In 1976, a British wine merchant, Steven Spurrier, organized a blind tasting competition between high quality French and California wines, both white and red. To Spurrier’s surprise a California wine placed first in each category thus putting California on the wine map.
But there has always been controversy about this competition because in some ways the French wines were set up to lose. The French wines were from bad vintages unlike the California wines, they were too young to drink since the French make their wines to age, there were fewer French wines in the flights, and some of the French stars such as Lafite and Petrus were left out of the line up.
Like many before her, Master of Wine Jennie Cho Lee has taken on the enviable task of organizing a new competition between France and California with scrupulous attention to getting a fair representation from both regions:
The initial greatest hits list from Bordeaux and Napa included 64 legendary wines like Cheval Blanc 1947, Petrus 1961, Le Pin 1982, Heitz Cellars Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 1974 and Ridge Montebello 1978. One theme emerged after analyzing this extensive list: the 1990s was a fantastic decade for both Napa and Bordeaux, which meant if we narrowed our selection to this decade, from 1989 to 1999, then both regions would have a fair shot of winning. Plus, the advantage of having about 20 years of bottle age would benefit the wines from both regions.
The lucky judges were Cho and several Hong Kong based collectors.
Here is the list of wines that ultimately made it into the competition.
1 1991 Dominus Estate Cabernet Sauvignon
2 1990 Chateau Margaux
3 1993 Abreu Madrona Ranch
4 1994 Le Pin
5 1996 Chateau Lafite Rothschild
6 1997 Bryant Family Vineyard Proprietor Grown Cabernet Sauvignon
7 1997 Colgin Herb Lamb Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon
8 1996 Chateau Mouton Rothschild
9 1991 Harlan
10 1990 Chateau Montrose
11 1995 Dalla Valle Maya
12 1990 Chateau La Mission Haut-Brion
13 1995 Araujo Eisele Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon
14 1989 Chateau Haut-Brion
15 1990 Petrus
16 1994 Screaming Eagle
Not a bad tasting—the article doesn’t say who paid for it.
So who won the competition? The scores and final verdict are here. The top five were all French, although the scores were close, with Chateau Haut Brion 1989 taking the top honor and Screaming Eagle 1994 placing 6th, the latter being the best liked Napa wine.
As Cho concludes:
At the pinnacle of quality, Bordeaux seems to have an advantage over Napa. Perhaps it is the older vines, or the multiple century’s head start on wine growing and making, or the cooler growing conditions, or the leaner frame that allows more detail and nuances to express themselves. Whatever the explanation, this blind tasting showed that for pure quality, Bordeaux is inimitable but Napa has its charm. At this extreme, high end of the quality spectrum, the difference between a 97-point or 100-point wine, comes down to personal taste.
This outcome does not surprise me. In my limited experience with wines of this quality when it comes to age-ability Bordeaux cannot be beat. I recently tasted a 1978 Chateau Margaux that was still exquisite. But if this competition were held with recently released wines, my guess is the results would be reversed.
The difference is not only terroir or winemaking skill but culture. The French value age-ability more than Americans do, which is not surprising given the resonance of their history that goes back several centuries.