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Drinking Out Loud

What Makes a Wine “Classic”?

Questioning whether a region with only 25 years of fine-wine history can establish the equivalent of grands crus and premiers crus

Matt Kramer
Posted: February 2, 2010

Something in us, it seems, wants not only to catalog, but also to rank. The most recent example of this irresistible urge comes from New Zealand.

The Kiwis have already adopted a fence-building system, called Geographical Indications, which draws wine district borders. Now some vintners want to add quality rankings to the regions, similar to Burgundy’s hierarchy of grands crus and premiers crus.

In order to appreciate what can only be called the chutzpah of this, allow me to remind you of the brevity of New Zealand’s fine-wine history. Wine grape cultivation on any scale in New Zealand dates only to the 1960s. Moreover, those early plantings emphasized second-rate grapes such as Müller-Thurgau and other hybrids. It was a dead-end.

By the early 1980s, New Zealand had about 14,000 acres of vines, 85 percent of which were on the North Island. However, the wines were so unattractive that prices plunged. These plantings were so ill-advised that the government actually subsidized their removal.

Consequently, it was only in the mid-1980s that the Kiwis revamped their wine industry. By then, they knew what not to plant. The outside world’s first glimmer of a revitalized New Zealand came from the zingy Sauvignon Blancs of the Marlborough district at the northern tip of the South Island, most famously from Cloudy Bay Vineyards. (Ever competitive with their neighbor, the Kiwis always wince when it’s pointed out that an Australian, David Hohnen, started Cloudy Bay.)

Serious red wines have an even briefer history. It was only in the 1990s that the Pinot Noir vineyards of the South Island’s Central Otago area began to emerge. Ditto for the various red grape plantings (Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah) in the North Island’s Hawkes Bay district.

And now some people think that New Zealand is ready to establish premiers crus and grands crus? With all of 25 vintages, at most, of fine-wine history?

Which brings me to “classic.” Although it’s not immediately obvious, the concept of “classic” is part of the foundation upon which a hierarchy is built. Whatever is considered “classic” represents an agreement about a particular and enduring goodness that’s proved over a period of time, usually generations. That, in turn, allows a hierarchy to be built. Remove “classic” from its structure and it topples.

Mere popularity can’t make something a classic. Although Charles Dickens’ serialized novels were hugely popular in his mid-Victorian day, books like Bleak House and Great Expectations didn’t become classics until long after Dickens had died. Only over time did we realize that his characters remained alive. Even today, we have to remind ourselves that Pip and Miss Havisham in Great Expectations weren’t actually real.

The tough-guy noir writer Raymond Chandler captured it best. “A classic,” he said, is something “which exhausts the possibilities of its form and can hardly be surpassed.”

When it comes to wine, classic is conventionally seen as a benchmark, a measure against which other wines are judged. It does serve that purpose, to be sure. But “benchmarks” can shift. Tastes—styles, really—do change over time.

In Burgundy, for example, the red wines made in the 1970s were collectively quite light, because of excessive vineyard yields and short fermentations. By today’s benchmark measures, those wines are seen as dilute and thin. Yet even though a certain amplification and full dimensionality was lacking, the great sites of Burgundy—Ruchottes-Chambertin, Richebourg, Corton, among many others—continued to convey their greatness during this period.

To earn recognition as a classic, a wine must accumulate a critical mass both of vintages and of tasters. At first, the accolade might be proposed by insiders—winegrowers and professional critics. But it can only be validated over time, through confirmation by a critical mass of tasters, usually several generations’ worth.

For example, it’s not enough to taste one vintage of La Tâche and proclaim it classic, which is to say, a wine and vineyard that “exhausts the possibilities of its form and can hardly be surpassed.” Recognizing its relative stature compared with other renditions of Pinot Noir requires an intimacy spanning multiple vintages. This goes way beyond congratulating its current owners and winemaker for a job well done this year.

