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Over the years, I have had the opportunity to taste some really superb wines, as well as a few that fell somewhat short of what their reputation promised. When it comes to the world of fine wine, there are certainly key factors, not only in the sense of collectors’ value but also in the way the wine is made and the tasting experience.
Fine wine is a wine that is produced from the best quality grapes using a method to create a wine that is suitable for bottle maturation. Fine wines improve with age and increase in value, hence having an active secondary market. Fine wines have the reputation of being consistently top quality.
Let’s delve deeper into the world of fine wines and learn what it takes to be a fine wine, not only in France, where the term was first used in 1885 but also in new world wines wanting to enter the fine wine market.
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What Does Fine Wine Mean?
Fine wine is the term given to wine of exceptional quality. It is always a wine that improves with age. As a result, fine wine identifies itself as having a resale value in an active secondary market.
Fine wines have brand recognition due to the heritage of coming from estates that have a reputation for producing high-quality wines over a long period of time, often centuries.
Fine wines are defined by rarity, which is usually reflected in the price. This rarity and price increases over time as fewer and fewer bottles of the same vintage are available on the market.
Fine wine is seen as a collectible wine, while table wines are those intended for consumption relatively soon after they have been bought.
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What Are The Classes Of Fine Wines?
Fine wines have various classification systems intended to help us see which wines are superior. These classification systems have their origin in France. The two main classification systems are the Bordeaux system which ranks wine according to the producer and awards the individual Chateaux.
The other main system is the Burgundy system, where attention is given to the wine’s area of origin and cultivar to identify a specific vineyard for a particular wine.
The Bordeaux system is a closed system that only classifies the 88 chateaux (62 red & 26 white) that make up the 300,000 hectares of the Bordeaux wine-producing region. The Burgundy system is a more open system that can be replicated across other wine-producing regions and countries.
Although fine wine is associated with the old-world wine regions of France and Italy, the Burgundy system has allowed fine wines to be identified and classified across Europe as well as the new-world wine regions of California, Argentina, Chile, South Africa, and Australia.
All of the classification systems of French wine are controlled by the Institut national de l’origine et de la qualité (INAO), which regulates all of the regional AOC laws that control the entire process from vine to bottle. The classifications explained below are extracted from the AOC laws as supplied by the INAO.
The Bordeaux classifications date back to the Medoc Classification of 1855 when, under orders of Napoleon III, wines were to be classified and ranked for the Exposition Universelle de Paris of 1855, which was an exhibition to showcase the best of everything France had to offer.
The task was given to the wine merchants of Bordeaux, who ranked the different chateaux of Bordeaux according to the prices they were able to sell the wines at in the preceding years.
Being the wine merchants of Bordeaux, and astute businessmen, only the chateaux of the Bordeaux were ranked, excluding all the other wine-producing regions of France.
The chateaux were ranked into 5 classifications of fine wine for reds and 3 classifications for whites. The ranking list of chateaux has remained unchanged for nearly 200 years, with one exception.
In 1973 Chateaux Mouton Rothschild was promoted to the highest class thanks to the power wielded by the grand Chateaux of Bordeaux, who had a considerable vested interest to command premium prices based on their name alone.
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The Bordeaux Blends: The wines of Bordeaux have always been produced as blends of cultivars with reds made from Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and some smaller cultivars that make up less than 10% of the blend. The whites of Bordeaux are essentially blended from Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon, though some other cultivars are permitted in small quantities.
Here are the 88 ranked fine wine chateaux in their respective classes. First, the 5 classes of red wines. The official website for the wines of Bordeaux is responsible for maintaining the ranking list of Bordeaux fine wines.
