Log In / Join Now

Magazine Archives: Jan. 31, 1999

Wines of the Century

Issue: January 31, 1999

January 31, 1999

Wines of the Century

Our editors fantasize about the ultimate mixed case of memorable, mature wines

By James Suckling

Anyone who enjoys a good bottle of wine probably has a mental list of the greatest wines he has ever tasted. It could be that perfect bottle of mature Pomerol drunk at dinner during an anniversary in a favorite restaurant or a bottle of a rich yet refreshing California Chardonnay sipped over a picnic lunch in a riverside setting with friends in Napa Valley. The truly memorable bottles not only enrich your senses with their fabulous aromas and flavors; they also touch your heart and soul.

I remember when I tasted the 1931 Quinta do Noval Nacional vintage Port, one of my all-time great wines. My wife had convinced the owner of the bottle, Peter Leaver, an attorney and keen wine collector, to open the bottle for me because I was writing my book on vintage Port. A few other wine notables were also in attendance, including Cristiano Van Zeller, then one of the owners of the Quinta do Noval Port house.

It was a cold wintry night in November 1989 when we all gathered in great anticipation in a private room at the restaurant Le Gavroche in London. To be honest, I have no recollection of the various German Rieslings, white Burgundies and Bordeaux we drank

that night. We even had a bottle of the glorious 1950 Quinta do Noval Nacional, but I would have to go back to my notes to remember anything about it. We were all too focused on "that" bottle, the rarest and grandest Port ever made.

When the decanter of '31 Nacional began to make its way around the table, the group of tasters became as silent as a church congregation in the middle of a prayer. No one spoke, they simply smelled and tasted, then tasted and smelled. The small room filled with an intense odor of chocolate, plums and cherries, much like the atmosphere in a shop that sells exquisite handmade chocolates. The Port was medium-bodied and filled the mouth with sweet fruit flavors and caressing tannins. Its flavor lingered for minutes.

I looked around the room to see smiles above the rims of the participants' Port glasses. A few noises of elation and joy followed. But still no one spoke. We were all concentrating on the pleasure in our glasses. Finally, the owner of Noval couldn't hold himself back--he said that it was the most remarkable Port he had ever tasted. We all agreed and then raised a toast to the owner of the bottle ... and then to the Queen ... and then to the President of the United States ... and then .... We obviously got carried away, but that's what happens when you drink great wines.

So what are the great bottles of this century?Wines that would take you into that state of vinous nirvana. Wines that even the most educated and perhaps jaded palates in the world would beg, barter or perhaps even steal to get their noses into. After much deliberation among our editors, along with the input of others who buy, sell and collect rare wines, we have put together a list of 12 wines that we believe qualify as "Wines of the Century"--the perfect mixed case, if you will.

We didn't choose this dream dozen by simply crunching our database of tasting notes to find our 12 most highly rated wines. Nor did we look only at auction and retail prices and pick out the most expensive. Instead, we chose wines that we believe are among the most memorable produced in this century. Wines that have made a difference. Wines that we all dream about drinking again. They are mature. These wines have stood the test of time. But they also exemplify their types, their vintages and their respective countries and regions.

To complement each of these selections, we have chosen a young, modern wine as the heir apparent. These are the wines that we hope in 50 years or more wine lovers like ourselves will be reminiscing about. Most of these wines are still available either in wine shops, at auction or on restaurant wine lists, although they are very expensive. Some, such as the 1989 Château Pétrus, cost almost $1,000 a bottle.

Red wines dominate our magical case. Someone once said that the first duty of a great wine is to be red, and we have to agree. You might expect them all to be Cabernet Sauvignon. However, only four are: Château Margaux 1900, Inglenook Napa Valley 1941, Château Mouton-Rothschild 1945 and Heitz Napa Valley Martha's Vineyard 1974. The remainder are a mix that includes Merlot (Pétrus 1961), Cabernet Franc/Merlot (Château Cheval-Blanc 1947), Pinot Noir (Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Romanée-Conti 1937), Sangiovese (Biondi-Santi Brunello di Montalcino Riserva 1955), and Syrah (Penfolds Grange Hermitage 1955 and Paul Jaboulet Aîné Hermitage La Chapelle 1961). The only white wine is a sweet one, a rich and sticky Sauternes (Château d'Yquem 1921). The '31 Nacional finishes the dozen.

