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What are Rare Wines?

February 02, 2018

What are Rare Wines?

What exactly is a rare wine? The answer probably depends upon your point of view. But for most wine lovers a rare wine is one that has very few bottles existing. This may be the result of very small production, or of extreme age, or a combination of the two. Scarcity is implicit in the meaning of the word rare. High quality and longevity are also assumed. Legendary wines are almost always rare wines. This is usually caused by the demand for them- the wines become less and less available as many persons seek these legendary wines due to their reputation, and the supply dries up.

Most wines that are known for longevity, from top vintages (harvest years) prior to our birth, are deemed to be rare wines. Occasionally, wines that were produced in our own lifetimes come to be considered rare due to the miniscule quantities made and the elevated critical opinion of the wine, and of the producing region's vintage in general. The passage of time may allow the quality of the vintage, assessed by many people independently, to become more and more precisely known. This sometimes results in 'legendary vintages' for certain narrowly-defined categories of wines.

Vintage is always important in assessing top wines- this is because the quality of the grapes themselves varies with the weather in each particular year. Generally speaking, wines from warmer climate regions show less variation because the weather is more consistent there. But that doesn't diminish the spectacular wines that come, albeit less frequently, from cooler growing regions. A related factor for rare wines is the size of the bottle. Wines sold in bottles larger than the standard 750ml are known as large-format bottlings. The wine in larger bottles has been empirically shown to age more slowly than that in standard-size bottles. Probably this is due to their larger volume-surface area ratio and their greater resistance to temperature change. Large-format bottlings also have an additional rarity factor in that most wineries produce them in very limited numbers, compared to the standard size. The result of all this is that sometimes top wines from great older vintages are more sought-after in larger format bottles.
Rare Bordeaux
This is one of the most highly regarded wine categories in the world. The pinnacle of Bordeaux quality for red wines are the 5 "first growths' (Grand Crus) of the left bank: Chateau Haut Brion, Chateau Lafite-Rothschild, Chateau Latour, Chateau Mouton Rothschild, and Chateau Margaux. However, in recent decades, the top red wines from the right bank of Chateau Ausone, Chateau Cheval Blanc, and especially Chateau Petrus, have become at least as well-known, and sometimes surpass the left bank wines in accolades and in price.

Rare Left Bank Wines
The 5 great wines named above from the left side of the Gironde estuary are not small-production. Their rarity comes from the exceptionally high demand that they enjoy, demand from wine drinkers and collectors in many parts of the globe. They usually incorporate a majority portion of Cabernet Sauvignon into their varietal blend; this undoubtably accounts for a part of their exceptional longevity. These are wines that not only live a long time, but actually improve with time for a great number of years. We have personally enjoyed several bottles of first-growth Bordeaux from great vintages that were over 100 years of age at the time of drinking!

Rare Right bank wines
The right bank of the Gironde is a bit higher in elevation and has a more 'continental' climate; this means that it has cooler autumns in most years than the left bank. Consequently, not much Cabernet Sauvignon is grown here, since it is a notorious late-ripener. The red wines are usually composed of Merlot and/or Cabernet Franc, two vines whose fruit ripens earlier than the other Cabernet. The best of these right-bank wines are quite long-lived, but in general these wines mature earlier and pass through their peak earlier than those of the left bank. Great wines are produced in top years by the three estates mentioned in the first paragraph, as well as a few other top estates, particularly in Pomerol. Almost all of these estates are small compared to those of the left-bank first growths, so in great vintages their relative scarcity results in their evolving from cult wines into rare wine status.

Rare Burgundy
The wines of Burgundy, especiallly the reds, have shown a tremendous improvement in quality over about the last 3 decades, and this is true at all price levels.

Red wine can be difficult to produce due to the climate, which is relatively cool at this northerly latitude (about 47' north) so that it is challenging to the grape grower to achieve completely ripe fruit annually. One of the factors that is deemed most influential in this recent improvement is the replacement of previously existing plantings with specific mutations of Pinot Noir that have lower yields but produce riper and more flavorful fruit and thus superior wine. Still, the ability to ripen the fruit more fully each year doesn't result in great, long-lived wines nearly every year. Great years still occur infrequently because of the vagaries of weather, particularly in September-October. However off-year wines are much better than they were in the decades prior to about 1980, in general. Top vintages can be found in our article on the Cote d'Or.

