Log In / Join Now

Drinking Out Loud

Where Are Today's Classics?

We all know the old wine classics. But do we have new ones?

Matt Kramer
Posted: June 4, 2013

Allow me to ask yet one more question before diving in further: Is it even possible today for a wine to be a classic?

You might well ask: What precisely is a "classic"? As good a definition as any comes from the great noir writer Raymond Chandler, who submitted in the introduction to his 1950 book The Simple Art of Murder that a classic is something "which exhausts the possibilities of its form and can hardly be surpassed."

But there's more to "classic" than this, concise as it is. The notion of a classic has, at its very root, the element of being time-tested. It must resonate across generations. In musical terms, it must become part of the repertory.

Put another way: Which wines being created today appear likely to be reaffirmed, indeed celebrated, by our descendants?

This is an intriguing question because it highlights something that some folks find uncomfortable. It's possible that we are generating no new classics, at least in the traditional sense of the term.

How can this be? The answer lies in the very fluidity and impermanence of much of wine today. The old European classics are, for the most part, tied to the permanence of specific, defined vineyards.

Romanée-Conti is a classic. Its 4.5 acre site hasn't changed for centuries. Nor has its grape expression. It was Pinot Noir when the Prince de Conti bought it in 1760 and, of course, it's Pinot Noir today. It was great then and it's great today. It's the ultimate classic. It has unwaveringly stood the test of time.

But we don't care about that sort of unyielding permanence anymore. Our world now changes too rapidly to either expect or even seek such permanence.

For example, Mayacamas Vineyards recently changed hands. Here you have what was arguably the most intransigently traditional winery in Napa Valley, a place consecrated to an ideal of permanence not just of place but of style. And yet it lasted just one generation before being sold to a new set of owners who, inevitably, will reshape the wines—and rightly so—to their own vision.

This is the mode of our era. Everything changes, morphing into new configurations. No stars are permanently arranged in a fixed, unchanging constellation as they once were.

This, in turn, underscores why there may be no such thing today as a "classic." We may now have only something temporary and transient, even evanescent—what might be called "classics for our time."

German wines, for example, are today dramatically different from what they were 40 years ago. (And the historically minded will rush to point out that German wines were different yet again 100 years ago.) The number of true "classics" in the Mosel and Rheingau is actually diminishing, this despite the ancientness of many of their best vineyard sites. Changing tastes and technology combine to serve a new consumer.

Does it matter? Very likely not. But what does matter—and it matters a lot—is whether the new wine expression conveys not merely the taste of a prior era, but the greatness of it. A modern classic, if you will, is something that not only delivers the original greatness of its predecessor but improves upon it.

This, I believe, is the foundation of what might be called the "new classicism." Producers such as Lalou Bize-Leroy of Domaine Leroy have demonstrated just this sort of improvement superimposed upon the already substantial achievement of modern Burgundies. Her red and white Burgundies are truly new classics.

The same may be said of numerous Italian wines, many of which are dramatically superior to previous incarnations of the same wine from the same site. Technology explains part of it, as does a worldwide audience that is willing and able to pay for ambition and achievement.

But here's the catch: Today's classics are not built for eternity. They won't last. The new classics are instead creatures of the moment, umbilically attached to a vital, invested audience. Once that audience moves away, for whatever reason, these new classics will wither.

Such was not the case a century ago when the now-traditional classics served a smaller, largely local audience whose fidelity was assured. It was an age of fixed horizons that ensured continuity. That's now gone.

So where are the new classics today?

I would suggest that you look closely at the best wines emerging from Hungary's Tokaj district, which is now issuing Tokaji wines of a quality unseen for more than a century.

I would suggest that you look closely at the best white wines from Spain, which are achieving heights of quality and characterfulness very likely never seen before in Spain's centuries-old, but rather dusty, wine history.

I would suggest that you look closely at the finest Rhône wines being made today. Here again, an ancient wine zone has been re-energized by an avid, informed and demanding outside audience that has helped drive quality to levels unmatched in generations.

I would suggest that you look closely at certain zones in California, especially the Santa Cruz Mountains, the westernmost part of Sonoma County and the west side of Paso Robles, to name but three areas.

I would look closely at southern Italy, which may well be the newest, richest source of "new classics" in a nation brimming with such wines.

