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What Even Is “Fine Wine” Anymore?

October 12, 2023

Story: Zachary Sussman

photo: Punch


What Even Is “Fine Wine” Anymore?

October 12, 2023

Story: Zachary Sussman

photo: Punch

The spectrum of luxury wines has gotten wider—and weirder—in recent years. Here are five bottles that represent what's coveted right now.

Not long ago, if you were looking to drop a hundred bucks or more on a bottle of wine, you could be fairly certain what to expect. Burgundy, Bordeaux or Napa? Or perhaps a nice bottle of Champagne from a storied house? These are the wines that, for decades—and, in the case of three, for more than a century—have been synonymous with luxury.

Today, you’d better brace yourself. Carbonically macerated poulsard. Single-vineyard Coteaux Champenois. Unfortified Jerez field blends aged under a savory veil of flor. Even 15 years ago, such oddities never registered on the “fine wine” radar. And yet, these are just a few of the regions and styles that have wrestled their way out of obscurity and into the most coveted corners of the zeitgeist.

According to Jon Bonné, managing editor of Resy and author of the recently released The New French Wine, this realignment has brought us to a critical inflection point. Collectability used to be this very narrow channel within wine that was made up of a small handful of high-profile regions and producers,” he says. “Now we’re living in a world in which the old hierarchies have been overturned.” 

To be clear, he’s not arguing that grand cru Burgundy and first-growth Bordeaux no longer qualify as great. It’s rather that the classics no longer claim a strict monopoly on greatness. Over the last two decades, this has created an opening for a new raft of equally sought-after wines that speak to the values and taste of right now. 

If the meaning of luxury has evolved, it has also become more difficult to pin down. Unlike the blue-chip benchmarks of old, which tended to follow a familiar commercial recipe (“check out that new French oak!”), today’s most coveted bottles resist being reduced to any single style. What they share is a common ethos. Willfully embracing variability and idiosyncrasy as prerequisites for greatness, they aspire to capture that elusive sense, as author and Noble Rot magazine editor Dan Keeling puts it, that “this wine couldn’t come from any other place.” 

It’s no accident that so many defining features of the new luxury materialized alongside the wider mainstreaming of natural wine. We tend to associate the movement with the rise of our new casual era of wine consumption, citing the ascension of pét-nat and chillable reds as proof of wine’s great 21st-century democratization. But just ask any buyer who ever tried to secure an extra allocation of Gut Oggau: Natural wine can do bougie too. 

No longer relegated to the sidelines, the scene has quickly formed its own canon of classics that Pinch Chinese beverage director Miguel de Leon has dubbed “blue-chip natty.” More often than not, its members consist of minimalist pioneers (see: Clos Rougeard, Pierre Overnoy, L’Anglore’s Eric Pfifferling) whose wines circulated for years as secret handshakes before exploding to viral acclaim. Now highly allocated rarities (a problem for another article), they’ve paved the way for a far wider—and weirder—spectrum of expressions to come to the attention of wine’s new collector class. 

As a paradigm, then, the new luxury is probably most successfully unpacked at the single-bottle level. Each example listed below illustrates a different facet of what desirability looks like at this exact moment. Some reinterpret classic regions through an unexpected lens (unfortified Jerez table wine; nonsparkling Champagne); others dig deep into wine’s postmodern toolkit to tap the potential of formerly obscure corners of the globe. 

To that end, a brief caveat. By definition, all of the following wines are released in minuscule quantities, even compared to previous touchstones. (The annual production of Bordeaux’s Château Lafite Rothschild, a heralded first-growth, is between 15,000 and 20,000 cases; some of the wines included here number in the mere hundreds.) So don’t blame me if you’re unable to find these mythical creatures in the wild. Blame capitalism.

Olivier and Marie Horiot Rosé des Riceys En Valingrain

By now, the history of Champagne’s grower movement is already well-documented. Less has been written, however, about the rise of Coteaux Champenois, the area’s oft-overlooked still wines. Once little more than a historical footnote, the style has undergone a modern renaissance, offering Champagne geeks yet another lens through which to analyze the region’s complex array of subzones and terroirs. “If you’ve already taken the plunge to get into grower Champagne and become super nerdy about it, Coteaux Champenois offers this even smaller niche inside of an already niche thing,” says Femi Oyediran, of Graft Wine Shop & Wine Bar in Charleston, South Carolina. Among the style’s most gifted practitioners, Olivier Horiot is the rare grower who might be better known for his still wines than his sparklers. From his 7.5 hectares of organically farmed vines in Champagne’s southernmost commune of Les Riceys, he and his wife, Marie, not only make standout Coteaux Champenois blanc and rouge, but two single-vineyard expressions of Rosé des Riceys, the area’s robust, age-worthy pink wine. Of the pair, the warmer En Barmont lieu-dit delivers a richer, plusher experience, whereas his En Valingrain channels the transparency and clawed-from-the-earth minerality that is the hallmark of all great Champagne, with or without bubbles. [BUY]

