Recently, wine writer and VINOUS newsletter publisher Anthony Galloni wrote a column entitled, “Ten Wines that Changed My Life.” It got me thinking about some of the truly great wines I have been privileged to tast-- and in some cases to enjoy the whole bottle.
The main difference in the wines Galloni chose and my choices in this column is their age; because I am quite a bit older than Galloni, I have been able to taste many older wines--perhaps one of the few advantages of aging, at least for a wine lover! Also, Galloni might have been thinking of wines that for the most part are still available.
I would not say that my 22 wines “changed my life”; I had a deep interest in wine before I tasted them. But these 22 wines certainly gave me a deeper appreciation of how magical truly great wines can be, and these wines inspired me to become a wine writer. Unlike Galloni, I could not restrict myself to just ten wines. I hope that you, the reader, will not interpret this column as an exercise in boasting. I just want to record, for posterity, how fortunate I have been to experience these wines.
There were not nearly as many opportunities to taste wines when I became serious about wines in the late 1960s and early 1970s as there are now. And as a struggling young teacher, I did not have the income to purchase many fine wines. But fortunately for me, Heublein, an importer of wine and spirits, began an annual Auction of Fine Wines in 1969. A different major city in the U.S. hosted Heublein’s auction each year. I attended a few of these annual auctions in the 1970s, and it was there that I was able to taste some amazing, great old wines.
In fact, it was at a Heublein Auction that I was able to taste the oldest wine I have ever had, a 1799 Vintage Madeira (I will list my wines by age, and the 1799 Madeira becomes my Wine #1). The 1799 Madeira--I don’t recall the producer, but producers’ names are not important for Madeira--turned me on to one of the greatest wines of all, Vintage Madeira; its aromas are simply divine and it has an endless finish. I was amazed that the 1799 Madeira was still drinking so well. Later, I learned that Madeiras are practically indestructible, due to a heating process that takes place after fermentation (See Wine for Dummies for more info). How long can Madeiras, undoubtedly the world’s oldest living wines, live? Maybe forever. I know that 200 years is a piece of cake for them.
Sadly, the Madeira vineyards were devastated at the end of the 19th century, first by mildew and then by the phylloxera louse. They never fully recovered, at least for the five noble Madeira grape varieties--Sercial, Verdejo, Terrantez, Boal, and Malmsey. Today, the more prolific variety, Tinta Negra Mole, is the dominant variety for all Madeiras produced. Consequently, the best Vintage Madeiras are the old vintages, from 1795 to 1910 (with a few from 1920).
Wine #2 was one of the wines that converted me to Bordeaux, and the belief that it is an indisputably great wine--an 1864 Lafite-Rothschild. Like the occasion of drinking the 1799 Madeira, I was able only to have a small glass of it, probably at another Heublein Auction or a similar event in the 1970s. I later read that Bordeaux expert Michael Broadbent has called the 1864 Château Lafite the greatest Lafite-Rothschild (and probably greatest Bordeaux) of the 19th century. Like the 1799 Madeira, the 1864 Lafite-Rothschild, about 110 years old when I tasted it, defied age. It was rich and totally delicious, a magnificent wine. I started collecting Bordeaux wines in earnest after that.
Wine #3 follows the same line of thinking as the two above: A 1893 Château d’Yquem, in a half-bottle. I knew that d’Yquem was regarded as the greatest Sauternes; this bottle proved it to me. It was amazingly fresh for an 85 to 90 year-old Sauternes, and in a half-bottle! Again, I believe I tasted it in some wine auction in the 1970s or early 1980s (I wish I had taken better notes in those days), but I do not forget that wine! It was a deep gold in color--not even brown the way many old Sauternes get. It was so delicious that I can still remember that honeyed, taste, and it had the great acidity to make it last. Needless to say, 1893 was an outstanding vintage for Sauternes.
My Wine #4 is an 1899 Château Latour, but it could easily have also been a 1900 Latour. The 1899/1900 vintages were a very rare happening in Bordeaux--two truly outstanding vintages following each other. The only other time that I know such an occurrence took place was in 1928/1929. My friend was a wine collector and an avid Château Latour fan. In 1987 or 1988, he held one of the greatest tastings I have ever witnessed--Château Latour from 1899 to 1982 (about 20 vintages were present). The big debate at the tasting was which was the greatest of the lot, the 1899 or 1900 Latour. Opinions were equally divided; I gave the slightly more powerful 1899 the edge. Both were two of the greatest Bordeaux wines I have ever tasted. The 1928, 1945, 1961, and 1982 Château Latours were almost as memorable.
