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Top o' the Century

The best wines of the 1900s. Journey back with us to 1978, 1959, 1945, 1921 . . .

December 26, 1999|JANCIS ROBINSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

I hate having to choose my favorite anything, but because I'm not likely to have to choose the century's top wines again, here is my list:

1947 Cha^teau Cheval Blanc (St. Emilion)

What I go for in a wine is not mass or power but harmony, subtlety and entrancing nuances. Cha^teau Mouton-Rothschild is a classic but, on the occasions I've been lucky enough to taste it, it has been just too big and too rich for me (though I'm prepared to revise my opinion as it ages). Of course, there are no great wines--only great bottles--and the very best bottle of Cheval Blanc '47 I tasted was in fact a magnum served boldly at a dinner party in a restaurant in Burgundy by the Hong Kong connoisseur Henry Tang in 1994. It was the best representative of this fabulous wine I have ever come across; sweet, beguiling, yet beautifully balanced. Just one whiff was enough to establish its credentials.

1991 Coche-Dury Corton-Charlemagne

The vintage of this wine will surprise many because it is not a classic great white Burgundy; this was a bottle plucked from the list at Chez Panisse in Berkeley and shared with friends who were not committed wine freaks--always the best circumstances for a great wine. Another bottle enjoyed in 1999 confirmed that this was an outstanding success, even if it should be drunk sooner rather than later--unlike the majestic 1986 and 1996 versions, which will go on and on. The adolescent and plump 1995, embryonic and elegant 1993, excitingly rich 1992, not dissimilar but hail-shrunk 1989 and muscular 1988 should also be cellared for many a year.

1976 Trimbach Riesling "Clos Ste. Hune"

This is one of my all-time favorite wines, no matter what the vintage. The 1990, which seems to have matured quite fast, perhaps thanks to its exceptional body, was a very obvious recent treat, but this is a vintage that also has the potential for a long life in bottle. The same is true of the 1983 and the fabulous 1989, so rich it is all vendange tardive (late harvest).

1971 J.J. Prum Auslese "Wehlener Sonnenuhr"

I love good Mosel Riesling, and this is all the better because it has never been duplicated. New Zealanders do their best, and wine producers in the rest of Germany can offer a host of other attributes, but nowhere else in the world offers this tingle factor. The 1971 was still so young in 1988; the 1947 was just lovely in 1995.

1967 Cha^teau Petrus (Pomerol)

I am hesitating between this vintage, the 1964, the more obvious 1961 and other more recent ones, but my love of the underdog guides me to this quite magnificent bottle, which is drinking superbly today; you have to be quite knowledgeable to pick this under-celebrated vintage off a wine list. It is worth repeating a thousand times: Price bears only a distant relation to quality in the fine wine business.

1945 Cha^teau Lafite (Pauillac)

For me, this has been consistently the finest, most exciting 1945 Pauillac. I know that Mouton, then a mere second growth, has its enthusiasts, but this is a supremely elegant wine, in a vintage perfectly suited to Lafite's often evanescent charms.

1995 Harlan Estate Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley)

Let no one underestimate California's finest Cabernets. This is certainly one of them, perhaps thanks partly to French consultant Michel Rolland but also to that great combination: Cabernet Sauvignon and one of the top vineyards in the Napa Valley.

1978 Henri Jayer Echezeaux

The master is not faultless (I had the 1983 of this the other day, and rather nasty it was) but he is the closest any of us is likely to find to perfection in Burgundy. And what makes Burgundy--probably my favorite red wine--great is that not every vintage is dependable.

1959 Krug Brut

I have such precious memories of this Champagne, served to my husband and me on what felt like a honeymoon (but was what my mother has described only slightly darkly as "your third honeymoon"). So long as Champagne producers continue to hold out the prospect of wines like this that can be enjoyed as meaty tonics at 40, we might--just might--be persuaded to continue to pay a premium for their wares.

1921 Cha^teau d'Yquem

It is extremely difficult to choose which vintage of this glorious sweet wine is the most fabulous, but I think--hesitating over the 1937, the 1945, the 1967 and the underrated 1962--it probably has to be the 1921, which is always quite mind-blowing. This is a majestic, intricately nuanced wine that just happens to be extremely sweet too--though, like all great wines, it remains perfectly balanced.

Robinson is a London-based Master of Wine and author of "The Oxford Companion to Wine" (Oxford University Press, $65.)

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