Burgundy, unlike Bordeaux, does not enjoy generally large estates and large volume of production that would result from these. In fact, the average family-owned 'domaine' in Burgundy covers only about 5 Hectares of land (about 12 acres), and this is often in scattered, non-contiguous parcels in more than one village. Grand Cru vineyards (first growths) have been meticulously mapped by the French government and generally follow ancient boundaries that were established by religious orders such as the Benedictines and Cistercians; there is also recent geological research that presents a compelling argument for most of these boundaries and vineyard 'status rankings'. These Grand Crus constitute a tiny portion of the vineyards within Burgundy's Cote d'Or: they accounted for about 7% of Cote d'Or red wine production in the first few years of this millenium. They account for only about 2% of overall Burgundy production (most Burgundy sub-regions outside the Cote d'Or have few or no Grand Cru vineyards). A concept that is difficult for non-Burgundians to understand is the manner in which vineyards have been created into parcels. This is supposedly the result of the advent of the Napoleonic code, which requires that upon the death of the family heads, the property is equally divided amongst all the surviving children. At any rate, the result in Burgundy can be illustrated with this example: the Grand Cru vineyard Clos de Vougeot (about 51 hectares or 125 acres) is owned by over 70 different people. A given producer's Clos de Vougeot wine from a specific top vintage would be a very rare wine indeed. Another oddity in the Cote d'Or is the 'monopole', a single-owner vineyard. Two such exist in Vosne-Romanee, both Grand Crus owned by Domaine Romanee-Conti: La Tache and Romanee-Conti. But these are very small, and than 6 and 2 hectares respectively. The vineyard Romanee-Conti typically yields under 600 cases of wine annually. A list of many of the Cote d'Or Grand Cru vineyards, by village, can be found in our article on the Cote d'Or.

Burgundy's top winemakers share a common strategy: they make sacrifices for improving the quality of the wine they produce. This can include reducing the size of the crop ("green harvest"), planting with mutations of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay that have better quality but lesser weight of fruit, picking later or earlier as the weather dictates, and removing any less-than-perfect fruit at harvest time. There is a large and growing list of excellent producers, and we've selected those that have demonstrated strong performance over a sustained period; while it's possible that we've left someone out, very few experts would argue with any of the names on our list.

Top Cote d'Or red wine producers
Henri Jayer, Jean Gros, Domaine Ponsot, Domaine Dujac, Domaine Leroy, Armand Rousseau, Comte de Vogue, Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, Rene Engel, Jean Grivot, Robert Arnoux, Domaine Meo-Camuzet, Robert Groffier, and Georges Roumier

Top Cote d'Or white wine producers
Bonneau du Martray, Domaine Leroy, Comte Senard, Chandon de Brialles, Louis Carillon, Domaine Leflaive, Etienne Sauzet, Domaine Ramonet

Top Chablis producers
Dauvissat, J.P. Droin, William Fevre, Louis Michel, Francois Raveneau, Domaine Laroche

Rare Rhone
The Rhone region of France is often divided into two sections for the purpose of study. The north, known for the longest-lived red and white wines of the entire Rhone, has essentially a single-varietal tradition: Syrah for the reds, and Viognier for the whites. The two top red-wine appellations are Hermitage and Cote Rotie. The rare wines from these 2 sub-regions are dominated by J. L. Chave in Hermitage, and by the Guigal single-vineyard Cote Rotie wines called La Mouline, La Landonne, and La Turque. All of these wines are produced in fairly small quantities, and in great vintages they fit our definition of rare wines.

The south is a region where (as in Bordeaux) the top wines are usually blends. The very best are wines of the appellation Chateauneuf du Pape, and the names of the producers of wines that often become rare are Chateau de Beaucastel (their regular cuvee and the 'Hommage a Jacques Perrin'), and Chateau Rayas. This region has fairly consistent weather and is capable of producing excellent wines in 7 or 8 years from each decade. A great culinary pairing can be experienced with mature Chateauneuf du Pape combined with the famous dish cassoulet, a long-cooked bean stew with duck confit and sausage, sometimes with lamb. The wines are not as long-lived (in general) as those of the north, so that a perfectly aged Chateauneuf du Pape from a great producer might be only 10-20 years of age. A top-vintage Hermitage wine from Chave, on the other hand, might need as many as 20 years to begin its period of peak drinking.