For Wine #5, I turn to one of my great loves, Champagne. I became good friends with one of the finest people that I have known, Christian Pol-Roger, one of the heads of Champagne Pol-Roger. Christian was one of the few Champagne producers that actively stored old vintages of Champagne in its very cold cellar--no small feat, as the company had to hide many bottles in its cellars (behind the walls) from the marauding Germans, in both World Wars I and II. At three various dinners I had with Pol-Roger (during the years between 1995 and 2005), he served three exceptional Champagnes, the 1900 (oldest Champagne I have ever tasted), 1914, and 1921. The 1900 was still alive, although almost all of the effervescence was gone; it tasted more like an exceptional old white Burgundy. Both 1914 and 1921 were exceptional vintages. The 1914 had a very small harvest; the men were fighting in WW I, and so the French women picked most of the grapes. The more flamboyant 1921, still very much alive, was magnificent, but I have chosen the Pol Roger Champagne 1914 as the best of the three.
For Wine #6, I return to Bordeaux, with the 1921 Château Montrose. The 1921 vintage was magnificent for Bordeaux as well as for Champagne. The 1921 Château Cheval Blanc lays claim to being the greatest Cheval Blanc ever made. But the same can be said for the Château Montrose as perhaps the greatest Montrose ever made. I had started collecting Château Montrose because I couldn’t afford Château Latour or Château Lafite-Rothsdchild; in fact, at the time, in the late 1990s, Château Montrose was often referred to as the poor man’s Château Latour, because it shared the power of Latour without the price tag. I had accumulated over 25 Château Montroses, including the 1869 and 1870, with the rest from the 1900s, up until 1991. By general acclamation, the 1921 Château Montrose took the prize. It was rich and powerful, showing no signs of aging.
Wine #7--1928 Château Beycheville. It could have been Château Latour or Château Margaux. But the Beycheville was stunning. Tasted in the late 1980s. This incredible vintage took 50 years to mature; I am not kidding!
Wine #8--Champagne 1928 Krug, the greatest Champagne I have ever tasted (consumed in the 1980s). A powerhouse; no signs of aging at that time; probably still alive now. I opened it as a prelude to a friend’s 1928 Bordeaux tasting, and it stole the show. The 1928 Dom Pérignon was also very fine.
Wine #9--1934 Musigny, Cuvée Vielles Vignes, Comte de Vogüe. I had a taste of this legendary Burgundy once at an auction, probably Heublein’s, in the 1970s. One of the two or three greatest Burgundies I ever tasted. I felt privileged to taste it. The oldest de Vogüe Musigny VV now still available, the 1949, sells for $19,000.
Wine #10--1945 Château Mouton-Rothschild. The 1945 Bordeaux vintage has been universally acclaimed as one of Bordeaux’s all-time greatest vintages, and the ‘45 Mouton was generally rated the best. I drank this bottle on three occasions; I believe the third time was a counterfeit bottle; it just tasted too young. As you might expect, this famous bottle has been one of the most counterfeited wines. But the first two were heavenly. Tasted at collectors’ homes in the late 1970s/early 1980s.
Wine #11--1945 Taylor-Fladgate Porto (then known as Taylor). A great vintage for Porto, although not much was made in 1945. The 1945 Taylor is so powerful and concentrated that I am sure it can live for 100 years. But can we? I have one bottle: I do plan to drink it. I tasted it about 20 years ago, and it was still a baby. It ranks with the other all-time great Porto, the 1931 Quinta do Noval “Nacional,” which I have tasted--another Porto that will live 100+years.
Wine #12--1959 Chablis Les Clos (producer, unknown)--Back in 1965/1966, I knew nothing about fine wine. The organist at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, whom I knew through my friend, who was the leading tenor at the Cathedral then, was celebrating a birthday being hosted by his Park Avenue girlfriend. It was at this point, in that apartment, that I had my “a- hah” moment. The Chablis tasted like no other wine I had ever tasted before. Could wine be this good? I was hooked, from that moment on.
I remember discovering great 1952 Chambertins and Chambertin Clos de Bezes in the late 1960s/ early 1970s, in my Burgundy phase. 1952 was a great Burgundy vintage, and reasonably priced then compared to today’s off-the-charts prices for Burgundies. But the Burgundy producers I purchased back then apparently went out of business, or more likely, folded into other producers, and so I cannot list them here.
Wine #13--1966 Romanée-Conti. This was the greatest Burgundy I have ever tasted. An extraordinarily generous New Jersey collector and Burgundy lover invited me to his Burgundy tasting in 1976. We were gathered in his living room mulling over his other Burgundies when we noticed an incredible aroma coming from his kitchen--violets, berries, and so forth. I have never smelled aromas from another wine like that before or since. We were all overwhelmed by its aromas and luscious flavors. The 1966 DRC Romanée-Conti is no longer available. The current release, the 2012, retails for over $17,000, a bottle, making it the most expensive currently released wine, as far as I know.
Talking about expensive wines, the most expensive currently released Bordeaux, Château Petrus, retails for over $2,000 to over $3,000 for the last three current vintages. I have tasted a few extraordinary, old Petrus vintages, including 1961, 1966, and 1970. But I don’t list them among my 20 greatest wines because I prefer the Left Bank First Growths, such as
Château Lafite-Rothschild and Château Latour--and especially at one-third the price of Château Petrus.
