“Wine is one of the most civilized things in the world and one of the most natural things of the world that has been brought to the greatest perfection, and it offers a greater range for enjoyment and appreciation than, possibly, any other purely sensory thing.” – Ernest Hemingway
The fact that we gain so much pleasure from making and drinking wine is no real surprise. Oenology, the art of making wine, has been around for some considerable time. The earliest evidence of winemaking was apparent in China and Iran, some 7,000 years ago. And our efforts to control the excesses of alcohol, through various state laws and even prohibition, are only following in the footsteps of our ancestors. Almost 4,000 years ago in Babylon, present day Iraq, they introduced the Code of Hammurabi. By law, tavern-keepers were required to adhere to quality controls, operate within agreed pricing structures, (overcharging was punishable by drowning) whilst serving a criminal on their premises would see them burned at the stake!
Wine, with its romance and excitement, has beguiled generations of wine drinkers, encompassing numerous qualities and eccentricities.
Wine, not just its taste but the history it embodies, constantly fascinates us. Even wine, so old it is undrinkable, can command extraordinary interest and change hands for astronomical prices. Christopher Forbes, American publisher, purchased a bottle of Bordeaux 1787 Château Lafitte (with the initials of a previous owner, Thomas Jefferson, 3rd President of USA, allegedly etched on it) at auction in 1985 for a staggering $157,000.
In 1988 American oil billionaire, William Koch, bought 4 similar bottles, etched with ‘Th.J’, for $500,000 (a 1784 and a 1787 Branne Mouton, as well as a 1784 and a 1787 Château Lafitte). However, Koch was later to claim that the purported provenance of these bottles was not genuine. He employed an ex-FBI agent and a former MI5 agent to pursue the truth. In 2006 he initiated legal action against the original seller, Hardy Rodenstock, a German pop-band manager who claimed they had been discovered around 1985, along with more than a dozen other bottles, in a bricked-up cellar in Paris, France.
As well as President of the US, Thomas Jefferson, an avid wine collector, had been Minister to France between 1785 and 1789. He is associated with two other exceptional bottles sold at auction; a 1775 Sherry ($43,500) sold in 2001 as well as a 1787 Château d’Yquem ($56,500) which sold in 1986.
Some of the most expensive, drinkable wines ever sold were auctioned in New York in 2001; 7 bottles of 1978 Montrachet, (a white wine from the Chardonnay grape) from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti in Burgundy. They sold for an average of $24,000 a bottle! However, even this phenomenal price was eclipsed by the wine, described by its own Bordeaux Château as a “happy accident of nature”; the 1947 Cheval Blanc. A double-magnum (3 liters) bottle was sold in 2006 for $135,000 at auction in San Francisco. This sum equates to $34,000 per standard bottle.
Film afficianados will also recognize this as the wine ordered by restaurant critic Anton Ego in the Disney cartoon ‘Ratatouille’ when he reviews the restaurant Gusteau in Paris!
Then there was the story of the most expensive bottle of wine never to be sold. It was another ‘Th.J’ initialled 1787 Château Margaux from the Hardy Rodenstock Parisienne find. This was marketed by a New York wine merchant, William Sokolin, who put it up for sale at $520,000. It was suspected that this staggering sum was less a reflection of its true value and more the desire to generate publicity. He certainly achieved the latter in 1989 when he took it to a Bordeaux dinner, celebrating the 1986 vintage, at New York’s Four Seasons restaurant. As he walked over to show it to former Major League Baseball player Daniel ‘Rusty’ Staub, he broke the bottle on the corner of a table! They say time is a great healer but it no doubt was helped when the insurance company finally agreed to pay out $212,000.
In 1997, another Bordeaux wine was to cause a sensation at auction; a 1945 vintage Château Mouton Rothschild, generally considered to be the finest vintage of the 20th Century. This double magnum (3 liters) sold for an eye-watering $115,000 at Christie’s in London in 1997. Uniquely, in order to celebrate the end of WW II, this 1945 vintage had an additional label applied, designed by a young painter Philippe Jullian, displaying a ‘V’ for victory and the inscription “Année de la Victoire”. This caught everyone’s imagination and, as a result, each subsequent year has adopted a different and unique label designed by a famous contemporary artist. The artists receive no money but are given 5 cases of the vintage they illustrate and a further 5 cases of older vintages (the average age of Mouton Rothschild vines is almost 50 years). Such artists have included Salvador Dali (1958), Henry Moore (1964), Pablo Picasso (1973), Andy Warhol (1975), John Huston (1982), Charles, Prince of Wales (2004) and Lucian Freud (2006).
