For the past couple of years, folks in the wine business have been bandying about the term “unicorn wine.” It’s become a term of art within the biz for an elusive, rare, extraordinary wine—the sort of bottle you hope to see and rarely do.

By Ray Isle
Updated May 23, 2017
© Getty Images/Westend61

For the past couple of years, folks in the wine business—primarily sommeliers—have been bandying about the term “unicorn wine.” (There’s even a hashtag for it on Twitter, #unicornwine.) It’s become a term of art within the biz for an elusive, rare, extraordinary wine—the sort of bottle you hope to see and rarely do, then plaster all over social media once you actually get the chance to try it.

One does sort of wonder, though, why the unicorn? There are plenty of other rare, mythical creatures that probably deserve their own wines, like manticores, wendigos, hippogriffs, bonasusi and so on. (Though what wine would be appropriate for a bonasus, given that when attacked—at least according to Pliny the Elder—it squirts out three acres of burning dung at you, I really can’t say.)

In any case, here are several not-exactly-official criteria for a true and proper unicorn wine. First, it has to exist in small quantities. Second, it has to be hard to find. Third, wine geeks have to get really excited when they come across it, rather like maidens who come across unicorns. It helps a lot if the winemaker was legendary and is now dead, though that’s not necessarily a requirement, ditto if the wine is extremely old and/or from a region considered extremely cool by the sommelier crowd. The wine does not have to be expensive—elusiveness and coolness are more important—but regardless, most of them are. A quick glance at Twitter reveals people posting bottles such as the 1991 Gentaz-Dervieux Côte Rôtie from the northern Rhône (dead winemaker, check; cool region, check; damn near impossible to find, check); a 1929 Domaine de la Romanée Conti Les Gaudichots 1er Cru (old as hell, check; Burgundy, check; last wine ever from this cru from a legendary producer and absolutely, totally impossible to find; check); and Bartolo Mascarello's 1971 Barolo (dead guy, cool region, extremely old, check, check, check).

Of course, not everyone can afford wines like these, even if they can find them—I certainly know I can't. So maybe there needs to be another category for more earthbound or less mythically obsessed wine drinkers. It would include wines you haven’t had yet that you’d really like to taste, but ones where that possibility isn’t just a complete absurdity. Almost-unicorn wines, say, or #myunicornwines. Make a list and start hunting. With some diligence and the willingness to drop a little cash here and there (and the help of, it shouldn't be impossible to track down a whole herd.

Here, for instance, are a few things from my notebooks that I'd either love to track down, or recently got a chance to taste for the first time:

• Older vintages of Marcel Lapierre's lovely Morgon. This cru Beaujolais isn't terribly expensive on release—about $28—but it sells fast, and I rarely see older vintages on wine lists. Beaujolais tends to be drunk young, but I'm convinced this is one that should age beautifully.

• Domaine Bonneau de Martray's red Corton. Bonneau de Martray's white Corton-Charlemagne is the benchmark for this Burgundy grand cru, but the small amount of red Corton they make isn't imported to the U.S. at all. I recently had a chance to taste the complex, layered 2001 at the Boulder Burgundy Festival, and checked it off my list.

• Buçaco Reservado Branco. I've tasted older vintages of this famous but hard-to-find Portuguese white once before, in Portugal, but have never seen a single bottle in the U.S. When young, it's lemon/peachy and crisp; when old, it's gorgeous and complex, suggesting white peaches, hazelnuts, coffee and a host of other aromas. Clearly I need to look harder!