by MICHAEL PINKUS
AS I SIT IN THE WINE CELLAR of Biondi-Santi in Montalcino, Tuscany, Italy, the writer beside me swoons as he puts his nose into a glass and inhales deeply. He is visibly and genuinely excited by what we are about to try.
Biondi-Santi is an iconic Italian producer that has raised the bar of quality for Brunello di Montalcino wines since their founder first called his wines “Brunello” in 1865. Adding to that legacy of quality is the following fact: since the 1888 vintage, they have made their top tier “Riserva” wine a mere 38 times, making it rare and very collectable. This slaps the face of all other producers of Brunello, who release a “Riserva” wine every year, despite (or is that in spite) of vintage conditions. It’s based on these standards of quality that has elevated Biondi-Santi to icon status in the world of wine, not just for Italian wine but around the globe. Other iconic Italian wines include producers like Gaja, Quintarelli and to some extent certain wines by Antinori, Ornellaia and Tenuta San Guido (Sassicaia)… but what does it mean to have this icon status of which I speak?
An icon is defined by Webster’s as “an object of uncritical devotion”… the idea that a wine, a beverage, a consumable product, could achieve such status is almost inconceivable. Our propensity for rating and scoring pretty much everything that comes into our collective consciousness – from music and movies to food and entertainment – everything is quantified and dissected within an inch of its life. So, to achieve the status of icon wine – a liquid with a following and devotion that no matter what the rating or score people will continue to collect because it bears a certain label or brand, is truly mind-blowing – there are even cases where wines are iconic because of a poor showing, but first you need to be iconic to start – follow?
Wines like those from Bordeaux circa 1991 and 1992 are considered “bad” years, yet from an iconic house such as first growth producers Haut Brion or Mouton Rothschild they would still be collectable and worth something. They defy even the bad year to become more valuable to keep them. The year 1965 might be the all-time low for Bordeaux vintages in modern history, and yet those wines from first growth houses are still upwards of $500 a bottle for collectors; not necessarily for what is in the bottle but just to have that bottle. But in general, icon wines are about high-quality wines that are made in limited quantities, are difficult to get, and achieve that icon status through years of quality production and reliability.
One of the most famous and sought after American examples would be the wines of Screaming Eagle, a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon that fetches an average price of $3,000 CDN per bottle on the secondary market, according to winesearcher.com. To get this wine directly from the winery you must be put on a list and the wines are highly and rigidly allocated. People have been known to be on the waiting list for years without even a nibble of a chance to buy one from the winery – which is why the secondary market is your best chance to put your hands on one.
First growth Bordeaux, the wines of Château Margaux, Château Lafite, Château Haut Brion, Château Mouton Rothschild and Château Latour are some of the most well-known and sought-after wines of Bordeaux based primarily on an 1855 classification system which made these iconic overnight. The classification touted these wines the best from the best vineyards, and the system has not been modified since, so they continue to hold that status. Other iconic Bordeaux wines came about their status honestly, through years of quality production and solid winemaking: Pétrus, Montrose, Baron Pichon, Baron Comtesses, Ducru Beaucaillou and Conseillante are all names that enjoy that moniker.
Champagne has their icons as well, some made famous over time and others because they achieved rock star status because they are much beloved by famous figures. The most notable here is Louis Roederer’s Cristal, rocketing to fame because of rap-star Jay-Z in the ’90s; but Cristal was not fond of the association and attempted to distance itself from the rap lifestyle. While Cristal was an icon well before that, it came into the public consciousness because of its association with Mr. Z, before that it was beloved by Champagne connoisseurs alone. Moët & Chandon’s Dom Pérignon is another of these iconic bubbles because of its quality, and of course, the back story about the monk who first made sparkling wine by accident.
To wine lovers and collectors all these names mean something. To the casual observer – who thinks spending more than $25 on a bottle is a waste – they mean practically nothing, nothing more than words on a page, or better yet, words on a label. But truthfully, when it comes to wines it’s about what’s inside the bottle that truly counts. Producers the world over covet that “icon” moniker because it means more money and prestige, greater possibility to get a 100-point score, the ability to dictate your price, to be able to sell out moments after the wine goes on sale, or to have it pre-sold before it even hits the open market. These are all signs you have truly made it in the wine making world – and very few achieve that status.
Most truly iconic wines come into the LCBO through the Classics Program (catalogue), a monthly publication that “offers the highest quality in fine wines… from the best producers and regions in the world.” These are wines that don’t need to be tasted by the local press but will sell based on name recognition alone. Below I offer up 10 alternatives, all icon-ish wines that are truly a bargain even based on their high price. I also explain what makes them special in their own right, you’ll start to see a pattern as you read through.
BORDEAUX, FRANCE; $69.95, #359810
This is the second wine of second growth house Rauzan-Ségla; for those looking for Bordeaux quality but not willing to pay the $100-plus price tag, a bottle of this is a great alternative.
DOMAINE DE VIEUX TÉLÉGRAPHE 2015 TÉLÉGRAMME CHÂTEAUNEUF-DU-PAPE
RHÔNE, FRANCE; $52.95, #292722
Another second wine, but still of top quality; Châteauneuf-du-Pape is one of the most famous regions in France, and Vieux Télégraphe always delivers a top drop, even with its second wine.
DOMINUS 2014 NAPANOOK
CALIFORNIA, USA; $119.95, #212357
Dominus is what happens when a famous Bordeaux producer comes to Napa and opens an iconic winery. The original Dominus is a Bordeaux blend and Napanook is their secondary wine that also offers that know-how and flavour, but at a lower price.
JOSEPH PHELPS 2015 CABERNET SAUVIGNON
CALIFORNIA, USA; $118.95, #189795
Phelps’ well-known wine is Insignia, it has been in every wine collector’s house I have ever worked in or inventoried. This is the lesser-known wine from Phelps but still fetches top dollar – proving that iconic wines cause a trickle-down effect to the rest of the portfolio.
RIDGE 2016 GEYSERVILLE
CALIFORNIA, USA; $74.95, #723072
Ridge is an iconic California producer known for their Monte Bello wine, but everything else in their portfolio is also pure gold and worth picking up.
SHAFER 2015 ONE POINT FIVE CABERNET SAUVIGNON
CALIFORNIA, USA; $149.95, #45476
Shafer’s bottles are iconic, usually big and heavy and can be used as door-stops after all the wine is gone. That bottle description can also be used for the wine inside… Shafer’s best-known wine is a Cabernet Sauvignon known as Hillside Select and is very age-able.
TUSCANY, ITALY; $114.95, #685263
While Luce may not be as iconic as some, it did bring together two iconic producers from separate regions: Robert Mondavi of California and Frescobaldi of Italy. Together they created a brand that has stood the test of time for collectors and wine lovers.
TUSCANY, ITALY; $218.95, #722470
If you have ever heard the term “Super-Tuscan” this is the wine they are talking about. Wine laws in Italy tell you what and where you can grow certain grapes, wineries like Ornellaia defied that, charged higher prices for better wines and forced the laws to change.
MOLLY DOOKER 2016 CARNIVAL OF LOVE SHIRAZ
AUSTRALIA; $79.95, #242743
This consistently high-scoring Shiraz has a playful label and name that make it seem like it should be just your average bottle of Shiraz. Nothing could be further from the truth – highly concentrated and highly sought after.
TUSCANY, ITALY; $316.95, #987586
A wine that became famous without the name of the producer to get in the way. Made by Antinori this wine is now just simply referred to as Solai and is one of that first group of Super-Tuscans we spoke about earlier.