Wine #14--1961 Château Latour â Pomerol. The 1961 Vintage in Bordeaux is the other great post-war vintage, besides the 1945. I could have selected Château Latour or Château Petrus, but the Pomerol, Latour â Pomerol, made the greatest wine of its lifetime, and it deserves acclaim. Everyone I know who has consumed this wine just loves it. And so do I.
Wine #15--1961 Vietti Barolo “Rocche.” So many great Barolos to choose from, but I pick the late Alfredo Currado’s 1961 Barolo, for two reasons: Starting with the 1961 vintage, Currado was the first Barolo producer to use single-vineyards for his Barolos, and 1961was a great, long-lasting vintage. Alfredo was not one to stand on ceremony about his wines; one time I visited Alfredo in the mid-1980s, and we went to the local pizzeria. And Alfredo brought along a bottle of his 1961 Barolo Rocche!
Wine #16--1968 Brunello di Montalcino, Biondi-Santi. Tuscany’s greatest, long-lived wine, made by its most renowned producer, really shined in the 1968 vintage, and it led to a worldwide renaissance for Brunello di Montalcino. I tasted this great wine about 20 years ago. It was still a baby; it should last for 100+ years, just like the famous 1891 Biondi Santi Brunello di Montalcino.
Wine #17--1971 Barbaresco, Angelo Gaja. What Biondi-Santi did for Brunello di Montalcino, Angelo Gaja did for Barbaresco: Putting it on the world wine map. Gaja made an outstanding 1971 Barbaresco (tasted in the mid-1980s) and his 1978s are just as good, especially his single-vineyard ‘78 Barbarescos, Sori’ San Lorenzo and Sori’ Tildin. Gaja and the more traditional, late Bruno Giacosa have been the two great Barbaresco producers.
Wine #18--1974 Cristal Rosé Champagne, Louis Roederer. I knew about Cristal’s reputation, but I had not bought one because it was pricey. I spotted the ‘74 Cristal at a rather low price (1974 was reputed to be a mediocre vintage) in the early 1980s. I didn’t even know that the 1974 was Cristal’s first Rosé bottling. It was unbelievably good! I was convinced by the 1974 that if Cristal can be that great in an off-vintage, it must be a fantastic Champagne. I have been a fan ever since.
Wine #19-- 1975 Krug Vintage Brut Champagne. A very good, if not a great Krug, This Champagne is still very young, according to the latest reports I have heard. I list this because it meant so much to me at the time. In 1983, I was on my honeymoon in France. At that time Vintage Krug Champagne was not available in the U.S. My wife and I were so excited to find the Krug on the restaurant’s wine menu that we ordered a second bottle--much to the dismay of the sommelier who had been given only six bottles for his restaurant.
Wine #20--1990 Riesling, “Clos Ste. Hune, Trimbach. This single-vineyard Riesling from Alsace’s great producer, Trimbach, has been called one of the world’s greatest white wines, and I agree completely. There is something magical about Clos Ste. Hune. It has incredible flavors, with a very long finish. I first tasted the 1990, a very good vintage, in the early 2000s, and I was fortunate enough to buy a few bottles. It will last for decades. Riesling at its best!
Wine #21--1996 Krug Clos du Mesnil Champagne. Krug’s single-vineyard Blanc de Blancs might be the very best Champagne on the world market today. I tasted it ten years ago; it was incredibly complex, but was oh so young. It will benefit from another six to eight years of maturing. The 1988 Krug Clos du Mesnil is equally good, and closer to its maturity than the 1996.
Wine #22--1988 Cristal and 1988 Cristal Rosé, Louis Roederer. Both 1988 Cristals, the Blanc and the Rosé, are so great that I cannot decide which was the better one, and so I will call it a tie. I tasted both just a year ago. They were at their peaks of maturity, but I am sure they can live for many more years at this stage. There is nothing like great Champagne to make you happy. The sad part is that they were my last two 1988 Cristals. But I do have a 1996 Cristal to look forward to drinking.
Honorable Mentions: 1978 Bruno Giacosa Barbarescos; 1978 Ceretto Barolo “Prapó”; 1988 Giacomo Conterno ‘Monfortino” Barolo; 1988 and 1996 Phiipponnat Clos des Goisses Champagnes; 1988 and 1996 Henriot Cuvée des Enchanteleurs Champagnes; 2002 and 2004 Ruinart Dom Ruinart Blanc de Blancs Champagnes.
I apologize for the length of this list of my favorite wines. I tried stopping at 20, but I couldn’t do it! Nevertheless, I suspect I left out some of my favorites. I am also aware that, other than the Portuguese Madeira and Porto, the list is comprised of only French and Italian wines. This has been my experience with great wines. I am well aware that great wines have been made in many other countries.