Commemorating the 40th Year Anniversary of the Arrival of New World Wine
By David Lawrason with notes from John Szabo MS & Michael Godel
On May 24, 1976 eight California wines hand-picked by British wine merchant Steve Spurrier faced off with top Bordeaux and Burgundy in a blind tasting by French experts. It was dubbed the Judgment of Paris. And to the shock of not only the judges, but the entire wine drinking world, they did extremely well. Chateau Montelena 1973 Chardonnay beat a Meursault Premier Cru for first place; Stag’s Leap Cask 23 Cabernet Sauvignon topped Chateau Mouton-Rothschild 1970. A thorough reading of the results, with California nicely intermingled with the French wines, proved the top victories were no fluke.
It was of course an enormous coup for California, but really for a whole generation of pioneers and cowboys who were just beginning during the early seventies to create the foundations of the New World wine wave in places like Oregon, Australia, New Zealand and right here in Canada. Just look at where New World wine is today – 40 years later – by viewing VINTAGES catalogue and considering that here in Ontario – one of the most international markets in the world – New World wines are being consumed by a majority of consumers.
My interest in wine had germinated in 1975 when, on vacation in California, I visited my first winery, in Monterey County. I remember reading the Time magazine piece on the Judgment of Paris soon after, and being so excited that California had done so well. In the late 1970s I visited California wine country at least three more times, then in 1984 spent three months tasting and researching California wine, visiting most wineries in existence at the time (about 200) including those on the Judgment of Paris roster. I then spent two months in France that same year, cementing an understanding of where New World wine had come from, and how different it was at the time.
But times have changed. There will likely always be debate about New World wine versus Old World wine, but nowadays it is debate about style. Climates and regions create wine character and style, while good vine-growers and winemakers who have the vision, understanding of their regions and experience create quality. And viticulture, winemaking and quality have improved so much since the Judgment of Paris that the two worlds are not so much colliding, as slipping into each others arms. This makes modern attempts to repeat such tastings as the Judgment of Paris almost meaningless – at least in terms of officiating quality and declaring one country or region better than another. They become mere popularity contests.
Unquestionably the Judgment of Paris did launch California on the global scene. It is now as globally important as Bordeaux or Burgundy, that for so many years it has striven to emulate. Wines from both regions are highly respected, highly priced and sought after. And many other regions around the world have achieved this as well. Wine is in a much better place now than it was before 1976, thanks partially to that one judgment in Paris.
Earlier this month I was fortunate enough to be invited by the California Wine Institute to attend VINTAGES Judgment of Paris dinner at George restaurant in Toronto. I tasted 32 wines that night, from the eight Napa wineries that had competed in Paris. Eight of those wines are being released on May 28, which I re-tasted in the LCBO lab. The remainder are now included in a VINTAGES on-line offer at : Judgment of Paris. This edition of VINTAGES preview features WineAlign team picks from the on-shelf eight, plus my highlights from the rest of the pack. Because the latter were not tasted in proper review conditions they are not rated or fully reviewed.
Buyers’ Guide to VINTAGES May 28th Selections
Ridge Monte Bello 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon, Santa Cruz Mountains ($191.95)
David Lawrason – At VINTAGES Judgment of Paris event, then again in the tasting lab, this towered above, and outlasted the pack in terms of length of finish. It has stupendous cabernet aromatics; so lifted and pure with cassis, mint, background meat, conifer. Great structure and depth. Deep into the cellar for now.
John Szabo – The 2013 iconic Montebello from Ridge stands in its own league in this Judgment of Paris revival, an arch-classic, monumental wine of staggering structure and proportion. A lovely savoury-mineral note sits out on the leading edge, while the palate shows epic (a word I don’t use lightly) concentration allied to balance in this vintage of pitifully low yields, driven by a second straight year of drought stress. Length is simply outstanding. This is really nowhere near prime drinking – I’d speculate another 5-7 years minimum to relax, soften and shift into the mature flavour spectrum that is the joy of drinking properly aged Montebello. Best 2023-2033.
Michael Godel – From a serious drought vintage, dry, warm and demanding, the 2013 Montebello’s Draper perfume is as heady as ever, to such effect that after one whiff this is where daydreaming takes over consciousness. Montebello is a classic, lithe and restrained blend of sheer, utter exceptionality in balance.
Chateau Montelena 2014 Chardonnay, Napa Valley ($75.95)
David Lawrason – This is one of the most impressive chardonnays in recent memory, combining a sense of opulence in terms of flavours, plus power, intensity and restrained finesse. And compared to the prices of its peers on this release, as well as top white Burgundies to which is still compares today, it is actually a good buy.