It should come as no surprise that so many of the wines originate from Bordeaux. No other region on earth has the same pedigree for making world-class, age-worthy wines. Even in the 18th century, Americans were clamoring to get their hands on top-growth Bordeaux such as Margaux and Yquem. President Thomas Jefferson was a huge fan of châteaus Haut-Brion, Yquem and Margaux, among others. All the chosen wines are superb examples of great Bordeaux from great vintages. Interestingly, all were produced in extremely hot years--meaning these long-lived wines were made from superripe and powerful grapes. It's odd how some people continue to say that the best wines of Bordeaux come from "classic vintages" when the sun isn't shining most of the time.

The only other wine region to have more than one wine on the roster is California. Some of you might have expected to see more, but premium wines from the Golden State are a recent success compared to those from European wine regions. Still, no one can deny the high quality of California wines, and even decades ago a few pioneering wineries in Napa Valley were establishing a reputation for quality. In fact, the 1941 Inglenook Cabernet Sauvignon remains one of the greatest California reds ever produced--and the only one that Wine Spectator senior editor James Laube has ever rated a perfect 100 points--even with the hundreds of new wineries now operating. More than 30 years later, but only a few miles away, Heitz Wine Cellars made a stunning Cabernet from Martha's Vineyard that the new cult Cabernet wineries are still trying to equal.

The remainder of the Wines of the Century were chosen for both their supreme quality and the historical significance for their respective wine regions. The 1937 Romanée-Conti and the 1961 Jaboulet La Chapelle are benchmark wines for their varieties. The Biondi-Santi Brunello Riserva and Penfolds Grange Hermitage, both from 1955, showed the world that their respective countries--Italy and Australia--had the ability to make world-class wines. The 1931 Nacional is simply an extraordinary wine, perhaps the greatest Port ever produced.

One word of caution is necessary before you attempt to buy and enjoy any of these classics. Not all experiences with Wines of the Century are perfect. When dealing with very old wines, the challenge goes beyond finding a great vintage from a great château. It's a question of finding a bottle that's in pristine condition.

Last year I attended a dinner in Munich where German wine collector Hardy Rodenstock served a bottle of 1947 Cheval-Blanc along with '47s from châteaus Pétrus, La Conseillante, L'Eglise Clinet and Latour à Pomerol. Unfortunately, the Cheval-Blanc was not perfect--it was rich but slightly oxidized. Disappointment fell briefly over the table, casting a pall over what had been a euphoric evening. However, discussions of past experiences with good bottles of the legendary '47 Cheval-Blanc eased the pain.

Starting the century with a bang in Bordeaux
Rated 93 points * Now $9,000 * On Release $3

What better way to start a century than to make a wine of the century? That's what happened at Château Margaux in 1900. Wine collectors and professionals around the world still talk about the great clarets of 1900 with the same reverence and awe that art critics assume when discussing the attributes of works by such postimpressionist painters as Cézanne and Gauguin.

The first vintage of the 20th century was legendary from its birth even though it followed another great vintage, 1899. The growing season was perfect in every way, with just the right amount of sunshine and precipitation throughout most of the year. Most of the châteaus in Bordeaux were still reestablishing their vineyards after the terrible destruction caused by the root louse phylloxera in the late 1870s and early 1880s. The wines of the vintage were made using what would be considered extremely haphazard methods today, but as winemakers often say "great wines begin with great grapes." All the first-growth estates are said to have made superlative wines in 1900, but Margaux stands out as the best for most connoisseurs.

A tasting note on the wine last appeared in the July 15, 1987, issue of Wine Spectator. The wine was poured at a tasting in Los Angeles organized by Bipin Desai, the academician turned wine collector/merchant known for organizing tastings of great old wines. Harvey Steiman, editor at large for the magazine, described Château Margaux 1900 as "fresh and alive, showing depth and classic claret flavors." Paul Pontallier, technical director for Margaux, noted that the wines of 1899 and 1900 were less concentrated than some of the pre-phylloxera vintages, such as 1870 and 1864, and that it was not until the mid-1940s that the post-phylloxera vineyards of Margaux began making similarly powerful wines. --J.S.

