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Drinking Out Loud

The Element of Emotion

Never mind simply enjoyable. What absolutely shouldn't be missed?

Matt Kramer
Posted: April 16, 2013

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."

Peter Vangsness
East Longmeadow, MA —  April 16, 2013 12:30pm ET

The Klein Constantia Vin de Constance was one of the biggest surprises of my wine life. We served it at the end of a wine dinner (with six guests) - had no idea the muscat grape could evolve into something so interesting! We consumed every drop of the 500 ml bottle - never would have tried it until reading the review by WS and noticing the 95 point rating.
Dustin Gillson
Dayton, OH —  April 16, 2013 12:51pm ET
Personally, I think you are half crazed to dismiss dry German Rieslings. If I could readily acquire Spatlese or Auslese Trocken Rieslings (or Grosses Gewachs), that would likely be nearly the only white wine in my cellar. I like the sweet ones too, but the sugar tends to cover up much of the nuance and complexity you get from a fully ripe and fully fermented German Riesling.
Andrew S Bernardo
Ottawa, Canada —  April 16, 2013 12:52pm ET

Lots of good picks here.

What about a 10-20 year old Hunter Valley Semillon?

Dennis D Bishop
Southeast Michigan, USA —  April 16, 2013 1:03pm ET
Well, I love challenge, especially when it comes to Cabs. I nominate Concha y Toro Cabernet Sauvignon Don Melchor (Private Reserve) as a wine you must drink before you die.
Martin Redmond
San Francisco, CA —  April 16, 2013 4:23pm ET
Mature Rioja, and Barolo would be on my list + my deathbed wine Rose Champagne would be top of mind for me! But better not give me too much time to think about it, the list will just grow!
Morewine Bishar
Del Mar, California —  April 16, 2013 6:59pm ET
I would put forth any top-notch very old bottle of Malmsey Madiera, 1862 or '63 would work fine.

David Clark
for The Wine Connection
Marc Robillard
Montreal, QC. Canada —  April 16, 2013 7:14pm ET
Any high quality 13-15 year old Barolo. With one proviso; You would also have to taste the same wine at 5-7 years of age in order to truly understand the unbelievable and beautiful transformation of these wines! So this makes its a long term assignment...As it should be when it comes to the love of wine.
Jim Mcclure
Ft Worth, TX USA —  April 16, 2013 8:00pm ET
I would put a top end mature Vintage Port on the list for sure. 1977 Taylor ranks in my top three wines, and it probably wasn't peaked when I had it about four years ago. Also a mature Champagne. 1988 de Venoge Brut Millésimé is another of my top wines, last opened at the 20 year mark. Both of those wines set benchmarks for me of the potential of those varietals.
Scott Mitchell
Toronton, Ontario, Canada —  April 17, 2013 9:20am ET
Hermitage (red and white) and Cote Rotie, especially some of the single vineyard designated wines have to be on the don't die without trying it list.
Greig Mcginness
El Dorado Hills, CA USA —  April 17, 2013 2:32pm ET
I would add Chasseur, Lynmar, Kanzler and Kosta Browne to your list of Sonoma County Pinot Noirs.
Tone Kelly
Rochester NY USA —  April 17, 2013 6:38pm ET
I have never had the 1961 Palmer, but my mentor in wine said it was the best wine of the vintage, better than any of the 1st growths.

My wine to try before you die is the 1982 Pichon Lalande. I only wish that I had bought more.
Ed Frankoski
Huntington, NY —  April 18, 2013 8:19pm ET


After trying a bottle two years ago, I procured 3 cases of 2006 La Serena Brunello di Montalcino and have 32 bottles left in my cellar sleeping. Bruce Sanderson scored it a 97 and said drink 2013 through 2026. To me this is the best wine I've ever had. I'm going to try and drink them all (and share them with friends) before I die. It's not Petrus, at least not yet. I agree with you on Italian wines. They are pushing the envelope and represent an incredible value over pedigreed names from other quadrants of the galaxy. Cheers - EJF
David A Zajac
Akron, Ohio —  April 20, 2013 6:41am ET
I am with you on the grand cru Burgundies, could do nothing but those the rest of my life and die very happy. Rhys an emphatic yes, and for chardonnay how about Leeuwin Artist Series? However, I am shocked nobody came to the defense of Cabernet, for the record, I agree with you, I have had some I have loved but nothing to the point of a gotta try wine, not even close. As for your German Rieslings, have to admit I am more excited by the dry versions and less so anything over Spatlese.
Israel —  April 20, 2013 8:34am ET
I love the definition of don't die without trying
In that category I would difinitely include Cupano brunello 2007
This small winery from Montalcino produce
An outstanding Brunello , the only description
I can give for is to die for
David Boyer
Austin. TX —  April 20, 2013 3:08pm ET
Hi Matt,

I have always respected your writing and wine knowledge but to trash the Bordeaux Classification of 1855 (even if you didn’t mention it by name) is specious and frankly, ignorant on your part. Given the breadth of your life in the wine world, I am immensely surprised.

