Wine

What Does the World’s Best Wine Taste Like?

7 ways to differentiate between an excellent wine and one that’s truly exceptional

Mark Oldman
Photos courtesy of Mark Oldman.

The raison d’être of any wine professional is to analyze wine, to discern the pallid from the palatable, and the merely good from the memorable—and be able to articulate the difference. On rare occasions, however, the fortunate among us encounter something even greater, a wine so thrilling that it has the ability to mesmerize. You never know when such wines will come along, but they tend to appear under special circumstances, such as when a winemaker or collector shares a beloved bottle from some cobwebbed stash. The wine itself tends to be one that has an established record for greatness and longevity, and it’s almost always a venerable classic rather than a trendy fascination. We are talking Pétrus, not pét-nat.

Such an opportunity presented itself to me some years ago when a wine collector offered me the fantasy wine equivalent of a supermarket shopping spree: Choose any three wines from his prodigious cellar and we would open them at dinner. Feeling unworthy, and a bit afraid to make the wrong choice, I refused. But when he insisted, I begged for a night to do some NASA-level research on his collection. Sweaty hours were spent cross-checking hundreds of his bottles against the wines-of-a-lifetime lists of experts who regularly dip their noses in the world’s best.

I ended up choosing three red Burgundies: 1949 Comte Georges de Vogüé Musigny, which sadly turned out to be spoiled from cork taint; 1959 La Tâche, which was pleasant but faded in flavor; and 1962 La Tâche, which was, and still is, the best wine to ever pass my lips.

La Tâche is one of the great wines of Burgundy’s most exalted producer, Domaine de la Romanée-Conti (DRC); 1962 is considered a legendary, long-lived vintage. The two together make this wine more rare and expensive than a black opal—north of $15,000 a bottle if you can somehow find it. So I resigned myself to the belief that this was to be a singular encounter with liquid sublimity, fondly remembered but ultimately lost to the mists of time.

To be sure, since then several wines have come close to the 1962 La Tâche’s majesty, if not quite grazing its apogee. One of the perks of being a wine expert is that collectors like to share their best juice with you. At the risk of vinous name-dropping, I will offer that the memory of wines such as 1996 Domaine Leflaive Montrachet, 1959 Henri Jayer Richebourg, and 1937 Château d’Yquem still bristle the neck hair and leave me with a sense of gustatory wonder. But 1962 La Tâche, for reasons I describe below, shimmered above them all, fulfilling every criterion of what I believe constitutes an apex wine.

Then, this past Fourth of July, the unimaginable happened. The collector from that memorable night years ago brought together his family and me and quietly revealed, among other treasures, another bottle of 1962 La Tâche, this one randily sized in the form of a 3-liter jeroboam. It was like seeing a ghost: I never thought we would meet again. Who gets a second chance at tasting the wine of their life?

But could this 1962 La Tâche possibly live up to the first? Double-checking its provenance and appearance, we were confident that it was not a fake, despite the fact that La Tâche is irresistible to counterfeiters. In fact, a few years ago I wrote about the frustration of having experienced a suspect bottle of La Tâche from this very vintage. 

Authentic it was, but that was still no guarantee that it had survived six decades of waiting to be uncorked. Improper storage or the mere passage of time could have pushed this juice well past its prime. Promise, however, lay in its oversized bottle, which wine lovers know ages wine more slowly because of its lower air-to-liquid ratio.

And Sweet Mother of Dionysus: We were not disappointed. The wine was spectacular, every bit as transcendent as the original bottle of years ago.

“What we have here is no less than the best wine the world,” I declared to the table with the swagger of a card shark sweeping in his winnings. But one of the collector’s younger family members, a wine novice, was not buying it.

“But why?” she asked, “What exactly makes it the best?

A fair question, I thought, and one that prompted me, this time, to dissect the wine, to go deep into what separates an epic wine from one that is merely excellent. Over the following few hours of sipping and savoring, I alighted upon these reasons.

1. Complexity

The threshold qualification, of course, is how thrilling the wine smells and tastes. Wine writers have been justifiably lampooned for their endless grocery-list descriptions, but the best wines do offer a complex melody of olfactory and gustatory sensations. These tend to occur like a shifting kaleidoscope, transmogrifying from one pattern to another. The 1962 La Tâche presented like this with whiplash insistence: Just when you thought it had shown you everything, a new sensation would emerge. First there were the Asian spice and rose petal notes characteristic of the best vintages of La Tâche, but in time that impression shaded to hints of cola and mint, then traces of earth, and finally a cassis-scented woodsmoke quality. Il fait la queue du paon, or it spreads out like a peacock’s tail, is how some French wine experts poetically describe this multifarious effect.

2. Intensity without heaviness

The wine’s specialness also manifested in its ability to have intensity of flavor without seeming heavy. Often wines with concentrated, powerful aromas and flavor—such as certain Zinfandels from California, for example—can clobber you with woozily high alcohol and an overripe taste. This wine, however, was that rarity that penetrated the senses while also demonstrating delicacy and nuance.

3. Seductive mouthfeel

On the subject of texture, the ’62 La Tâche seduces the mouth with a silken feel, leaving behind the most amazing talcum-like trail on the tongue and inner cheeks. At the same time, it positively buzzed with an energy and tongue-tingling vibrancy that you would not expect of a wine so mature.

4. Balance

If the wine’s texture achieved a kind of a balance, the same could be said for everything about the wine: Everything seemed in equilibrium.  No one factor—fruit, acidity, tannins—stuck out obtrusively.

5. Uncommon length

Then there’s the wine’s finish, which ideally runs long and memorably pleasurable. At our dinner, the taste of the ’62 La Tâche lingered on the palate, with its ethereal character, for over a minute after swallowing it. Even the emptied glass was a fount of scent, its residue redolent of burnt sugar and crème brûlée.

6. Endurance

The wine’s staying power also showed in how its aromas and flavors remained expressive as the night progressed. Whereas wines of considerable age sometimes give up the ghost after just a few minutes, our La Tâche stayed miraculously vibrant for hours.

7. Resonance

The final mark of a peak wine, and one readily achieved by the ’62 La Tâche, is that it will tug at you the next day, its remarkableness haunting your thoughts and making you ask if such transcendence actually occurred. It reminds me of a scene in the erotic thriller Unfaithful, where we see Diane Lane’s character lost in reverie after she leaves her lover’s apartment, her face recalling the illicit tryst with a mixture of longing, guilt, and greed.

Mark Oldman is a wine expert, a renowned speaker, and an award-winning author. His latest book is How to Drink Like a Billionaire (Regan Arts).

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