Heir Apparent
Château Margaux 1995
Rated 100 points
Now $350
On Release $250

Is the 1995 Margaux even greater than the 1900? Time will tell, but it is easily the best red from the classic '95 vintage in Bordeaux. It's full-bodied and thick with masses of tannins, yet it remains racy and understated for the moment. Give it time; it should begin to drink well after 2005 and continue to give pleasure through the new century. As Paul Pontallier noted, "From time to time, there is a kind of magical symbiosis between the soil and climate, and it happened in 1995."

The sweetest nectar of Sauternes
Rated 97 points * Now $3,600 * On Release $5

One of the most amazing attributes of Château d'Yquem, the illustrious sweet white wine estate in the Sauternes district of Bordeaux, is that it seldom makes a weak wine. In fact, it may be the most consistent producer of great wines in the world, considering its ultrahigh standard for quality winemaking. So it's very difficult to say what vintage of Yquem should be considered the vintage of the century. After some discussion, however, it became clear that the hands-down favorite for most of our editors was 1921. No vintage is more celebrated for Yquem, and very few are still so breathtaking to drink.

I tasted the wine once about a decade ago, and it's difficult to think of anything that comes closer to a religious experience in wine drinking than sipping from a glass of this decadent nectar. In 1993 Harvey Steiman, editor at large, described the wine at a tasting in Los Angeles as "balancing an amazing amount of sweetness and flavor on a razor's edge of elegance." I scored the wine 100 points when I tasted it. Steiman gave it 97 after he compared it to three other amazing Yquems in the tasting: 1929 (100 points), 1874 (98) and 1847 (99).

The '21 vintage was one of the "California" vintages of this century in Bordeaux. It was burning hot most of the summer, which resulted in extremely ripe grapes. Interestingly, the year is better regarded for the sweet wines of Europe, such as Sauternes and late-harvest German Rieslings, although great reds were also made. The harvest at Yquem apparently started about a month earlier than normal, sometime in mid-September. A small amount of morning humidity in September had helped the development of the "noble rot," Botrytis cinerea, which helped the grapes to shrivel up like raisins and increased their sugar percentage. The '21 is a concentrated, thick, supercharged sweet mouthful of a wine. It's great to drink now but will surely last 50 more years--or longer. --J.S.

Heir Apparent
Château d'Yquem 1989
Rated 97 points
Now $200
On Release $200

Debate continues over which year of the famed modern trilogy of Château d'Yquem is the best--1990, 1989 or 1988--but we still believe in 1989. It is clearly the richest, most concentrated and thoroughly flamboyant of the three. The '89 vintage was incredibly hot for most of the growing season in Bordeaux, and the harvest was much earlier than normal. In fact, it was incredibly similar to 1921. This wine is so rich that it's tempting now, but it has the structure to age for many decades.

Does this rarest of Ports really exist?
Rated 100 points * Now $2,500 * On Release $2

It is the rarest and best vintage Port ever made. One of the former owners of the Port house Quinta do Noval, Cristiano Van Zeller, tasted the legendary 1931 Quinta do Noval Nacional only once in his life--and he was on his knees in praise. Current manager Christian Seely has still never even seen a bottle--drinking one remains a life ambition. I have seen only three bottles in my life as a Port devotee and author of a book on the subject.

What's amazing is that the wine was made with grapes grown on very young vines, most no more than 5 years old. They grew as they do today, in a few specific parcels of Noval's 300-plus acres of vineyards high up the hillsides of the Pinhão Valley, in one of the best growing areas of Portugal's Douro Valley. None of the vines had been grafted with American rootstock to protect them from pests and diseases. Therefore, the Port was called "Nacional," as its roots are firmly based in the soil of the nation of Portugal. The tradition continues today.

Production of the '31 must have been tiny, perhaps a hundred cases or less. The vintage was not a "generally declared year" because most Port producers still had plenty of great 1927 available. Because the wines were so good in '31, the owners of Noval decided to make a tiny amount of both regular vintage and Nacional. In a good year--and even today--the production of Nacional ranges from only 200 to 250 cases. Moreover, the vines were supposedly first planted in the mid-1920s, which means most were barely even producing grapes at the time of the '31 harvest.