This 'relic of a fixed, class-obsessed aristocratic world view' works extremely well and goes back hundreds of years prior to the official classification in 1855. At the time, no one knew the enormous influence this classification would still command more than 150 years later. To be a cru classé imparts a clear demand and responsibility to live up to one’s place on the list and those that do not are punished economically, if not in reputation.

If you own a Third Growth château and your prices are below average relative to other Third Growths, you’re not making comparable wine. If you want to bring up your selling price, the only way to do it is to make better wine. On the other hand, if you own a Fifth Growth estate such as Château Lynch-Bages, you will be handsomely rewarded, both monetarily and by reputation, because the quality of your wine is equal to many Third or even Second Growth châteaux and the price of your wine is comparable to others in those classes.

There’s no need to change the classification because this system has worked flawlessly for many years by providing château owners with a reward/punishment-type of result based solely on wine quality. Anyone that knows Bordeaux understands the winners and losers from within the classification and anyone that wants to know Bordeaux can easily learn what’s great and what’s not. The list itself provides a jumping off point and requires only a minimal amount of research to expand one’s knowledge from there. This classification is still relevant and reliable for wine aficionados worldwide and there are roughly another 10,000 unclassified Bordeaux châteaux to be discovered as well.

Other classification systems fail because they change constantly such as Saint-Émilion's revision every ten years, which only serves up confusion to consumers and creates lawsuits between governing bodies and châteaux. Further, your position that Burgundy's classification is superior because it is based on dirt is untenable.

As you well know, the only reason for Burgundy to classify actual vineyards is because there are so many owners of these relatively small and extremely valuable plots of land, and too many separate producers buying fruit from these owners. If there are twenty or more winemakers using fruit from the same vineyard, it makes sense to denote the vineyard in a classification (I’m sure Andy Beckstoffer wishes they would do the same in Napa). In Bordeaux, there is generally a single owner (or family) that grows the grapes and makes their wines exclusively from their efforts, from vine to bottle. In what way could that possibly be ‘absurd’ unless you’re simply jumping on the current popular-notion bandwagon to bash French wine? The ‘French approach’ is the most mimicked and envied in the world and your view is not only erroneous but also extremely myopic.

Allow me to suggest the following 'don't die without trying': multiple vintages of mature First Growth Bordeaux; and, 'absolutely worth an effort: multiple vintages of mature Second through Fifth Growth Bordeaux. In doing so, I think it would be impossible for you to miss the remarkable value of this most important classification.

Respectfully yours,

David Boyer
Don Rauba
Schaumburg, IL —  April 21, 2013 12:19pm ET
Response to David Boyer: No, no one needs that any longer. It's irrelevant. But go ahead, knock yourself out.
Matt Kramer
Portland, Oregon —  April 21, 2013 5:14pm ET
Mr. Boyer: Thank you for your thoughtful observations about the 1855 classification of Bordeaux wines. I realize that my own observations about Bordeaux and its hierarchy is goring a sacred cow.

However, I do not reverence this hierarchy anywhere near as much as you--and many others, I hasten to add--appear to. The fact that the ranking applies to a brand name, e.g., Château Latour or Château Brane-Cantenac--rather than a particular plot of land is critical.

As is well known, red Bordeaux, especially in the Médoc where the cru classé system was first applied, is a creature of both multiple varieties as well as multiple vineyard plots, many of them scattered and not contiguous for each château brand.

At its very heart, Bordeaux is a "merchant's wine", something assembled, rather than a pinpoint expression of place as in Burgundy's Côte d'Or or Germany's Mosel.

The now-sacred 1855 classification was, inevitably, also a merchant creation. Of course you know the story of the famous 1855 classification. Whole books have been written about it.

The short version, for those new to the saga, is that Napoleon III hosted a big Paris Exposition in 1855. As agriculture was a major element of the Exposition, the Bordeaux Chamber of Commerce was asked for a ranking of their region's renowned wines, the better to showcase this famous creation of French agriculture.

The Chamber of Commerce bungled the job. Their list, based on historical prices, was deemed fusty by the Paris organizers and sent back for revision. So the job then fell to local Bordeaux wine brokers. They, too, looked at historical prices, but they also performed a tasting as well.

The Bordeaux syndicat of wine brokers came up with 60 estates in Bordeaux’s best red wine zone, the Médoc. (They also ranked Sauternes, but separately.) These properties were given orders of merit from first growth through fifth growth, with just four properties at the pinnacle (châteaux Lafite, Latour, Margaux, and Haut-Brion). Then trailed 14 second growths, 14 third growths, 10 fourth growths, and 18 fifth growths.

Somehow, this ranking — which was really only one of many over the centuries — has become Holy Writ. It has not changed, with the singular exception of the elevation of Château Mouton-Rothschild in 1973 from its original second-growth status to first growth.

Here’s the interesting part: If a classed growth property wants to expand--and I'd venture to say that the majority of them have to a considerable extent--it’s no problem. Classed growths can purchase any vineyard they want in the same district or commune, regardless of vineyard quality, and, voilà!, the acquired land automatically becomes a first growth, second growth, whatever.

