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Food & Wine:40 Wines 
That Changed 
the Way We Drink, Sorì San Lorenzo is #10

40 Most Influential Wines

Photo by Justin Walker

Some wines are good, some are bad, and some are significant. Here are 40 that made a difference. 

Ray Isle

March 06, 2018

What was the first wine? There’s no way to know, though the oldest evidence of winemaking dates back 8,000 years, to Stone Age villages in the mountains south of Tbilisi, Georgia. But whoever made that first wine, man or woman, priest or peasant, we owe them a big debt. Some wines are good, some are bad, and some—a very few, like that first one—are significant. Maybe they shatter preconceptions about the potential of a grape or region; maybe they shock us with a new flavor or set of tastes; maybe they even leave us taken aback by the fact that they’re packaged in cans. Here are 40 that made a difference.

1. Ruinart Rosé Champagne (1764)

Think rosé is a new trend? Ruinart, the first Champagne house (founded in 1729, the year after France’s King Louis XV first allowed wine to be sold in bottles), was also first off the bat with pink fizz. Referred to at the time as oeil de perdrix—eye of the partridge, a reference to its hue—it probably tasted very different from the dry, crisp NV Ruinart Brut Rosé ($89) sold now; almost all Champagnes were sweet until about 1850. Even so, it could be said to have launched one of the world’s most drawn-out trends.

2. Schloss Johannisburg Spätlese (1775)

If you think all Riesling is sweet, thank Germany’s Schloss Johannisberg estate for that. Or at least the Prince-Abbot of Fulda, whose courier arrived several weeks late in 1775 with permission to start harvesting. Once those hyper-ripe grapes were picked, sweet Riesling was born—a fine example being the peachy 2015 Schloss Johannisberg Grünlack Riesling Spätlese ($55).

3. Veuve Clicquot Champagne (1810)

Without the widow, or veuve, Clicquot, Champagne might still 
be sold with a sediment of leftover yeast in the bottle. Riddling, the crucial process Barbe-Nicole Clicquot helped develop in the early 1800s, removes that yeast efficiently. The result? Mass production of a luxury wine, such as Clicquot’s ubiquitous, toasty NV Yellow Label Brut ($49). 

4. Ricasoli Chianti Classico (1872)

Wine has been made in the Chianti region for centuries, but until 1872 no one had ever codified exactly what Chianti’s wines ought to be. After years of research, the Baron Ricasoli developed the first formal “recipe” for this classic wine: Sangiovese for its aroma and “a certain vigor in taste,” Canaiolo to soften it, and white Malvasia to make the wine “lighter and more readily suitable for daily consumption.” As of 2006, white grapes are no longer allowed in the Chianti blend, but even so, the forest-scented 2013 Barone Ricasoli Castello di Brolio Chianti Classico Gran Selezione ($65) would surely please the Baron.

5. Louis Roederer Cristal (1876)

Without the Russian Czar Alexander II, the first prestige Champagne might never have been made. His demands to the Roederer family were simple: top quality (of course), sweet (still the popular style at the time), gold label (duh), and a clear crystal bottle—hence Cristal—to make sure no bombs were hidden inside. (The czar’s fears were well-founded: Dynamite, though not in a Champagne bottle, got him in the end.) The current 2009 Louis Roederer Cristal Brut ($249) is suave, complex, not at all sweet—and, of course, entirely bomb-free.

6. Inglenook Claret (1889)

Long before the famed Judgment of Paris in 1976, a California wine stunned doubters and garnered international attention by taking a gold medal at the 1889 Paris world’s fair. Later years saw Inglenook’s reputation fall, rise, and fall again, but under current owner Francis Ford Coppola, quality has rocketed up, and wines like the cassis-rich, luscious 2014 Rubicon ($210) deserve their storied name.

7. Penfolds Grange (1951)

When Penfolds winemaker Max Schubert created Australia’s most famous wine, Grange, a Shiraz-based red meant to age for decades like the great wines of Europe, it was at first utterly rejected by Penfolds’ management. (Schubert actually had to hide the 1957–59 vintages to keep them from being destroyed.) No doubt he would have been stunned that in 2017 a single bottle of that initial ’51 vintage sold for almost 52,000 Australian dollars ($41,100). Bargain hunters, however, can pick up another great vintage, the intense 2013 Penfolds Grange, for 
a mere (ahem) $850. 

8. Robert Mondavi Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon (1966)

The first vintage of the definitive wine from the first winery established in Napa Valley after Prohibition, made by the man who did more to promote the quality of California wine than any other person before or since. Enough said. The current 2015 Robert Mondavi Winery Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($34) is ripe and polished, full of black currant fruit, and, appropriately, deeply Napa Valley Cabernet-

9. Ridge Geyserville (1966)

Ridge’s Geyserville was one of the first domestic wines to draw attention to the idea of “old vines” and to what a single mature vineyard (dating back to the 1880s) of mixed black grape varieties can produce. Labeled as Zinfandel in its early days, it’s actually a blend of Zin, Carignane, Petite Sirah, and Mourvèdre. Look for the boysenberry-scented 2015 ($40) for a taste of California viticultural history.

10. Gaja Sorì San Lorenzo (1967)

The message was clear: In the hands of an unparalleled winemaker like Angelo Gaja, Barbaresco’s greatest vineyards could be as fully distinctive and terroir-expressive as those of Burgundy. The original 1967 vintage of this wine was his first single-vineyard Barbaresco and one of the first in the region; the current 2013 Gaja Sorì San Lorenzo ($475) is thrillingly aromatic, powerfully structured, and still revelatory, 51 years later.

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