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Drinking Out Loud

Seeking the New Classics

The beginnings of a list of possible candidates
Photo by: Jon Moe
How should we define "new classics"? Matt Kramer thinks his nominees "can hardly be surpassed."

Matt Kramer
Posted: March 1, 2016

"I didn't realise—couldn't yet see—how in all the arts there are usually two things going on at the same time: the desire to make it new, and a continuing conversation with the past."—Julian Barnes, Keeping an Eye Open (Knopf, 2015)

The British writer Julian Barnes phrased it perfectly in expressing "a desire to make it new.” Although he is writing about art, it applies equally as well to fine wine.

As we all know, wine also has a "continuing conversation with the past,” possibly too much so. Can anyone really doubt that Bordeaux's 1855 Classification, which is now legally codified, is anything other than antique? Whatever its insights—and they are substantial, in fairness—the considerations of that classification are hardly fresh.

What can be useful, or at least potentially enlightening, is the idea of "new classics.” The old classics are well-enough known, excessively, even. And nothing about modernity seeks (or respects) the class-conscious business of rankings. That's a non-starter, as the Brits would say, and good riddance.

In posing the idea of "new classics,” I'm not suggesting yet another classification (grand cru, premier cru, first-growth, second-growth, whatever) but rather, a spotlighting of current or potential greatness in our time. It may be a matter of place, such as an individual vineyard or a larger-scale district, à la Burgundy, or a reflection of a sustained, near-universal acclamation for an extraordinary achievement.

Allow me to give you an example of a "new classic" that combines features of both site and producer: Ridge Vineyards Monte Bello, the red (Cabernet Sauvignon) as well as the white (Chardonnay). If these two wines—and the producer—don't represent new classics, then I don't know what does.

The same may be said for neighboring Santa Cruz Mountain producer Mount Eden Vineyards, where, again, both the estate Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon have been original and superb for decades.

What, precisely, makes something a "classic"? Many definitions are available. I've always liked the concision of the definition offered by noir writer Raymond Chandler: A classic, he submitted, is something which "exhausts the possibilities of its form and can hardly be surpassed.”

Obviously time is essential to "classic" status. For example, staying in the Santa Cruz Mountain zone for a moment longer, Rhys Vineyards is already a superstar for its estate Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Qualitatively, they are the equal of the "new classics" of Ridge and Mount Eden. But Rhys is still, in comparison, the new kid on the block, as its first commercial release was only in 2004. Calling it a new classic might be a bit premature, however promising—even likely—it is for such a designation.

Elsewhere in the world, all sorts of wines are candidates for new classic status. For example, although largely unknown to an American audience, two Hunter Valley Sémillons—Tyrrell's Vat 1 (first vintage 1963) and Mount Pleasant Lovedale Vineyard (first vintage 1950)—are new classics of the first order. (Relative newcomer Brokenwood ILR Reserve—a blend rather than a single vineyard—is surely a prospective candidate.) With sufficient bottle age, these can take their place alongside the likes of grand cru Chablis.

Although Australia has a long (more than 150 years), unbroken history of grapegrowing and winemaking, its achievements with table wines are relatively modern. Most of Australia's wine production was once confined to fortified wines and the like. (Rutherglen Muscats are remarkable and surely deserving of the standing of new classic.)

Doubtless, one or another Barossa Shiraz would qualify. Myself, I would nominate Rockford Basket Press Shiraz (first vintage 1984). Others surely would point to Penfold's Grange as a new classic. In the neighboring region of Clare Valley, the Shiraz from unicorn winery Wendouree (it's almost unobtainable) is a new classic if ever I've tasted one. And the dry Rieslings from Grosset (established 1981) and newer Mount Horrock's are certainly contenders as new classics.

And what about the so-called Old World? Do candidates exist alongside the already sanctified traditional classics? They sure do, although, ironically, many of them are still too recent in consistent high-quality achievement to indisputably be called new classics.

For example, none of the modern table wines of Portugal yet qualify except for two that come immediately to mind: the pioneering Douro red table called Barca-Velha, which was first released in 1952, and the extraordinary dry white wine first created in 1920 called Buçaco Branco (a blend of three indigenous white grapes—Encruzado, Bical and Maria Gomez—from two different zones, Dão and Bairrada).

The former wine has dribbled into the U.S. market at, frankly, insupportably high prices given the quality competition of newer Douro table wines; the latter has recently been imported for the first time ever with several vintages available at quite reasonable prices.

All sorts of potential new classics exist in Spain, especially in zones such as Ribeira Sacra and Bierzo (for the red grape Mencía) and Rías Baixas (for the white grape Albariño). Elsewhere in that vast wine country, contenders exist in the Toro zone, Priorat, Rueda and surely several others. I'll leave it to the Spanish wine lovers among us to nominate contestants for new classic status.

As for Italy, that bottomless reservoir of wine greatness, an amazing number of potential new classics are emerging: Mount Etna reds from the Nerello Mascalese grape; various Aglianico reds from Campania; white Verdicchios from the Marche region; several producers from Abruzzo, such as Emidio Pepe and Valentini; the remarkable Teroldego wines from Elisabetta Foradori in the Trentino zone of northern Italy and, farther north yet, the great Lagrein reds from J. Hofstätter and Klosterkellerei Muri-Gries. New classics all.