Does the Gimblett Gravels district in New Zealand’s Hawkes Bay zone on the North Island deserve the essential element of classic implicit in the concept of premier cru or grand cru? Who knows? The wines certainly are very fine. (Try Craggy Range’s Sophia bottling for proof.) But Gimblett Gravels is so blink-of-an-eye new that asserting an enduring originality worthy of enshrinement to an official cru status is presumptuous in the extreme.

Classic, like the concept of cru, or site, comes from composition, rather than from rendition. A song like “I Loves You Porgy” is classic because a) generation after generation, it moves us deeply and b) its compositional profoundness shines through so many presentations. We can hear it performed operatically, in pop form, instrumentally, in various jazz variations, and yet its elemental beauty and structure shines through all versions.

This is why—whether its doubters or detractors like it or not—the concept of terroir is inescapable when it comes to classic. Terroir is wine’s composition. Winemakers play its notes, some better, some worse. Like musicians, they can “cover” it in one style or another.

For our part, we tasters must first discover—not just across a span of vintages but through the lens of our own evolutions as wine lovers—the underlying beauty of a wine or even an entire (small) district.

However, our own private judgments are insufficient: Classic requires consensus. Much to the discomfort of the “If I like it, it is good” contingent, it’s not enough that you or I think a certain wine is great and therefore classic. There are no genius tasters, no Albert Einsteins who can see something in a wine that no one else has yet grasped.

Classic must be confirmed by others. Without it, an assertion of enduring greatness is just idiosyncrasy. No one person—no single generation even—can bestow classic upon a wine.

What, then, makes a wine classic? Time, of course. Time confirms that a wine’s—or even a zone’s—particular beauty is not just the fashion of a moment, but something deeper and more enduring. (Porgy and Bess got mixed reviews when it first appeared on Broadway in 1935 and ran for only 124 performances.)

Above all, a classic wine offers enduring, repeatable, confirmable insight—“news that stays news” as Ezra Pound memorably put it.

A wine proves itself as classic when, in the end, a transgenerational tribe of tasters knows the composition, sees it no matter what the “performance” and is moved and enlightened by it—and applauds wildly.

Jeffrey Ghi
New York —  February 3, 2010 6:57pm ET
Interesting concept, but would you consider Pepsi a classic?
Tim Sinniger
Bend, Oregon —  February 3, 2010 9:52pm ET
Only time will tell whether an AVA, region or like can produce classic wines. An attempt to force the issue flies in the face of what should be a natural process of trial, error, success and recognition.

Great conversation!

Tim
Northwest Wine Fan
Adam Lee
Santa Rosa, CA —  February 4, 2010 1:23pm ET
Matt,

Is it possible for a wine that is "classic" to lose that status by producing less than stellar wines over time? If so, how long? Certainly some classic wines have gone thru slumps? Can you think of some that have fallen from that designation seemingly permanently?

Adam Lee
Siduri Wines
Morewine Bishar
Del Mar, California —  February 4, 2010 2:58pm ET
Adam,

BV Georges de Latour is certainly a fallen "classic". In the course of twenty-five years in the trade, I have many fond memories of some truly wonderful bottles, years like 1968, 1974, 1978 come swiftly to mind. It was for a very long time one of "the" wines to own, to drink and to talk about. But who hears raves for it today? Corporate mentality and a string of disappointing releases have ruined this wine in the public's eye, to the point where really no one asks for it anymore. How sad!

David Clark
for The Wine Connection
Morewine Bishar
Del Mar, California —  February 4, 2010 2:58pm ET
Adam,

BV Georges de Latour is certainly a fallen "classic". In the course of twenty-five years in the trade, I have many fond memories of some truly wonderful bottles, years like 1968, 1974, 1978 come swiftly to mind. It was for a very long time one of "the" wines to own, to drink and to talk about. But who hears raves for it today? Corporate mentality and a string of disappointing releases have ruined this wine in the public's eye, to the point where really no one asks for it anymore. How sad!

David Clark
for The Wine Connection
Matt Kramer
Oregon —  February 5, 2010 7:07pm ET
To All: Adam Lee’s question: “Is it possible for a wine that is "classic" to lose that status by producing less than stellar wines over time? … Can you think of some that have fallen from that designation seemingly permanently?” is a terrific thought.