The 1993 label, a nude sketch by French artist ‘Balthus’ (Balthasar Klossowski) was banned in the USA! Those bottles destined for the USA had a largely blank label applied. Both 1993 labels are highly prized collector’s items.
Another buzz of excitement rippled through the wine world when a Swedish freighter, torpedoed off the coast of Finland in 1916, was found to have much of its cargo intact when it was later discovered in 1997. It included 200 bottles of Heidsieck & Co Monopole, 1907 vintage ‘Gout Americain’ Champagne. They were part of a consignment on its way to Tsar Nicholas II, Russia’s last Emperor, who was stationed in Finland with his Imperial Army. Due to their unique, cool storage they were found to have retained their balance and were perfectly drinkable. They were subsequently auctioned all over the world. The Ritz-Carlton hotel in Moscow bought 10 bottles for $275,000. These are available to its guests at $35,000 each! However, a tip for the more cost-concious millionaire; head for the Crown Towers Hotel in Melbourne where it’s rumored they have a few bottles which are made available to their guests for a mere $13,000!
Finland clearly has some inexplicable attraction for historic Champagne. In 2010, another shipwreck was discovered off its coastline at a depth of 180ft with 30 intact bottles of Champagne, believed to be 230 years old! The ship was trading at the time Louis XVI was King of France and a full 15 years before Napoleon Bonaparte was crowned Emperor of France. Thought to be Veuve Clicquot, the Champagne was produced between 1782 and 1789 (due to the anchor design on the cork and shape of the bottle).
This was a particularly interesting period of French history, as the French Revolution began in 1789. Once the details have been fully verified, these bottles are expected to establish a new world record and sell for somewhere in the region of $70,000 each. One of the bottles has already been opened and sampled by the wreck’s finder, Christian Ekstrom, and wine expert Ella Gruessner. They confirmed that the contents were quite sweet with strong tobacco, oak, white fruits and mead, whilst the color was a dark gold. Due to the constant cool, dark storage conditions the Champagne was still in good condition and small bubbles were still present!
New World wines have also created headlines and generated extraordinary bidding wars at auction. In 2008, at a charity auction in Napa Valley, Chase Bailey (ex chief scientist, Cisco Systems) took time out from his retirement as an artist in Paris to bid a jaw-dropping $500,000 for 6 magnums of the 1992 ‘Screaming Eagle’ Cabernet Sauvignon. This averages out at $83,000 per magnum (1.5 liters). Fear not, for standard bottles of the 1992 ‘Screaming Eagle’ can still be located for a trifling $10,000!
In 2004 Francis Ford Coppola’s son, Roman, paid a record (for a standard-sized bottle of American wine) $27,000 for a bottle of 1941 ‘Inglenook’ Cabernet Sauvignon. Weeks earlier, Roman had bought 2 similar bottles at auction for $25,000 each. In 1999, this particular vintage had been valued by experts at approximately $1,300. The 1,600 acre Inglenook Estate in the Napa Valley was bought by his father in 1975, 3 years after the release of ‘The Godfather’. These bottles originally retailed for $1.50.
Australia lays claim to a similarly desirable and expensive wine; the 1951 Penfolds Grange, which sold at auction for $30,000 in 2007. In addition to its legendary balance and flavors using Shiraz grapes and modelled on Bordeaux winemaking techniques, its desirability was enhanced by the fact that, as an experimental wine, less than 2,000 bottles were ever produced. Furthermore, they were never released commercially but generally given to friends of Max Schubert, Penfolds’ chief winemaker at that time. A complete collection of the Penfolds Grange Shiraz, from the 1951 vintage onwards, can be purchased today for around $175,000.
Much has been written about ensuring one appreciates wine using the correct glass; shape, color, thickness and whether it should it be glass or lead crystal. In 2008, a designer by the name of John Calleija, helped by a team of jewellers, took things a little further by introducing a new element; opulence. They carved two 6” tall Champagne glasses from 8kg blocks of rock crystal. The glasses weigh 250 grams and are decorated with 1,700 diamonds; 15 carats of white diamonds and 6 carats of extremely rare, Argyle pink diamonds (20 times the price of an equivalent white diamond). They were subsequently purchased by an anonymous Melbourne businessman for $400,000!
In 1985, a scandal erupted and reverberated around the wine world. Following randon analysis for the purposes of quality control, many Austrian wines were discovered to contain a toxic substance called diethylene glycol. This had been added, up to 1,000 parts per million, by certain winemakers, (probably due to a number of poor quality harvests around that time) in order to increase sweetness, particularly of their late-harvest dessert wines. Diethylene glycol is an additive commonly found in solvents and antifreeze and, if consumed, can cause brain and kidney damage and can even kill.