This “Cinderella effect” doesn’t work in reverse, though. If a non-classed-growth estate buys vineyard land from a classed growth, the land reverts to the lowly status of its new owner.

Fast forward to the 21st-century. Traditionalists submit that this 158-year old ranking is not only relevant, but still utterly reliable. Surely, it's worthy of attention. Those merchants weren't fools.

But can one really doubt that, if the original organizers of the 1855 Paris Exposition were somehow asked today to create a 2013 Exposition, that they wouldn't reject a 158-year-old classification of brands as fusty and lacking in contemporary insight?

Indeed, if those old organizers had a chance to look around and take in the world today, I rather doubt that they would even seek such a hierarchy at all.

It's not only an antique, almost monarchical, notion of societal "correctness" (which was powerfully in force in mid-Victorian Europe), but it's neither appropriate nor necessary in our socially fluid, richly communicative and meritocratic modernity.

Credit where it's due: those old 19th-century rankings had insight. I doff my chapeau. But to genuflect...well, I think not.
David Boyer
Austin. TX —  April 22, 2013 7:13pm ET
Dear Mr Cramer,

Thank you for your well-measured response. I’m all for goring any sacred cow if her time has arrived but the Classification still has relevance and value for many. To deny that is really not much different than promulgating the notion that wine critics are useless to wine buyers (another popular thing to bash these days, as I’m sure you are acutely aware). Both methods serve to provide information to the wine buyer that can help sort out the myriad wine wall we today have to face.

I understand that there are certainly differences between classifying dirt and classifying estates but it hardly matters if the result is the same. If Château Latour decided to sell its fruit to other winemakers (file that scenario under ‘never’) then I suppose you would have a good point in that the vineyard(s) should receive the credit, not the château.

Any classed growth or any other château for that matter, may expand its business pretty much as it pleases but I am not aware of anyone that has bought a plot of vines in Blaye or Listrac and are using that fruit in a classed growth cuvee; to do so would be shooting oneself in both feet for many reasons. Those that want to expand typically buy up working properties in other regions such as Champagne (Lafite and Mouton) or the Rhone (Latour) or other Médoc properties (Lafite buying up Duhart-Milon in 1962) and Right Bank estates. It seems like science fiction to even consider that anyone is doing what you suggest when they have some of the best fruit in the world in their own vineyards. As long as the chateaux are making great wine, then they should be recognized and rewarded for doing so, regardless of from where the fruit comes (within AOC limitations).

Indeed Bordeaux wine brokers put the list together that comprised the Classification of 1855 because they were the singular source that had access to hundreds of years of data on which to draw conclusions. Apart from these brokers’ knowledge of each château and the quality and taste of its wines, much of it was indeed based on price but it’s difficult to imagine that people would, for hundreds of years, pay more for a wine if it were inferior.

Each year Liv-Ex runs a reclassification exercise that is always interesting to read, based on current selling prices of various Bordeaux wines. They include all of the better Right Bank Bordeaux as well as listing Château La Mission Haut-Brion as the ‘sixth First Growth’, originally left out of the Classification of 1855 because it was not large enough to be included. It’s a fascinating academic exercise but the truth is, none of this changes much over the years and has no need to change today. Acquiring fine wine is very often about the vintage and some years a producer will knock it out of the park, and some years the same producer, not so much. If you analyze scores of classed growths from Wine Spectator's considerable collection of data, I think the result would be fairly close to supporting the classification as it was in 1855.

Your anathema of the classification still is confounding to me but of course I know that it’s not possible for you to be convinced otherwise. Many collectors and connoisseurs of Burgundy feel that vineyards are everything and when it comes to that wonderful region, I wholly concur. It seems that you are a single vineyard, single variety kind of wine guy and I do understand that for many, it is the only type of wine that is satisfying. Sometimes, however, we humans want to fix things that aren’t broken, and call it evolution. Some things simply do not need to be modified and there is value and wisdom to be found, even in tradition.

I would welcome the opportunity to pour you up a glass of Classified Bordeaux anytime, should you ever get to Austin.

Best regards,

David Boyer

PS: your math was slightly off in that there were 61 estates Classified in 1855 (not including Sauternes/Barsac). Château Mouton Rothschild was, as you mentioned, a Second Growth, which means there were originally 15 Second Growths designated as such, not 14.
Tom Miller
Birmingham, AL —  April 23, 2013 12:09am ET
Matt (with a K),

As the back of one of my Just Pinot t-shirts says (borrowed from a wonderful conversation with David Lett who had borrowed it, in turn I believe, from David Graves), "Why do you think they call it BORE-deaux?"

Email me your t-shirt size and I'll be happy to send you one (on the house).

Tom Miller
Just Pinot, LLC
Rich Mora
East Setauket NY, USA —  November 13, 2013 5:06pm ET
We're doing an Italian wine and cheese seminar tonight
and we are finishing off with the 2010 Carlo Hauner Malvasia di Lipari, hope it lives up to the haunting admontion to try before you die. I think I prefer the try before you buy motto myself.

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