Chasing Unicorns


Silly old fox, doesn't he know?
There's no such thing as a gruffalo!

The unicorn, unlike the gruffalo, is the quintessential symbol of rarity and fantasy. Described since antiquity as a wild creature of the woods with the body of a horse and a single horn, given mythical powers, the ability to make poisoned water drinkable and heal all ills, bestow magic and wisdom, impossible to catch and of course, only occasionally seen. Yet everyone knows what they look like and what they symbolise.

The mouse in Julia Donaldson’s wonderful children’s book invents a terrifying wild animal, a gruffalo, in order to save its own skin from creatures which are intending to eat it but is then shocked to find the gruffalo of its nightmares actually exists. I am pretty sure you will find no unicorns wondering the forests but the word unicorn has been used increasingly to describe extraordinary things. Unicorn Companies for example are privately owned startups with a value of more than $1 billion. (And are perhaps equally mythical and likely to disappear in a puff of smoke as a unicorn!)

Around ten years ago, alongside the more conventional red, white, rosé and sparkling listings in restaurants in Manhattan, the term Unicorn Wines started appearing, coined by sommeliers who wanted to highlight the rare and wonderful wines they had managed to acquire for their lists and guests, wines where demand always outstripped supply. The hashtag #unicornwine started appearing on Twitter and Instagram as somms and wine enthusiasts posted pictures of the ‘once in a lifetime’ bottles they had drunk. 

There appear to be a few key requirements to be worthy of the hashtag, rarity being one of course. Either a legendary vintage of a particular wine that must have been almost entirely consumed or one produced in minuscule quantities. The last vintage of a cult winemaker, now retired or deceased (better still, as there’s no chance of a comeback) or a wine from a vineyard that no longer exists are always winners too.

There is a danger that the descriptor ‘unicorn’ could become a synonym for high cost. But anyone who has it can splash cash on something expensive.

For me a Unicorn Wine is undoubtedly a rare beast but it isn’t about price. In any case I can’t afford the big names of Burgundy or big labels of Bordeaux or California. It’s about being a wine that is the result of a unique interplay of events, place and people that occurred to make the wine happen. It is a delicious expression of the weather that year, the triumphs or disasters and of the vineyard. It is more likely to come from one of the less exploited regions of the world and will certainly be more affordable if it is.

It looks likely we’ll all be spending this Christmas in smaller family units. I don’t want to sound mean, and sharing great wine is one of life’s great pleasures, but with Unicorn Wines it’s also likely you will only be able to buy or even be allowed just one bottle so this Christmas, with fewer glasses to fill, could be the perfect time to chase down a few unicorns.

Two to try:

Inevitably these may be gone by the time you read this but we’ll have some more unicorns in the stable…

Balazu des Vaussieres, Cuvée Lune Rousse, France, 2018 - For Nadia and Christian Charmasson, who farm vineyards in the Southern Rhône villages of Tavel and Lirac, 2018 was, to coin a phrase, an annus horribilis. They lost almost 60% of their crop to disease so rather than make their usual range of wines they used the remaining healthy grapes, more than ten varieties, both red and white, to make this which ended up neither red, white or rosé wine but just a remarkable one off. A truly beautiful rarity. 

Cascina Borgatta, Lamilla, Monferrato, Piemonte, Italy, 2015 - Emilio Oliveri and his wife Maria Luisa do everything by hand on their tiny estate in the Piemonte hills. This wine is made from Dolcetto vineyards planted in the main by Maria Luisa’s father back in 1950 and 1952. Emilio has been making the wine the same way since the 1960’s, organic farming in the vineyards, minimal intervention in the winery, always ageing them for at least four years before release. The vast majority of what they produce is drunk locally. A very little makes it’s way into the hands of unicorn hunters…

Both wines available at Iron & Rose in Shrewsbury Market Hall and at Glouglou Wine Bar | Shop on Castle Gates.

This article was written for MyShrewsbury Magazine.