Premiers Crus (First Growths) – 5 Chateaux
- Château Haut-Brion, Pessac, AOC Pessac-Léognan
- Château Lafite-Rothschild, Pauillac, AOC Pauillac
- Château Latour, Pauillac, AOC Pauillac
- Château Margaux, Margaux, AOC Margaux
- Château Mouton Rothschild, Pauillac, AOC Pauillac
Deuxiemes Crus (Second Growths) – 14 Chateaux
- Château Brane-Cantenac, Cantenac, AOC Margaux
- Château Cos-d’Estournel, Saint-Estèphe, AOC Saint-Estèphe
- Château Ducru-Beaucaillou, Saint-Julien-Beychevelle, AOC Saint-Julien
- Château Durfort-Vivens, Margaux, AOC Margaux
- Château Gruaud-Larose, Saint-Julien-Beychevelle, AOC Saint-Julien
- Château Lascombes, Margaux, AOC Margaux
- Château Léoville-Barton, Saint-Julien-Beychevelle, AOC Saint-Julien
- Château Léoville-Las-Cases, Saint-Julien-Beychevelle, AOC Saint-Julien
- Château Léoville-Poyferré, Saint-Julien-Beychevelle, AOC Saint-Julien
- Château Montrose, Saint-Estèphe, AOC Saint-Estèphe
- Château Pichon-Longueville-Baron-de-Pichon, Pauillac, AOC Pauillac
- Château Pichon-Longueville-Comtesse-de-Lalande, Pauillac, AOC Pauillac
- Château Rauzan-Ségla, Margaux, AOC Margaux
- Château Rauzan-Gassies, Margaux, AOC Margaux
Troisiemes Crus (Third Growths) – 15 Chateaux
- Château Boyd-Cantenac, Cantenac, AOC Margaux
- Château Calon-Ségur, Saint-Estèphe, AOC Saint-Estèphe
- Château Cantenac-Brown, Cantenac, AOC Margaux
- Château Desmirail, Margaux, AOC Margaux
- Château Ferrière, Margaux, AOC Margaux
- Château Giscours, Labarde, AOC Margaux
- Château d’Issan, Cantenac, AOC Margaux
- Château Kirwan, Cantenac, AOC Margaux
- Château Lagrange, Saint-Julien-Beychevelle, AOC Saint-Julien
- Château La Lagune, Ludon, AOC Haut-Médoc
- Château Langoa-Barton, Saint-Julien-Beychevelle, AOC Saint-Julien
- Château Malescot-Saint-Exupéry, Margaux, AOC Margaux
- Château Marquis-d’Alesme, Margaux, AOC Margaux
- Château Palmer, Cantenac, AOC Margaux
Quatriemes Crus (Fourtf Growths) – 10 Chateaux
- Château Beychevelle, Saint-Julien-Beychevelle, AOC Saint-Julien
- Château Branaire-Ducru, Saint-Julien-Beychevelle, AOC Saint-Julien
- Château Duhart-Milon, Pauillac, AOC Pauillac
- Château Lafon-Rochet, Saint-Estèphe, AOC Saint-Estèphe
- Château Marquis-de-Terme, Margaux, AOC Margaux
- Château Pouget, Cantenac, AOC Margaux
- Château Prieuré-Lichine, Cantenac, AOC Margaux
- Château Saint-Pierre, Saint-Julien-Beychevelle, AOC Saint-Julien
- Château Talbot, Saint-Julien-Beychevelle, AOC Saint-Julien
- Château La Tour-Carnet, Saint-Laurent-de-Médoc, AOC Haut-Médoc
Cinquiemes Crus (Fifth Growths) – 18 Chateaux
- Château d’Armailhac, Pauillac, AOC Pauillac
- Château Batailley, Pauillac, AOC Pauillac
- Château Belgrave, Saint-Laurent-de-Médoc, AOC Haut-Médoc
- Château Camensac, Saint-Laurent-de-Médoc, AOC Haut-Médoc
- Château Cantemerle, Macau, AOC Haut-Médoc
- Château Clerc-Milon, Pauillac, AOC Pauillac
- Château Cos-Labory, Saint-Estèphe, AOC Saint-Estèphe
- Château Croizet-Bages, Pauillac, AOC Pauillac
- Château Dauzac, Labarde, AOC Margaux
- Château Grand-Puy-Ducasse, Pauillac, AOC Pauillac
- Château Grand-Puy-Lacoste, Pauillac, AOC Pauillac
- Château Haut-Bages-Libéral, Pauillac, AOC Pauillac
- Château Haut-Batailley, Pauillac, AOC Pauillac
- Château Lynch-Bages, Pauillac, AOC Pauillac
- Château Lynch-Moussas, Pauillac, AOC Pauillac
- Château Pédesclaux, Pauillac, AOC Pauillac
- Château Pontet-Canet, Pauillac, AOC Pauillac
- Château du Tertre, Arsac, AOC Margaux
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Moving on to white wines, here are the 26 chateaux ranked into their 3 classifications.
