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Wine as Food for Thought (October 29, 2003)

Wine, for people who care about it, is a food group. For some of us, it's all four food groups. So what does the term "food wine" mean? Isn't it redundant? If wine is meant to be a beverage that we take with food, then aren't all wines food wines?

Well, yes and no.

There are some wines (grandly called vins de contemplation) that you drink by themselves as if you're solving a chess problem. These are either fortified wines such as Madeira, Sherry and port or sweet wines, such as Sauternes, Riesling Trockenbeerenauslese or Icewine. Or they are very dry wines designed to stimulate your appetite before a meal – such as Fino Sherry, Brut Champagne or Chablis. Just to prove that dry wines really do make you feel hungry, try this test: take a glass of a crisp white wine and sniff it several times in quick succession with small intakes of air. You will find that there is an involuntary reaction in your mouth. You will start to salivate. The acids in the wine cause your glands to secrete saliva, making you feel hungry.

On the other hand, a sweet wine before a meal will depress your appetite, because the sugar satisfies your hunger. That's why I can never understand why the French drink so much port before a meal.

The term "food wine" was introduced by Californians in the late 1980s to describe a wine that was lower in alcohol than the customary blockbuster Chardonnays, Cabs and Zinfandels at 14 per cent alcohol and up. These wines-on-steroids could only be paired with monster meals such as dinosaur ribs or dodo tartare. And this concept of food wine is how the French satisfied their honour after the humiliation of the Blind Tasting in Paris.

On May 24, 1976, America's bicentennial year, Steven Spurrier, a young English wine merchant who ran a wine school and store in a mews off the Place de la Madeleine, pitted California red and white wines against the flagship wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy. The event was held at the Intercontinental Hotel and 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. Representing California were Château Montelena 1973, Spring Mountain 1973, Freemark Abbey 1972, Veedercrest Vineyards 1972, David Bruce 1973 and Chalone Vineyards 1974.

Representing white Burgundy were Meursault-Charmes 1973 (Roulot), Bâtard-Montrachet 1973 (Ramonet-Prudhom), Puligny-Montrachet "Les Purcelles" 1972 (Domaine Leflaive) and Beaune Clos des Mouches 1973 (Joseph Drouhin).

When the experts had finished swirling, sniffing, spitting and marking each wine out of 20 points, to their consternation they found that they had ranked three of the California Chardonnays in the top four, with pride of place going to Château Montelena 1973.

Discomfited 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. Lined up for California were Stag's Leap Wine Cellars 1973, Clos du Val 1972, Heitz Martha's Vineyard 1970, Mayacamus Vineyards 1971, Ridge Montebello 1971 and Freemark Abbey 1969.

Carrying the French colours for Bordeaux were Château Léoville-Las-Cases 1971, Château Montrose 1970, Château Haut-Brion 1970 and Château Mouton-Rothschild 1970.

When the scores were tabulated the winning wine was Stag's Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon 1973 with the Mouton-Rothschild 1970 a close second, followed by Château Montrose 1970 and Château Haut-Brion 1970. The fifth place went to Ridge Montebello 1971. Château Léoville-Las-Cases 1971 came sixth, Mayacamus Vineyards 1971 seventh, Clos du Val 1972 eighth, followed by Heitz and then Freemark Abbey.

The Judgement of Paris had legitimized the nascent California wine industry and made the Bordelais and Burgundians look to their vine 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 1982 I met Bruno Pratts in Toronto. He was the proprietor then of Cos d'Estournel and Petit-Village, two highly respected Bordeaux châteaux. He brought up the subject of the Paris tasting during our interview and agreed that California wines show well in blind tastings. "But," he said, "What would you rather drink with your dinner? A wine that seduces you with its fruit and bores the palate after one glass or a wine that is elegant and refined and can be consumed with pleasure throughout the meal?"

I had to admit that Pratts had a point. Cool climate wines with their elegance and acid balance make much better companions at the dinner table over the long term. But, let's face it, California wines are fun.




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