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California sweeps France in Paris re-enactment: What it means — and what it doesn’t

It wasn’t even close.

When judges yesterday re-tasted the same red wines that were evaluated in the 1976 Paris tasting, California this time around swept the top five spots. Heck, last time, California placed only one wine in the top five — but since that one wine finished first, that’s all people seem to remember about the “shock-the-world” results.

Read about yesterday’s commemorative tasting in these reports from Decanter.com and the Napa Valley Register.

Yes, I know these tastings shouldn’t mean anything — they’re overhyped, unfair, misleading etc. But the TOP FIVE??

Sacre bleu!

Here are the rankings, according to the Register, followed by a judge’s take — and my take — on what the results mean, and what they don’t:

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 Loville-Las-Cases 1971

10. Freemark Abbey 1969

What’s the significance of all this? First, let’s hear from one of the French judges who participated in BOTH the 1976 and 2006 tastings, as reported by the Register:

With a hearty laugh, Christian Vanneque — a member of the original tasting panel when he was a 25-year-old sommelier at Paris renowned La Tour d’Argent restaurant — said he’d come to the tasting “today expecting the downfall of California.

“In 1976, they said California wines won because they were too open for their age, that they wouldn’t age. But that was wrong. California wines stood the test of time. This revealed California wines do age well.”

We assume Vanneque has already applied for political asylum to remain in the U.S.

Does this comparative tasting mean that California cabs age better than Bordeaux? Good heavens, no. No such sweeping conclusions should be drawn from this tasting, in part because these particular vintages may not have been the best for the French to enter into such a comparative contest three decades later, and in part because experience has taught many of us otherwise. On the whole, there’s no doubt in my mind that Bordeaux ages better than California cabs, based on the older wines I’ve been fortunate enough to taste.

But this tasting DOES mean that some California cabs age much better than most wine enthusiasts give them credit for. California proved in 1976 that it could make world-class wines, and three decades later, proved that it deserves the reputation.

(Gee, I wonder whether the winemaking “improvements” that have occurred in the three decades since these wines were made — the movement toward more highly extracted, high-alcohol style — may affect the results of any such future tasting. But that’s a topic for another day…)

The tastings of the newer vintages of California chardonnays, white Burgundies, California cabernets and Bordeaux were not “head-to-head” in a competitive, “rank-the-top-five” sort of way, but one of the judges whose comments were reported on this web site last week — Anthony J. Terlato, chairman of Paterno Wines International and Terlato Wine Group. — did find a moment to email to Wine Sediments the following summary:

The young Bordeaux reds from the 2000 vintage were, of course, awesome, and the young California reds from 2000, 2001 and 2002 were impressive as well, particularly the Ridge 2000 Monte Bello.

So there you have it. California cements its reputation as a producer of world-class wines — but be careful what conclusions you draw beyond that.

In other words, please hold the chants of “U-S-A … U-S-A …” Americans can gloat a little — but we shouldn’t rub it in.

PS to lighten the mood a bit from these weighty issues, join the caption contest fun at Uncorked. We could all use a little levity ….

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