Premier Cru Superieur (Superior First Growth) – 1 Chateaux
- Château d’Yquem, Sauternes, AOC Sauternes
Premiers Crus (First Growths) – 11 Chateaux
- Château Climens, Barsac, AOC Barsac
- Clos Haut-Peyraguey, Bommes, AOC Sauternes
- Château Coutet, Barsac, AOC Barsac
- Château Guiraud, Sauternes, AOC Sauternes
- Château Lafaurie-Peyraguey, Bommes, AOC Sauternes
- Château Rabaud-Promis, Bommes, AOC Sauternes
- Château Rayne-Vigneau, Bommes, AOC Sauternes
- Château Rieussec, Fargues-de-Langon, AOC Sauternes
- Château Sigalas-Rabaud, Bommes, AOC Sauternes
- Château Suduiraut, Preignac, AOC Sauternes
- Château La Tour-Blanche, Bommes, AOC Sauternes
Deuxiemes Crus (Second Growths) – 14 Chateaux
- Château d’Arche, Sauternes, AOC Sauternes
- Château Broustet, Barsac, AOC Barsac
- Château Caillou, Barsac, AOC Barsac
- Château Doisy-Daëne, Barsac, AOC Barsac
- Château Doisy-Dubroca, Barsac, AOC Barsac
- Château Doisy-Védrines, Barsac, AOC Barsac
- Château Filhot, Sauternes, AOC Sauternes
- Château Lamothe (Despujols), Sauternes, AOC Sauternes
- Château Lamothe-Guignard, Sauternes, AOC Sauternes
- Château de Malle, Preignac, AOC Sauternes
- Château de Myrat, Barsac, AOC Barsac
- Château Nairac, Barsac, AOC Barsac
- Château Romer-du-Hayot, Fargues-de-Langon, AOC Sauternes
- Château Romer, Fargues-de-Langon, AOC Sauternes
- Château Suau, Barsac, AOC Barsac
When you next visit a fine wine merchant, you will notice how the Premier Crus wines enjoy premium prices over the other chateaux by way of their legacy brand. This does not necessarily mean that these wines are always of a higher quality. There have been many vintages where lower-ranked chateaux have produced higher-quality wine than Château Margaux.
AOC Crus Artisans du Médoc
Before we go further, we need to define the abbreviation of AOC. The AOC stands for the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée. It refers to the standards that have been set for all wines made in France.
In the Médoc (Bordeaux) region, the term “Crus Artisans” has already existed officially for more than 150 years. It referred to the small wineries that often belonged to craftsmen, such as coopers and blacksmiths.
These were people who earned their living by being craftsmen, but their passion lay in the winemaking that they did from small vineyards.
Things changed in 1989 when the Syndicat des Crus artisans du Médoc was founded. They are an association of autonomous, small- and medium-sized wine estates.
The key to becoming a member is that the manager needs to be actively involved in the operations of his/her vineyard and produce and bottle AOC-compliant wines.
The full production run of wine must be bottled at the chateau (often with the help of freelance mobile bottling plants) and sold on the open wine market.
In 1994 the designation of “Cru Artisan” was approved and could be mentioned on the main label of wines produced on small Bordeaux properties and met the quality/value standards to be fine wines.
The Burgundy classification system is focused on the wine’s area of origin, at times down to the specific vineyard. Thanks to the Napoleonic inheritance laws, ownership of vineyards became sub-divided over the generations, where some growers only own one or two rows of vines within a vineyard.
Growers can produce their wine themselves in small family wineries or make use of négociants who then aggregate the produce of several growers from that vineyard to produce a single wine.
The Burgundy system is divided into four categories, with the top two tiers categorized as fine wines. That is not to say that the third or fourth tiers don’t produce superb wines because they do. Those vineyards just haven’t yet earned the track record of the top two. These are the four main categories.
Grand Cru status is awarded to the specific vineyards that produce the absolute highest quality grapes within the entire region as defined by strict AOC laws and account for only 2% of the wine production in Burgundy.
These vineyards also have lower yields at 35hl/ha, probably as a result of the vines being so much older. Grand Crux wines are always produced using grapes from a single vineyard of Grand Cru status.
Most Grand Cru wines are produced using a style that is meant for cellaring for at least 5 to 7 years before they start coming into their full flavor profile. Most vintages of Corton, for example, reach their peak at 15 years or longer.
Wine labels will carry the name of the vineyard and the words Grand Cru but not the name of the village where the vineyard is located. The producer/cellar’s name also appears at the bottom of the label in small print.
There is no single producer of all the wine from a Grand Cru vineyard because ownership of the vines is split between different growers, and each grower can choose who will produce their wine.
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These are wines produced still from specific vineyards. These vineyards are still high quality but slightly below the standard of Grand Cru vineyards.
Sometimes it is the soil composition that makes the difference, and other times it is that the vines are a bit younger and produce a higher yield at 45hl/ha. Many more vineyards fall into the Premier Cru category and represent 12% of total wine production in Burgundy.
The majority of Premier Cru wines should be aged between 3 and 5 years so that their flavors can be fully developed.
Premier Cru wines also have different labeling regulations from Grand Cru wines. The labels of Premier Cru wines will show the name of the village of origin, that the wine has Premier Cru status, and most of the time, it will show the vineyard name too.
