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6 November 2014updated 30 Jun 2021 11:55am

What would our comrades make of “icon” wines?

What does the term mean, other than that the wine is big, probably red, and certainly unaffordable?

By Nina Caplan

Of all the oddities that wine is heir to, the concept of the icon wine may be the oddest. A Californian or Australian vintner of towering ambition is probably responsible for the designation and certainly companies such as Penfolds are very proud to confer “iconic” status on a wine such as Grange. But what does the term mean, other than that the wine is big, probably red, and certainly unaffordable?

There are three problems with the icon designation, the first being: “Who cares?” If you tell me your wine is far too pricey for the likes of me, should I thank you for it? Alternatively, if I’m an immensely wealthy wine purchaser, should cost be my chief criterion? Of course, the makers of Grange et al would argue that it is their wine’s sheer vinous perfection that permits the price (or, that to make wine this good is eye-wateringly expensive). I’m not so sure that icon wines aren’t simply overoaked ego trips bounding after Parker points and other top critic ratings. They are mostly a New World phenomenon and are, I suspect, the vinous equivalent of what Aussies call the “cultural cringe”: a national intellectual inferiority complex brought on by being very late to class, and worrying that therefore you’ll never make it to the top of it.

The second difficulty with icon wines is the “mirror, mirror” factor. Winemakers design something with praise in mind, then duly apply a praiseworthy term. Creating an icon wine is a vanity project – the wine is merely a conduit to self-regard. When Narcissus wilted over that lake, dying for love of his reflection, it would have been foolhardy to ask him how the water tasted.

My third objection I call the Russian problem. An icon, if we’re being literalist about it, is a painting of an Eastern Orthodox saint. Like all forms of religious worship, this one requires humility: the pre-revolution Russian peasantry were great icon-worshippers. The saints themselves are symbols of self-effacement before God; there is a whole screed to be written on the problems of worshipping meekness but this is not the place for it. The relevant points are that icon worship is a pure and uncommercial act, that saintly status has been conferred by a greater power and that said idol is most certainly not for sale. It follows that an icon wine has very little in common with an icon . . .

Yes, yes, you say, but what do they taste like? I have tried three recently, all very good. Penfolds Grange 2010 is restrained yet rounded, earthy and warm, with puppy tannins (that is, they yap. With age, they may bark). It costs at least £295. Montes Alpha M 1999, a Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon (with 10 per cent Merlot), is milk chocolate with a touch of redcurrant and a steal at between £44 and £84 depending where you buy it, though it’s not for sale in the UK. (The 2006 is, but I didn’t like it.) Santa Rita Casa Real 1989, another Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon, was delicious – blackberry, pepper, bay leaf, with a touch of earth on the back of the tongue. The tasting was at the Greenhouse restaurant in Mayfair, London, which claimed to have the UK’s most expensive Chilean wine on its menu – and at £850 a bottle, that may be right.

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There are many icons nowadays, few of them painted, even fewer pure, and some so undeserving of worship it’s enough to convert a hedonist to communism. Marketing has co-opted the visuals of the Orthodox Church, which is weird enough even before you reflect that capitalism has once again prevailed – communism merely banned icons, whereas we have deprived them of their power. The losers, in all this, are the peasants, whose saints were co-opted into one ideology after another and who sure as hell haven’t gained any fine wine to comfort them for the loss. l

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