Where Are Today's Classics?

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


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