One thing that sets Premier Cru wines apart is that winemakers are permitted to make wine using the grapes from several Premier Cru vineyards together as long as they fall under the same village of origin. In these instances, the label may not carry the name of an individual vineyard.
These wines are either produced from a blend of wines from different vineyard sites within the boundaries of one of 42 villages in Burgundy or from a single vineyard that is still unclassified.
What sets these vineyards apart is that they are either still completely unclassified or have not yet reached the level of Premier Cru vineyards.
Different villages across Burgundy have different microclimates, and as such, the wines from each village will have qualities and characteristics that set them apart when compared to other villages.
It must be noted that not all the villages in Burgundy have registered a village appellation with the AOC. Village wines represent 36% of the total production in Burgundy at a yield of 50 hl/ha.
Village wines are made in a way that requires less cellaring and can be consumed 2 to 4 years after their release date, although again, some examples will keep for longer.
The labeling requirements for village wines state that they show the village name on the wine label, and if the wine has come from a single vineyard, the name of that vineyard is shown as well.
In addition, there are several villages in Burgundy that have registered a regional appellation and have added the names of the Grand Cru vineyards within their municipality to the original village name.
So, for example, you can get an Aloxe-Corton labeled wine as a village appellation wine though it will still have its Grand Cru fine wine status as it came from the Corton vineyard.
As I mentioned earlier, not all villages across Burgundy have registered a village appellation with the AOC. The vineyards from these unregistered municipalities as well as those that fall outside municipal boundaries, may make use of the regional appellation for their wines.
In addition, at the Grand Cru, Premier Cru, and Village levels, only red and white wines are classified, and more importantly, wines that are dominated by Pinot Noir for red and Chardonnay for white.
Wines not dominated by those 2 cultivars as well as sparkling wine and rosé, cannot be labeled under a village appellation, but must rather use the regional appellation on their labels.
Regional wines are either labelled AOC Bourgogne or sous-régional. The former is an appellation for red or white wines made anywhere throughout the region, though still dominated by Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
These wines usually come from younger, higher-yielding vineyards and may be produced at 55 hl/ha. The figure of 55 hl/ha is important because it is the maximum vineyard yield permitted in France as per the INAO in Paris. Regional wines are intended for immediate consumption and often start deteriorating beyond 3 years after the vintage date.
In some areas, some small municipalities will join together and register a sous-régional or sub-regional appellation to cover a section of Burgundy of adjoining villages.
Those are municipalities that do not have a village appellation but can club together into a sub-regional appellation. Think of this as something between AOC Bourgogne and the village level.
When it comes to wines made from other cultivars, they are allowed to be labeled as “Bourgogne” followed by the cultivar name within the AOC Bourgogne category. So, by way of example, if I were to grow a vineyard of Merlot in Burgundy, I would be permitted to label my wind as Bourgogne Merlot.
What Is Considered Fine Wine?
We have just looked at the process of what is considered fine wine in France. Either it is one of the 88 chateaux selected by a group of Bordeaux wine merchants in 1855 and remained largely unchanged.
Or, in the case of Burgundy, the wine comes from one of a select few vineyards that consistently produce the best quality grapes.
However, what should you look for if you have the opportunity to taste a fine wine from France or anywhere else?
Outside of the fine wine criteria of rarity, resale value, and the ability to age well in the bottle over decades, there are tasting parameters that are generally used to identify a fine wine from the new world. Let’s examine each of those now so that you will be able to recognize a fine wine when it crosses your palate.
The Balance Of A Fine Wine
A fine wine must be, at the very least, equal to a sum of its parts but, ideally, be greater than a sum of its parts. When you taste the wine, no one component should dominate the taste.
For example, a bottle of wine should not be too acidic, fruity, alcoholic, or tannic. If a wine tastes too alcoholic, it is probably because that wine is served too warm and needs to be chilled more (These 19 Wines Should Be Served Cold & Here’s Why).
If you are tasting a wine that is still very young, it is likely that the tannins will be strong, though this will mellow as the wine ages in the bottle.
In spite of this, fine wines still strike a balance of being greater than the sum of their parts, even in youth. Due to the tannin effect, it is easier to pick up the balance and potential of a young fine wine on the nose rather than on the palate.
I learned this firsthand during the times I spent at the Meerlust Wine Estate (closed to the public). The estate’s flagship wine Rubicon is a Bordeaux blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot.
I got to taste each of the component wines as young wines prior to blending, immediately after blending, as well as 2, 4, 6, and 8 years into maturation. After blending, I could still pick up the elements of the component wines on the nose, but not at the same time.
