Once in a while, a country’s nascent wine business is thrust into the global spotlight by a single pivotal event. It happened when Michael Broadbent first tasted Lebanon’s Château Musar (1967 vintage) at the 1979 Bristol Wine Fair and declared it the discovery of the fair. Another example was David Hohnen planting Sauvignon Blanc in Marlborough, New Zealand in 1985 and launching Cloudy Bay. Then in 1998, Nyetimber’s 1993 Classic Cuvée – only the second vintage made – took the IWSC trophy for the world’s best sparkling wine and became a flagship for English fizz.
The event of interest here, though, predates all of these: the 1976 Judgment of Paris, as it came to be known. The English but then Paris-based oenophile Steven Spurrier invited a bevy of influential and mostly French wine critics to a blind tasting and scoring of Californian Chardonnays vs. white Burgundies and Californian Bordeaux lookalikes vs. the real thing. It was no walkover for France, with California’s Chateau Montelena and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars taking the top two spots. The judges were astonished; a few, mortified. Their hope of quietly moving on was dashed when Time Magazine splashed it across its next cover and The New York Times picked up the story.
The impact of this competition has been substantial – with a halo effect on all American wine – and long-lived, partly due to the cultural associations: the Englishman abroad, the Trojan horse, David and Goliath, chauvinism. There have been television treatments, a book, a film, countless articles, and return matches both serious and entertaining. Yet it isn’t easy to find out for oneself what all the fuss was about, if only because wines of this quality are no longer as inexpensive as they were then.
So I leaped at the chance to taste some of the top names when Fine Wines Singapore announced a tasting entitled The Best of Napa Valley, including one of the 1976 entries and five other comparable bottles.
The line-up, in the recommended tasting order, was as follows:
BV Georges de Latour Private Reserve, Beaulieu Vineyard 1987 (Rutherford, Napa)
Monte Bello, Ridge Vineyards 1994 (Santa Clara)
Dominus, Dominus Estate 1994 (Yountville, Napa)
Dominus, Dominus Estate 1997
Opus One 1989 (Oakville, Napa)
Black Stallion 2009 (Oak Knoll, Napa)
All these wines are Bordeaux blends except for the first and last, which are 100% Cabernet Sauvignon.
Now, every fine wine has a story to tell and here they are briefly.
George de Latour fell in love with the land that became his vineyard during a visit to the USA in 1900. He sold his cream of tartar business in France and moved here. Later, he survived Prohibition by making sacramental wine for the Catholic Church. The Private Reserve was launched in 1940 and became Napa’s first “cult” Cabernet.
Ridge is older still, founded by the Italian doctor Osea Perrone in 1885. A wide range of wines is now produced, but this one from the Monte Bello vineyard is the flagship. Not from Napa but Santa Clara south of San Francisco. The terroir is quite different to Napa: high up the Santa Cruz mountains at between 400-800 metres elevation, so cooler, and on limestone bedrock. The 1971 featured in the Judgment of Paris.
Dominus. You may have heard of Christian Moeix of Petrus and Château Trotanoy in Pomerol. He too fell in love with Napa, while studying at University of California at Davis. He bought into the Napanook vineyard in 1982.
Opus One was founded by Baron Philippe de Rothschild, owner of Château Mouton-Rothschild, and Robert Mondavi, in 1978 – the first Franco-American premium wine. Steven Spurrier believes that this collaboration was triggered by the 1976 tasting. Opus One is now a joint venture between Rothschild and Constellation Brands.
Black Stallion was founded by the Sicilian Gaspare Indelicato. He arrived in America in 1912 and planted his first vineyard in 1924, in Manteca, where the climate reminded him of his homeland. It’s now run by the fourth generation of the family. The estate’s name reflects a period in the 1960s when part of the estate was an equestrian centre.
So let us pause to reflect that fine wineries are sometimes started by the rich and famous, sometimes by modest businessmen, but often by Emma Lazarus’s tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
The wines. All the bottles had been decanted for an hour. Under WSET Diploma exam conditions, wines must be judged as either faulty-poor-acceptable-good-very good-outstanding. Outstanding wines must have at least four positive aspects, such as balance, typicity, integration, complexity, concentration, texture and length, and no negative aspects (lack of some of those, faults, tiredness, dissonance between nose and palate, poor oak management etc.) Of course, all these wines qualified at Outstanding, but perhaps there are other factors too, and maybe these start to explain why the price range here in Singapore spans S$150 to S$900…
It’s good to have learned that analytic approach to tasting but even better no longer to be bound by it. Nowadays I include deliciousness as a criterion, in fact the main one. Call it what you like: pleasure, wonderment, a haunting quality, the wow factor. No shortage of that in this line-up. Another positive element all these wines had in common was refinement, but especially in the older wines. The tannins in these had receded to the shadows, doing the structural job they are needed for but not drawing attention to themselves. And for the older wines too, alcohol levels were modest, not above 13% for the 1980s, imparting transparency in the glass, delicacy and lightness. Sadly, global warming has put paid to that. The 1990s wines were up to 14% and the 2009 14.5%.
Other differences? I remarked in my post on Chinese wine last week that it’s not often that I taste raspberries in a Bordeaux blend, and that wasn’t meant as a compliment. Yet here it was again in the older wines, but due to age and delicacy rather than lack of ripeness. Only the last two wines had obvious blackberry, a tribute to the organisers’ recommended tasting order. What then is typicity for Bordeaux blends? Not easy to define that here.
Wine of the night? For me, Dominus 1997. Not so old that you had to admire how well it had aged, which can be a distraction and an apology as much as a compliment. Not too young either for a big wine (at 14% abv), the tannins still firm but nicely resolved. Black and red fruits in profusion, but melding together to create a quite distinct (and distinctive) flavour profile. Then there were some particular Bordeaux blend elements: mint on the nose, tomato leaf on the palate, the latter herbaceous note often due to the Cabernet Franc, which is 9% of the mix here. Wonderful wine. What comes above outstanding?
Thanks to Fine Wines SG for an excellent and unusual tasting; they can supply some of these wines.