Of the eight books I've banged out (seven on wine and one a cookbook), only one offered a homemade hierarchy of wine goodness.
That book was Making Sense of Italian Wine (2006), which was intended to help clarify the madness of what is surely the world's most delicious wine mess. ("No nation," I wrote, "so relentlessly, even profligately, issues so many wines. No winegrowers anywhere are so willing—insistent, even—on throwing over the old order as Italians.")
Unlike the French, with their grands crus and premiers crus and, in Bordeaux, their rankings of first-, second-, third-, fourth- and fifth-growths, the Italians have no government-sanctioned curatorial blessings about quality.
The French approach is both a bane (it's a relic of a fixed, class-obsessed aristocratic world view) and a blessing (if you're among the anointed few, you're set for life). It also assumes an immutable view of wine quality, which makes some sense in say, Burgundy (where the quality ranking is based on the site itself), and is absurd in Bordeaux (where the class ranking of quality applies to the brand not the land).
The Italians have none of it, and in today's fluid wine world, where star wineries and extraordinary wines seemingly emerge from nowhere, no need of it, either. This is hardly confined to Italy, one hastens to add. It's true everywhere—most emphatically including France itself.
But we wine lovers do need a bit of help. Typically, such help comes in the form of extensive notes on individual wines, further annotated with a score. Say what you like about scores, but at least they change every vintage in direct reflection of a taster's judgment about a wine. I'll take that 21st-century flexibility over a dusty, class-fixated, 19th-century view where "breeding" says it all—and says it forever.
Anyway, in my intentionally simplistic homemade hierarchy of wine goodness in Italy I offered three self-explanatory categories:
Don't die without trying it.
Absolutely worth an effort.
If you happen to see it.
I thought about these categories—especially "Don't die without trying it"—after serving an extraordinary 2008 Champagne from the very small producer Ulysse Collin. It was a 100 percent Chardonnay Champagne from the Les Roises vineyard, which boasts vines of 60-plus years with tiny berries.
Now, I've never been a fan of bubbles, I don't care from whom or what the cost. But when I sipped that singular Ulysse Collin Champagne I couldn't help but think: Don't die without trying it. (Obviously, there's hope for me yet with sparkling wines.)
That, in turn, got me to thinking about yet other don't-die-without-trying-them wines. Inevitably such a list can embrace an entire zone, which was the case in my Italian book, which awarded this accolade to the likes of Barolo, Barbaresco, Brunello di Montalcino, Recioto della Valpolicella and—this might surprise you—Moscato d'Asti.
Or it could be winery or vineyard specific. I offered a heartfelt don't-die-without-trying-it salute to the late Carlo Hauner's legendary Malvasia delle Lipari, with its haunting herbal scent, from the Aeolian island of Salina off the coast of Sicily.
Every person who creates such a list will, inevitably, be more or less exigent. For my part, I try to be a bit exacting. But what's more interesting, I think, is how different such a list would be from one wine lover to the next.
For example, I couldn't really think of a single Cabernet Sauvignon about which I would say, "Don't die without trying it." I know, I know, it's ridiculous. But I find myself emotionally unmoved by the category, even though I've had many remarkable Cabernets.
Yet my list of Pinot Noirs is laughably long, embracing pretty much every grand cru red Burgundy, a sizable clutch of premiers crus, and some you've-really-got-to-try-them New World dazzlers such as Rhys in Northern California's Santa Cruz Mountains, Ostler Vineyards, Pyramid Valley Vineyards and Bell Hill Vineyard in New Zealand's South Island, and several real contenders in the so-called extreme Sonoma Coast such as Flowers and Peay, among others. And I could keep going, easily.
The Chardonnay contingent would be equally extensive. To die without trying a mature (10-plus years old) grand cru Chablis would really be sad indeed. Ditto for all of the grand cru whites in the Côte d'Or, of course. But let's not forget the likes of Ridge Monte Bello Chardonnay, simply one of the world's greatest Chardonnays, bar none. (Gee, maybe the Monte Bello Cabernet might make the list, now that I think about it.) Ditto for Mount Eden Vineyards Chardonnay and Hanzell Chardonnay.
Less famous wines from more "obscure" grapes would make my "Don't die without trying it" list, such as Hungary's fabulous, unique-on-the-planet sweet Tokaji wines, for example. All sorts of German Rieslings, especially from the Mosel and Nahe, ringing the changes from kabinett to trockenbeerenauslese, are incontestably not to be missed before we shuffle off. (However, I could easily die without trying the dry trockens.)
Then there are the great sweet Chenin Blanc wines from the Loire Valley districts of Quarts de Chaume, Bonnezeaux and Vouvray. Surely you shouldn't die without trying those. Sauternes shouldn't be missed either.
But what about Sherry? A friend recently upbraided me for my offhand dismissal of Sherries in a recent column. Don't die without trying Sherry? Really? Could you—would you—say that for Sherry? Or for Port, for that matter?
Such a list inevitably lends itself, as it should, to personal predilection. One person's life-affirming thrill (I do love Barbera) is another's "If you happen to see it." The element of emotion should never be forgotten when it comes to wine appreciation. The thrill should never be gone.
I look forward with anticipation to your nominations of wines, or even whole districts, that deserve the accolade, "Don't die without trying it."