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The World's Best Wines

Burgundy once again dominates the world's best list, but not so much as before.
© iDealwine | Burgundy once again dominates the world's best list, but not so much as before.
As we look forward to a better year, what better time to officially unveil the world's greatest wines?
By Don Kavanagh | Posted Thursday, 31-Dec-2020

Hold on a second, didn't we just do this?

I could have sworn that I wrote about the world's best wines just last week – this one, about the barons of Burgundy.

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Turning a Critical Eye on Wine Critics

It's an easy mistake to make, I suppose, given the rave reviews showered upon the top wines of Burgundy. But it doesn't – quite – tell the whole story, which is why we are here today.

The first problem with putting together a list like this is defining "best". Is it simply high scores? Does it depend on price? Is it the wine that the most people enjoy? Is it the wine that is sitting in front of you right now?

For the purposes of this series of articles, we've concentrated on the wines with the highest aggregated critic scores, and we should really stick with that, if only for consistency's sake.

Critic scores can be controversial, of course. One person's 97 might be another's 95 and that's why we aggregate scores from a range of critics, to flatten out the anomalies.

What we do is collate scores from a wide range of critics, from influential single palates like Robert Parker and Jancis Robinson to publications like Wine Spectator, and adjust them for the 100-point scale. To generate a wine's aggregate score, Wine-Searcher uses a Bayesian methodology to calculate a weighted average, since not all critics are equal. This score is calculated for specific vintages of a wine, as well as across all vintages.

We measure this score to four decimal places (even though we only display the rounded, two-digit total), so even wines with the same rounded score are in strict order.

For the "World's Best" series we use the score averaged across all vintages, which prevents flash-in-the-pan wines cropping up, managing a few 100-point scores and then fading back into obscurity. That simply doesn't compare to some of the French wines with vintages stretching back to the 19th Century.

A different take

However, it's instructive to take a look at how the list would work on a single-vintage basis. For a start, only one Burgundy would make the top 10 (DRC, almost inevitably, with a score of 97.5652 for the 2005 vintage), while Bordeaux would make up half the list, with the 2016 Latour sitting proudly at the head of the table with a score of 97.8485.

For the record, the 10 wines with the highest individual scores are: 2015 Latour; 1985 Sassicaia; 2010 Latour; 2011 Quinta do Noval Nacional; 2009 Margaux; 1961 Jaboulet Hermitage La Chapelle; 1989 Haut-Brion; 2005 DRC; 2001 Yquem; 2010 Petrus. All of them have higher aggregate scores than the top wine in the list below.

For most people, though, scores don't really mean much, beyond a rough rule of thumb when comparing wines. The vast majority of wine drinkers won't have had many of the wines on our World's Best list, either because the wines are too hard to get or they are simply too expensive. And there's a danger in that – what relevance do sky-high scores have when they refer to wines that are virtually unobtainable?

Aside from all that, there is a pleasant symmetry in this year's list.

The World's Best Wines on Wine-Searcher:

Five Burgundies, a Port and four Napa reds is a nice split for a list I was beginning to fear would be identical to the best Burgundies list. Indeed, Burgundy has one fewer wines on the list this year, while the two Abreu wines have shouldered their way into contention at the expense of DRC's La Tache and Schrader's Old Sparky. The Nacional replaces Chateau d'Yquem.

One thing that hasn't changed from last year is score creep – the tendency among critics to give ever-higher scores. Last year we reported that Screaming Eagle's aggregate score was 96.39, this year it is 96.43. And the Burgundy wines have stretched even further ahead of the rest – Leroy's Chambertin has gone from 97.38 to 97.42, while DRC's flagship cuvée nudged up from 96.95 to 97.16. Not bad for a year's work.

Price, of course, has kept pace with score, although the total increase in value for the top 10 as a whole wasn't massive – just a rise of 2.6 percent in average price across the 10 wines, mostly driven by a 19 percent hike in the Leroy Musigny's average price. Although it wasn't all upward mobility; the average price for Leroy Chambertin – the best wine in the world, according to the critics – actually fell by $153 since last year, or 1.7 percent.

Wouldn't it be nice to think that was a sign of things to come in the next 12 months?

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