The Judgement of Paris, reprised

Thirty years ago, a wine tasting took place that shook the foundations of the European wine establishment and kick-started the modern age of wine, in which New World wines began to be taken seriously by the Old World. Although it did not directly involve Australia, its repercussions laid the foundation for Australian wine’s subsequent acceptance around the world.

Englishman Steven Spurrier, then a wine retailer in Paris, organised a taste-off between the pick of California’s cabernet sauvignons and chardonnays, and the great red Bordeaux and white Burgundies of France. The result was catastrophic for those insular French who still clung to the notion that French wines were unassailable as the world’s best. France was trounced. When the wrappers came off, the top cabernet and top chardonnay were not revealed as Mouton-Rothschild and Puligny-Montrachet, but Napa Valley wines, both of them. The former was Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars 1973 and the latter, Chateau Montelena 1973. As the judges were mostly French, the world really had to sit up and take notice.

While a single tasting could not itself change the world, it drove the nail that made a crack that split the wine business open and dissolved much of the Francocentric wine snobbery of Britain and France. It changed the mindset. Eventually, New World wines including Australia’s were able to be enjoyed on their own merits, by open-minded people.

Of course, those with an interest in protecting the status quo quibbled about how the tasting was conducted; others argued that while the Americans might have won with flattering, up-front young wines, they would not age well and the French would be just hitting their peaks in 20 years while the Yankee wines would have faded and died.

Thirty years later, we know that the best Napa Valley wines are the equal of any in the world. They’ve proven themselves over and over again, in any number of venues, including competitions and taste-offs – or shoot-outs, as the Americans like to call them.

Even so, there would have been a great deal of anticipation on May 24 when a re-match was called – of the exact same wines which had done battle 30 years earlier in the so-called Judgement of Paris. Various flights of younger wines were sampled as warm-up acts, but the main event on the bill was a taste-off between the 10 cabernet-based reds, now between 33 and 37 years old (it was decided the chardonnays would be over the hill). Tastings were held concurrently in London at retailer Berry Brothers & Rudd, and in California at Copia, the food and wine school in the Napa. Some of the tasters were even rounded up from the original panel.

And the result? Well, you didn’t really read this far to discover the French had their honour reinstated, did you! No! Not only did the Americans win again, they wiped the table with the French. The top five wines were Californian. The four Bordeaux came next (two first growths and two highly-fancied super-seconds) and a sixth Californian came tenth. The top-ranked wine by both panels was 1971 Ridge Monte Bello. There were minor differences between the panels but the overall verdict was similar. Vintage, which can be such a big factor in the quality of Bordeaux reds, was not an issue: three of the Bordeaux were from the great 1970 vintage; the fourth, a 1971 – from a very good but not great year (Broadbent rates it 4/5; 1970 is 5/5).

The combined two-panel result was:

1. Ridge Monte Bello 1971

2. Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars 1973

3. (tie) Heitz Martha’s Vineyard 1970

Mayacamas 1971

5. Clos du Val 1972

6. Chateau Mouton-Rothschild 1970

7. Chateau Montrose 1970

8. Chateau Haut-Brion 1970

9. Chateau Leoville-Las-Cases 1971

10. Freemark Abbey 1969

Pierce Carson, covering the event for the Napa Valley Register on May 24, wrote: “The only member of the media attending the 1976 Paris tasting was George Taber, a writer for Time Magazine. Taber noted that following the Stag’s Leap cabernet, in order, were Mouton-Rothschild ’70, Haut-Brion ’70 and Montrose ’70. Taber has written a book about the historic Paris tasting and was present at Copia on Wednesday.”

Taber concluded: “The Paris tasting showed that great wine can be made in every country … not only in California but in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, among others. It led us to the world globalisation (of wine). Today is the golden age of wine. Never has so much great wine been made in the world.”

Thirty years ago any of the wines would have cost an awful lot less than the equivalent vintage today, but the following lists show the Californians have been busily closing the gap on all but the First Growths. These were the top-rated wines of the 21st Century red Bordeaux and California cabernets tasted non-competitively at the same event.

Bordeaux — Chateau Margaux 2000 (US$600); Chateau Rauzan Segla 2000 ($95); Chateau Montrose 2000 ($150).

California cabernet sauvignon — Ridge Monte Bello 2000 ($120); Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cask 23 2001 ($160); Staglin Family Vineyard 2001 ($170).

Patricia Gastaud-Gallagher, who helped organize the original tasting in Paris and served as chair of the judges at Copia, stressed that the event was not a competition, but “a celebration of wine and the people who make it.”

According to Carson’s report, Copia panellist and wine writer Dan Berger commented: “I don’t think anyone in ’76 would have said these wines would be alive 30 years later. All of the wines tasted well.”

Are there any other take-away lessons from this event? Today, we take it for granted that the wine world is a meritocracy, but it wasn’t always so. Spurrier felt it necessary to organise the 1976 tasting to wake up a somnolent, complacent wine world. Such shake-ups are needed from time to time. The end result is that credit is given where it is due, not where it is presumed due, and those who charge high prices for their product can never rest on their laurels.

*First published in the Sydney Morning Herald ‘Good Living’, on 6 June 2006.

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