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 Left Bank Wines
Rare Right bank wines
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
Top Cote d'Or white wine producers
Top Chablis producers
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.
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.
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.
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);
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
Rare Whites (Chardonnay)
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