Wines at War (September 16, 2010)
On May 24th, 1976, a young English wine merchant working in Paris staged a blind tasting at the Intercontinental Hotel. He pitted California Chardonnays and Cabernet Sauvignons against white Burgundy and red Bordeaux.
The tasters, nine in all, were all French experts. They included Pierre Bréjoux, inspector-general of L'Institut national des appellations d'origine contrôlée, Raymond Olivier, the pre-eminent French culinary writer, Michel Dovaz of the Institut Oenologique de France and Pierre Tari, secretary general of the Syndicat des grands crus classés.
The whites were tasted first, all Chardonnays, six from California and four from Burgundy.
When the experts had finished swirling, sniffing, spitting and marking each wine out of 20 points, they had ranked three of the California Chardonnays in the top four, with pride of place going to Chateau Montelena Chardonnay 1973.
Mortified to learn that a California wine had triumphed over some of the finest white Burgundies, the French tasters set about sampling the reds with greater concentration. After all, the glory of France was at stake here. The second round was Cabernet Sauvignon, six California Cabs and four red Bordeaux.
When the scores were tabulated the winning wine turned out to be Stag's Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon 1973 with Château Mouton-Rothschild 1970 a close second, followed by Château Montrose 1970 and Château Haut-Brion 1970. The fifth place went to Ridge Montebello 1971.
"The Judgment of Paris," as it came to be known, had legitimized the nascent California wine industry and made the Bordelais and Burgundians look to their grape leaves. While the French press cried foul, the verdict was indisputable: California could make wines that could stand alongside the best the French had to offer.
In 2008, a rather turgid movie was made of this event, called Bottle Shock, which prompted the following response from Stephen Spurrier: "There is hardly a word that is true in the script and many, many pure inventions as far as I am concerned." Nor was he pleased that he was portrayed by a middle-aged Alan Rickman as an arrogant wine snob. Spurrier incidentally went on to repeat the Paris tasting 30 years later – and the result was the same. California triumphed again.
The idea of warring wines has become a popular indoor sport. Every aspiring new wine region seeking to flex its muscles on the international stage has put up its wines in blind tastings against the established arbiter of taste, France. Think of it as Dionysus arm-wrestling with Zeus, both in blindfolds. Even wine regions with a venerable history of their own have been known to take on France. In 1979, Miguel Torres entered his company's Gran Coronas Black Label 1970 (now called Mas la Plana Gran Coronas) at the Gault et Millau Wine Olympics in Paris. In a blind tasting the wine came out top in the competition, with Chateau Latour 1970 in second place.
This same ploy was used to great effect by Michael Mondavi and Eduardo Chadwick for the release of their joint-venture Chilean red Seña 1995 (a blend of Merlot, Carmenère, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec) in New York in 1997. The wine was served blind alongside Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve, Errazuriz Don Maximiano Reserva and two Bordeaux First Growths (Margaux and Latour if my memory serves). The purpose of the exercise was not to denigrate the clarets but to show that this new Chilean wine could play with the big boys.
Eduardo Chadwick became so enamoured of this technique that he would repeat it around the world in Berlin, Tokyo, Beijing, Amsterdam, London, New York and Toronto (who said T.O. wasn't a world-class city!). His tastings featured top Errazuriz wines in blind competition with not only French wines but icon wines from Italy and California, such as Sassicaia and Opus One.
And nor is Ontario immune to such competition fever. Locally our Bordeaux-style blends have been matched against the real thing in an on-going battle by the irrepressible Larry Paterson. Larry is a former LCBO employee and now its worst nightmare. He has a website called littlefatwineo.com where you can find the results of several of these competitive tastings of Canadian reds butting heads with Classed Growth Bordeaux (for details go to www.littlefatwino.com/scores.html). There have been Ontario Rieslings versus German Rieslings and in April this year a match-up of Ontario sparkling wines with champagnes. This latter tasting was judged by six Ontario wine professionals and resulted in Henry of Pelham Cuvée Catharine Brut 2002 and that winery's non-vintage Cuvée besting Veuve Clicquot Brut and Taittinger Brut Reserve. You might ascribe these results to local palate bias: the tasters may be more familiar with the homegrown
style but we all taste through an acculturated palate.
The "Ontario Chardonnay: Seriously Cool" that happened at Canada House in London on May 17th was a characteristically Canadian affair. We were not there to make war or to compare ourselves with white Burgundy; we just wanted to show the British wine press what 22 Ontario wineries could do with the Chardonnay grape grown in a cool climate. Bill Redelmeier, proprietor of Southbrook Winery, who organized the tasting, got the idea from a radio interview he had heard on CBC with Ontario winemaker Thomas Bachelder of Le Clos Jordanne. In May 2009, Marc Chapleau, a Quebec wine writer, organized a blind tasting of white Burgundies in Montreal and had slipped in a ringer – Bachelder's Le Clos Jordanne Claystone Vineyard 2005. The ringer was voted top of fourteen wines. In the radio interview Bachelder said, self-effacingly, that any one of ten Ontario Chardonnays could have done the same thing. So Redelmeier decided to take up that challenge and transport Ontario's top Chardonnays to London
to be judged by the most exacting critics in the world.
The wines for this tasting were selected by a panel of Ontario wine writers at a series of blind tastings earlier this year. Many of the winery owners and winemakers made the trip to London to pour their wines at the event.
Among the renowned British wine writers who attended the event was Steven Spurrier, who commented to me having tasted the 40 wines on offer: "I was amazed. There was not a single poor wine here. They all have an individual personality. They're all brilliantly well made. I'm very impressed. I didn't know you had all this."
Jancis Robinson, the doyenne of British wine writers, was more qualified in her praise. "There were some really, really nice wines, varied, but not me-too products," she said. "Certainly this variety is well suited to Canada."
The ebullient Oz Clarke was particularly impressed by the Chardonnays of Prince Edward County. His advice to Ontario winemakers: "Be confident about this great world-class grape Chardonnay grown in Ontario. Don't let the populist tabloid press tell you that Chardonnay's no good. We all know that Chardonnay is a fantastic grape whose time will come again."
Bill Redelmeier was elated by the reaction of the UK critics and members of the trade. "Everyone's got big smiles on their faces. We had a wonderful response from the press and it should do us a world of good as far as putting Ontario on the map."