It can't be said often enough: This really is a Golden Age of Fine Wine. Usually, such an assertion is made in retrospect, often regretfully so. (A.J. Liebling, writing late in his life in his masterpiece, Between Meals, about his youthful eating adventures in Paris in the late 1920s, wistfully concluded that what he “had taken for a Golden Age was in fact Late Silver.")
Make no mistake, though, this really is a golden age. Oh sure, prices for the world's most famous or rarest wines are ridiculous. But that's the free market for you. There's plenty of money in the world and an even larger supply of fools attached to fat wallets. It was ever thus. Only recently, though, did wine get caught in that particular net.
That noted, the 24-karat proof that we're living in a golden age is the sheer number of extraordinary wines, red and white, coming from an equally extraordinary number of places worldwide. No era of wine lovers has had access to more remarkable wines than we do today.
The kicker is how many of these wines are new to the universe. Take Australia's Margaret River region, which in my opinion is creating some of the world's finest Cabernet blends as well as stunning Chardonnay. The founding winery in Margaret River (Vasse Felix) emerged only in 1967.
I recall writing an article in 1979 seeking every vintage-dated Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon produced in the great 1966 vintage. There were fewer than a dozen.
That the stalwart greats are still great—Burgundy, Bordeaux, Champagne, Mosel, Rheingau—gets no argument from me. There's a reason they've survived wars, depressions, trade disputes and the like. The very fineness of these wines justified relentless and often economically unrewarding effort. They've earned their now-lucrative laurels. (We'll look past the fact that there were few, if any, vocational alternatives in such otherwise marginal agricultural locales.)
But let's look at today. Everyone knows about the great wines, the trophy wines, the fabled don't-die-without-having-tried-it bottles. And if you don't yet know about those wines, there's a tsunami of words readily available to tell you all about them.
What shouldn't be missed now? Every wine lover's list will be different, based not just on personal taste but also preference as to what excites. Speaking for myself, I am not at all excited by the new or novel appearance of one or another winemaking technique or approach.
For example, you may be excited by white wines made with extended skin contact. Although I respect the effort and have enjoyed one or another producer's creation, collectively they don't excite me. I'm not wild about wines that reflect more about what's done to them than what they intrinsically are. (Think excessive cosmetic surgery and you've got it.)
The same might be said for the current swoon over "natural" wines, which indisputably and genuinely excite many sincere and passionate wine lovers. Here again, in the course of doing nothing, or nearly so, the result paradoxically is that it's too easy to taste the signature of precisely those effects. But such wines might well be on your list of what's not to be missed, and I can understand why.
So which wines are on my list of must-try wines? Regular readers of my columns will be familiar with some of my choices, as they reflect my travels and personal wine passions. Portuguese wines, for example. Really, you do need to pursue them—and don't overlook the country’s whites.
I'm a big fan of Canadian wines, especially the Chardonnays from Ontario. And a recent trip to South Africa had me swooning over its Chenin Blancs and Chenin Blanc–based blends. (I do walk my talk. Take a look at the three wines I'm presenting next month at the New York Wine Experience.
What else shouldn't be missed? The red and white wines of Campania, which has emerged in the past decade or so as a trove of extraordinary and often unique wines that have no "signature" and need none, so intrinsically characterful are the wines.
New Zealand Pinot Noirs shouldn't be missed. They are today so varied and increasingly detailed that one forgets what a small country New Zealand actually is.
I continue to bang the drum for California Syrah—again, a group of wines so varied as to surprise any fan of the Rhône. (Last week I served a bottle of 2010 Cabot Vineyards Syrah, which comes from the northernmost vines in California, in Humboldt County, to some Napa Valley winegrower friends and they were stunned by its distinction and goodness.)
Try to find sparkling wines from Australia's Tasmania Island. You'll be impressed, I promise. Maybe even astonished at the degree of refinement and sheer—dare I say it?—Champagne-like elegance of Tasmania sparkling wine.
What I haven't tried, but what seems to excite others whose palates I respect, are the new sparkling wines from England. Their reported goodness makes sense, what with England's famously cool climate and chalky soils. English sparkling wines are high on my must-try list. Ditto for Croatian wines, which I have so far missed altogether.
And I've forgotten all those Spanish wines, especially the whites, which I've come to love (and buy in quantity).
Those are some of my choices for absolutely must-try wines of the golden age we're now living in. This being an election year, allow me to say that I hereby motion to open nominations for yet other 21st century wines that shouldn't be missed.