Whatever was picked during that harvest was made into wine following the time-honored methods of the region. The grapes were placed in Noval's beautiful open granite fermentation troughs, called lagars, and then crushed by the feet of a dozen or so vineyard workers. The thick, black partially fermented grape juice was then fortified with a neutral alcohol--and so began its life as a legendary elixir. It's 68 years old, yet still tastes like a 30-year-old vintage Port in its prime. --J.S.

Heir Apparent
Quinta do Noval Nacional 1994
Rated 100 points
Now $633
On Release $400

This young vintage Port has certainly got the pedigree. From the minute you stick your nose in the glass, the 1994 Quinta do Noval Nacional shows an exotic, not-of-this-world character of earth, ripe black fruits and flowers. It's full-bodied yet sleek and racy, with a stunning backbone of superbly integrated tannins. It's built for the long run. Unfortunately, it's already nearly impossible to find on the market.

The power of Pinot Noir from Burgundy's most revered site
Rated 94 points * Now $800 * On Release $3

To most Burgundy fanatics, Romanée-Conti remains the Holy Grail of Pinot Noir, despite all the competition in recent years from other vineyards in the Côte d'Or as well as other parts of the world. The vineyard plot named Romanée-Conti is solely owned by Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, which also makes a handful of other wines from such illustrious vineyards as La Tâche, Richebourg and Romanée St.-Vivant. Certainly very few, if any, other Pinot Noir producers can boast of ancient bottles that are still glorious to drink today. And the domaine's 1937 Romanée-Conti remains a benchmark.

I have tasted two bottles in my life--one was completely gone; the other was magnificently youthful. The latter I tasted after dozens of '37 Bordeaux reds, and the Romanée-Conti blew them off the table. Its character of leather, spices and sweet raisins went on and on. It was fruity and silky, the antithesis of the dry and tannic clarets of the same vintage. I was nearly in tears when the tiny amount of wine in my glass was gone.

The '37 harvest in Burgundy was legendary from the outset. According to veteran wine taster Michael Broadbent of Christie's wine department, the weather was clear and warm for the entire growing season, and just at the end a light rain refreshed the vineyards. In his book The Great Vintage Wine Book II, he wrote that the year was a "great vintage, at its best rarely equalled" for Burgundy. Production must have been small, since it is tiny today--Romanée-Conti normally produces about 660 cases each year--and the vineyard's dimensions remain unchanged. --J.S.

Heir Apparent
Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Romanée-Conti 1995
Rated 98 points
Now $2,175
On Release $1,000
The 1995 vintage marked a comeback for the estate known as DRC. Led by this stunning wine from the Romanée-Conti vineyard and by an equally high-scoring Richebourg, the domaine released its best wines in 10 years. Clearly a wine to age, it would be a shame to drink the Romanée-Conti 1995 before 2010. It has great depth and concentration on the palate, ripe tannins and an almost sweet sensation on the lingering finish.

A powerful Rutherford wine that showed the way
Rated 100 points * Now $1,300 * On Release $1.49

Beyond Bordeaux, Napa Valley is where Cabernet Sauvignon reaches its greatest heights. The grand old Inglenook property in Rutherford helped establish Napa's Cabernet credentials in the 1930s and 1940s with an amazing string of rich, dense, age-worthy wines. Inglenook's grapes were grown in the rich, loamy soils right in front of the handsome stone château that for years was known as the Home Vineyard. The winemakers, John Daniel Jr. and George Deuer, were tough to please, setting high standards and among the few in California who would declassify wines--sell them off in bulk or bottle and sell them at a lower price--that weren't the best.

There are many sites in Napa Valley where Cabernet does well, but surely the Rutherford area is among the most consistent appellations. The soils come from the crumbling hillsides and are deep and well-drained. During the growing season, Cabernet ripens evenly and easily, as the days are warm and long and the nights cool and breezy.

