21 Wines You Must Taste

By / Magazine / May 31st, 2010 / Like

We’ve all met them. They talk loudly at dinner parties, swan about with inflated chests wearing flashy designer clothes and drive red Porches or some other symbol of early-, mid- or late-life crises. They sport supermodels as arm accessories. And they adore top wines — which, to them, are anything with cult status. You can always spot them ordering bottles of Dom at bars. And bragging about mixing it with orange juice on special mornings, not realizing their mistake.

Meanwhile, the truly well heeled wear impeccably tailored clothing with labels properly hidden, drive top-of-the-line sedans in muted tones, and share time with people whose talents exceed looking hot. And, when occasion calls for it, they uncork — with appropriate reverence — the bottles with status only within small circles of wine connoisseurs. The very best wines are discreet.

The Champagne Louis Roederer website, maker of the famous Cristal, reads: “When complimented on his elegance at the Epson Derby, Georges Brummel said the following words, which sum up the philosophy of Louis Roederer: ‘I cannot possibly be elegant, since you have noticed me.’” If not for celebrities discovering this wine, Cristal may have remained, as I’m quite sure was Louis Roederer’s hope, unnoticed beyond tight wine freak circles.

Despite the distracting strip-tease of new favourites seductively unveiled each year in the glossies and rags, the steady onslaught of spittle-splattered tasting notes, and the loud hum of wine marketing shouting brain-dead statements like “Niagara is the new Bordeaux,” the torrid truth remains: rarely will you find a list of the very best bottles in the world that cuts across all regions, styles and varieties. Why? Because the best wines don’t market. They don’t issue samples to journalists. They don’t advertise. They don’t enter competitions. They are tasted privately by critics by appointment only. And are usually available en premeur, on allocation or at auction only. Truth is, if the wine is good enough, the people will come. In throngs. And quite frankly, the bar is set so high that the list of the very best wines doesn’t change much decade to decade. And it’s etched in the collective consciousness of the wine trade.

So if you ever wanted to know what wines are the legendary leaders, read on. These are the 21 wines you must taste — if ever given a chance.


1. Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, La Tâche, Burgundy, France

La Tache is almost certainly the top wine in the world. The La Tache vineyard, which is owned entirely by Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, yields massively concentrated Pinot Noir fruit that becomes a wine so complex and silky, it commands thousands of dollars per bottle.

Best recent vintages: 1962, 1978, 1985, 1990, 1999, 2005

Average price: $1,000 to $4,500 per bottle

2. Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Richebourg, Burgundy, France

Domaine de la Romanée-Conti’s 3.51 hectares of the Richebourg vineyard makes each year just 1,000 cases of big, bold Pinot Noir renowned for being approachable when young, yet seriously ageworthy as well. It may well be the only red Burgundy from the great 1959 vintage that’s still drinking well.

Best recent vintages: 1959, 1962, 1978, 1985, 1990, 1999, 2005

Average price: $1,000 to $5,400 per bottle

3. Château Pétrus, Pomerol, Bordeaux, France

Pétrus is almost always pure Merlot — and the one against which all other Merlots are measured. As with most great wines, production volumes are miniscule. Most years will see about 2,500 cases of Pétrus, and some years far less.

Best recent vintages: 1982, 1989, 1990, 1998

Average price: $2,300 to $6,500 per bottle

4. Château Mouton Rothschild, Pauillac, Bordeaux, France

Widely accepted as one of, if not the best, red Bordeaux, “Mouton” as it’s affectionately called is a powerhouse Pauillac of thunderclap intensity, and built to last. In good vintages, this Cabernet Sauvignon blended with Merlot, Cabernet Franc and, at times, Petit Verdot, can age easily for 50+ years.

Best recent vintages: 1982, 1985, 1986, 1989, 1990, 1996, 2000, 2005

Average price: $350 to $3,100 per bottle

5. Château Latour, Pauillac, Bordeaux, France

This top Bordeaux needs little introduction. Like its peer, “Mouton”, it’s another Cabernet Sauvignon-rich Bordeaux that’s stratospherically expensive, thrillingly ageworthy, and classically complex with hallmark Pauillac flavours of spice box, tobacco leaf, leather, earth, mint and cedar.

