Californians and Bordelaise: the truth

Behind the hype of the recent Judgement of Paris retasting was even more controversy. We reveal how, despite California’s ‘win’, judges on both sides of the pond preferred the younger French wines, how the Bordelais fought to prevent the event happening, and how the tasting highlighted the polarisation of US and French wines and palates.

The wines of the Bordelaise and the Californians- which one is best?

Brian St Pierre in London

Deja vu again, as the celebrated Judgement of Paris tasting was restaged in Berry Bros & Rudd’s London tasting rooms concurrently with a similar event at Copia in Napa (see right). It lacked only a Roman numeral to sound like a Hollywood horror-movie franchise, and probably resembled one for some French vignerons, who refused to participate.

Their truculence was understandable. The formerly loyal US market for claret has soured since the French declined to share the Bush-Blair Iraq adventure, aggravated by criticism about everything from drinkability to pricing, and the usual knockabout over subsidies. No wonder Jeremy Paxman began a BBC report on the tastings by barking: ‘What is the point of France?’

At the event, other questions hung in the air: Will the Californians age gracefully? Will they triumph again? And will the European panel agree with the Californians panel? (The first was something of a straw man: we’ve all tasted enough older vintage California wine to know the answer, but the question was raised emphatically by some French vintners, and needed to be dealt with on the record. The second had been addressed by Spurrier, who said he expected the French to win this time. The third was definitely in abeyance, lurking beneath the smooth surface like a wily crocodile.)

After tasting the older wines, Spurrier revealed their identity, though not how they had been ranked by us or the American panel. There was a murmur of approval for Ridge (‘lovely, my number one’), indicating it had done well, then for Mouton (‘very sensual’ said Jasper Morris, ‘very Cabernet,’ noted Michel Bettane).

On to younger white Burgundies and Californian Chardonnays, tasted semi-blind (we knew where they were from) and separately. Where’s the fun in that? Alas proprietors, and not just the French, didn’t want potentially odious comparisons.

It was an anti-climax. The Burgundies suffered from the context, the Californians, in our European view, detracted even more by letting a bull into the china shop of flavour; no one on the European panel was enthusiastic, or even very positive, about these lumbering beasts (‘sweetness,’ said Broadbent with a frisson, ‘woody, pineapple, high alcohol – specious, not my idea of beautiful wine’; Bettane added, with a glum sigh, ‘oaky, heavy, boring wines’).

We move on to young red Bordeaux and California Cabernet. Bordeaux of course, being the most familiar ground, brought out some jousting and speculative wine-spotting, all good-humoured, but once again, the Californians looked large – a few were incredible hulks. Of the six, only two passed without criticism. Most were ‘jammy, caramelised, excessive oak, alcoholic’ (Jane MacQuitty); one was ‘both overripe and green’, (Morris). Hugh Johnson was ‘quite horrified – two were just disgusting’.

‘I like the discipline of Bordeaux,’ said Bettane. ‘You had more of the Cabernet genius in the Bordeaux. Sweetness is not part of Cabernet. It’s a winemaker decision, and it’s wrong. These wines are more Los Angeles than San Francisco, southern, showy, perhaps even more Hollywood or Las Vegas.’

When the wines were revealed, there were second-guessing murmurs over the Bordeaux and cheers again for Ridge and Stag’s Leap – clearly the only two Californians to have come through unscathed by criticism, a long way ahead of the others. ‘Terroir is terroir,’ said Bettane, ‘and Monte Bello is a great terroir!’

It soon became clear afterwards that the older Californians had again come out ahead. There were nuances and quibbles, as there should be, but the triumphant newspaper headlines swept them aside: ‘It’s Official: California Wines Beat the French’; ‘French Wines Lose Again to Californians in the Great Taste Test’; ‘California Wins the Re-Enactment’

The Napa Register, in a paroxysm of triumph, relocated Ridge nearly 100 miles north, declaring, ‘Napa Valley came out on top.’ There was not much notice, nor any analysis of the fact that these were international combined rankings, which differed when studied separately. Everyone seemed to agree with the American football coach who declared: ‘There is winning, and then there is just everything else.’