Each rose to the surface separately, with every passing under my nose. When I tasted the wine at different maturation dates, I could taste how the tannins dissipated, and what I originally picked up on the nose was now present on the palate.
The Length Of A Fine Wine
Your experience of the wine on your palate shouldn’t be fleeting but should rather linger in a positive way even after the sip has been swallowed.
This is what happened when I tasted the mature Rubicon that I mentioned above. After I had swallowed the wine, the taste remaining in my mouth was still exposing new layers in the flavor like the young wine had given me on the nose.
The Complexity Of A Fine Wine
The complexity of a wine refers to all the facets that it has on the nose and palate. The wine shouldn’t be straightforward but should rather be changing and keep you fascinated enough to try and detect all the different aromas and flavors.
I can still remember the first Riesling that I ever tasted. It was also the first wine I ever tasted with a scorecard. It was an inexpensive wine.
On the nose, I was hit by a strong aroma of dry grass that was the same on the palate. When that dissipated, there were none of the tree fruit notes that are supposed to come through on a good Riesling. That was an example of a wine that lacked complexity.
Rubicon was the opposite end of the tasting experience for me. After 20 minutes of tasting the same wine, I could still pick up new layers.
The Typicity Of A Fine Wine
The wine must be typical of what you expect from that wine in that region. On top of that, the additional layers of complexity are layered.
For instance, the taste of a Burgundy Pinot Noir should be typical of other Pinot Noir wines from Burgundy as opposed to the Pinot Noir wines from Oregon in the USA.
Likewise, I have been able to detect how Tempranillo from the Rioja region of Spain is distinct from the Tempranillo in Andalucia.
Examples Of Fine Wine
Now that you have a clear understanding of how the original French fine wines were categorized and ranked, you are no doubt wondering about the existence of fine wine outside of France.
The good news is that fine wines do exist outside France. Here is a curated list of examples of 9 fine wines from the rest of Europe and around the world.
Fine Wine From Italy
Brunello di Montalcino ‘Cerretalto’ Casanova di Neri
Fine Wine From Germany
Karl Erbes – Riesling Trockenbeerenauslese
Fine Wine From Spain
Muga, Prado Enea
Grapes: Tempranillo, Grenache, Mazuelo (Carignan) and Graciano.
The family does not produce Prado Enea in the years when they believe the grapes are high enough quality. It is perhaps the best-value fine wine produced anywhere in the world.
Fine Wine From Portugal
Dona Maria Wines, Júlio B. Bastos Alicante Bouschet,,Borba, Alentejo
Grapes: Alicante Bouschet / Garnacha Tintorera
Fine Wine From The USA
Schrader Cellars GIII Cabernet Sauvignon
Grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon
Region: Napa Valley, California
Fine Wine From Argentina
Colomé Altura Maxima Malbec
Region: Salta, Northern Argentina
The vineyards for this wine are grown at an altitude of 10,200ft (3,111m).
Fine Wine From Chile
Concha y Toro, Carmín de Peumo
Region: Rapel Valley, Central Chile
Fine Wine From South Africa
Grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot
Region: Stellenbosch, Western Cape
I have tasted fine wines from a number of South African wine estates, including Boschendal (Established 1685), but none are as good as Rubicon. The eighth generation owner Hannes Myburgh apprenticed at Château Lafite.
Fine Wine From Australia
Grapes: Shiraz/Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon
Region: South Australia
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What is the Difference Between Wine and Fine Wine?
Before getting into the difference between wine and fine wine, I need to add a small preamble. There are bad wines, OK wines, good wines, and superb wines. How you would rank any wine on that scale will be different from how I rank a wine.
If you really enjoy white wines, you will rate a Sauvignon Blank or Colombard higher than I would. Conversely, I will rank a Merlot, Shiraz, or Cabernet higher than you. The difference between good wines and superb wines is a personal opinion.
What sets fine wines apart from even superb wines is that they age better in the bottle over long periods of a decade or more. Fine wines are collectibles that have an active resale market. Fine wines increase in value over time as that specific vintage becomes rarer.
Does Fine Wine Get Better With Age?
Fine wines do get better with age. Some reach their peak after 8 years of bottle maturation, while others continue improving until they are 15 years old.
All wines will eventually reach their peak in the bottle, after which the flavors slowly start to degrade.
Even if a fine wine has passed the peak of its flavors, it can still become more valuable as a collector’s item as there will be progressively fewer bottles of that vintage available, hence increasing the rarity.
So to conclude, most fine wines are made to be bottle matured for a long time in the cellar of a wine collector, increasing in value as an asset to the point where they get resold on the active secondary wine market and through auction houses.
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