Let me not dance around the bush: The greatest wines today are not, paradoxical as this may sound, the so-called great wines. This conviction has for me grown stronger than any other in recent years. Allow me to explain.
In my recent WineSpectator.com column “The Three Essential Words for Greatness,” I submitted three criteria that I, anyway, believe help define greatness in wine. Also, I have no quarrel, or even quibble, with many—although not all—of the wines deemed “great” today. You know their names as well as I.
Yet, last week I wandered down to my wine cellar (which, believe me, is better described as a jumble, or worse) to grab a bottle for dinner. This occurs nightly. No big deal.
By some sort of Ouija-like force, my hand landed on a 2005 Bourgogne rouge Cuvée Gravel from Domaine Catherine et Claude Maréchal. Now, 2005 in Burgundy was a spectacularly fine vintage. But this wine was, after all, a “mere” Bourgogne, which is about as basic as it gets in Burgundy. It didn’t cost much when I bought it, and even at today’s highest-ever Burgundy prices it sells for about $30. (I paid a lot less than that for the 2005.)
Yet I’m here to testify that when I opened the bottle for dinner what emerged was extraordinary. This was no more a “mere” Bourgogne than Proust was merely a neurotic who once ate a madeleine and couldn’t stop talking about it.
Was it great according to the criteria I submitted in the aforementioned column? It sure was. It had transformed; it had layers; and boy, was there ever persistence. A superb vintage surely helped (it always does, even for recognized great wines).
That wine—and many, many others like it, from France, Italy, California, Australia, Oregon, Spain, Portugal and New Zealand—was not so much exceptional as representative of a certain select group.
Most wines from pretty much everywhere are merely average for their group, even in exalted neighborhoods designated grand cru or the like. Only in Lake Woebegon are all the children above average.
But the pool of wines that are representative of a “certain select group” is growing to near-oceanic proportions. Everywhere, with a little research and looking on our part, we can find Muscadets, Bourgognes, California Syrahs, Oregon, New Zealand and Australian Pinot Noirs, Rieslings from all over, Italian and Portuguese wines from “unknown” grape varieties, Spanish whites of almost electric qualities and Greek wines of singular originality that are indisputably members of this certain select group.
What makes them so? For starters, they are resoundingly fine. Above all, they are far finer—more dimensional, more layered and more characterful—than their assigned status, conventional reputations and, above all, their usually modest prices would suggest. They are members of a “certain select group” in that they are vastly superior to their immediate neighbors and competitors in categories that share an unfortunate undertow of mediocrity.
Are most Muscadets ordinary? They sure are. But anyone who’s investigated the category can quickly reel off a dozen producers whose wines are anything but ordinary. I can tell you firsthand how stunned people are when they taste a Muscadet with five, 10 or even 15 years of age from producers such as Domaine de la Pépière, Domaine l’Ecu or Domaine Luneau-Papin, to name but three. It’s not the endurance that impresses but rather the profound transformation that has occurred, which is always a marker of greatness.
The key point is this: Thanks to a seriousness of purpose on the part of producers—meaning lower yields, nursing old vines, selecting superior clones and exacting winemaking—we are today seeing numerous great wines that are not conventionally recognized as “great.”
And here’s the kicker: I would submit that these very wines are actually greater than the so-called great wines, if only because they are so unexpectedly overachieving. That 2005 Bourgogne from Catherine and Claude Maréchal was equal to, or better than, many Burgundy premiers crus. That’s not the way it’s supposed to be, of course. But that’s how it was, at least in my estimation.
This experience now occurs frequently. It’s not by chance. We wine lovers actively seek such producers. But there are now so many of them! The world has never before seen, let alone savored, Barberas so great as exist today. Or extraordinary Spanish wines from the once-obscure Mencía grape (Ribeira Sacra, Bierzo). Or astoundingly fine Portuguese table wines from the Douro, as well as other zones in that long-underachieving wine nation.
Are they great? Yes, they really are great—and I use that word advisedly. Are they as great as, say, La Tâche or Château Lafite Rothschild or any of the several dozen or so sanctified wine greats?
I can only say this: They are for me. In fact, they are personally more gratifying than the sanctified greats. I expect the sanctified greats to be extraordinary—and they aren’t always. Vintages matter; wine producers make mistakes. This doesn’t make them less great. Rather, it’s only to say that today there’s more competition for the accolade of “great” than is generally recognized.
Above all, the concept of “great” isn’t and should not be absolutist. There are no definitive peaks, no one pinnacle absolutely higher than another. The reason is simple: Great wines have too many expressions for anyone to declare, never mind how certain they sound, that any single wine is absolutely greater than all other comparable competitors.
Give the French their due: When they created the category of grand cru in Burgundy (or anywhere else) they went no further. They did not suggest, then or now, that Chambertin was somehow greater than Musigny or Romanée-Conti.
All grands crus occupy not a pinnacle but rather, a plateau. They are adjudged—at least as vineyards, anyway—equally, even collegially, as “great.”
What might be called the “unrecognized greats” are always disproportionately gratifying. It’s that element of the unexpected, the sheer surprise of it all. And, yes, price (low) plays a role. But really, it’s that head-shaking, “who knew Mencía or Melon or even a basic Bourgogne rouge could be like this?”
What we have today might be called the “modern greats.” Their defining signature is an electric thrill of the unexpected and an extraordinary, demonstrable accomplishment.
Can it get any better, even with the classic greats? Not for me, it can’t, not today.