Among Great Wines, Plenty of Choice
By ERIC ASIMOV
Published: November 29, 2011
I HAVE never been one of those people who feel they live in the wrong era. I am eternally grateful, for example, to draw breath in the age of anesthesia. But I have occasionally lamented that I was born just a few years too late.
Noah Berger for The New York Times
If I’d learned about wine in the 1960s rather than the ’80s, perhaps I, too, could regale you with annoying stories of buying cases of ’59 Lafite and ’61 Latour for $8 a bottle. Maybe my cellar, such as it is, would be bulging with grand cru Burgundy that I got for a song because, after all, who back then cared about Burgundy?
By the time I had some money and the inclination to splurge on wine, these historic benchmark wines had become absurdly, ridiculously overpriced.
Consider that back in 1975, Kermit Lynch, the importer and shop owner in Berkeley, Calif., was retailing a case of Domaine Leflaive Bienvenues-Bâtard-Montrachet 1972 for $125, not cheap then by any means, but doable for the determined. Adjusted for inflation, this excellent white Burgundy from a decent vintage would be the equivalent of $500 today. How quaint. Now, at Sherry-Lehmann in New York, a case from the 2008 vintage runs about $4,800.
Generations of wine lovers learned firsthand of the gorgeous polychromatic potential of wine by drinking those bottles that are almost universally believed to represent the heights of achievement: the first-growth Bordeaux and grand cru Burgundies. Yet an entire younger generation of wine lovers, say those 40-ish and younger, may grow old never having savored a great Musigny or a classic Château Latour, unless they are extremely wealthy or very lucky.
Sad, yes. Yet just as certain, we live in the greatest time ever to be wine lovers, with access to more high-quality wine in more different styles from a greater diversity of places than ever before. Just possibly, this wealth of wonderful choices is due partly to the soaring cost of those reference points for greatness.
Years ago, a great wine list was essentially a great Bordeaux list, or a great Burgundy list. Sometimes it was both, with a few more selections, of course. In the early 20th century, you would find Champagne, sherry and, if the obstacle of world wars could be skirted, some German riesling and possibly something from Alsace. Later on you’d also find some wines from Napa Valley and Tuscany, depending on the restaurant’s cuisine.
Nowadays, the possibilities seem endless. One reason, I submit, is that with little access to the classically great wines, yet with a public thirst for greatness that far exceeds that of 30 years ago, importers, distributors, sommeliers and consumers themselves have been compelled to seek out wines that nobody paid attention to 25 years ago, if they even existed.
Mr. Lynch, in a telephone conversation, argued against including Burgundy in this equation, saying that barely a thimbleful of grand cru is made each year compared with the rivers of top-flight Bordeaux. But he agreed that the attention diverted from Bordeaux had moved to many formerly esoteric regions, and that this new attention was critical to maintaining diversity in the future.
“In the old days, nobody wanted to hear a word about cabernet francs from the Loire,” he said. “Today, it’s a big market for me.”
Who, back in 1991, was buying 20-year-old Rioja gran reservas? Not a lot of Americans. Nowadays, we prize a ’91 gran reserva from a producer like R. López de Heredia for its aromatic nuances, grace and gentle power.
Sure, back then, the Mosel had its secret admiration society, in which a select few indulged its fascination with the incremental variations in slate-based terroir, as revealed in profound detail by these German rieslings. Nowadays, rieslings have gotten a lot more popular, partly because of the proselytizing of importers and sommeliers. Would they all have been so enthusiastic if these wines had not been so relatively reasonably priced?
What about the Jura? Nobody in this country drank wines from this oddball backwater 25 years ago, beyond the occasional novelty of a vin jaune. But the wonderful savagnins, trousseaus and poulsards now lend vinous street cred to the hippest sommeliers.
The story repeats itself all over the Old World. Priorat, Bierzo and Ribeira Sacra in Spain. The Valle d’Aoste, Friuli-Venezia Giulia and Valtellina in northern Italy. Campania, Basilicata and Sicily in the south. If we could buy the best of Burgundy and Bordeaux, would we still be fascinated by the potential of Mount Etna, where vineyards of nerello mascalese, in the hands of risk takers like Salvo Foti and Ciro Biondi, give expression to the terroir of a living volcano?
Would we also care about the assyrtikos of Santorini, and the dry furmints of Hungary, and rejoice when we find them on a wine list? Would we be as curious about the tannats of Uruguay? The malbecs of the Loire — I mean the côts, as they are called there?
In the New World, the transition hasn’t been as smooth. Driven by the extravagant pricing of cult cabernets and a desire to keep up with Bordeaux, even mediocre Napa Valley cabernet sauvignons can cost more than $100. Many consumers take refuge in Argentina or Chile, not indefensible choices, or cheap imitation Napa cabs, no excuses for that. But there are some genuinely distinctive alternatives.
Mount Eden Vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains is better known for chardonnays, but it makes superb cabernets that are relative steals for under $50, especially if you value grace and restraint as well as intensity. Arnot-Roberts is known for syrahs, but I love its fresh, tobacco-scented Santa Cruz cabernet from Fellom Ranch. Napa may be the benchmark, but I’ll settle for the Santa Cruz Mountains.
I’ve got plenty of wonderful wines to drink. So you old-timers can keep your memories of great cheap Burgundy, Bordeaux and Napa Valley. I don’t need them. Well, not really, but you know what I mean.