The 1941 Inglenook Cabernet did indeed ripen fully--the alcohol level is well above 14 percent. And it never saw the inside of a small oak barrel. Daniel preferred to age his Cabernet in large casks, which allowed the wine to age slower than if it had been kept in smaller vessels. The 1941 is probably 100 percent Cabernet, but no knows for sure, for it was common then for many winemakers to blend in other grapes for color or tannin. In several tastings, this wine has never failed to amaze. It's dark and enormously concentrated, with a broad range of mature Cabernet flavors, hints of raisin, sage, currant, herb and dried cherry, and a wonderful bouquet that fills the room. An estimated 5,000 cases were produced. --James Laube

Heir Apparent
Ridge Monte Bello Santa Cruz Mountains 1994
Rated 93 points (prerelease)
On Release in 1999 $84
Truth is, any number of vintages of Ridge Monte Bello could have joined our fantasy wine list, as this wine almost always rates among the best Cabernet-based wines in California. The 1994 vintage has a little extra of everything, like most Cabernets from that year. Tasted a year before it was due to be released, it was young and compact, wonderfully focused but too tight to drink yet. Its score is expected to improve. Drink from 2006 to 2016 and possibly beyond.

The victory vintage is hailed as Mouton's best
Rated 98 points * Now $3,300 * On Release $2

There's nothing quite like 1945 Mouton-Rothschild. Maybe it's the wine's amazing youthfulness after 50 years in the bottle. Or perhaps it's the wine's unique minty, black currant aromas and flavors and luscious amounts of ripe fruit and rounded tannins. It could be the fact that it was made at the end of World War II, making it the "victory vintage." Whatever the reasons, it's an amazing wine.

I last drank the wine during the summer of 1995, when Mouton-Rothschild owner Philippine de Rothschild decided to open it for a few hundred journalists and guests during Vinexpo, the wine trade event held in Bordeaux every other year. The room fell silent as the bottles of '45 Mouton were poured and the area filled with a seductive aroma of blackcurrant, mints and eucalyptus. The wine enveloped the palate with sheets of ripe fruit and velvety tannins. One German connoisseur who had drunk many bottles of the '45 Mouton said that he could always pick the wine out due to its unique eucalyptus and blackcurrant character. "There's nothing else like it," he enthused.

The hardships to make the wine were certainly unequaled. The '45 vintage was one of the toughest in Bordeaux's history. Not only was the production of grapes tiny due to the poor cultivation of the vines during the war and an extremely hot and dry growing season, but there were very few people available to work the harvest and make the wines. Still, the adage "a great wine makes itself" was proven. The '45 remains the benchmark for Bordeaux vintages, and Mouton remains the supreme success of the year.

Mouton-Rothschild wasn't even ranked a first-growth at the time (that distinction came in 1973), although the 178-acre Pauillac estate had always made first-class wines. The '45 certainly proved this. The estate's late owner, Baron Philippe de Rothschild, once said the '45 Mouton wouldn't be ready until 2000. What a perfect way to welcome the new century. --J.S.

Heir Apparent
Château Latour 1990
Rated 100 points
Now $400
On Release $60
Whether 1990 as a vintage for Bordeaux will ever be considered as great as 1945 is a matter of contention, but 1990 Château Latour certainly has the potential to equal the best '45s. From the first tastings from the barrel in the cellar of this first-growth Pauillac estate, the '90 was spellbindingly concentrated and showed the classic Latour breeding of firm tannins and acidity. It remains a textbook claret and should be in its prime from 2005 to 2035.

The ultimate red was daring for its time
Rated 100 points * Now $4,200 * On Release $4

For many people, the 1947 Château Cheval-Blanc may be the greatest wine ever produced. It's certainly one of the most expensive. More like vintage Port than table wine, it is a monster of a wine, with a hugely concentrated, muscular tannin structure and a full complement of opulent, fleshy fruit flavors. Made from about two-thirds Cabernet Franc and one-third Merlot, it is a monument to the sumptuous wines of its district, St.-Emilion, and to the best reds of the region of Bordeaux.

Strangely, many winemakers in the region believe that no one would dare make a similar wine today. The '47 Cheval-Blanc is just too close to the edge of bad winemaking. It was made from ultraripe, almost raisiny grapes with super-high sugar content that were picked at the very last possible moment. This led to a wine with close to 15 percent alcohol, two percent higher than normal. In addition, the fermentation ran hot and furious, almost out of control, producing high levels of volatile acidity. The wine is stable, but just at the limit. Other wines from 1947 were less fortunate. Perhaps the Cheval-Blanc's on-the-edge style is why it is so outrageously showy and exciting to drink.

