Being iconic is more than just achieving fame. It’s leaving a long-lasting print in our collective imaginary: it’s Marilyn Monroe singing Happy Birthday, it’s Kurt Cobain breaking an electric guitar, it’s a “small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” levels of recognisability.
When it comes to wine, the concept of an Icon bottle channels that sense of admiration and awareness that its cultural and pop counterparts evoke. And as it happens with other buzz words that attract food and wine lovers such as “craft”, “handmade” or “artisan”, the term is used and abused to the point of devaluation: if everything is iconic, does being so mean anything anymore?
So, what exactly is an icon wine? Master of Wine Mick O’Connell shares his informed opinion: “I think there are various qualities that can bring about a wine icon but really it is a wine that is held up as a benchmark of quality within its peer group, one that has a history of performance, one that is the standard bearer for a particular region.”
While the term is often used to refer to great wines from New World countries, some European wines are also deemed as icons, and no matter where they come from, these they tend to be game-changers that earned critical acclaim.
So, how does a wine earn its iconic status wings? Mick points out that one way they can achieve so “is by ‘beating’ a more established wine in a blind tasting”, the most famous example being the Judgement of Paris tasting hosted in 1976 by Steven Spurrier, in which several Californian wines became legendary after scoring higher than celebrated French bottles.
While some Icons changed the rules, the beauty of others lies in how they broke them. “European wines like Tignanello or Sassicaia from Tuscany for me are both certainly iconic, not only for their inherent quality but also for their history as pioneers and rule breakers within the traditional confines of Italy a generation ago.”
Both of the aforementioned wines belong to and helped codify the “genre” we know as “Super-Tuscans“, wines from this Italian region that are not made with the indigenous grape varieties allowed by the DOCs (instead, they generally resort to internationally grown grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Syrah).
It is worth noting that European country’s are generally more restrictive that the New World when it comes to what winemakers are allowed to do, as regulations control what to plant and other winemaking decisions to protect the distinctiveness of the different regions.
With that taken into consideration, it makes sense that most European wines considered icons deviate from the norm, as they would otherwise be named after the prestigious appellation they’d adhere to. This is why bottles of Grand or Premier Cru or first growth Bordeaux, resonate more by being outstanding examples carrying a terroir’s credentials than by deviating from it.
Think of it as icon wines being high-performance athletes in a solo discipline and renown Grand Cru bottles as the captains of stellar teams.
Mick points out that it’s “interesting to get to the core of why first growth or Premier Cru wines came about in the first place”. In the case of Bordeaux, it was the 1855 classification which highlighted the highest priced wines from the region at the time, while “those vineyards of Burgundy or Alsace that generations had shown to produce the greatest wines were given the esteemed title of Grand or Premier Cru.”
So in a way, “one might argue that in order to attain this status these wines were already icons as far back as the founding of their respective classification systems”, adds Mick. Basically, their quality made the appellation stand out and in time, their region’s name became synonym with their greatness.
New World icon wines and wines like the aforementioned Super-Tuscans are less dependent on what’s expected of their surroundings (for example, Torres Mas La Plana greatly differs from other wines from the Penedés) so it ultimately is the winemaker’s good name and reputation which gives them credibility.
With no legal definition of the concept, the term “icon” is sometimes thrown liberally by wineries that use it to refer to their top wine (and often, to justify a top price for them) but ultimately, a self-proclaimed icon is like an aspiring diva whose talent is yet to be tested by both audiences and critics. Only by informed and consistent third party validation, the honorific becomes truly meaningful.
Chateau Montelena Chardonnay 2012
13.5% ABV – California
€59.50 – Available at Terroirs
This Californian Chardo earned its icon status after it surprised the world in 1976 during the Judgement of Paris. The victory of the 1973 vintage over a Batard Montrachet from Burgundy catapulted the wine to fame, and after four decades, the winery continues to be reference regarding top New World wines.
Light golden and fragrant, the limoncello, ripe citrus and honey it promises on the nose are delivered in the palate along with a creamy, gorgeously buttery texture and a hint of juicy nectarines and star fruit.
Tenuta San Guido Sassicaia 2014
13.5% ABV – Italy
One of the original Super-Tuscans. Clear and bright, this Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc blend is vibrant and mouth-watering. Aromas of fresh sour cherries and a delicate spiciness are followed in the palate by a juicy and balanced combination of floral and red fruit notes and a toasted background.
Lean and with a subtle savoury hint, this wine is intense without being heavy, one to enjoy now or within the next decade.
Torres Mas La Plana Cabernet Sauvignon 2011
14.5% ABV – Spain
€64.95 – Available at The Corkscrew
Bodegas Torres’ top bottle is a delightful Cabernet Sauvignon that introduced the global variety to the Spanish region of Penedés not without controversy back in 1970.
Smooth and elegant, this wine wraps your palate like a velvet cape and is generous in dark fruits and toasted cocoa.
Powerful and long lasting, its ripe blackberries, cassis, licorice and a delicate spiciness. You could be impatient and open it now, or do yourself a favour and return to it in a handful of years.
Casa Real Cabernet Sauvignon 2011
€47.50 – Available at Terroirs – Chile
Chile’s Maipo Valle is where this refined Cab Sauv comes from. Acknowledged by specialised publication Decanter as a Wine Legend, it hit a landmark for Chilean wines when it became the first wine from the South American country to receive the accolade.
It’s big and well rounded, with bold tannins and plenty of blackcurrant and ripe blackberry aromas complemented by vanilla, tobacco, toast and coffee. Plump and full bodied, a subtle herbal note lingers pleasantly in the palate. It’s a rich reds with layers of well integrated flavours.
Gabriela’s passion for writing is only matched by her love for food and wine. Journalist, confectioner and sommelier, she fell in love with Ireland years ago and moved from Venezuela to Dublin in 2014.
Since then, she has written about and worked in the local food scene, and she’s determined to discover and share the different traditions, flavours and places that have led Irish food and drink to fascinate her.