Cota 45 UBE Carrascal

Equal parts historian and winemaker, Ramiro Ibáñez launched his Cota 45 project with the mission of reviving the pre-industrial style of table wines (or vinos de pasto) that flourished within the Sherry region before the widespread adoption of fortification in the 1970s. Whether aged under flor (like fino and manzanilla) or not, his dazzling range of site-specific palomino-based wines perform an invaluable act of historical preservation, reclaiming the identity of the region’s traditional pagos, or vineyard groups, with their rich tapestry of chalky albariza soils. “The distinctions in terroir you get when you taste these wines evoke comparisons to Burgundy and Champagne,” says Kristin Courville, lead sommelier at New York’s Bazaar. “The palomino grape’s amazing neutrality allows it to translate all of the complex nuances that exist between the different types of albariza soil.” A field blend of three palomino clones (palomino fino, palomino jerez and palomino pelusón) from a 120-year-old vineyard named Viña Las Vegas in the Sanlúcar-based Pago de Carrascal, this pungent white table wine ages for two years after harvest in used manzanilla barrels, resulting in a savory, mineral-driven ode to Jerez’s vanished past. [BUY]

Lukas Hammelmann Chardonnay Roter Berg

An international variety like chardonnay—especially chardonnay from Germany, the official holy land of die-hard riesling freaks—might initially seem out of place on a list like this. Lately, though, with the assistance of a warming climate, growers across Germany have started cranking out ethereal, delicately etched interpretations of chardonnay and pinot noir (the so-called “Burgundy varieties”) that arguably drink “more Burgundian than Burgundy,” to adopt a phrase from Stephen Bitterolf, owner of the cult importer Vom Boden. According to de Leon, this evolution tracks with an industrywide “return of interest to international varieties,” signaling the reversal of a bias long upheld as part of the progressive gospel. This stunning example from Pfalz’s up-and-coming Lukas Hammelmann shows why. Bracingly fresh and checking in at just 12 percent alcohol, it’s sourced from chardonnay vines in the village of Hochstadt that were planted in the 1980s, a time when the grape was officially outlawed in the region. “When I tasted it for the first time, I had lightbulbs going off,” de Leon recalls, comparing its “eye-opening acidity and super salty” quality to the top wines of cult Chablis producers Thomas Pico and Alice and Olivier de Moor. [BUY]

Henri Chauvet Côtes d’Auvergne Au Chant de la Huppe

The central French area of Auvergne followed a curious path to contemporary acclaim. Historically a sleepy source of serviceable gamay, the sparsely populated region is quickly earning a reputation as France’s next great hotbed for natural wine. Add the geological intrigue of volcanic terroir into the mix (a U.N. World Heritage site, the area is home to 80 extinct volcanoes), plus a cohort of free-spirited winemakers lured by the promise of cheap land, and it all amounts to an irresistible form of sommelier catnip. Joining like-minded talents such as Vincent Marie, Patrick Bouju of Domaine La Bohème, and Vincent and Marie Tricot, rising star Henri Chauvet—who only just released his second vintage—has already racked up more than his fair share of street cred. Chauvet’s time spent working with Northern Rhône legend Thierry Allemand (himself a patron saint of the new luxury) all but secured his ascent to cult status—first in the hottest natural wine spots of Paris, then globally. ​​“You start off with that kind of backstory and immediately you’re on another level,” says Rajat Parr, winemaker, sommelier and co-founder of the online wine club The Waves. Chauvet’s Chant de la Huppe, a sleek co-ferment of 60 percent gamay with equal parts pinot noir and chardonnay, provides the most compelling point of entry into his new-wave approach. With a pink peppercorn spice and a telltale whiff of Auvergne smoke, it’s also impeccably clean for a wine made with virtually zero sulfur. [BUY]

Vin Noé Pommard Rêve Américain

Don’t let the black-and-white cartoon of a cheeseburger emblazoned on the label of this $150 bottle of pommard mislead you. This isn’t some kind of postmodern prank. It’s simply a glimpse into the nonconformist brain of Vin Noé’s Jonathan Purcell, the bearded and man-bunned San Diego native who arrived in Burgundy in 2011 with an “American dream” (to quote the label) of apprenticing under natural wine icon Philippe Pacalet, among a handful of others. Steadfastly refusing to lean on Burgundy’s laurels, the minuscule quantities of wine he’s eking out under his micronégociant label both subvert and pay homage to the area’s rich, if at times hidebound, sense of tradition. “He’s taking this very raw, wild, naturally styled aesthetic and applying it to quality terroirs in Burgundy,” says Chris Leon, of Leon & Son in Brooklyn, New York, and Grand Rapids, Michigan. “If you’re into that style of wine and you want to drink Burgundy, there aren’t many other examples out there right now.” In addition to this juicy whole-cluster take on pommard, assembled from three separate parcels within the famous Côte de Beaune village, he makes an equally compelling collection of whites (from a tiny plot in Puligny-Montrachet and two different premier cru sites in Saint-Aubin), all foot-crushed, direct-pressed and, of course, bottled without fining, filtration or sulfur. [BUY]

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