I tasted the '47 Cheval-Blanc early last year, and although it was not a perfect bottle, it showed remarkable concentration of superripe fruit with an underlying earthy, autumnal character. There's a sensual texture to this wine, with its combination of velvety tannins and thick glycerin from the alcohol. Other bottles I have had in the last decade were even more concentrated and fresh on the palate. Regardless, it's always a a heady glass of mature claret, and it seems as if it will never die. --J.S.

Heir Apparent
Château Lafleur 1982
Rated 99 points
Now $620
On Release $30
The 1982 vintage in Bordeaux was another blazing hot harvest that produced rich and flamboyant reds. The wine of Pomerol's tiny estate of Château Lafleur was the best of the vintage. It is a massive, Port-like wine with tons of sweet berry, tobacco and olive aromas and flavors and masses of velvety tannins. Sounds a little like the 1947 Cheval-Blanc and should prove to be just as long-lived.

Italy's first great wine came from Tuscany
Rated 97 points * Now $430 * On Release $6

Where would Italy be without the great old wines of Biondi-Santi? The Tuscan family whose wine bears its name was the first to prove to the world that Italian wines deserve to be compared to the best in the world. It has produced some stupendous Brunello di Montalcino riservas over the last century, including 1925, 1945, 1955, 1964, 1975, 1982 and 1983. However, 1955 remains the best.

The family wine estate, Il Greppo, is just below the hilltop village of Montalcino. Its 50 acres of vineyard produce a small amount of riserva Brunello only in the best years, with most of the grapes going to make a regular Brunello called Annata. The cellar of the property still holds many of the classic vintages of Biondi-Santi, even three bottles of 1888. However, the best is still the harmonious 1955, which remains a fabulous red to drink today.

I tasted a bottle of the '55 in 1997 at the winery with the venerable Franco Biondi-Santi, who at 75 remains the strong patriarch of the family, and I was amazed by the freshness and richness of this fine old Brunello. There was an opulence of ripe fruit and elegance of silky tannins that even today only a few of the best wines in Tuscany can replicate. Some Biondi-Santi aficionados may prefer the powerful '64 or the refined '45, but the '55 seems to encompass the best of both wines. The symmetry in the tannins, fruit and acidity is near-perfect for a Sangiovese.

When it comes to more recent vintages, the 1990 exhibits the same kind of balance. Wines from other years, however, can be overly acidic, lacking the ripe fruit and developed tannins one finds in the Biondi-Santi Brunellos of yesteryear. Franco Biondi-Santi asserts that he is maintaining the traditional style of Brunello and that his wines simply need long aging. Only time will tell if his young wines prove him right and whether they can match the greatness of the '55. --J.S.

Heir Apparent
Sassicaia 1985
Rated 99 points
Now $520
On Release $48
The Cabernet-based wines of the Tuscan wine estate of Tenuta San Guido have set the standard for modern Italian wines. Sassicaia, which is traditionally 70 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 30 percent Cabernet Franc, is already an international legend, particularly its 1985. A blockbuster of a wine, it is the biggest and richest Sassicaia to date and should easily last another 30 to 40 years.

The dawn of an era in Australia
Rated 93 points * Now $1,100 * On Release $3

Penfolds Grange Hermitage 1955, the first commercial vintage of Australia's most collectible wine, demonstrated for the first time that a country known for dessert wines could achieve greatness with a dry red. And what a red! Heady, teeming with smoky, spicy aromas and brimming with ripe flavors, it was unlike any wine before it. Grange Hermitage 1955 became the model for the modern era of Australian wine.

Ironically, Penfolds winemaker Max Schubert wasn't trying to create something new. He was trying to copy Bordeaux. On a brief visit to France in 1950, he tasted 40- to 50-year-old dry red wines that not only remained sound but had developed complex flavors in the bottle. That was new to Australia, where table wines were made to be consumed early.

