How hot was Helen of Troy? Are French wines really better than California wines? Does terroir make a difference, and can anyone really tell the difference between a classy Napa Bordeaux blend and a Medoc first growth? And what does any of this have to do with la ville lumiere?
But first some mythological background. That old party animal Zeus was at it again, this time a banquet to honor Thetis and Peleus, parents of Achilles. All the usual suspects were in attendance-the goddess Aphrodite cavorted with the playboy prince Paris and a rollicking good time was had by all. But then Eris, the original party pooper, decided to make an appearance. True to form, the goddess of discord lobbed in a spoiler, a golden apple with the inscription “for the fairest”. Athena, Aphrodite and Hera each promptly claimed the prize and asked Zeus to adjudicate. Zeus, ever the diplomat, decided to punt this impossible task to Paris, and thus unfolded the mother of all beauty contests. Hera offered Europe and Asia to Paris, Athena promised him invincibility in war, and Aphrodite served up the ultimate sex machine-Helen of Sparta. All three appeared naked (together-wtf!) in front of Paris on Mount Ida, and Baroque artist Peter Paul Rubens was there to capture the moment. Paris’ cognitive system was obviously deeply rooted in his testicles; Aphrodite won the golden apple, and thus ended the original Judgment of Paris.
Now fast forward to 1976 and a different type of Judgment of Paris, one that changed the wine world forever. An era when Californians preferred smoking weed to drinking wine, the Chinese were guzzling mai tai rather than Lafite, and French wines ruled the world. A British wine merchant decided to arrange a series of blind tastings in Paris, pitting California red wines against Bordeaux reds and California chardonnays against the finest Burgundies. Nobody, expected any type of contest, and yet, in a story that is legend among oenophiles, the all-French jury ranked the Montelena Chardonnay ahead of the finest from Montrachet and Meursault, and the delectable Stag’s Leap Cask 23 Cabernet ahead of Haut-Brion, Mouton Rothschild and Montrose. (The story is captured wonderfully in the 2008 movie “Bottle Shock”- see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZKo9HWlwVME for a trailer). More recently, in 2006 on the 30th anniversary of the original judgment, the wine industry conducted the “ultimate” test, pitting the finest California reds against Bordeaux on neutral ground in London, with a panel of international judges including Michael Broadbent, Jancis Robinson, and Hugh Johnson. The results (below) speak for themselves; as far as I know, no naked goddesses exposed themselves to impair anyone’s judgment. And I wish Rubens had been around to capture the Gallic outrage when the results were announced.
- USA – Ridge Vineyards Monte Bello 1971
- USA – Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars 1973
- USA – Mayacamas Vineyards 1971 (tie)
- USA – Heitz Wine Cellars ‘Martha’s Vineyard’ 1970 (tie)
- USA – Clos Du Val Winery 1972
- France – Château Mouton-Rothschild 1970
- France – Château Montrose 1970
- France – Château Haut-Brion 1970
- France – Château Leoville Las Cases 1971
- 10. USA – Freemark Abbey Winery 1961
With the historical context behind us, let me now turn to the fantastic evening that prompted this piece. My good friend Eduardo, with a strong endorsement from me, decided to stage our very own “Judgment of Holland Park” last week. He recruited as his apprentice the apparently delightful Vicky from Robersons on Kensington High Street (best wines store in London, in my view), and lined up a fabulous array of Napa reds to go up against a Bordeaux selection. The line-up of judges included 2 (predictably biased) Frenchmen, 2 Italians, 4 Americans and of course yours truly. (In case you’re wondering, there are no English people in the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea).The California selection included Silver Oak, one of my favorite Napa cabernets; having visited twice and met the owner, I felt a strong personal connection. But the Bordeaux slate included Pontet Canet, and my recent interlude with the 2000 vintage on Emirates Airlines was as close as I will get to the mile high club.
Eduardo had meticulously double decanted the wines, and Vicky had cloaked the bottles in numbered velvet covers.We all had Eduardo’s brilliantly crafted tasting notes so we knew the eight contestants, but we were tasting “blind”, in pairs based on the price points. Over dinner, we all rated each wine on a 20 point scale, and aside from the ratings we all guessed which wine we were tasting, an intriguing exercise in and of itself. Some of the wines seemed distinctively new world-alcoholic, fruity, and bold, conjuring up images of well-endowed California blondes. But then again, I reminded myself Bardot was French. Others seemed distinctively Bordeaux – sophisticated and complex, tannic yet seductive with the fruit within reach but still elusive. Sharon Stone came to mind. The tension mounted as the evening progressed; I made a joke about Vicky playing a naked goddess and was promptly accused (by the Frenchman-wtf!) of being “politically incorrect”. The Italians just wanted to bunga bunga. But then, somewhat incredibly, a consensus emerged among us-we all loved the delicious #3 until we got to #7 and #8, which we all rated 19+. The scores were tallied and the winner was #7, with #8 and #3 following closely. When the bottles were undressed and the labels unveiled, our winner #7 (which the Frenchmen claimed as their own) turned out to be Clos du Val, a delicious Bordeaux blend-from the Stag’s Leap District! And #8 which everyone agreed was from California was actually the Pauillac Pontet Canet, while #3 was the Silver Oak Cabernet Sauvignon. California ruled for the evening-but the Frenchmen took solace in the fact that the winner was a “French style California wine”!
So what does one take away from the experience? A giant hangover for one; the evening certainly ended on a high note. The ascendancy of California winemakers seems undeniable, and clearly we all overestimate the importance of terroir when it comes to wine. As for being able to tell the difference, with wine as in most things in life, we all come to the table-in this case literally-with our own biases which serve no purpose other than to mess with our head. Paris got it wrong, but how could he think straight with three naked goddesses in his face? I got it wrong, but I had Brigitte Bardot and Sharon Stone on my mind. Those goddesses will get you every time; as the French say plus ca change...