Couture. The high-end fashion that sashays down runways, ricochets through the pages of Vogue, and lands in swank shops is the very engine that drives what we see later at Harry Rosen, Zara, and even Le Château, as bastardized versions of the top stuff.
And so it is with wine.
The bespoke, hand-stitched wines from the finest fruit come from the top houses — the classed growth châteaux of Bordeaux, the celebrated Champagne houses of Reims, the most revered vignerons of Burgundy. These makers motor along as they have for centuries, crafting the very best wines money can buy. Their wares get paraded through the pages of Wine Spectator, Tidings and Decanter magazines before landing in the temperature-controlled glass cabinets of wine shops. At hundreds of dollars a pop, these bottles exist as archetypes for winemakers elsewhere to emulate. Though the copycats never seem to get it quite right, the best knock-offs are similar enough, much more affordable, and just what the banker/private accountant/spouse ordered.
So here we are parked in a recession asking, can we afford to celebrate Uncle John’s 50th birthday, Christmas dinner, the birth of our child with a top wine? The real question we ought to be asking is, can we afford not to? If we stop drinking them, how can they exist? Do we really want a world without couture cuvées? What would we be in a world without the masters? Looking at Champagne alone, we would be left to toast the best moments with the battery acid substandard swill of cheap sparkling and the less delicate look-alikes from California and the rest of the New World. We could kiss goodbye the gorgeously, barely palate-visible notes of warm apple pie, buttery brioche and nuts in favour of searing lemon, under-ripe apple, and maybe the odd note of yeasty bread dough masquerading as complexity. Life would be dull without the likes of Krug and Louis Roederer to add weight to an occasion — even if those milestones are private once-a-decade affairs.
Whether your thing is fine French Champagne, seriously age-worthy Bordeaux, sex kitten Burgundies, classic Amarones, Californian Cabernets or Super Tuscans, these bottled beauties stand for much more than wine: they stand for the wild and wanton copulation of art and science; history and pedigree; often devout cultural decorum and always raw, heady hedonism. Mid-week quaffers have a place in the refrigerators and wine racks of our worlds, but so do these. I’ll do without a second handbag, a fancy cell phone, extras on my car, and yet another pair of shoes, but I won’t cut out the instant gratification of fine wine. I might cut back on the frequency with which I uncork the great bottles but I’ll never bypass them altogether. And for very good reason that goes beyond private pleasure. The price of Krug? $265. Lynch-Bages? $215. The Quintarelli Amarone? $405. The price of ensuring these and the rest of the Greats are there for our children and grandchildren? Priceless. With that in mind, here’s a small tribute to 10 bottled heroes of the wine world.
Krug Grande Cuvée Champagne Brut, Champagne, France ($265)
By far, the richest French fizz on the planet, this Champagne tastes like fine white Burgundy with bubbles. While the nose toys with cooked apple, creamy lemon curd, toasted brioche, and an unmistakable vanilla top-coat, the attack on the palate is a simultaneous and harmonious melody of complexity, elegance and power. There’s cooked apple, fresh coconut, warm toast, creamy vanilla, dry minerals, and butter anchored with titillating acidity. One of the interesting things that sets Krug apart is the fact it conducts primary fermentation in small oak barrels, which is highly unusual for a Champagne house and adds the charms of wood to the wine. Probably my favourite Champagne.
Louis Roederer Cristal 2000, Champagne, France ($285)
The house of Louis Roederer is revered by connoisseurs and celebrities alike for its incredibly refined complexity and lifted elegance. The stellar 2000 vintage starts with heady aromas of oven-fresh pastry, cooked apple, warm stones and lemon oil before an incredible attack on the palate of the same, layered with bright citrus notes and nuts. It’s drinking nicely now but will be much better in 10 to 15 years. And if you’re on a budget, here’s a tip. Buy a bottle of Roederer’s NV Champagne, Brut Premier ($68), and lay it down for five years. The thrill factor of the wine will multiply.
Bouchard Père et Fils Meursault Genevrières 1er Cru 2006, Burgundy, France ($101)
This full-bodied classic Meursault starts with an extravagant nose of buttered toast, apple butter, hazelnut, roasted almond and freshly rolled pastry before ripping into more of the same on the palate over tight citrus fruit. Drinking very well now but will improve for 5 to 7 more years. Bouchard Père et Fils was established in 1731, and is a name to trust for traditional Burgundian wines at all price points.