In 1951 he made an experimental red wine along the lines of what he had seen in Bordeaux, controlling fermentation temperatures and maturing the wine in oak casks. Australia had few vineyards growing Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, the grapes of Bordeaux. But there were plenty of old vineyards growing Shiraz (also known as Syrah), the base grape for Australian Port. Though Schubert used 10 percent Cabernet Sauvignon in the 1955, the superripeness of Shiraz and the distinctive twang of American oak (he had no French oak available) made the wine unique.

The Australian wine trade greeted the first vintage with derision and outright hostility, but by 1962 the same experts who turned thumbs down on the 1955 made it the most-awarded wine ever in Australia, vindicating Schubert and changing the course of Australia's wine history. From that point on, Shiraz became the key grape for Australian reds.

Later vintages of Grange are more opulent, as the grape sources shifted from the original Magill Estate, in the eastern outskirts of Adelaide, to the Barossa Valley, known for its ultraripe grapes, and the Southern Vales. But the 1955 stands as a monument to the power of Shiraz to make great, ageable dry wines. Four decades later, it tastes as classy as ever. --Harvey Steiman

Heir Apparent
Penfolds Grange 1990
Rated 98 points
Now $240
On Release $100
Modern Grange--Penfolds dropped the "Hermitage" after the 1989 vintage--gets its added opulence from fine-tuning in the vineyards, says Penfolds' chief winemaker, John Duval, who has been involved in making Grange since 1976."We're getting more flavor and more even ripeness out of these vineyards. The wines are fleshier, richer, more supple." Grange 1990 is a huge mouthful of fresh berry, prune, anise and mineral flavors that extend into the longest finish imaginable, spilling over with plushness and fine-grained tannins. It could eclipse the 1955 in longevity.

Seriously stellar Syrah from the Rhône Valley
Rated 100 points * Now $1,800 * On Release $4

The 1961 Paul Jaboulet Aîné Hermitage La Chapelle may be a complete aberration for France's Rhône Valley. No wine from the region has ever been made before or since that can match the wine's amazing vigor and distinction. It is a monument to the marvelous quality potential of the Syrah grape.

I have tasted the wine two or three times in my life, and the '61 La Chapelle remains one of my all-time favorites. The layers of character in aroma and flavor are unmatched; they range from ultraripe berries to animal, earthy tones to dark chocolate and finally vintage Port. The wine fills your mouth with masses of fruit and velvety tannins. It's perfect, worthy of every one of its 100 points. I have long written that it's a wine to drink now and through the next century.

The making of La Chapelle today is just about the same as it was in 1961. Fermentation is done in small concrete vats. Maturation takes place for 10 to 16 months in small oak barrels like in Burgundy; in the '50s and '60s, this method was an anomaly for the Northern Rhône, but today it is the standard. It may seem strange to some, but the wine doesn't originate from grapes grown in the terraced vineyards where a chapelle, or chapel, stands. That vineyard is too high on the hill of Hermitage to produce top-quality grapes. So, La Chapelle has always been a blend of Syrah grown in the vineyards of Bessard and Le Meal, farther down the slope and with a perfect southwestern exposure to the sun.

According to the late Gerard Jaboulet, these vineyards only yielded one-fourth their norm in the blistering hot '61 harvest--about one ton per acre. This led to extremely intense and concentrated grapes. Some wine producers in the valley apparently couldn't handle these supercharged grapes and they lost control of their fermentations. However, the Jaboulets were able to pull the reins in enough to control the situation and make their greatest wine ever. The '61 La Chapelle still tastes quite youthful and can stand cellaring for a few more decades. --J.S.

Heir Apparent
E. Guigal Côte-Rôtie La Mouline 1990
Rated 98 points
Now $270
On Release $150
Marcel Guigal is the unmitigated leader of the Northern Rhône Valley. His single-vineyard wines from Côte-Rôtie are the hot tickets for the region, and La Mouline consistently attracts the highest praise (over sister bottlings of La Turque and La Landonne). Made with irresistible raspberry, floral and smoky character, not to mention a seamless structure of fruit and tannins, the '90 is the greatest La Mouline ever. It is only now coming into its own, and should reward cellaring through at least 2015.

Hedonism in a bottle of Pomerol
Rated 100 points * Now $2,800 * On Release $5

Château Pétrus, the legendary Merlot wine estate in Bordeaux's Pomerol district, has probably received more 100-point scores from this magazine over the years than any other wine producer in the world--and for good reason. The wines of this property show a wildly lush and exotic character that simply cannot be duplicated. The wines of Pétrus do not charm you with their finesse; they excite you with their flamboyance and generosity.