So Californians can age. And they triumphed again. Or did they, really? Look again at the rankings: In the re-enactment, both the US and European panels had the same three wines last, but the European panel had the Mouton and Montrose ranked much higher. Among the modern-day wines, the divergence is even more stark – we admired the Montrose, the US didn’t, and among the Californians, the US tasters had the blockbusting Shafer tops, tied with Ridge, while the Europeans placed it last, just behind the Staglin, which the US panel also rated much higher. Basically, our perception of the present state of the winemaking art by Californians was quite at variance with the home crowd, which was somewhat masked by the combined, averaged scores.

For me, the tasting was an odd bump on a long road. I was peripherally involved with the original Paris event, and eagerly attended the 10th anniversary re-enactment at the Vintners’ Club in San Francisco when California succeeded again. Thirty years on, however, my scores for our remembrance of wines and wine styles past were in line with the European panel. More to the point, my view of the modern, overbearing Chardonnays and Cabernets of the Californians was, too.

Eighteen years ago, in San Francisco, I had dinner with US wine writer Matt Kramer. I was promoting California wine, and finding it easy to be a cheerleader for them. I ordered the best Chardonnay on the wine list. He took a sip and ordered a white Burgundy. I defended Californians – expansive and fruity, I said; he declared it obvious, overblown, overly meddled with. I thought the Burgundy was thin and sharp; he said finesse. I called it lacking in fruit; to him it was elegant. Then he made a prediction: ‘Someday, wines like this will be the only ones you want to drink.’ I laughed. I’m still laughing. I’m enjoying the fact that he was right.

Stephen Brook in Napa Valley

The tasting room at Napa’s COPIA complex was packed. It was also hushed, as nine panellists, mostly American, worked their way through the original wines from the Judgment of Paris tasting. It may be easy to appreciate elderly wines, but it is very difficult to rank them. The only noise was the clicking of cameras, and the only distraction came when I looked up to find a TV camera pointing straight at my wine-filled mouth.

After the ‘re-enactment’ was over, we moved to assess the white Burgundies, California Chardonnays, clarets, and California Cabernets, all recent vintages. This was easier, as judges could allow their personal preferences to determine the top wines, rather than deliberate on how to score an elderly wine just beginning its decline into astringency.

Once that was over, a press conference began. Seated up on a dais behind the panellists were some now legendary names from the Californian wine industry: Joe Hietz’s daughter Kathleen, Jim Barrett of Chateau Montelena, Paul Draper from Ridge, Warren Winiarski from Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and Bob Travers from Mayacamas (Robert Mondavi and Mike Grgich made an appearance later that evening).

When the results of the re-enactment were announced, this panellist had to remove some egg from his face. I had been confidently predicting that 30 years on, Bordeaux would triumph over Californians. I was wrong, and original panellist Christian Vannequé admitted he was too. Stag’s Leap had been my top wine, and two other Californians were in my top five, though so were Haut-Brion and Mouton.

The white Burgundies were a treat, with just one lacklustre wine, which I attributed to the sweltering 2003 vintage. Not so the Chardonnays. A fellow panellist described them as ‘inexcusable’. They certainly came over as rather drab after the scintillating Burgundies. Interestingly, there was little divergence between the London and Napa panels, whereas Decanter’s California Chardonnay tasting some years ago, held simultaneously in London and New York, provided wildly disparate results.

Andrea Immer-Robinson shared my lack of enthusiasm, saying: ‘Growers let grapes go too far in terms of ripeness, and reduce yields to give super-rich wines. The wines obscure the terroir, which is dispiriting, as there is great terroir in California.’

