Someone recently asked for my recommendations on must-drink wines if budget was not an issue. I stood there silent, detached from my physical surroundings as fantastical childhood visions of being locked in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory flooded my mind. Even contemplating such hedonism was short-circuiting my imagination.
I have the answer now. These are what I would be hunting for if the spoils were to belong to me without the hassle of haggle. All the wines listed here are expensive and often impossible to obtain. But beyond price and accessibility, emotions are attached to these choices too.
Penfolds Grange A wine that rose to the status of being classified an Australian heritage icon is no small feat. It went against the norm, with creator Max Schubert planting a Shiraz at a time Cabernet ruled the roost. But nothing about its taste—friendly, fruity, affable—reveals the complexities it had to battle to survive. This was when the island country was focussed on bulk-producing wines in a fortified style; to attempt a limited-quantity dry red wine was considered a poor strategy. Today, the wine, made from Shiraz sourced from the best of sites around South Australia, is one of the most iconic reds. $650/bottle
Robert Mondavi To Kalon Cabernet Sauvignon I only heard of this wine when I cycled across the famed To Kalon vineyard in California. This bottle is the shy coveted offering from the Robert Mondavi stable that hasn’t quite caught the international eye yet. Lovely juicy Cab presented in an exquisite etched glass bottle that is just as worthy once the wine is a memory on the palate. You can buy this wine (of which no more than a few thousand bottles are produced annually) only at the winery. $300/bottle
Chateau Margaux Few houses in France can match up to the stately elegance that lies within the massive portals of this Bordeaux winery. The wines are always magnificent, reminiscent of the old world traditions of winemaking, the kind that build lasting repute. Although some may find them rather reserved and even austere in their youth, with time (and patience) these bottles can yield something that words can never entirely express. This was among the top wines to be classified by the French emperor, Napoleon. $650/bottle
Ridge Monte Bello I was never a big fan of American cult Cabernets. And then I came across the wines of Paul Draper. Nothing like its counterparts, this is perhaps the most European of the New World wines I have tried, especially from California. It is a mystery how they manage to transport all that is wonderful about the Old World and then improve it with a lively dash of the new. A significant moment was when it beat some of the top Chateaux wines in a landmark historical blind tasting back in the ’70s, thus announcing the arrival of iconic Californian wines on the world stage. $150/bottle
Giacomo Conterno Barolo I had never really enjoyed a Barolo, just silently sipped it as others around me recounted tales that sounded too good to be true. And then, it happened. I was party to a decade-and-a-half-old bottle of Barolo and realised just what makes this Nebbiolo-based wine so special. It has power and richness, depth and layers, and yet it was silky and buoyant. $150/bottle
Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Tasting a Romanée-Conti was perhaps the biggest build-up of my life and it lived up to every expectation. I can even say that it spoiled most other Pinot Noirs for me, setting a benchmark so high that one knew that everything else would be a compromise. It is often lauded as the most expensive wine in the world and is also among the rarest. $12,485/bottle
Domaine de Vieux Telegraphe Châteauneuf-du-Pape has been considered something of an underdog region outside of France, but it has its ardent followers. The wines—from vineyards that historically belonged to the Pope—are robust, strong, structured, powerful, heavy, deep, brooding. They sit boldly beside food, and they age well. Not for the faint-hearted but definitely for lovers of flavours dark and nutty. $200/bottle
Mas de Daumas Gassac This is perhaps a modest wine compared to the ‘big names’ populating this list but, in terms of availability, it would be one of the rarer wines. The story of the couple who travelled the world and then chose a mix of grapes to plant in their little vineyard in order to make a blend that has never been attempted before is too romantic to not include. They were shunned by the local authorities and the French winemaking governing body, their creation called a lowly ‘table wine’, but they weren’t discouraged. In every sip, you taste hard work, determination, passion and love. The lack of credentials on the bottle makes this a connoisseur’s wine. $150/bottle
Sassicaia Yet another story where a revolutionary idea (to plant Bordeaux grapes in Italy) led to the creation of a wine that would set the standard for others. The original Super Tuscan remains my reference point for not just Cabernet wines, Italian reds or other Super-wherevers, but for fine elegant wines in general. $80/bottle
Chateau Haut-Brion If I had to throw in a white in this collection of reds, it would come from a handful of houses. Like this one. While this house is famous for its red, it is the secretive white that connoisseurs like to boast of in hushed circles. Among the rarest and most prestigious whites to be had—take my word for it. $895/bottle
Krug Grande Cuvée There is constant debate over champagnes but nobody will ever contest the Grande Cuvée by Krug. The most successful blend ever to be crafted, it remains my one point reference. $250/bottle