Remembering the Judgement of Paris | The Greatest Underdog Story in Wine History

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24th May 1976 | The 48th Anniversary

 

On the 24th May 1976, a wine competition in Paris organised by Steven Spurrier, an English wine merchant working in Paris, had a huge impact on the reputation of New World wines. Spurrier wanted to introduce American wines to the French markets, as he had noticed than much of his customer base at his merchants, Le Caves de la Madeleine, favoured French products. But Spurrier himself could not have anticipated what was about to unfold.

This competition became known as the ‘Judgement of Paris’. An allusion to the ancient Greek myth, and event which led up to the Trojan War, and later the foundation of Rome. The 1976 event saw a historic turning point for the fine wine market which laid the foundations for the expansion of the American fine wine market.

The Judgement of Paris consisted of two blind tasting, one of premium Chardonnays and another of red wines (Bordeaux and Californian Cabernet Sauvignon). This caused quite a stir, as a Napa Valley wine rated best in each category, beating out the reputable French counterparts.

By the early 1970s, California were already producing high-quality wines, but few took any notice as they typically favoured the French classics. But this judgement cemented their reputation for producing outstanding wines, and people finally began to take an interest. New World wines were finally receiving the recognition they deserved.

For the tasting, the judges were instructed to score out of 20, but with no specific grading framework, the scores of the entirely-French panel were used to reach an average. For the white wine, the top scorer was a 1973 Chateau Montelena, a Napa Valley winery, scoring 132 points. All of the judges awarded their highest scores to either Montelena, or another Napa winery, Chalone Vineyards. Jim Barrett, Montelena’s part-owner, exclaimed “not bad for kids from the sticks” as they celebrated their shock win. For the reds, the US prevailed again. The winner was Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, for its 1973 Napa Cabernet Sauvignon scoring 127.5. No one expected a Cabernet from California to have the capacity to beat out the finest wines of Bordeaux. In both categories, the American wines flourished and astounded the panel. They had trounced their French rivals.

Whilst the French wines still continued to perform highly, no one expected them to be edged out by these New World styles. The results were broke to the world by George M. Taber from Time magazine. Taber reported how the panel was confused by the origins of the wines, with one judge stating “that is definitely Californian, it has no nose”, whilst sipping a ’73 Batard Montrachet. When these results were revealed, there was evident outrage from the French wine industry, who ultimately banned Spurrier from the nation’s prestigious wine-tasting tour for a year. One of the judges, Odette Khan, a renowned French critic, was so enraged that she demanded her ballot back (unsuccessfully), and wrote disparagingly about the event after the fact. The results had certainly shook up the French trade.

On May 24th 2006, Spurrier organised a 30-year anniversary re-enactment of the tastings. Paralleling the original event, nine expert tasters judged the original selection of wines, which were now standing at thirty years older. The winning wine of the reds this time, was the Californian Ridge Vineyards Monte Bello. The results this time showed that the US wines had not only proved their quality, but their longevity. “It’s absolutely wonderful that California wines have shown that they can age as well as Bordeaux wines”, said Spurrier.

This week, at the London Wine Fair, the ‘Judgement of London’ was held, in homage to this historic tasting. This time, 8 pairs of reds and 8 pairs of white were tasted in order to compare and contrast European wines, compared with the rest of the world. The purpose of this event was to give a snapshot of the fine wine landscape, almost 50 years on from the original judgement. The broader range of wines reflects the modern scene, and the fact that the terms “New World” and “Old World” can no longer be seen as predicators of style. The resultant winning white was Pegasus Bay Riesling, Bel Canto, Waipara, New Zealand 2011, closely followed by Polish Hill Riesling, Grosset, Clare Valley, Australia 2012. For the reds, the first place position was taken by Hermitage Rouge, Jean Louis Chave, Rhone 2012, succeeded by Ch. Mouton Rothschild, Pauillac, Bordeaux 2009. The results were close, with Europe taking the lead overall by just 0.65%. Results which couldn’t better reflect today’s fine wine market, where exceptional wine is now coming from all corners of the world.

 

The 1976 tasting had a revolutionary impact on expanding the production and prestige of New World wines and changed the fate of Napa Valley forever. As well as giving the French industry the incentive to review their own traditions and potentially make the move towards modernity. It was a historic turning point for the fine wine scene, one which is still provoking discussions today.

In honour of the anniversary of this historic judgement, we wanted to highlight to you a selection of our American fine wines, including a rare bottle from ‘Stags Leap Winery’, the winning producer at the 1976 Judgement of Paris.

2010 Shafer Vineyards Hillside Select Stags Leap £420.00 DP 1x75cl

“A remarkable wine, the 2010 Shafer Cabernet Sauvignon Hillside Select has gone from strength to strength since it was in cask. It is stunningly rich, with classic, fragrant notes of blackcurrants, blackberries, vanilla, graphite and spring flowers. It exhibits an opaque purple colour, with a full-bodied, massive mouthfeel, but no heaviness, and again, a flawless integration of acidity, tannin, alcohol and wood. It’s classic California Cabernet, but beautifully put together, showing impeccable craftsmanship and fabulous potential.” – 100/100 points,  Robert Parker

Link to shop: Shafer 2010

1992 Stag’s Leap Winery, Cask 23 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley £540.00 DP 1x75cl

“The 1992 Cask 23 boasts a dense, black/ruby/purple colour, and a knock-out bouquet of black fruits, smoke, chocolate, and liquorice. like all Cask 23’s, it is exceedingly easy to drink, with a voluptuous texture, fabulously rich, expansive, sweet (from extract not sugar) flavours, and silky tannin on the finish” – 96/100 points, Robert Parker

Link to shop: Stag’s Leap 1992

2018 Opus One, Napa £1,600.00 IB 6x75cl

“The 2018 Opus One soars out of the glass with bright, bold boysenberries, warm cassis and ripe, juicy black plums notes, plus emerging nuances of lilacs, oolong tea, cinnamon stick, tilled soil and black truffles. Medium to full-bodied, the palate is packed with tightly wound layers of crunchy black fruits, supported by firm, grainy tannins and fantastic freshness, finishing with lifted fruitiness and on a lingering mineral note.” – 98/100 points, Robert Parker

Link to shop: Opus One 2018

2021 Au Bon Climat, Wild Boy Chardonnay, Santa Barbara County £37.80 DP 1x75cl

From one of California’s top-rated vineyards, this outstanding Chardonnay displays fleshy brioche and ripe citrus flavours. Made in more of a Burgundian style rather than the big, rich, overly oaked examples that are becoming past fashionable. Beautifully constructed, fresh pear and white peach scents are sharpened by citrus notes.

Link to shop: Wild Boy 2021

2021 Kendall Jacksons, Vintner’s Reserve, Cabernet Sauvignon £24.00 DP 1x75cl

The Vintner’s Reserve is a vibrant, full-bodied Cabernet from one of California’s leading producers. Intense aromas of cassis, blueberry and blackberry are followed by notes of cedar and mocha. Beautifully structured with fresh acidity and firm, ripe tannins.

Link to shop: Jackson Cabernet 2021

2019 Ramey, Chardonnay, Russian River Valley £62.00 DP 1x75cl

Aromas of citrus peel, quince and almonds with a unique, super-spicy undercurrent. The medium-bodied palate offers intense, ripe fruits in a seamless, silky package, and it finishes long and lush. A brilliant example from a highly respected winery of California’s Sonoma County.

Link to shop: Ramey Chardonnay 2019

 

DP = Duty Paid | IB = In Bond

Isobel SalterRemembering the Judgement of Paris | The Greatest Underdog Story in Wine History

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