Italy has such a benign climate with respect to the grapevine that wine is produced in each of its 20 regions (Italian regioni). Most of these regions produce some distinctive wines, but the top regions for rare wines are Piedmont (Piemonte) and Tuscany (Toscana). With some very creative winemaking introduced into a region with a somewhat marginal climate, we would need to add the Veneto to this list. The Veneto sub-region near Verona is home to the wine Valpolicella. Producers in Valpolicella have been making a special and unique wine there since the 1950's, called Amarone della Valpolicella, or more simply, Amarone (am-ah-RONE-eh).

This wine is made more concentrated by partially drying the harvested grapes in special ventilated barns, so that it achieves much fuller body than the normal Valpolicella as well as aromatics that have nuances of dried fruit (raisins, prunes, etc). Amarone is a large-scale wine that is magnificent when paired with the right food (including ossobuco Milanese). One of the best 'classical' producers is Bertani; sometimes rare vertical collections (same wine, different vintages) of these wines are released from the winery. Other winemakers that produce top Amarone in more modern styles include Dal Forno Romano, Allegrini, and Quintarelli. Dal Forno Romano has acquired such a reputation that his Valpolicella is considered a rare wine.

Tuscany is home to two types of wine that often are considered rare at the highest levels: Brunello di Montalcino and Supertuscans. Brunello is produced around the village of Montalcino from a single mutation of the grape Sangiovese; this mutation is known as Brunello. The most sought-after of Brunellos are the riservas (aged one year longer than the 4 required for 'normal' bottlings). These wines are indeed often great, and pair beautifully with many game and mushroom dishes. If you are familiar with the taste of other Tuscan wines like Chianti, you will find that Brunellos share those uniquely 'Tuscan' flavors, but they are almost always more powerful and complex. Top producers that sometimes produce what we term rare wines include Altesino, Biondi-Santi, Soldera (Case Basse), Livio Sassetti, Caparzo, Poggio Antico, and Siro Pacenti.

Supertuscan is a name given to a unique category of Tuscan wines that originally had to be labeled as Table Wine (Vino da Tavola) due to their varietal content- they used grape varieties that were not allowed for their region of production by the Italian government. These wines are not a homogeneous group, but many are made in tiny quantities and often they include a portion of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and other grapes that are not indigenous to Tuscany. They are often very full-bodied, rich and ripe, and can be impressively long-lived. Some of the best include Solaia, Saccicaia, and Antinori's Tignanello. In certain years like 1997, these wines have been snapped up by collectors and have become rare.

Piedmont is a region in Italy's northwest that has been somewhat influenced by its neighbor, France. But to a large extent its vinous and culinary identity are uniquely its own. The dominant grape from the quality standpoint is Nebbiolo, and this is not grown in France to any extent. Nebbiolo is the grape of Piedmont's two famous wines, Barolo and Barbaresco. It is a grape that is demanding for both producers and consumers. The wines are made in small quantities and the vines are extremely sensitive to the soil and drainage conditions of the vineyard site; it's also difficult to make wines that we might consider 'generous'. Consumers must have patience, for these wines require a good bit of ageing before they achieve their peak of flavor and suppleness. Nonetheless, to taste a great Barolo or Barbaresco of appropriate age is a singular experience. These are wines that harmonize with many different foods, from sophisticated to rustic, but perhaps their best showing is with relatively simple foods (pastas, etc) that have been garnished with shavings of fresh white truffles. The synergy is hard to explain but it is spectacular.

As with Brunellos, some of the rarest and most in-demand wines are the riservas and single-vineyard wines from the most favorable sites. Barbaresco and Barolo 'normale' have to be aged for 2 and 3 years, respectively, before release; Barbaresco riserva must be 4 years of age minimum while Barolo riserva must be at least 5 years old before release. There are many great producers, but those who seem most often capable of making great and rare wines include Angelo Gaja, Bruno Giacosa, Aldo Conterno and Giacomo Conterno.

Rare Rioja
This region in north-central Spain has been producing top quality wines since the 1800's or before. There are many companies that have been continuously making wine since the mid-late 1800's. A tradition that developed and has remained is to age the wines prior to release to remove that burden from the consumer. Don't be mislead into thinking, however, that the wines are not capable of improving after additional bottle ageing. Wines from top traditional estates, such as Cune, La Rioja Alta, Marques de Murrieta, and R. Lopez Y Heredia can be aged for many years and continue to improve; in some vintages they have the lifetime potential of top red Bordeaux. They pair well with many dishes including grilled meats and other grilled foods, but they are also at home with the classic Spanish roast suckling pig, roast lamb, and also something called a 'chuleton', a large cut of beef rib. This is typically roasted very rare and then sliced and cooked to the diner's taste on hot stones placed on the dining table.