The 1961 remains the quintessential vintage of Pétrus, despite the existence of other perfect or near-perfect mature vintages, such as 1921, 1945, 1947, 1949, 1950, 1959, 1962 and 1964. Wines such as the '45 or '47 may be slightly more concentrated, but the harmony and richness of the '61 is unparalleled. It is a voluptuous, hedonistic delight.

Anyone with even a passing interest in Bordeaux wines knows that 1961 is a legendary vintage. It produced many great wines thanks to near-perfect weather during the growing season and an extremely reduced crop. Red wine production in the area was about one-third of the norm at the time and about one-tenth of what it is today. Because of this and the fact that the estate's vineyard then was about two-thirds its current size, Pétrus made a small amount of wine, about 680 cases. The wine was fermented, as it is today, in small concrete, epoxy-lined vats and aged in both new and used oak barrels before bottling.

From the outset, the '61 Pétrus was one of the most sought-after, most highly acclaimed wines of the vintage; this is still true today, despite its outrageously high price. It offers gorgeous aromas and flavors of black truffles, olives, earth and chocolate wrapped up with supervelvety tannins. It is so complete a wine that you only need to take tiny sips. With each small taste, it gushes with flavor. It seems as if it will always be a marvelous wine to drink, so there's no hurry. --J.S.

Heir Apparent
Château Pétrus 1989
Rated 100 points
Now $980
On Release $390
This is the most exciting Pétrus to be produced in three decades. It is a perfect young wine with all the luxurious, opulent character you could expect in a great wine from this estate. Christian Moueix, the manager of the property, and I recently tasted it side by side with the similarly supreme 1990 Pétrus, and we both agreed that the '89 had the edge. "It's the more complete wine," said Moueix. The wine is still in its infancy and needs at least another 10 to 15 years of cellaring.

The importance of the vineyard in California
Rated 97 points * Now $350 * On Release $25

The emergence of Heitz Martha's Vineyard Cabernet in the late 1960s signified the importance of terroir in California, even if few wine lovers appreciated that then-distant link to the European appellation and vineyard system. But Joe Heitz did, and when he began buying Tom and Martha May's Oakville-grown Cabernet, he soon recognized the distinctive features of their vineyard and the wine that came from it. In the 1966 vintage, Heitz began to bottle it separately from his Heitz Napa Valley Cabernet.

Heitz wasn't the first in California to use a vineyard designation for a wine--many California wines were estate-grown and -bottled, and in effect the vineyards were identified. But his use of the name Martha's Vineyard started a trend of vintners identifying special vineyards even if they didn't own them. Today, vineyard-designated wines are a fast-growing segment of the fine wine business, with many wineries identifying each of the vineyards they use to make wine. Martha's Vineyard is 34 acres of Cabernet set up against the western hills, and the wine is always 100 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, harvested very ripe and aged in a new and used French and American oak barrels for more than two years.

What set Heitz Martha's Vineyard apart was its rich chocolate and minty currant flavors. In the great 1974 vintage, Martha's opulence, depth and complexity reached a new plateau, joining other early classics such as the great trio from 1968, 1969 and 1970. For many years, this was the most sought-after collectible from California, and its fame helped galvanize Napa Valley's reputation for uniquely flavored, age-worthy Cabernets. For many collectors, the 1974 was the greatest Heitz Martha's ever, and even today this is an extraordinarily sensuous bottle of wine. Drink now through 2006. --J.S.

Heir Apparent
Araujo Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Eisele Vineyard 1994
Rated 96 points
Now $280
On Release $60

The Eisele vineyard near Calistoga rates highly on most critics' lists, routinely yielding wines of uncommon richness, depth and concentration. Before Bart and Daphne Araujo bought it in 1990, it had already been a prime Cabernet grape source for Joseph Phelps and other vintners for nearly 30 years. The Araujo Eisele '94 needs several more years to be truly ready to drink; after that, it should taste great till at least 2020.

Back to Menu

WineRatings+ app: Download now for 340,000+ ratings.