People who know me know that I love fluffiness. What my partner used to call “the bubble”, the warm, endorphin-filled, too-good-to-be-true feeling that makes you feel great and takes the edge off the less attractive parts of life. It’s the feeling you get when you fall in love; when you wake feeling rested after a great night’s sleep, and when you find that incredible bargain that you’ve been looking for all your life. It’s literally the unicorn and rainbow Sistine chapel painted ceiling of the bubble.
But here’s the thing. Unicorns aren’t real. They help us break from reality and remind us of our childhood, but they’re imaginary. Or so we think. The term unicorn has evolved to mean something rare and beautiful – that can be a person, a startup that is valued at a billion dollars or that case of 1921 Chateau Cheval Blanc that everyone is talking about, but no one seems to know where to find.
What’s a unicorn wine?
In the fine wine world, the term “unicorn” refers to wines that have reached mythical – or near mythical status. They are the best of the best for collectors – not necessarily for their price point (although these are naturally expensive wines) but because they are rare beyond words. Unicorn wines probably belong to the category of wines that were produced in very limited quantity to start with, possibly from tiny plots, plus have been kept in optimal conditions and have aged perfectly. As the supply dwindles to almost nothing, these rare and unusual wines are considered the holy grail to collectors.
From an investment point of view, there is nothing better than getting your hands on a unicorn. These are bottles where, if you get the right buyer or, even better buyers, the price can skyrocket. If you can find that wine lover who is already picturing themselves holding a dinner in the wine’s honour, well then, that’s almost as good as watching an actual unicorn gallop past your eyes.
How to tell it’s a real unicorn wine
Unsurprisingly, unicorn wines are all the rage among sommeliers. If a wine merchant, auction house or, in our case, investment wine platform can propose a unicorn to the general public, then they have more or less ensured their success.
But how can you tell if it is a real unicorn? Some wine producers have lamented the way the term has become democratised, demonising real unicorn wine. Sexy labels and a clever Instagram presence have been seen as taking the focus off the authentic rare wines that warrant the moniker. “The same way that the 100-point scale system artificially boosted the value of wines for reasons other than depth of tradition, or place, or cultural importance beyond microeconomics, I feel like a certain sector of unicorn wines doesn’t actually connect to anything deeper than faddishness,” says Steven Grubbs, an Atlanta-based sommelier who first coined the term “unicorn wine” in an article for Punch Magazine in 2014.
For wines to appear under the hashtags # #unicornrules and #unicornwinerules, Twitter has imposed a very strict set of guidelines.
- The wine must have a production of fewer than 200 cases. (@RN74, Raj Parr, Aug. 5)
- “You feel genuinely uncomfortable when opening because it may never happen again.” (@ChadZeigler, RN74 sommelier Chad Zeigler, Aug. 5)
- “There is no price limit.” (@RN74, Raj Parr, Aug. 5)
Don’t mistake it for ‘unicorns’
Of course, with unicorn wines being such terme du jour at the moment, fraudsters have been quick to provide counterfeits. With extremely rare and highly sought-after bottles fetching astronomical sums on the secondary and even black markets, you need to check very carefully before spending a small fortune on a case of something that may well be too good to be true.
The ten most counterfeited bottles of all time are Cheval Blanc 1921 and 1947, Lafite 1787 and 1870, Lafleur 1947 and 1950, Latour a Pomerol 1961, Margaux 1900, and Petrus 1921 and 1947. That’s not to say that these bottles don’t exist – au contraire, it’s because they exist that demand is so high, and we want to believe that we have indeed caught the rare pearl.
Bear in mind that unicorn wines are highly coveted but rare and very hard to find. Charismatic fraudsters such as Rudy Kurniawan can create stories so credible, quote the name of a famous dead winemaker or tell where the wine was so miraculously found that it becomes almost impossible not to believe the hype.
The most expensive bottle of wine ever sold at auction was offered at Christie’s in London on December 5, 1985. Christie’s – a reputable auction house where you should be able to trust the source. The bottle was handblown dark-green glass and sealed with thick black wax. Despite having no label, it had the letters “Th.J.”, “1787”, and the word “Lafitte”.
The bottle was verified, the glass was checked and even though there were a few discrepancies (the level of the wine was “exceptionally high” for such an old bottle – just half an inch below the cork- and the colour “remarkably deep for its age.”) the wine was pronounced “one of the world’s greatest rarities” and went on sale.
It was sold two minutes later to Christopher Forbes, the son of Malcolm Forbes and a vice-president of the magazine Forbes for a hundred and five thousand pounds—about a hundred and fifty-seven thousand dollars. The wine has since been revealed to be counterfeit, making it the world’s most expensive vinegar.