Although no deaths were ever reported, when news of this scandal was leaked to the media, it all but destroyed Austrian wine exports overnight. Exports plummeted from 45 million liters a year to 4 million liters in 1986. Whilst Germany was the main export market for these sweet wines, (350 brands had to be blacklisted) the USA was also an importer of Austrian wine and 12 brands were found to be contaminated.
Subsequently, 30 winemakers were arrested, a number of whom were jailed, and 3 million cases of wine were destroyed. It took another 15 years for Austrian wine exports to recover to their pre-scandal volumes.
During post-WWI prohibition years, (1920-1933) somewhat perversly, grape prices increased. This was largely due to some fairly ingenious marketing by a number of ‘never say die’ vineyards. They focused on exploiting a loophole in the law, which still allowed the sale and transportation of fresh or dried grapes. They therefore began marketing ‘raisin cakes’ or ‘grape bricks’ (consisting of dried and compacted winegrape concentrate). These commodities carried a stern warning; "Do not add yeast or fermentation will result." As many as nine different flavors were available to eager, wine-starved households!
It was these and other fascinating stories which ignited my interest in wine. Only when I made the decision to learn more about the subject did I realize that no publication catered for my requirement; a ‘cut to the chase’, concise overview of the key aspects of wine knowledge.
Secrets of Wine was developed to fulfil that requirement. It provides a comprehensive understanding of wine, in one sitting, and an invaluable reference point, thereafter. I hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed researching it and putting it together.
Variously referred to as Premium Vintage, Prestige Cuvée, Cuvée Spéciale and Deluxe Champagne. They represent the pinnacle of achievement within any Champagne House – they are sublime! Even their packaging is intended to herald the impending thrill of the taste. Flamboyant labels and unusual-shaped bottles are a typical precursor to the resounding ‘pop’ of the cork. Even jewel-encrusted Magnums and Jeroboams have been introduced. What sets them apart from other fine Champagnes? They use the finest juice from the first pressing of the highest quality grapes from Grand Cru classified vineyards (top 5%) within the Champagne region. They are usually only produced in vintage years and undergo an extended aging period of between 4 to 8 years; invariably dry, they can also be cellared. Famous examples include Veuve Clicquot’s ‘La Grande Dame’, Louis Roeder’s ‘Cristal’, Moet’s ‘Dom Perignon’, Perrier-Jouet’s ‘Fleur de Champagne’ (flower bottle) and at the upper-end of the scale a limited edition 1998 Dom Perignon jeroboam which, if you could get hold of a bottle, would set you back about $15,000. Don’t panic – entry level for these Champagnes is around $50!
Vintage Champagne can only be produced using grapes harvested within the same year. Therefore, vintage years are those where the Champagne region enjoys a high-quality harvest. Due to Champagne’s northerly, less predictable climate, vintage years are approximately 4 out of every 10 years. Vintage Champagnes, even from the same producer, will differ noticeably from year to year. This is because they reflect the specific growing conditions of their year of production, (which is detailed on the label). For example, a cooler year will produce crisper, more acidic Champagnes. Vintage Champagnes are aged over a 4 to 8 year period.
Most Champagnes are non-vintage. This simply means they are blended, using base wines from grapes harvested in different years. Therefore, there is no year detailed on the label. Producers have the advantage, through blending, of being able to maintain a consistent style and characteristic within their brands, (‘House-style’) from year to year; a useful benefit when marketing and developing a loyal customer following. Grapes from the current year provide the bulk of the blend, whilst reserve wines from previous years are used to fine-tune and balance the end product. Non-vintage Champagnes are produced for immediate drinking and will generally not benefit from being cellared.
“white from whites”. Representing just 5% of Champagne production, Blanc de blancs is produced using one single white grape variety; Chardonnay. It commands a premium price, due to its distinctive elegance and lightness (the illustrious Champagne House of ‘Salon’ exclusively produces Blanc de Blancs Champagne and only during the best years).
“white from blacks”. This tends to be fairly rare Champagne produced from either one, or a blend of the 2 black grape varieties permitted in Champagne (Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier). Blanc de noirs is typically full-bodied, rich Champagne with a pale, slightly pinkish hue.
Often referred to as pink Champagne. Usually produced with a blend of the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grape varieties, they are typically more full-bodied with stronger flavors than white Champagnes. Their pinkish color comes from allowing the grape juice (‘must’) to remain in contact with the black grape skins for a few hours longer during the initial fermentation. Alternatively, a small amount of Pinot Noir is added to the wine, prior to its second fermentation in the bottle. Rosé Champagnes tend to cost slightly more than their white counterparts and those with a paler, pinkish hue tend to be of a higher quality. Contrary to popular belief, they can be just as dry as white Champagnes.