John Szabo – The 1973 Château Montelena, made by a young Mike Grgich, took top spot in the 1976 tasting, and remains one of the classiest whites in northern California. The fruit source has changed (most aren’t aware that 40% of the fruit for the ’73 came from the Bacigalupi estate in Sonoma County, which recently began bottling its own wine), but I love the perfectly pitched nature of this 2014, anchored on tight, bright acids but still delivering an impressive dose of citrus-orchard fruit and beguiling floral notes. But it’s really the length and genuine depth of flavour that seals the deal here, plumbing the depths of this wine requires minutes, not seconds, to reach the bottom. A terrific wine all in all, drinking surprisingly well now, but surely better in another 2-3 years. Best 2018-2026.
Grgich Hills Estate 2013 Chardonnay, Napa Valley ($67.95)
John Szabo – Having just turned 93, Mike Grgich is involved a little less in the day-to-day operations of the business he co-founded in 1976, though his figure looms large. Nephew Ivo Jeramaz has shepherded the estate into organics/biodynamics, and crafts one of the tightest chardonnays in the Napa Valley from vineyards in cool American Canyon and Carneros in southern Napa, made, unusually, without malolactic and designed to age. This 2013 seems a little less flinty (reductive) than previous vintages, coming across as gently ripe and sensibly wood-influenced, relatively round, soft but balanced on the palate, with toasty-honeyed orchard fruit lingering alongside caramel on the finish. Admittedly I miss the intense mineral-flint note of the last vintage, but this will surely appeal more widely. Best 2016-2023.
David Lawrason – This is an organically grown nervy and powerful chardonnay with lifted slightly reductive/matchstick notes amid pineapple fruit, toast and vanilla cream. It’s full bodied, quite fleshy and warm yet dry – a big chardonnay for the cellar.
Michael Godel – Stylistically consistent yet somehow different and still the feeling remains the same. Another exceptional Chardonnay to further the winemaking legacy of Mike Grgich, maker of Chateau Montelena’s 1976 Judgment of Paris chardonnay winner.
Clos Du Val 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley ($59.95)
David Lawrason – Since my first visits to California in the late 70s I have had a fondness for the light more French leaning style of Clos du Val. Founder Bernard Portet was from Bordeaux. This is the most approachable of the cabernets at the moment, with pretty, soft, ripe fruit driven aromas, and lighter, quite elegant styling.
John Szabo – For more immediate pleasure, Clos du Val’s pleasantly dark and savoury, lightly herbal Napa cabernet is your best option. The estate has always favoured a more reserved, less exaggerated style, and here the palate is attractively mid-weight, with light but still grippy tannins, and lingering finish. A fine vintage for the estate, best 2016-2023.
Heitz Cellar 2014 Chardonnay, Napa Valley ($49.95)
David Lawrason – This is a very fine, tender and elegant chardonnay – more refined than most from California. It has generous if subtle aromas of lemon, vague blanched almond nuttiness, crisp apple and lightly warmed bread. Feels slender on the palate, but in any case wonderfully refined.
Michael Godel – When the Napa Valley name Heitz is mentioned it is Cabernet Sauvignon that comes to most minds, 99 per cent of the time. Chardonnay is a Heitz thing, dating back to 1961. Wound tighter than a wire around a boat winch, this 2014 just needs some time to settle in.
Ridge 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon Estate, Monte Bello Vineyard, Santa Cruz Mountains ($74.95)
David Lawrason – Offered as a Flagship In-Store Exclusive, this too is excellent, and great value compared to the Montebello above. Also more evolved and ready to drink. It’s full bodied, dense, yet lifted and superripe. Great tension and richness.
Freemark Abbey 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley ($54.95)
David Lawrason – This is a bit of a sleeper – not as showy as those above, but worth cellaring. It is a big, brawny cab with reserved aromas of ripe blackcurrant, earth, considerable oak and dried herbs. It’s full bodied, dense, powerful and a touch warm. Into to the cellar now and out in 2020. Tasted May 2016
David’s Recommendations from VINTAGES Special Offer
Heitz 2005 Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley $310
Heitz 2004 Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, $310
Chateau Montelena 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon, Calistoga Napa Valley, $193
Chateau Montelena 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon, Calistoga Napa Valley, $203
Grgich Hills 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, $117
Mayacamus 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon, Mount Veeder, $187
Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars 2013 Cask 23 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, $279
Stag’s Leap 2010 Cask 23 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, $280
Clos du Val 2012 Stags Leap District, Napa Valley, $126
VP of Wine
From VINTAGES May 28, 2016
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