Best recent vintages: 1982, 1985, 1986, 1989, 1990, 1996, 2000, 2005

Average price: $400 to $4,000 per bottle

6. Château Cheval Blanc, Saint-Émilion, Bordeaux, France

Made from Cabernet Franc, this Bordeaux is fresh, subtle and ageworthy. Raspberry, toffee, butter, orange, coffee, cocoa, chocolate, violet, liquorice, and vanilla are just a handful descriptors for this rich, opulent wine.

Best recent vintages: 1982, 1990, 1998, 2000, 2005

Average price: $450 to $8,000 per bottle

7. Krug Vintage Champagne, Champagne, France

Made from Chardonnay seasoned with Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, Krug Vintage Champagnes are second to none in price and quality. Krug’s primary fermentation takes place entirely in small oak barrels, which is rare these days in Champagne. And in Krug’s case, this technique creates a Champagne that tastes like fine white Burgundy with bubbles.

Best recent vintages: 1988, 1990, 1995, 1996, 1998

Average price: $400 to $4,000 per bottle

8. Louis Roederer Cristal, Champagne, France

Although this wine has been popularized by celebrities, it remains the one most revered by connoisseurs as well. It is a blend of about half Chardonnay and half Pinot Noir, and was first created in 1876 for Alexander II of Russia.

Best recent vintages: 1979, 1982, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1996

Average price: $300 to $800 per bottle

9. Château d’Yquem, Sauternes, Bordeaux, France

This wine made from grapes shrivelled by the benevolent rot called, Botrytis cinerea, and is the undisputed top sweet wine in the world. In good years, can improve in bottle for a century or more.

Best recent vintages: 1989, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1999, 2001, 2005

Average price: $200 to $4,000 per bottle

10. Domaine Leflaive, Le Montrachet Grand Cru, Burgundy, France

Domaine Leflaive’s 0.0821 hectares of vines in Montrachet produces incredibly ageworthy, complex, sophisticated Chardonnay wine with hallmark minerality. These wines should be kept at least 15 years before drinking. Undoubtedly one of the very best Chardonnays in the world.

Best recent vintages: 1989, 1995, 1996, 2005

Average price: $3,000 to $7,000 per bottle

11. Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Montrachet, Burgundy, France

With a vineyard holding of less than one hectare with Chardonnay vines that are on average 62 years old, the 250 cases of this grand elixir made each year epitomize the beauty, ageability and refined complexity of top white Burgundy.

Best recent vintages: 1979, 1986, 1992, 1995, 2005

Average price: $2,500 to $7,000 per bottle

12. Tenuta San Guido, Sassicaia, Tuscany, Italy

This blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc is Italy’s first Bordeaux lookalike, which took the world by storm when it hit the market in 1968 to critical acclaim. It’s one of the most sought-after wines in the world, is an original Supertuscan, and is built for long-term aging.

Best recent vintages: 1968, 1985, 1990, 2004

Average price: $200 to $3,000 per bottle

13. Vega Sicilia Unico, Ribera del Duero, Spain

Unico is undisputedly one of Spain’s best wines, and only made in superb years since 1915. It’s Tempranillo seasoned with Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Merlot, Carmenère and Albillo; it’s incredibly ageworthy, and it should age decades before drinking. Small yields, low production volumes and unrelenting quality standards keep prices high.

Best recent vintages: 1964, 1970, 1987, 1989, 1991, 1999

Average price: $325 to $775 per bottle

14. Quintarelli, Amarone della Valpolicella Classico DOCG, Veneto, Italy

Producer Giuseppe Quintarelli makes Veneto’s best Amarone, the dry, intense red wine made from pressing dried Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara grapes.  Although Quintarelli’s more modern cult wine, Alzero, is favoured too, it’s his traditional Amarone that made him famous and holds the top spot in the minds of most critics.

Best recent vintages: 1988, 1990, 1995, 1997

Average price: $350 to $850 per bottle

15. Opus One, Napa Valley, California, USA

This product of a joint venture between Robert Mondavi and Baron Philippine de Rothschild is a Bordeaux-style blend. In 1981, a case of this wine sold for US$24,000 (CAN$24,700) at the Napa Valley Wine Auction, which was the highest price ever paid for Californian wine at the time. It has been admired since its first vintage in 1979.