Hungarian dessert wine produced in the north-eastern region of Tokaj. This wine also uses the noble rot fungus to concentrate sugar levels. Furmint and Hárslevelü are the predominant grape varieties used in Tokaji wine (accounting for 90% of production), which is appreciably acidic with more mineral tones and less honeyed than many dessert wines. There are 4 types of Tokaji:
Tokaji Essencia is the sublime expression of this wine (albeit, with alcohol content around 3% it is barely alcoholic). It uses the most concentrated juice (‘free-run’ juice - the juice which collects at the bottom of the barrel, created simply by the weight of the grapes, before any pressing takes place) from hand-selected grapes affected by ‘noble rot’. Fermentation takes up to 8 years and results in an exceptionally high residual sugar content of between 400 and 900 grams per liter (up to 90%) and an almost treacly richness.
Tokaji Aszú Essencia (Aszú meaning dessicated; the process of extreme drying), whilst not quite achieving the pinnacle of Essencia, nonetheless, achieves an outstanding quality; it is only ever produced in exceptional years. Unlike other Tokaji Aszú wines, its sweetness is not measured in puttonyos as it is invariably sweeter than the highest (number 6) puttonyos, at around 200 grams per liter.
Tokaji Aszú is also made from hand-selected grapes affected by ‘noble rot’. Its level of sweetness is determined by the number of puttonyos (baskets) filled with botryised grapes that are added to the cask (136 liters) of dry, base wine (must). The label on the bottle will detail the sweetness, in puttonyos:
- 3 puttonyos = minimum 60 grams residual sugar, per liter
- 4 puttonyos = minimum 90 grams residual sugar, per liter
- 5 puttonyos = minimum 130 grams residual sugar, per liter
- 6 puttonyos = minimum 150 grams residual sugar, per liter
(as the puttonyo number increases, so does the price!)
Tokaji Szamorodni is only produced during the poorer harvests, when the ‘noble rot’ fungus has failed to affect many of the grapes. During these harvests, it is not economically viable to hand-select and separate the noble rot (botryised) grapes. All of the grapes are therefore processed in the same manner. As a result, these wines will range from dry to sweet, depending on the proportion of noble rot grapes they contain (sweet Tokaji Szamorodni however, must contain a minimum residual sugar level of 30 grams per liter).
Tokaji wines are only sold, once they have been aged in casks, as well as ‘in the bottle’ and are therefore ‘ready to drink’ when purchased. They are best appreciated at slightly less than room temperature, (15°C/ 60°F) and will store for upwards of 20 years and keep in the fridge, after opening, for up to 2 weeks.
Exceptional vintage years: 2000, 1999, 1993, 1988, 1983, 1975, 1972.
Burgundy (main cities Dijon, Auxerre, Macon & Beaune) – a fairly narrow strip (around 25 miles wide) running southwards from Paris (starting 50 miles south of Paris), 230 miles down towards Lyon.
“The odour of Burgundy and the smell of French sauces, and the sight of clean napkins and long loaves knocked as a very welcome visitor, at the door of our inner man.” – Jerome K Jerome, Three men in a boat
Red Burgundies are based predominantly on the Pinot Noir and Gamay grape varieties and include famous villages such as Chambertin, Beaune, Macon, Montrachet and Nuits-St-Georges. Beaujolais (99% red wine) sits within the Burgundy region and predominantly adopts the Gamay grape variety.
Exceptional vintage years: 2009, 2005, 2002, 1999, 1997, 1996, 1993, 1990, 1989, 1988, 1985, 1978, 1969.
White Burgundies are based on the Chardonnay grape variety and include Chablis (incorporating 7 ‘Grand Cru’ vineyards around Auxerre, namely; Les Blanchots, Bougros, Les Clos, Grenouilles, Les Preuses, Valmur and Vaudésir), Chambertin, Côte de Beaune, Macon, Meursault, Montrachet and Pouilly-Fuissé. Chablis differs from other white Burgundies made from the Chardonnay grape. This is because its producers rarely allow malolactic (or ‘secondary’) fermentation, or exposure to oak to occur. This emphasises its unique terroir, ensuring distinctive ‘flinty’ characteristics and high acidity.
Exceptional vintage years: 2009, 2007, 2005, 2002, 1999, 1997, 1996, 1989, 1986, 1978, 1971, 1969, 1962.
There are 2 classifications of note:
60% of all wine produced in Burgundy is white.