So that's a start. Granted, many of today's “new classics” are probably still too young, with too few vintages, to truly be "classic,” if one is being rigorous. (Think of New Zealand, Oregon, Washington, Ontario, British Columbia, Greece, Canary Islands, various locales in the south of France, even Austria and Germany.) But it's easy enough, I think, to imagine a likely future for such "new" wines, assuming their respective producers remain sufficiently vigilant.

I invite you to add to the list. It should be a long one, wouldn't you say?

D Fredman
Malibu, CA USA —  March 1, 2016 1:19pm ET
The upside to the Old Classics pricing themselves out of my comfort zone is that it gives me a great opportunity to explore wine from the fringes. It's a lot of fun to think about possible choices that could be considered "New Classics," but the sad reality is that many of these wines are becoming equally sought-after and are beginning to be priced at a level they probably deserve.

Winemakers in Morgon and Fleurie in Beaujolais are creating remarkable wines that are collectable, affordable, and taste good. Likewise in Bandol, with Domaine Tempier and Chateau Pradeaux leading the list (Chateau Simone in nearby Palette could also be counted as a New Classic). Chinon also offers intriguing possibilities --Joguet, Raffault, Breton are faves.

Blaufränkisch specialists in Austria also deserve consideration: Moric, Achs, and Heinrich generate excitement, as do the producers in Vienna making Gemischter Satz on the hills of Nussberg within the city limits (Wieninger).

The new generation in Naoussa are building on the traditional winemaking of the region by subtly taming Xinomavro -- winemakers such as Giorgios Diamantakos at Diamantakos, Apostoles Thymiopoulos at Uranos, and Kostis Dalamara (Dalamara) produce unique, long-lived wines that absolutely reflect their origins.

And there's always Valentini and Pepe from Montepulciano -- not only are their reds fantastic (and virtually unobtainable), but the Trebbiano both produce are among the world's most interesting white wines.
Tone Kelly
Rochester NY USA —  March 2, 2016 2:51pm ET
I believe that one of the considerations for a new classic is time in production. Grange has been going for over 60 years and Ridge has also.

When I look at Napa and Sonoma, many of the vineyards haven't been in existence that long. When I visited Napa in 1972 many of the producers were still making Riesling, Chenin Blanc and Gamay and Pinot Noir. Pinot Noir has migrated from Napa to Carneros to Sonoma to Sonoma Coast in the last 45 years. I believe we are still experimenting in Napa and Sonoma with what terroir is best for each type of grape. The To-Kalon vineyard excepted for Cabernet. I am sure that other locations will prove distinctive for Cabernet.

Santa Cruz Mountain wines have the advantage of higher altitude placing more stress on the grape vines, thus accentuating the terroir. The Sonoma Coast may very well be the endgame for Pinot and Chardonnay in Northern California.

Let the discovery process play out for a while. After all, it took centuries for Bordeaux and Burgundy to get it right. Progress is faster today, but growers and consumers still need many, many vintages to effectively judge if a grape is right for its location.
Tom Miller
Birmingham, AL —  March 2, 2016 3:45pm ET
Thinking of Oregon but without being too rigorous, I would nominate the Reserve or Original Vines Pinot noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris from The Eyrie Vineyards. Although not made to everyone's taste or style (which, to me, reflects on the consumer, not the producer), these wines made by the late David Lett and continued by his son, Jason, would surely qualify as new classics for me.
Mike Olszewski
Newcastle, WA —  March 2, 2016 7:48pm ET
Wow, you certainly have the mind racing. I could not agree more with your mention of the two Santa Cruz Mountains stalwarts, Ridge and Mt. Eden, both of which have been purchased and drunk regularly for decades. Pondering it a bit further though, what qualifies these wines to be considered classics? Is it in part because they stand out in a sea of sameness or homogeneity, particularly when compared to similar type wines to the north in Napa and Sonoma? Is it because they have a unique quality that sets them apart? Longevity? Consistency? Popularity? Scores (let’s hope not)?

All this leads to another question: Do you think there are any Napa Valley Cabernets that could be considered classic? Trying to get a jump on the potential answer, I did a bit of research looking back to the famous 1974 vintage, arguably the dawn of modern-day Cabs from Napa. Wines we know today that were prominent in 1974 come from the likes of Mayacamas, Heitz, Mondavi, Stags Leap, Camus, Chappellet, Montelena, Joseph Phelps, Beaulieu. Can any of these be viewed as classic today? Have they been totally eclipsed by the so-called Cult cabs that have emerged over the past 20 years?

Of the group dating back to at least 1974, I would offer that Heitz, Martha’s Vineyard aspires to classic status (curiously Wine Spectator has not reviewed the wine since the 2009). Here are three justifications; 1) The Cellar Tracker database tracks around 14,000 bottles from vintages dating back to 1961 with an average score of 92.5 over that period. What lends credence is this impressive score reflects the voice of the people, expressing their views over many years unlike professional reviews that are a snapshot in a wine’s life. 2) In blind tastings Heitz MV is always identifiable, the eucalyptus note being a dead give-away; 3) The 1974 HMV (Wine Searcher average of 95.2) is among the top ten wines I have tasted.
Steven Prickett
Hutchinson Kansas —  March 6, 2016 6:18pm ET
Vega Sicilia and Joh Jos Prum would be on my list for sure.

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