There were few disappointments with the red wines, most of which were magnificent, whatever their origin. They were hard to rank because the best wines were so fine, and so true to type. I would gladly have given equal first place to the best three wines in each category. I gave my top mark among the Californians to Stag’s Leap Cask 23, as did the London panel. The London team shared the American enthusiasm for Monte Bello, but was less keen on the other US favourite, the Shafer Hillside Select. I placed the Shafer in second place. I see why the London panel was less keen: the wine was very oaky and did show a trace of alcohol on the finish; it certainly wasn’t elegant, but it did seem a showcase example of sumptuous modern Napa Cabernet, and I found it difficult to mark down purely on stylistic grounds.

I do not think too much significance should be read into the discrepancies between Napa and London with the young clarets. My own marks were very high; only Latour disappointed and I was not alone in suspecting the bottle to be out of condition, which may have skewed the results. The 2000 Margaux was deservedly the unanimous victor – a dream of a wine – but I, like the London panellists, put Montrose in second. That the Napa panel was less enthusiastic may be a stylistic judgement: it was a tight wine with pungency and pronounced tannins, but to me it was classic Bordeaux, built to last. But it wasn’t a sexy wine, and conceivably US palates found it not to their taste.

Paul Draper, the outright winner, interpreted the result as a triumph for cool climate wines with low alcohol. His Monte Bello vineyards are up at 2,000 feet, in marked contrast to most Napa Cabernet vines, which lie on or close to the valley floor. Warren Winiarski of Stag’s Leap also opts for restraint and balance over power and overripe fruit. Draper’s triumph revived the pertinent debate about the trend in California to ever riper wines with increasingly high alcohol, a trend that sets them apart from most classic Bordeaux.

Draper told me: ‘In 1976 California and Bordeaux were closer in style. But today, styles have become much more divergent. Nor do I see any sign of retreat from overripe styles in California. To be fair, many in Bordeaux are trying to go in the same direction, but their climate doesn’t allow them to equal our sugar levels.’

As for Winiarski: ‘Today, reds have more alcohol and heat, but that’s true on both sides of the ocean. But I have some doubts about the ageing potential of this new style.’ Dan Berger took a similar line: ‘Modern Californian wines lack structure.’

While I certainly have encountered unbalanced, overripe, porty reds and heavy, over-oaked, flabby whites from California, I am not sure Berger’s case is proven. I expect almost all my top-scoring young Cabernets had alcohol levels of at least 14.5%, yet in no case did I find a wine that was overly jammy and alcoholic.

John Shafer was unapologetic: ‘We went for a leaner style in the 1980s to make wines that go with food, but fighting the Napa climate was a disaster. So in the 1990s we went for higher sugars and alcohol. We are accepting what our climate offers us.’

Although there was a surprising degree of unanimity between the international judges, Dan Berger was in no doubt that US and European palates differ. ‘There is a dichotomy, and Parker and other critics have dragged winemakers into their camp. Consumers have followed. The 100-point system used by most Americans is linear, so winemakers reflect on what they need to do to get ever-higher points. The answer is more of everything. There are very few critics speaking out for balance and drinkability with food.’

Perhaps in 10 or 20 years we can gather once more to re-assess the modern red wines tasted in 2006. Can I make my reservation now?


In interviews on the day, I reckoned Bordeaux would take ‘the three top places’. Such a prediction was less because I am a Francophile, more because I firmly believed the mantra ‘Claret ages, California does not’. For wines from the early 1970s, this is now shown to be a complete myth. The following day a few pennies began to drop and the result became obvious. Only indoctrination led me to think otherwise.

That 1970 was a very good vintage is not in doubt. Emile Peynaud pronounced the harvest remarkable for both quantity and quality. But 35 years ago, Bordeaux had a successful vintage much more rarely than today. 1963, 1965 and 1968 were washouts, 1967 weak and 1969 hard. Yields averaged 80 hectolitres per hectare in the Médoc, often from plots with many vines missing. Consultant oenologues were rare, many cellarmasters incompetent, and very little wine was declassified into a second wine or sold in bulk. Most did not have the intensity to last.