I am now living in Argentina and have only just arrived, so forgive me if I seem a bit foggy here. (No prizes, by the way, for guessing the next Web column!)

Anyway, my short answer to this question is : Yes, I do think that a classic wine can lose that status—but only in the sense of popular esteem. The underlying “classicism” of the site (vineyard or zone) surely remains, awaiting the wakening kiss of a committed producer or just a change in taste in the audience itself.

For example, the northern Piedmont district of Gattinara once enjoyed an acclaim that equaled or even exceeded that of Barolo. But after World War Two, its vineyard area declined and over the decades its producers, in my opinion anyway, seemed to lose heart and ambition. Can anyone doubt the “classic” greatness of Gattinara? I don’t think so, not if you’ve had the chance to taste a mature (15+ years old) Gattinara from a top producer, such as the no-longer-produced Gattinara of the Conte Ravizza called Monsecco or the current top Gattinara producer Antoniolo (try their single-vineyard “Osso San Grato”).

A wine that surely is classic in anybody’s eyes that has, well, run out of esteem, is sherry. The capacity of the Jerez zone to create extraordinary wines is unquestionable. But modern tastes have changed.

Sherry producers have been grappling with this challenge for more than a century now. The coup de grâce came when Queen Victoria died in 1901. Her son, King Edward VII, promptly sold off all the surplus sherry in the royal cellar, some 60,000 bottles. The British court once consumed vast quantities of sherry, but entertaining virtually ceased upon the death of Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, in 1861. However, the royal steward kept buying sherry at the old rate, never mind that no one was drinking it!

The royal sherry auction was devastating confirmation of sherry’s decline. (Champagne was, by then, fashion’s favorite.) Not only were the auction prices fetched derisory, but such a huge sale flooded what was already a weak market.


ALSO: I think that Mr. Clark’s suggestion of Beaulieu Vineyards “Georges de Latour Private Reserve” Cabernet Sauvignon is apt. Here again, can anyone who knows the lay of the land in Rutherford doubt that the original “heart” of this wine, the two vineyards Beaulieu romantically calls BV 1 and BV2, are truly “classic”?

Anyway, those are some thoughts.

Matt
Ron Mcfarland
Denver, Colorado, USA —  February 8, 2010 3:00pm ET
Matt

You are right the Kiwi's are out in front and being cheeky - much like when Michael Fay challenged Dennis Conner with the maxi yacht in the San Diego America's Cup. While Conner defeated the maxi - Sir Peter Blake did win and take the Cup to New Zealand for two terms.

The enthusiasm within New Zealand right now is understandable - with great wine critics like Oz Clarke saying "New Zealand is making some of the most thrilling wines in the world" or yourself highlighting that as the "great or classic wines of the world become less available - Pinot noir from regions like Central Otago or Canterbury will become honorable replacements" (my paraphrase)

Great time for everyone right now, as great drinking options are coming at us from all parts of the world.

Cheers
Ron McFarland
Bernard Kruithof
San Antonio, Texas —  February 10, 2010 6:31pm ET
It's good to see someone writing about standards and characteristics of a classic. Some still believe that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Many people believe that if a person walks up to the great painting of the Mona Lisa or other work of art and doesn't like it, that that painting is subjective and now not a masterpiece. This is what they are saying when they hold true that "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" The truth is that there are standards and characteristics which make a set of rules and criteria we can go by when we really want to define a classic. Wine as art has this hold true and it's great to read some of these rules so we can all know what they are. It's not popular to write or speak of these criterias in many circles--kind of like the "truth" nowadays isn't it. Let's face it "beauty is not really in the eye of the beholder alone. Thanks Matt I always look forward to the wisdom in your column.
Morewine Bishar
Del Mar, California —  February 11, 2010 5:32pm ET
Mr. Kruithof is correct. Beauty is actually the interaction of the beheld and the beholder. Without a viewer, the greatest painting in the world is just some stuff smeared on a canvas. Without an intellect trained to judge, the world's finest wines are just another way to get a buzz on!

David Clark
for The Wine Connection

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