But what I would not do is presume that any of these new classics, no matter how thrilling or inarguably great, will persist unto the lives of your children or your children's children. Despite the permanence of terroir itself, wine greatness today is now transient in a way that it never was before. Get it while you can.

Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  June 4, 2013 11:45am ET
Implicit, but unstated, in any nostalgia for onetime "classics" is that they were not only restricted in terms of their place and style, but few in number. Acknowledged classics such as the Grands Crus of Burgundy and the Premiers Crus of Bordeaux, and a few standouts from elsewhere in the wine world, were nicely delineated by the trade and a few wine books. The neighborhood was restricted too.

Upstarts had the brass to challenge this state of affairs, such as those "improved" Italian and Spanish wines, not to mention an enormous range of distinctive wines from the New World. Personally, I love it.
Steven Mirassou
Livermore Valley —  June 4, 2013 1:42pm ET
Lots of great stuff to think about here, Matt.

A related question: how much a function is the storytelling by the brand and the dissemination of that story by interested parties determining factors in the perceived quality of that wine?
Morewine Bishar
Del Mar, California —  June 4, 2013 1:55pm ET
Great topic, Matt.

For me, classic is the blend first established by early Italian winegrowers in California, that is, mostly Zinfandel with a smaller admixture of Petite Sirah and other varietals.

Planted in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century in vineyards around the North Coast, but especially in Dry Creek and other Sonoma locations, these now old vines continue to amaze and delight with their combination of concentration and complexity. These wines are unique, you will find their like nowhere else in the world and they constitute both a valuable legacy of our past and a vibrant living tradition.

These wines also have a strong affinity to our Southwestern regional cuisine with its' love of grilled meats and fishes combined with lively spices and other rather strong flavors. Old Vine Zin is a champ at barbeques. Here in San Diego County, outdoor grilling and casual dinning are a big part of our social life and our California native wine is well suited to it.

Enduring? Having been with us in some form since the Gold Rush days of the 1850's constitutes real longevity by western standards.

I call that classic!

David Clark
for The Wine Connection

David Rapoport
CA —  June 4, 2013 2:35pm ET
Hmmn. I thought the "classics" were just a function of British hyperbole...
Steve Kubota
Bellingham, WA, USA —  June 4, 2013 4:04pm ET
Will it be the critics, consumers or both that determine which wine and producers will be the next classics? I wonder how a handful of heady producers of "California Cult Classics" feel after reading your drinking out loud segment.

You could make a case or point for many wine regions around the world as where potential classics will rise including and not excluding Barossa Valley, Maipo Valley, Columbia Valley, Rhine Valley...
Tone Kelly
Rochester NY USA —  June 4, 2013 4:44pm ET
One of the problems with Classics is that one only really knows they classics after the fact. Guessing is like driving through the rear view mirror.
My own humble suggestion would be wines from Bandol, both Rose and Reds.
Dennis D Bishop
Southeast Michigan, USA —  June 5, 2013 9:19am ET
I believe a true classic wine needs the test of time - I suggest at least a century of perfection. With that in mind I offer a wine with only 62 years of experience, Penfolds Grange, dating back to 1951 with winemaker Max Schubert's experiment to create a wine that would rival the best French Bordeaux (classics). Despite many changes in ownership and winemakers, this wine has certainly stood out among the very best wines in the world.... and I hope it will for many more.
Terry French
Columbia, MO —  June 5, 2013 10:21am ET
A classic wine must have a history and a sense of place. I would offer, for example, Chateau de Saint Cosme Gigondas, a wine with fourteen generations of family history currently produced by the incomparable Louis Barruol.
Austin Beeman
Maumee, Ohio —  June 16, 2013 6:41pm ET
5 submissions for New Classic Status.

1. Lagier Meredith Syrah from Mount Veeder, Napa Valley.
2. The Estate Chardonnay from Mount Eden Vineyards.
3. St. Innocent's Pinot Noir from Temperance Hill.
4. Cayeuse Syrah from Washington State.
5. Bonny Doon's Cigar Volant - GSM blend.

I'm sure there's more, but that's a start for me.

Would you like to comment? Want to join or start a discussion?

Become a WineSpectator.com member and you can!
To protect the quality of our conversations, only members may submit comments. Member benefits include access to more than 315,000 reviews in our Wine Ratings Search; a first look at ratings in our Insider, Advance and Tasting Highlights; Value Wines; the Personal Wine List/My Cellar tool, hundreds of wine-friendly recipes and more.

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