Specialist Charles Foley explains why oenophiles fantasise about these rare vintages — illustrated with examples from Christie’s forthcoming sales
What is a unicorn wine?
Snow-white, fleet of foot and spiral-horned: the unicorn is the most famous of fabled creatures, emerging from the stories of the Indus Valley, cantering through Greek mythology and arriving, with a toss of its mane, in medieval European folklore. It is a global symbol for rarity, purity and grace.
In the world of fine wine, ‘unicorn’ wines have become the new holy grail of collectors and connoisseurs. These rare vintages are often produced in limited numbers on tiny plots, and as supply dwindles, the few bottles that are left, secreted in cellars across the world, are raised to unicorn status.
For the auction specialist, locating bottles of such wines is an unmeasurable privilege and pleasure, as is sharing their story and offering them for sale. For the collector, winning them at auction and hosting a dinner in their honour is akin to seeing a unicorn trot past your eyes.
Domaine Leflaive, Montrachet 2002
The world’s most lauded white wine is Montrachet (‘scabby hill’), which gets its name from the flat, rocky grand cru plot in the Côte de Beaune it comes from — the best vineyard in a sequence that includes the grand cru Bâtard-Montrachet, Bienvenues-Bâtard-Montrachet, Chevalier-Montrachet and Criots-Bâtard-Montrachet, as well as the 1er Cru Puligny Montrachet Les Pucelles.
A medieval legend tells of an ageing Lord of Montrachet who, riding past the convent of Clos des Pucelles, heard a beautiful young virgin singing within. A son was born of the liaison, and when the Lord’s legitimate heir, the Chevalier, died in battle, it was decided that his illegitimate (bâtard) son should replace him. Naturally, the villagers welcomed his arrival to the Château with cries of ‘Bienvenue bâtard!’.
This legend has become intertwined with vinous history, and these exceptional plots now carry names cropped from the local folklore of Burgundy. The 2002 vintage from the foremost producer, Domaine Leflaive, is a sublime expression of Chardonnay: ripe and powerful, with an ability to mature in bottle to gain complex notes of butterscotch, mushroom and toffee.
Domaine Coche-Dury, Corton-Charlemagne 1990
The fabled history of Corton-Charlemagne can be traced back to the court of the bearded Emperor Charlemagne. The hedonistic Holy Roman Emperor had ordered plantings of Pinot Noir in Burgundy, and he guzzled the wine they produced with abandon. But as the Emperor grew old and his hand became unsteady, he began to dribble the Pinot Noir into his long white beard. Switching to white, he saw to it that one side of Le Corton hill was planted with Chardonnay.
Since 1986, the acclaimed producer Domaine Coche-Dury has crafted sumptuous yet lifted grand cru Chardonnay from the Corton-Charlemagne vines, fermenting the wines in new oak with some lees stirring. Impossibly rare vintages such as 1990 are brioche-rich and verbena-blossomed, yet with a glorious struck-match reduction that makes them fresh and lively years after bottling.
Domaine Leroy, Musigny 1993
Lalou-Bize Leroy is a force of nature. After taking over the reins at Maison Leroy in 1955, she maintained the high standards of her father, Henri, who had bought the best Côte d’Or wines for production under his own label. The family were also part owners of the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, the other great name in Burgundy winemaking, and the wines from both estates are among the most collectable in the world.
Other winemakers might be content with such achievements. Not so Lalou. In the late-1980s, she added vineyards to the barrels her father had bought, and began crafting handsome wines from plots such as Richebourg and Romanée-Saint-Vivant.
She now owns four hectares of Musigny, bought from Domaine Moine-Hudelot, and production is tiny — in great years, such as the mythical 1993, only two barrels might be produced. Lalou maintains that 90 per cent of the estate’s work is in the vineyard, and she’s an innovator, allowing the vines to flourish without cutting, and overseeing a savage selection process. Musigny 1993 is lushly textured and decadently rich, with a horsetail of spice.
Château Cheval-Blanc 1921
In early 2021, Christie’s specialist Edwin Vos was happily inspecting a Swiss cellar of rare and exceptional wines when he came across a bin reserved for Château Cheval Blanc 1921, resting under 100 years of dust.
Knowing the vintage to be a favourite of Michael Broadbent MW, Vos was naturally eager to try it. And over dinner with the owner, he was thrilled to discover a panoply of dried fig notes layered by baking spices and blood-orange complexity. The smoky bacon weight of the wine was equally delightful.
Produced from a glorious crop of grapes that followed a hot Bordeaux summer, the 1921 vintage was the earliest since 1893 and Albert Laussac-Fourcaud had only started picking on 19 September. (Due to climate change, harvests now start in late August!)
What Laussac-Fourcaud had noted was the high (14.2%) alcohol content of the crop and its beautiful phenolic and fruit ripeness. The crop went into wooden vats for fermentation and barrels for ageing before being bottled and despatched around the world, including Geneva, where a number of bottles were picked up by the current owner. Six are now offered in the Centenary Anniversary sale on 11 May at Christie’s in Geneva.
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Grand Constance 1821
In 1821, as Napoleon breathed his last on St Helena, the grapes of his favourite wine were ripening on the vine. Harvested late for optimal sweetness levels, they were then pressed hard for maximum sugar extraction, producing a blend of ripe and raisined red Muscadel and Pontac — 30 years before the phylloxera blight.
Two hundred years later, the honied, spun-sugar and hazelnut depths of the wine can only be dreamed of. The wine is bottled in black glass; traditionally, coal was added to the glass, giving it a dark green hue, to protect the wine from light exposure.
It was decanted in 1883 and the use of ‘decanté’ on the label points to its time in cellarage in France. The bottle also has a unique seal on the label and cork for traceability. Fewer than 12 bottles of this wine remain, so for one to come up in this year’s Cape Fine and Rare Auction is extraordinary.