective sweet tooth; witness the joyful drink that is their Dry Muscat. The floral aromas are impressive without being overbearing, and the citrus, grape, and apricot notes are pure, focused, and on-point. Not only the best Muscat we tasted in my panel, but for a time the best white wine in our entire lineup.

Rodney Strong Pinot Noir 2016

2016 Rodney Strong Vineyards Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley, $25)

Finally (in both sense of the word, I suppose, since this isn’t from Navarro), we have Rodney Strong’s somewhat-surprisingly restrained and nuanced RRV Pinot, a gorgeous, red-berry-filled, spicy, and elegant example of the CA take on this grape. I write somewhat-surprisingly only because Rodney Strong is well-known for its fruity, forward, powerful reds. While this is fruity, it exercises the poise that really good Pinot needs to demonstrate, and is a testament to the versatility of RS’s winemaking team (and to the continuing over-achievements that their black-label lineup has been delivering lately).




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