I’ve never been in a financial position where I could buy lots of expensive wine but I splurge now and then. The thought that there is a great wine out there that I haven’t tasted is nagging—an irritant, of course, that I will never be able to mitigate let alone ease.
But increasingly I wonder if tasting great wines is the real aesthetic apotheosis of wine appreciation.
Don’t get me wrong—drinking great wines is enjoyable and worth doing occasionally. But what great wines seldom give you is surprise. We know how they are supposed to taste and, if stored well, they usually deliver. Magnifique!
But great wines are by definition well-known. They come from famous sites sanctified by long-standing traditions and are made in a traditional style that explains their appeal. What makes them great is that, in vintage after vintage, they maintain their identity and distinctiveness. But that means they won’t surprise you, at least not in a good way. (They can sometimes be surprisingly disappointing)
However, less expensive wines are routinely surprising. Unfamiliar regions, uncelebrated regions, and unfamiliar varietals are inherently surprising and are almost always less expensive because you’re not paying for reputation and their market position is not established.
When I think back on my wine life, of course tasting Screaming Eagle or Vega Sicilia stand out. But equally memorable is that gorgeous 25 yr. old Pinot I discovered in Lubbock Texas; the distinctive Trebbiano Spoletino found almost exclusively in Umbria, Italy; Clark Smith’s sulfite free Roman Syrah; or the scintillating Valvin Muscat I found in Kansas.
All interesting, all surprising, all delicious, and most well under $100.
The most interesting wines today are found outside the well-traveled locations where wine royalty resides, in up-and-coming regions or in the small cellars of winemakers striving to be surprising because that’s the only way they can compete.
Surprise is a worthy aesthetic experience in itself. To have one’s expectations violated in a good way gets the dopamine flowing as well as anything.
However, if someone wants to gift me a Richebourg, don’t hesitate. It won’t go to waste.