Well, there are wines you dream about, and then there are wines you can only dream about. Rarity plays an important role in the pricing of the most expensive wines. They are usually great, but what truly distinguishes these bottles is the fact that there are more people chasing them than there are bottles. It's simple supply and demand.
So, what's an average wine drinker to do? Be happy with what we have. There is no telling how any one bottle of wine might perform on any particular night, and when you pony up for some expensive bottles you bring major expectations along for the ride. The more I drink, the more I realize that my best experiences are almost exclusively when bottles over-perform. If I just dropped major coin on a bottle, it better be perfect. Yet it so rarely is. So, without further ado... rare bottles a.k.a. notorious underperformers!
Penfolds Grange Hermitage
Perhaps Australia’s most iconic wine, and certainly the wine that focused attention on the potential of Australia’s vineyards. While the production figures from recent vintages of Grange are not released, Penfolds has disclosed that only 1,800 bottles of the first vintage were produced. That wine, the 1951 Grange Hermitage, was actually produced as an experimental lot, and the few remaining bottles fetch a pretty penny. A bottle sold in 2008 for over $50,000!
Egon Müller Scharzhofberger Eiswein
Eiswein, true Eiswein, is rare to begin with. First of all, the conditions must be right to allow grapes to remain on the vine until the freezing nights of winter arrive. Then winemakers need to harvest in frigid conditions, all to produce a wine that yields a mere fraction of what the grapes might otherwise yield. (Eiswein is produced from frozen grapes and the ice that remains in the grapes removes a significant portion of the water from the juice, concentrating the remaining components.)
Egon Müller is one of the super-stars of German wine and his Eiswein is the holy grail of Eisweins. I have no idea what the production figures for these wines are, though I do know they are made rarely, perhaps twice a decade or so on average, and they cost an arm and a leg -- about $1,000 per half-bottle.
It’s common to equate rarity with high prices, and in this case that is true. Petrus, the famous Bordeaux, has often been called Bordeaux’s rarest wine. The truth is that Petrus, with a production of 4,000 cases a year, dwarfs tiny Chateau Le Pin.
With barely more than a hectare, Le Pin only produces some 500-700 cases of wine a year, all of it 100% Merlot. With production figures that small it’s easy to understand how prices for Le Pin have spiraled out of control over the years. A decent vintage might set you back about a grand but, if you’re looking for one of the recent vintages of the century, count on spending upwards of $2,500 a bottle.
La Romanee Grand Cru Domaine du Comte Liger-Belair
Burgundy is packed full of tiny production wines. Due to inheritance laws, it’s not unusual for a person to have a row of vines in one appellation and another few rows somewhere else. While there is plenty of competition, I think honors here should go to the Domaine du Comte Liger-Belair La Romanee Grand Cru.
La Romanee is the smallest appellation in France, which at .85 hectares, or just over 2 acres, covers less than half the area of the second smallest (La Romanee Conti, which clocks in at 1.81 hectares or just under 4.5 acres). This is enough land to produce about 4,000 bottles of wine each year and, since the vineyard is a monopole, owned entirely by a single person, there is only one way to get it -- pony up the presidents for a bottle of Domaine du Comte Liger-Belair La Romanee. You’ll need about 10 of those presidents, and you’ll have to make them Franklins.
Krug Clos d’Ambonnay
Champagne is not known as a source of rare wine. Expensive, yes; rare, not so much. With the market for rare wine sizzling in the 1990s, more and more grape farmers who used to sell their fruit to the big house set up shop, giving rise to the grower producer movement that has begun to transform Champagne.
Not to be outdone, the Champagne house Krug decided to pursue a super cuvee that made everyone stand up and take notice of the fact that the big house could still bring game. And thus was born the Clos d’Ambonnay, a Blanc de Noir produced from the fruit of a tiny walled-in (Clos) vineyard. Rare as hen’s teeth, with a couple of hundred cases produced in each vintage, you’ll have to spend at least $2,000 to party like the rich and famous with this Clos!
Groppello di Revò El Zeremia
Italy is home to so many rare wines there could be a whole book written about them. In many cases, these wines are rare because only one producer is making wines from this particular clone or variety of grape. Gropelo di Revo is one of these types of grapes.
While once the Italian province of Trentino had a relatively significant planting of Gropelo in Val di Non, the damming of a river and subsequent creation of the Lago di S. Giustina submerged virtually all the vineyards. A few old vines remained at the water’s edge and from these Augusto Zadra (aka “el Zeremia”) revived the appellation, expanding cultivation to produce a scant 4,000-4,500 bottles each year! This rarity is a true rarity, since it’ll only set you back about $25 a bottle!
Cappellano Pie Franco
Almost all Barolo is limited production, but some are more limited than others. The late Teobaldo Cappellano’s Pie Franco bottling gets top honors though because not only is it made in very limited quantities, but it’s also made from vines grown on their own root stock – which is virtually unheard of in Barolo, or almost anywhere for that matter.
A little root louse, known as Phylloxera, has made sure of that. The louse slowly kills Vitis Vinifera vines on their own root stock, reducing yields, and making life in general difficult for both the vines and the producers. Cappellano’s vines that produce the Pie Franco wine are no exception. They are slowly being starved by the root louse, making the existing vintages of Barolo Pie Franco part of a very limited run. Bottles of this rarity can be had for about $125 a bottle.
1959 Antonio Ferrari Solaria Jonica
Puglia was subjected to an unrelenting, record-breaking heat wave in 1959. A wine producer from the north, Piedmont specifically, who had fallen in love with Puglia had the inspiration to take the raised grapes from this vintage trucked up to his winery, where he envisioned producing a monster of a wine with some 20% alcohol.
Well, the yeasts he was using at the time had other plans, and what he ended up with was a very sweet, 14% alcohol dessert wine that obviously needed some time in the cellar. Antonio Ferrari then began ageing the wine, first in wood for 10 years before transferring the refining wine into concrete, where it sat for 35 years. Only after his passing was this unique wine released by his daughter. Produced only once, this truly rare wine fetches a very reasonable $150 per half-liter bottle.
In 1986, a former real estate agent named Jean Phillips purchased a 57-acre vineyard. Among the mix of grapes included in this vineyard was a single acre of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. A wine was produced using this small plot and it met with almost instantaneous fame. The fact that the original vineyard limited production to some 400 to 600 cases a year ensured that supply could never meet demand. Accolades, huge scores, and not enough wine pushed the price of Screagle, as it is sometime referred to, out of the reach of mere mortals. A bottle of a middling vintage of Screagle might be had for about $1,500, but for one of the better vintages expect to pay closer to $3,000!
Spain has undergone a bit of a vinous revolution over the past two decades. A new breed of winemaker has emerged, scouring the countryside in search of ancient vines producing tiny quantities of exceptional fruit. Peter Sisseck’s Dominio de Pingus is one such winery, and the results are some rare wines.
The ancient Tempranillo vineyards that Peter discovered in Spain’s Ribera del Duero region total some 10 acres, but due to their age the vines produce ridiculously little wine. In fact, a good vintage of Pingus may see some 500 cases of wine produced from these 10 acres. But if you want the really, really rare Pingus, search out the single-barrel cuvee called “Amelia”. A single barrel produces 25 cases of wine. The regular Pingus sells for about $500 a bottle and up, while the Amelia fetches just over half that, proving once again that rarity and expense do not always travel hand in hand.
To view the photos for this article, go to Rare Wines.