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Wine legend: Chateau Montelena 1973

This California Chardonnay caused quite a stir when it beat some of the best white Burgundies during a blind tasting that has since become known as the Judgement of Paris...

Why Chateau Montelena 1973 is a wine legend…

This was the California Chardonnay wine that dethroned some of the most prestigious white Burgundies at the legendary Judgement of Paris tasting organised by Steven Spurrier in 1976.

It came top out of the 10 French and Californian Chardonnays poured blind at the event. Six of the nine French judges awarded Montelena their highest score.

Montelena 1973 also made from young vines, confounding the French conviction that vines need to be mature to deliver top-class wine.

What the critics said

Only one note from the 1976 Judgement tasting survives.

Christian Vannequé, head sommelier at the Tour d’Argent in Paris, wrote: ‘A very agreeable wine, which will blossom pleasantly and has a good equilibrium. To be followed.’

The owner of the celebrated restaurant would later rebuke Vannequé for having participated.

Decanter columnist Michael Broadbent wrote in 1980. ‘It is certainly my idea of a fine California Chardonnay… broad, slightly sweet, fully developed … positive but not excessive; dryish, more body than a Sauzet Puligny-Montrachet, but not heavy. Fine, rich, a touch of meatiness. Very good acidity. Perfect.’

Montelena 1973 at a glance:

Montelena 1973 bottle, California

Bottles produced 26,400

Composition: 100%  Chardonnay

Alcohol: 13.2% abv

Release price: $6.50

Now worth: One bottle sold for $11,325 at Spectrum Wine Auctions in 2010

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History: Winemaker Mike Grgich and Montelena

Miljenko ‘Mike’ Grgich was a Croatian who in 1958 emigrated to California. There he worked with many of the existing wineries from the late 1960s, including Souverain, Christian Brothers, Beaulieu and Mondavi. In 1972 he was offered a job at Chateau Montelena, founded in 1882, but owned since 1969 by lawyer Jim Barrett and his partners. Grgich’s wines met with an enthusiastic receptionand he remained at Montelena until 1975, when he left after some acrimonious disputes to found his own winery.

The 1973 vintage

Winter was cool and damp, but the growing season in Napa and Sonoma, which was relatively cool, left the Chardonnay vines free from mildew and other diseases. August was very hot and the grapes ripened rapidly, yet preserved enough natural acidity so that Grgich did not have to add tartaric acid to the  must.

The terroir

Although Montelena owned extensive vineyards, they were being partly replanted to supply the winery with better quality fruit.

So the Chardonnay in 1973 was sourced from independent growers. Montelena in 2014 stated that 39% of the grapes came from the Belle Terre Vineyard in Alexander Valley; 35% from Bacigalupi Vineyard in Russian River Valley; 23% from the Hanna Vineyard in Oak Knoll near Napa and just 3% from Calistoga. So the wine was a blend, without any clear terroir character. However, Grgich monitored each vineyard and decided harvesting dates.

In the cellar: How the wine was made

  1. As they arrived at the winery, the grapes were crushed and destemmed before being pressed in a modern bladder press.
  2. The juice was clarified in steel tanks and racked after four days.
  3. Grgich inoculated the must with yeasts and fermentation began. He opted to ferment at low temperatures, so the extraction was prolonged to six weeks.
  4. He blocked the malolactic fermentation, and then stabilised and filtered the new wine.
  5. It was transferred to second-fill Limousin barriques and left to age for eight months.
  6. In December 1974 Grgich made the final blend and filtered the final wine.
  7. It was released in September 1975.

Editing for Decanter.com by Chris Mercer

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