You may not know their names, but these quiet revolutionaries have changed the way the world makes wine
The following seven winemakers are some of the best in the world, although not many people (outside of a few ardent oenophiles) may know their names. That's because they are, by and large, behind-the-scenes practitioners, content to quietly revolutionize the way wine is made. They are the leaders of a new generation of winemakers, who understand the importance of both innovation and tradition. While they may own--or even design--up-to-the-minute equipment and age their wines in pricey French barrels, they also champion native varietals and harvest grapes by hand. Their commitment to quality is unstinting, their production frequently quite small. And although this means that their wines can be hard to find, one thing is certain: they're always worth a search.
Telmo Rodriguez | Spain
Home turf Remelluri, a winery high on the slopes of the Cantabrian Mountains, in the Alavesa region of Rioja. Revolutionary acts Nearly everything the 37-year-old Rodriguez does runs contrary to Rioja tradition. He prefers French, not American, oak barrels for aging, uses only his own grapes (instead of purchased fruit) and keeps his yields wildly low, about half those of most of his competitors. The result is some of the richest, most hedonistic wines ever to come out of Rioja. Rodriguez also makes a terrific white wine at Remelluri, which is practically heresy in this staunchly redregion. Mentors Although Rodriguez's name is synonymous with Spain's new style of winemaking, his early mentors were almost all French and included the legendary Bruno Prats at Cos d'Estournel and Auguste Clape from the Rhône. Range of influence As Spain's premier "flying winemaker," Rodriguez consults at several other wineries in the country. Signature style Dense, highly structured reds with lots of ripe, plush fruit. Best bottles 1996 Remelluri red and 1997 Remelluri white. Availability Major cities nationwide. Prices $7 to $23.
Didier Dagueneau | France
Home turf Didier Dagueneau winery in the tiny town of Saint-Andelain, in the Pouilly-Fumé district of the Loire. Revolutionary actsThe undiplomatic Dagueneau has been called an enfant terrible so often it reads like his middle name. Dagueneau, who is in his forties, never formally studied winemaking. He hand harvests all of his grapes and ages his wines in new barrels (highly uncommon in the region). The resulting wines are so different from those of other Pouilly-Fumé producers that it's hard to compare them and, in fact, some enthusiasts group Dagueneau's wines with the great whites of Bordeaux. Signature style Extraordinarily rich and powerful, with high levels of acidity, these wines are capable of aging longer than most others from Pouilly-Fumé. Best bottles Dagueneau doesn't call his wines Pouilly-Fumé. Instead, he's given them their own distinctive names: En Chailloux, Pur Sang and Silex. Availability Nationwide. Prices $30 to $55.
Franco Allegrini | Italy
Home turf Allegrini winery in the Valpolicella Classico zone of Italy's Veneto. Revolutionary acts Franco Allegrini makes a wine that most people thought couldn't exist: world-class Valpolicella. The name Valpolicella may conjure up the thin, charmless red churned out in the Seventies, but Allegrini's wines have the power to alter that perception entirely. He has essentially re-created Valpolicella by limiting vineyard yields, emphasizing native grapes like Corvina and Rondinella, exchanging traditional large Slavonian oak barrels for small French barrels and focusing on prime growing sites, bottling the grapes from each separately. Signature style Rich, intense, full-bodied and elegant Valpolicellas and Amarones. Best bottles La Grola, La Poja and Palazzo della Torre--single-vineyard wines that are "ideal models of Valpolicella," says Gambero Rosso, the influential Italian wine magazine. (La Grola and Palazzo are great buys at $18 to $20.) Gambero Rosso also declared the Amarones "perfection." Availability Nationwide. Prices $14 to $55.
Chester Osborn | Australia
Home turf D'Arenberg Winery in McLaren Vale, south of Adelaide in South Australia. D'Arenberg, founded in 1928, is one of the country's oldest wineries. Revolutionary acts The 39-year-old Osborn was an early champion of bottling traditional Rhône blending grapes like Mourvèdre and Grenache as single varietal wines. He was also a proponent of old-vine Shiraz--some d'Arenberg vines date back to the 1890s. Osborn, along with wordsmith Zar Brooks, was one of the first Australians to give odd names to his wines. The importance of this contribution cannot be underestimated, as it is now the norm in Australia. Osborn also believes in the benefits of label reading: all d'Arenberg back labels feature dense paragraphs of prose, each akin to a mini winemaking lesson. Signature style Dense and full-bodied, but often quite forward and fruit-driven, Grenaches and Syrahs. Best bottles Dead Arm Shiraz (named after a fungal disease, it is considered one of Australia's best Shirazes),Custodian Grenache and d'Arry's Original. Availability Nationwide. Prices $16 to $50.
Gyles Webb | South Africa
Home turf Thelema winery in Stellenbosch, South Africa's top wine region. Revolutionary acts The 53-year-old Webb harvests only from superior hillside vineyard sites (unlike many of his colleagues). In Thelema's short 13-year history, he has created international-caliber wines. Signature style Clean, very correct wines with terrific acidity, making them first-rate food wines. Webb's Cabernet Sauvignon is Bordeaux-like; his Chardonnay has the fruit and power of a California Chardonnay and the finesse of a white Burgundy. Best bottles Chardonnay and Cabernet. Availability Major cities nationwide. Prices $23 to $30.
LuÍs Pato | Portugal
Home turf LuÍs Pato Wines operates in Bairrada, a little-known region that is often overshadowed by its famous neighbor to the north, the port-producing center of Oporto. Revolutionary acts The 52-year-old Pato has had his own label in Bairrada for two decades, practically as long as the area has been an officially recognized winemaking region. As a proponent of terroir--the importance of place--he was one of the first Portuguese to make wines only from grapes grown on his estate, producing several single-vineyard bottlings (and in an area dominated byhuge cooperatives, this approach is particularly notable). Pato also manages to coax charm and finesse out of Bairrada's native Baga, a fairly tannic, highly acidic red grape. Signature style Deep-flavored, big-structured reds capable of aging for 10 to 15 years. Best bottles Pato's greatest reds range from rustic, such as Vinha Pan, to refined, like the legendary Pé Franco Quinta do Ribeirinho. Availability Most major cities. Prices $8 to $85.
Gary Figgins | United States
Home turf Leonetti Cellars in Walla Walla, Washington. Tucked into Washington's southeast corner, Walla Walla is the state's smallest appellation (and the most fun to say). Revolutionary acts When 52-year-old Figgins set up this reds-only winery in Walla Walla over 20 years ago, he was virtually alone. Now hordes of new vintners are arriving, spurred on by Figgins's high-scoring wines and his belief in the superiority of Walla Walla fruit. Signature style Immensely rich, superripe, concentrated wines that are supple and elegant. Best bottles Cabernet, Merlot and Sangiovese. Availability As limited as any cult wine from California. Prices $50 to $55.