The contrast to an emerging Napa Valley could not be more marked. Everyone was trying their hardest to make a wine that would draw people’s attention, for there were no laurels to rest on. Low-density planting necessitated low yields. Why over-produce when there was no ready market? Warm, structured wines were produced that lasted well.

All of California has prospered mightily since. In Bordeaux, profits have been ploughed back into vineyards and cellars, techniques are cutting-edge, yet the vineyard remains the base of quality. Yields are half that of three decades ago and for the first growths, second wines often take up half again. The results have never, ever, been better. Then, Bordeaux lived on its reputation. Now it thrives (at the top, at least) on its quality. In Napa, success has led to swollen heads. Wines have got better, but also bigger, and size too often takes the place of complexity. As Bettane said: ‘one doesn’t have to taste these wines, just weigh them.’

As for white Burgundies and California Chardonnays, they are both much richer, riper and in some cases sweeter than in the early 1970s. Burgundy by and large ignored the well-being of its vineyards until the mid-1980s, but now sustainable viticulture, even biodynamism is the norm. Napa is doing what it can but it simply doesn’t have enough limestone-based vineyards to match the Côte de Beaune.

The styles of Cabernet and Chardonnay are mostly so dissimilar now that they are quite different wines. The ‘claret palate’ (or at least Michael Broadbent’s, Hugh Johnson’s and my own) simply cannot enjoy wines at 14% alcohol and over. They do not go with food, they are not refreshing (the sweetness of the alcohol is evident from the outset) and balance is generally absent. For the California palate, ‘discretion’ seems a dirty word, for the fruit must be triumphantly up front. The French originals will seem light and perhaps ungenerous. Of course, the two palates will overlap, for good wine is good whatever its shape or size, but the spheres that represent consumer tastes will only partially overlap.

Much of the reason is social: Europeans drink mostly with food and treat wine as a beverage to be enjoyed in some quantity; Americans drink mostly away from the table and are modest in their consumption. A total eclipse between the European and the US palate is as inconceivable as liking equally brunettes and blondes.

‘The Cabernet-based wines of Bordeaux and California have changed considerably since the early 1970s. On the Bordeaux Left Bank, changes have been almost unequivocally for the better. In California I’m not so sure. My fellow European judges and I didn’t like the exaggerated California Cabernets at all. I am by no means convinced about the super-ripe, heavily oaked direction that so many of its winemakers have taken.

‘If only the Bordelais had agreed to our tasting all the young wines mixed up. Bordeaux would have romped to victory – for European tasters anyway. They scored an own goal by refusing to allow a more recent direct comparison. Certainly the London panel thought they were better, and better made, wines.

‘In the early 1970s, California was making Cabernets of great quality with the capacity to age more than 30 years – something not widely acknowledged internationally before now.

‘The California panel perhaps illustrated that there is a difference between the American and European palate, or at least preferences in young reds, today.’

Jancis Robinson MW OBE, UK wine writer

‘There is as big a difference between the traditional reserved Bordeaux style and the way most modern Bordeaux are made, as there is between that style and Californian wines.

‘In judging the 1970s wines and the 2000s, I found a much greater disparity between the older than the younger. In the 1970s it was expected that Bordeaux would be undrinkable until it was 10 years old. Today’s Bordeaux are approachable – even drinkable – when they are young. Californian reds are showier now but they were probably better balanced in the past.

‘Probably 60% of the wines I taste are American, so I suppose the palate inevitably adjusts to the style.’

Anthony Dias Blue, US wine judge and writer

‘As a greater variety of Bordeaux wines becomes accessible in the US, more Americans will learn the pleasures of drinking wines that don’t knock them between the eyes. So many are unfamiliar with the joys of moderate, elegant wines that complement a meal instead of compete with it for attention.’

Janice Fuhrman, US wine writer

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