Wine Time: Heroes Get Remembered, But Legends Never Die

Illustration by Joel Hedstrom

There are some wines that are famous even to the driest of teetotalers. These wines are spoken about with reverence, passed between wealthy hands at auctions for high price tags, and only on rarified occasions opened and sipped as though they are the elixir of life. These wines—like Cheval Blanc, Pomerol, vintage Dom Perignon, and Pétrus to name a few—are considered legendary.

What makes a wine “legendary”? Lists of wines any “serious” collector should aspire to own are filled with the same names over and over. These wines may be vintage and/or site-specific. Many of them are no longer in circulation. These wines are not readily available to consumers (at least those not part of the 1 percent). So, is it accessibility—or rather lack thereof—that makes these wines so special? 

Wines with the possibility of aging well and being emblematic of a region and style also seem to be key factors. According to wine collectors and writers, “legendary” wines do seem to stand for something—be it a name, a time and/or a domain. This framework of name, time, and place still serves as an important way to understand wines as the economy, climate, and customer base is ever-changing. 

I would add that what makes a wine “legendary” is changing, too, and those criteria have grown to include a wine’s environmental impact and how it is made. Take the natural wine movement, which emphasizes wine made with no additional chemicals and prioritizes sustainable winemaking and growing techniques. These techniques are not always easy—Mother Nature rarely offers the perfect weather for growing and is devastatingly destructive at times. It can be costly for winemakers to forgo chemicals that may assist in balancing sugars and acid after harvest doesn’t deliver a profitable product.

But when the conditions are right, they have produced some of the most incredible and memorable wines I have ever had. They speak to a name, time, and place as clearly as any “legendary” bottle you can find. In many ways, the narrative of winemaking has become the legend—the local conditions, the tradition, the vision—rather than just the finished wines themselves.

I believe it is no longer just the chateau that makes a wine legendary, but how it was made and how it gets where it is going. Learning to turn the bottle around and see which producer and importer are helping to bring that wine to my glass has allowed me to take risks and try more wines (despite not knowing much about the producer, or perhaps even the grape or the style). 

Next time you find yourself enjoying a bottle, look on the back label for who is bringing that wine to you and follow up by looking for that same importer and trying more of their wines. Among the “legendary” importers to investigate: Louis/Dressner, José Pastor, Jenny and Francois, Paris Wine Company, and Selection Massale.