Australia is capable of producing quite a number of superb, sometimes rare wines, but few have the reputation or cachet of Penfold's Grange. This wine is mostly Shiraz in most years, with varying amounts of Cabernet Sauvignon. The first experimental vintage was 1951, the first commercially-released vintage 1952. Prior to the 1990 vintage, it was called 'Grange Hermitage'. The amount produced probably varies considerably, and is a closely-kept secret; the grapes don't come from any single specific vineyard source. The wine is well-regarded at release, but also ages well. If you are drinking Grange with food, a good tip is to plan the menu so that the food is very intensely-flavored, as this is a very powerful wine.

Rare Port
Port is produced along the steep banks ("gorge") of the river Douro. The river empties into the Atlantic just downstream of the city of Oporto (literally "the port"; the second largest city in Portugal, after Lisbon). The Douro flows through northern Portugal, only about 50 miles from the southern border of Spain's Galicia region.

The northern coast of Portugal is rather rainy, but inland from Oporto lies a range of mountains running north-south, which effectively blocks the worst of the wet Atlantic weather for all the lands upstream on the Douro. In these inland reaches, summers are hot and dry. The surface of the land is either schist or granite. Only the schist is friable enough for the planting of vines. But even this is difficult to farm, and so the terrain has had to be extensively worked to allow vine cultivation, including terracing on a massive scale. The vineyard area has been described as an "artificial landscape"...but it's photogenic in a spectacular way , nonetheless. There are many different grape varieties allowed, but none of them would be considered household names outside Iberia. The most familiar might be Tinta Roriz (called Tempranillo in Spain), and the most-highly regarded is Touriga Nacional. Port as we know it today got its start in the 1600's and 1700's. Warre, and Croft were both founded in the 17th century. There are many different types of Port (including a white version!), but the type most likely to become a rare wine is Vintage Port. This is a wine that is not made in every year (and not by all producers in any given year), but when made, only in the best of years, it is always with the best fruit and it receives the most careful winemaking. It only accounts for about 1% of all the Port produced. The wines have a fabulously long life, due to an abundance of things that help in the longevity department: tannin, alcohol, and sugar. The wines are at their peak from say a minimum of 10 years (more often 20) and can hold for decades. They taste best with blue-veined cheeses (or less-flavorful hard cheeses if the Port is VERY old), dried fruits, and nuts. Some of the best producers include Fonseca, Quinta do Noval, Taylor Fladgate, Dow, Croft, Ferreira, and Warre.

Rare Sauternes
Sauternes (and Barsac) is really part of Bordeaux, but the wines are so different that we decided to give it its own story. The wine is typically only produced when weather conditions are favorable. The regions of Sauternes and Barsac are near the River Garonne, one of the tributaries of the Gironde that separates the left and right bank regions. The proximity to the River gives the potential for high-humidity conditions during grape ripening that leads to the growth of the mold known as 'the noble rot' (botrytis cinerea) that makes these great sweet wines possible. This beneficial mold changes the flavor of the resulting wine and also concentrates the juice by perforating the grape skins, allowing moisture to escape. As you might imagine, this concentrating effect also reduces greatly the amount of juice available, and thus these wines are expensive to produce. These can be rare wines at release, particularly that of Chateau d'Yquem. The botrytis also increases the tartaric acid content of the grapes, so that when the wine has been made, although very sweet, it has refreshing acidity to offset the residual sugar. The grapes varieties used include mostly Semillon (typically 70-80%), Sauvignon Blanc, and sometimes Muscadelle. These are of course dessert wines, pairing nicely with creme brulee and blue-veined cheeses, but in Bordeaux an appetizer that features foie gras is often accompanied (to outsiders, unexpectedly) with a glass of Sauternes. The top producers include Chateau d'Yquem, Rieussec, and Sudiuraut.