Château Lynch-Bages Pauillac 2006, Bordeaux, France ($215)
The wines of this respected property over-deliver every year, rivalling those châteaux that rank higher in the classification of 1855 — a ranking that still guides much of Bordeaux’s pricing today. Lynch-Bages 2005 is classic Pauillac from a very good year. Expect a deeply masculine air of men’s smoking room with heavy flavours and aromas of cassis, tobacco, cigar box, dark cherry, espresso and leather. Concentrated, long, and still immature. Drink from 2020 to 2050.
Château Yquem Sauternes 2003, Bordeaux, France ($240/375 ml)
Château Yquem is the top property of Sauternes and the only one in the region named a great first growth by the classification of 1855. Made from grapes affected by Botrytis or so-called “noble rot,” which makes the fruit shrivel on the vine concentrating the sugars and imparting a certain marmalade character to the final wines, a bottle of Yquem is simply unrivalled in Sauternes in terms of complexity, ageability and concentration. And the 2003 vintage was extraordinary because of the high level of Botrytis in the vineyard — the mark of a great year. This wine brims with apricot, marmalade and honeyed aromas before saturating the palate with ripe stone fruit, orange marmalade, honeyed lemon, nuts, floral notes and even crème brûlée. The texture is viscously sweet and succulent with balancing acidity. It’s delicious now but will improve with 20 to 25 years in bottle.
Amarone della Valpolicella Classico Giuseppe Quintarelli 1998, Veneto, Italy ($405)
Giuseppe Quintarelli is the master of Valpolicella Amarone. His wines are legendary, and this bottling from the outstanding 1998 vintage is quintessential Quintarelli. Dense, dry and full-bodied, this massive yet seriously sophisticated wine shows tightly-wound flavours of black and red cherries, meat, anise, truffle, and stony minerals that unravel slowly in the mouth before resonating on the finish for ages. The huge structure matching the massive fruit provides the scaffolding required for serious aging — though it’s drinking fabulously now, it will certainly improve for another 10 to 15 years.
Valpolicella Classico Superiore Giuseppe Quintarelli 2000, Veneto, Italy ($89)
If you cannot afford Giuseppe’s top-shelf Amarone, you can still taste his mastery in this more affordable bottle that’s drinking beautifully now at 9 years old. Sweaty saddle and crushed berries layered with coffee, earth, red berries and dried plum aromas lead to an equally complex palate. Mesmerizingly long wine with intrinsic elegance.
Antinori Tignanello IGT 2005, Tuscany, Italy ($97)
I remember the first time I tried Tignanello. I was at an Italian restaurant in London and it was served with angel hair pasta tossed in olive oil, topped with generous shavings of black truffle. Perfection itself. But even without the truffled pasta, this wine makes me swoon. The 2005 shows classic cherry, chocolate, truffle, plum and spice on the nose and palate. But the magic of this wine for me is the crushed-velvet texture that seduces the palate sip after sip. Super Tuscan indeed!
Clos du Val Cabernet Sauvignon 2004, Napa Valley, California ($79)
This wine shot to fame when the 1972 vintage was included among the 10 Californian and Bordeaux wines tasted blind at the famous Judgment of Paris tasting of 1976. More than half of the judges on the panel ranked this wine above at least one of the revered French classed growths. The results that showed Californian reds beating classed growth Bordeaux shocked and rocked the wine establishment, and now the story’s coming out next year in major motion picture form. So what does the 2004 vintage taste like? Gorgeous, frankly, although still rather young and best laid down for another decade. On the nose, leather and cassis predominate. Then its concentrated density slowly unfolds on the palate revealing woody cedar, warm leather, braised meat, cassis, black cherry, vanilla and spice. Well-balanced, full-bodied wine with a plush texture. Drinking well now but will develop for another 10 to 15 years.
Taylor Fladgate 20-Year-Old Tawny Port, Douro, Portugal ($68)
Rich flavours of dried apricots, coffee, toffee and nuts resound in this underpriced offering from a leading Port producer. Great balance between succulent sweetness and cleansing acidity lets each stylish sip finish nearly dry. Taylor Fladgate has been producing Port in the Douro for 300 years and its fortified wines offer consistent quality decade after decade.