Wines that changed the world of wine

This story originally appeared in the Napa Valley Register.

As we look back at history, we can always find markers where something shifted and altered the future. Each of these significant markers have changed paradigms in life. These are game-changers, such as the invention of the car, the smart phone and every technology we use today.

We can also find markers in the wine industry that have transformed the industry. Breakthroughs in winemaking technique, heralded births of new regions and cultural moments have resulted in wines that have changed the world of wine as we know it.

“Over time, there are wines that changed our perspective in one way or another. These wines transcend their flavor. These are wines with history and they conjure memories. Each in their own way has changed the world of wine,” explained Ray Isle, executive editor of Food and Wine Magazine, as he moderated a panel at the 11th Annual Pebble Beach Food and Wine.

Along with four sommeliers — Eugenio Jardim, Shelley Lindgren, Kelli White and Master Sommelier Fred Dame — we tasted through eight wines that have changed the world of wine.

— Louis Roederer Cristal 2009

Dating to 1876, Champagne Louis Roederer Cristal was the first tete du cuvee Champagne ever created. Cristal was created by Roederer for Tzar Alexander II who desired a special Champagne. He requested that it be in a clear glass bottle because he was afraid of bombs and wanted to see what was in the bottle. Ironically, Alexander II was killed by a bomb, but not from one in his Champagne.

Regardless, 140 years later, Cristal is still served in a clear glass bottle. Eugenio Jardim described Cristal as a “Champagne that defies definitions. It has a feminine quality as well as the assertiveness of a masculine-style Champagne.”

Shelley Lindgren added that Cristal is a wine of “precision and finesse and will always be in the top class of Champagne.”

— Eyrie Vineyards Original Vines Pinot Noir 2014

Today when we think of Oregon, we naturally think of Pinot Noir. But 50 years ago, Oregon was unknown for wine until David Lett planted Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris in the Willamette Valley in 1966. Today, there are more than 700 wineries in Oregon. Lett also set the tone for Oregon wine grapegrowing, letting the wine express where it is from.

The original vines Lett planted in 1966 are still there today and are what make up the Original Vines Pinot Noir 2014. Tasting a wine made from the original vines is a window into the history of the region and the winery.

— Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars SLV Cabernet Sauvignon 2014

At the 1976 Judgment of Paris, the 1973 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars S.L.V. Cabernet Sauvignon bested four top-ranked Bordeaux wines to win the top award. With American wines taking home top marks for both red and white wines, they proved that American wines could compete with French wines.

After the Judgment, there was an influx of investments into California, specifically in Napa. Today, Napa has more than 1,000 brands and it is one-eighth the size of the region of Bordeaux.

Forty-one years later, the 2014 vintage of the award-winning wine shows the consistency and quality of Napa Cabernet. To understand how much of a game-changer the Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars S.L.V. Cabernet Sauvignon is, the Smithsonian honored a bottle of the wine as “one of the 101 objects that made America”, alongside Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone and other iconic objects.

— Williams Selyem Winery West Road Neighbors Pinot Noir 2014

In the 1980s, Pinot Noir was not popular, nor did it taste very good, in California. According to Eugenio Jardim, “Williams Selyem set the bar for California production of Pinot Noir. It is the shining light.”

Pre-dating the movie “Sideways,” Williams Selyem was the beginning of “cult” Pinot Noir that people were rabid to get. Master Sommelier Fred Dame was their first restaurant customer in 1984, after they changed the name from Hacienda del Rio. By 1990, Williams Selyem had 5,000 people on their mailing list. The 2014 West Road Neighbors Pinot Noir incorporates some of the original vineyard sites.

— Egly-Ouriet Vignes de Vrigny Brut 1er Cru NV

The late 1980s started to see single estate, grower Champagnes grow in popularity. As Eugenio Jardim explained, “Champagne had initially changed the world of wine upside down. What became important was the brand, not the vintage.”

But an antagonistic relationship developed between the growers and producers. Egly-Ouriet was a leader in the Grower Champagne movement. Grower Champagne, Jardim continued, “shows us the beauty of imperfections. The wine does not have to be polished or flawless to be charming.”

Another unique thing about the Egly-Ouriet is that while many Champagne houses will tout Chardonnay and Pinot Noir as the two main grapes and pooh-pooh Pinot Meunier, the Egly-Ouriet Vignes de Vrigny Brut 1er Cru NV is 100 percent Pinot Meunier with a low dosage.

— Domaines Ott Chateau de Selle Cotes de Provence Rosé 2016

Provence was the first wine grapegrowing regions in France and Domaine Ott has been making wine since 1913. But for decades, you could not sell dry rosé in the United States. Then, in 2006, the New York Times called Domaines Ott Rosé the “wine of the Hamptons.” The growth rate of rosé wines has been extraordinary, and according to Nielsen data, “while rosé only represents 1.5 percent of the total table wine category, it is growing at a rate unheard of in other categories.” Beautiful estate-driven high-quality wines and a memorable amphora-shaped bottle, Domaines Ott set the bar for Provence rosé.

— Scholium Project Prince in His Caves Farina Vineyards 2006

Abe Schoener is a leader in a maverick movement of California winemakers that started in the late-2000s. Schoener had been working Napa at a highly conservative and traditional winery, a place he described as the “Acme of the wine world.” He noted that the “key was to stay within the lines. Everything seemed to b the same recipe per grape.” So, Schoener wondered, what would happen if you work with the best people, the best vineyards and excellent terroir and if you are precise and intuitive about your harvest decisions, but you vary in every other way? Scholium Project was born. It looked at California wine and asked why we did it that way.

The Scholium Project Prince in His Caves Farina Vineyards 2006 is a Sauvignon Blanc that was skin-fermented for 30 days. The wine takes a different look at Sauvignon Blanc and is a different flavor profile than typically in Napa. It is new, different and a change to what we know, but it references winemaking styles in old world, in places like Northern Italy and Slovenia. As Ray Isle said, “You may like the wine, you may not like it, but it makes you think.”

We finished the tasting with the Warre’s Vintage Port 1980. Although the wine was tasted last, it made its mark on history many centuries ago. Portugal has been making wine for thousands of years and began exporting it in 1174. By 1386, a treaty was signed between Portugal and England, establishing a political and commercial alliance. The most well-known producers of Port houses are of British origin. Warre’s, founded in 1670, was the first British-owned quinta in Portugal. Warre’s was also the first Port company to build a lodge in Gaia for the proper ageing of its Ports.

Our tasting was just a small sample of wines that have shifted the paradigm. For a longer list, read Ray Isle’s recent article in Food and Wine titled “40 Wines That Changed the Way We Drink.” From old wines to wines yet to come, it is fun to taste wines that have altered the world of wine as we know it.

Read the original story in the Napa Valley Register.

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