Rare Champagne
The vineyards of Champagne are the most northerly in France (49°N), indeed in western Europe except for the Mosel in Germany. The region's principle city of Reims is located about 90 miles northwest of Paris. The summers are warm/ mild, with danger of frost in Spring and Autumn. There are "smudge pots" in many vineyards to attempt to ameliorate the effects of sudden cold snaps. Two hillsides on opposite sides of the Marne River give height to an otherwise flattish terrain. The more southerly slope is called the Cote des Blancs. The most northerly part is called the Montagne de Reims (lying south of the city of Reims); in between, in the Vallée de la Marne, is a gently hilly area. The subsoil is chalky, especially in the Montagne de Reims area. Best sites contain lignite (coal) which provides free iron that is lacking in chalk. Chalk is extremely well-drained and contains other minerals which influence the flavors/aromas of the resulting wines. These conditions exist mainly near the bottom of certain escarpment slopes, and this occurrence is somewhat rare.

As in many other French wine regions, there is a vineyard classification: those called Grand Cru are considered the best (100% 'rating' -only 17 towns); 
Premier Cru (90-99% rating -about 140 towns); and lesser (wine can only be labeled 'Champagne') down to 75% rating. Over the years, much work was done in Champagne and elsewhere to perfect the production of sparkling wine, and to make bottles and closures (wired-on corks) able to contain the pressure. But although the production methods and sometimes grape varietals used have been copied elsewhere, Champagne remains unique, probably due to the combination of the very marginal climate and the uniqueness of the soils. Champagne is often thought of as the beverage of celebration, but it is really a spectacular partner with a vast range of foods. It really complements soft cheeses very nicely (especially goat cheese) and is great with the baked, cheese-laden appetizer called gougeres. Vintage Champagnes really see the most collector demand. Top wines include Roederer Cristal and Cristal Rose, Deutz Blanc de Blancs, Dom Perignon and 'DP' Rose, Krug NV and Clos de Mesnil, and Veuve Clicquot 'Le Grand Dame'. The best years (eg 1990, etc) and large-format bottlings make these wines even more rare.

Rare Cabernet Sauvignon
The rare wines from America are mostly Cabernet Sauvignons from tiny vineyard sites, and mostly in Napa Valley. This region is truly a great viti-cultural area that actually has quite a bit of terroir variation over its length. Foggy weather from the San Pablo Bay cause the southern end of the valley to be cooler than the northern end. The terrain also varies considerably, as the valley floor is quite flat and has rich and somewhat heavy soils. The steep hillsides, especially of the Mayacamas mountains that define the valley's western edge, are composed of more stony soils and they are exceptionally well-drained. Many of Napa's top Cabernets come from tiny vineyard sites that are tucked into the Mayacamas surrounded by areas that are too steep even for viticulture. The eastern edge of the valley is somewhat less rugged, but also contains some great viti-cultural spots. Some of the best producers of California Cabernet Sauvignon are:
Bryant, Opus One, Colgin (Herb Lamb Vineyard), Pride, Dalle Valle Maya, Diamond Creek, Screaming Eagle, Dominus, Silver Oak (especially Bonny's Vineyard), Stag's Leap "Cask 23", Groth Reserve, Togni, Heitz Martha's Vineyard, Harlan, and Chateau Montelena

The large-format bottlings (1.5 liter and up) of most of these wines are quite rare since few are made, and they have been shown to have considerably more longevity than standard bottles.

Rare Pinot Noir
Top Pinot Noirs of western US come from both California and Oregon. The history of Pinot Noir production in these areas is only a few decades old, but already some great wines have been produced. California's top Pinots are mostly fatter and riper than red wines of a similar price range from Burgundy. Their quality is related to the vineyard's geology and topography, but the style of a specific wine is very much a consequence of the site's microclimate. Oregon's top wines are on average higher in acidity and somewhat lighter in body than those of California. Some of the best producers include Sine Qua Non, Martinelli, Calera, Capiaux, Hirsch, Kent Rasmussen, and Marcassin (all in California), and from Oregon Adelsheim, Domaine Drouhin, Cristom, Ponzi, Shea, Ken Wright, and Patricia Green

Rare Whites (Chardonnay)
California has been becoming a source of great, rare wines made from Chardonnay, albeit only from a tiny group of producers. Many of the better wines actually improve in the bottle, while not generally as long-lived as the top whites from Burgundy. Some few have considerable life and evolve unique flavors that can generate enough consumer attention to cause them to become rare wines. Those that have consistently shown excellence and sometimes achive rarity include Chalk Hill, Chalone, Far Niente, Marcassin, Peter Michael, Sonoma-Cutrer, Stoney Hill, and Talbott.
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