Wine “classics” are similar to classic cars, movies, watches, or jewelry. They are appreciated through the eye of the beholder. Then there are the exceptions — those special classics that are undisputed, recognized, and admired by the masses.
by Virginia Philip
What defines a classic wine? Vineyard, vintage, heritage, inception, taste profile, exceptional and consistent quality are a must. What about price or scores? As a sommelier, small business owner, and the wine director of one of the most prestigious properties in the country, I pondered this question. Not for long though. The answers came to me quickly and vividly as I recalled the vineyards, the people, the wines, and of course, the taste — that distinct and amazing taste profile of the wine that becomes its unique identity and which cannot be improved upon.
I have taken the personal journey to each of these places — these holy grails of wine classics. I checked my wine notes — yes, I’ve saved most of them — and thought again and again about the last times I tasted these same wines. On each occasion that I have had the opportunity to re- taste them, speak with the winery owners and winemakers, and “to be” with that wine, their unique taste profiles are there in the glass, the nose, and on the palate.
In no particular order, following are my selections of wines that cannot be surpassed.
DIAMOND CREEK, NAPA VALLEY, CALIFORNIA // This could have been one of the more difficult choices due to its four different and very distinct vineyards: Gravelly Meadow, Red Rock Terrace, Volcanic Hill, and the obscure Lake Vineyard. How to choose just one? After speaking with Phil Ross, who is the second generation of this historic property, we both agreed that choosing just one vineyard was not possible. They go hand in hand, and despite their differences, a similar breeding runs through them all.
Founded in 1968 by Al Brounstein and his wife, Boots, the vision of a Cabernet exclusive estate was unheard of at that time. Most wineries were producing both red and white varietals. Brounstein obtained European cuttings with the traditional Bordeaux blend and began crafting some of the best Cabernet Sauvignon on the planet with his first vintage in 1972. Today, the legacy continues. In more than 40 years, their labels have never changed except for the 2002 vintage, which was an anniversary label that Brounstein hand painted himself. With only 12 employees, the total case production is under 2,000.
RIDGE VINEYARDS “MONTE BELLO,” SANTA CRUZ, CALIFORNIA// It would be crazy to have not included Monte Bello. Paul Draper is one of the most well-known and respected winemakers of his time. The wine became a reality when just a quarter barrel was produced in the early 1960s. Draper came on board with the 1962 vintage, and became a full partner in 1968. Using 100 percent American oak, the wine developed a unique style of its own, and is widely appreciated throughout the globe. “The consistent style of Monte Bello has often been called America’s First Growth,” says Draper. Since 1962, it has consistently been the finest example of a classic Bordeaux blend. Each vintage reflects its particular conditions, but year after year, Monte Bello — structured, balanced, and complex — demonstrates the distinctive character of its site. Amen!
CHÂTEAU PONTET-CANET, CINQUIÈME CRU, PAUILLAC, BORDEAUX, FRANCE // What impresses me the most about this château is the current owner’s passion for his wine. When I met Alfred Tesseron in 2005, he was intense and extremely knowledgeable about his vineyards, winery, and the winemaking. I was mesmerized. He not only knew every plot of vines, but in some cases, a single vine in a vineyard. The progress he has made in 30- plus years with Pontet-Canet is nothing short of miraculous. In the late 2000s, the vineyards transitioned into a complete biodynamic farm. These wines are intense and powerful. Easily considered on par with most Second Growths, Pontet-Canet is the new “it” wine from Bordeaux, with an annual production of approximately 20,000 cases.
DOMAINE DE LA ROMANÉE-CONTI (DRC), BURGUNDY, FRANCE // Simply uttering three simple letters — DRC — can throw many collectors into a tailspin. Very few wines command the attention and prices such as those of this estate. In 1869, Jacques and Marie Duvault-Blochet acquired the estate. The property has been passed down from generation to generation, and today, the Domaine is run by two family members, Aubert de Villaine and Henri Frederic Roch. These handcrafted Pinot Noir and Chardonnay wines represent the craft of true artisans, both in the vineyard as well as in the winery. The wines are produced from grapes grown in a remarkable eight Grand Cru vineyards: Le Montrachet, La Tache, Echezeaux, Grands Echezeaux, Richebourg, Romanee St Vivant, the miniscule Romanée Conti, and as of 2009,
Le Corton. Purchasing the wines requires a great deal of patience and a large wallet. There simply isn’t enough of it. Getting into the winery is nearly impossible, but well worth the wait for those lucky enough to do so.
VEGA SICILIA “UNICO,” RIBERA DEL DUERO, SPAIN // This is the only winery that I know of that has guards with machine guns stationed outside. It would be difficult to name the best wines in the world — let alone in Spain — without mentioning Vega Sicilia. Founded in 1864 by Don Eloy Lecanda y Chaves, the blend was based on the local Tinto del Fino or Tempranillo grape with plantings of Bordeaux varietals, such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, brought in from Bordeaux. There are a few different bottlings of Vega Sicilia, but the Unico has been sought by wine collectors from around the world. The wine is made from approximately 80% Tinto Fino and 20% Cabernet Sauvignon and is aged for up to 10 years. The wine is quite powerful and long-lived. Only 100,000 bottles per year are produced with the average aging process extending up to 10 years. There are 2,500 clients in Spain who have access to buy this historic wine. The rest is shipped across the globe.