Best recent vintages: 1988, 1995, 1998, 1999, 2004

Average price: $300 to $775 per bottle

16. Penfolds Bin 60A Cabernet Sauvignon/Shiraz Kalimna, Coonawarra & Barossa Valley, South Australia

Penfolds Bin 60A is more prestigious than Penfolds Grange — originally considered Australia’s best effort several years — and the 1962 vintage of this wine is considered by many to be the greatest Australian wine ever made. Penfolds Bin 60A holds the record for the most expensive new-release Australian wine, with a six-bottle case of the 2004 vintage selling for US$4,935 (CAN$5,098) at Christie’s Fine and Rare Wines auction in New York in 2005.

Best recent vintages: 1962, 1990, 2004

Average price: $350 to $2,800 per bottle

17. Guigal La Landonne, Côte-Rôtie, Rhône, France

Côte-Rôtie translates to “roasted slope,” referring to the area’s unique position that gets long hours of sunlight. Guigal is Côte-Rôtie’s star producer. And for what it’s worth, Robert Parker scored the 2005 vintage of this pure Syrah a perfect 100.

Best recent vintages: 1978, 1989, 1990, 2005, 2007

Average price: $350 to $1,165 per bottle

18. Trimbach, Clos Ste-Hune, Riesling, Alsace, France

Trimbach is the star producer of Alsace, along with Zind-Humbrecht. Trimbach’s style is about steely precision and restraint, letting the minerality of the terroir shine in its wines.

Best recent vintages: 1979, 1983, 1990

Average price: $175 to $500 per bottle

19. J.J. Prüm, Riesling Spatlese, Wehlener Sonnenuhr, Mosel, Germany

J.J. Prüm is without question the top estate in the Mösel, producing Rieslings with a distinctly mineral character wrapped with silky fruit, varying in sweetness, yet always with balancing acidity.

Best recent vintages: 1971, 1999, 2005

Average price: $175 to $500 per bottle

20. Château Lynch-Bages, Pauillac, Bordeaux, France

Although classified as a fifth growth in the Bordeaux Classification of 1855, this wine is recognized as a consistent overachiever. It is a classic Cabernet Sauvignon-based blend seasoned with Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot, and is a leading Bordeaux by all measures.

Best recent vintages: 1982, 1989, 1990, 2000, 2005

Average price: $100 to $600 per bottle

21. Taylor’s Vintage Port, Douro Valley, Portugal

This list wouldn’t be complete with a nod to Vintage Port. And Taylor Fladgate is a known leader. Vintage Port can yield greater complexity and richness than any other red wine, dry or sweet, but does not approach its peak for half a century in bottle — properly stored. And no, cheaper versions thought up by marketing folk called things like “Vintage Character” and “Late Bottled Vintage” are not the same thing.

Best recent vintages: 1994, 2000, 2003, 2007

Average price: $500 per bottle

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Wine book author and critic Carolyn Evans Hammond first fell in love with wine during her first trip to France many moons ago when she picnicked in the vineyards of the Cotes du Rhone. Now she makes wine accessible with her witty and light approach to the topic. Carolyn’s latest book, Good Better Best Wines: A No-Nonsense Guide to Popular Wine, is the first book to rank the best-selling wines in North America by price and grape variety, with tasting notes and bottle images (April, 2010, $12.95, Alpha Books). Within weeks of release, it soared to #1 wine book at Amazon.ca and the #2 one at Amazon.com and remains a bestseller to this day. It’s available at bookstores everywhere. Watch the trailer at www.goodbetterbestwines.com Her first book, 1000 Best Wine Secrets, is a compilation of trade secrets designed to illuminate the topic and help wine drinkers make more satisfying wine choices. It too is a bestseller, earning critical acclaim and international distribution (October, 2006, $12.95, Sourcebooks, Inc). As well as an author, Carolyn’s reviews and critical articles appear regularly in Taste and Tidings magazine, she has talked about wine on radio and TV throughout North America, and has contributed material in such eminent publications as Decanter and Wine & Spirit International in the United Kingdom, as well as Maclean’s in Canada. She issues a weekly newsletter, publishes a blog, runs a Facebook wine club, twitters, and conducts seminars and private consultations. Constantly learning, Carolyn spends much of her time tasting wine and meeting with winemakers and industry professionals. She is a member of the Circle of Wine Writers in the UK and the Wine Writers’ Circle of Canada; she holds a Diploma from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust in the UK; and she earned a BA from York University where she studied English and Philosophy. She has lived in many cities in North America and Europe, and now resides in Toronto, where she was born.

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