The Losh Cause – Tasting confirms new world order, again
A tasting pitting the finest Bordeaux wines against their Californian counterparts confirmed what many in the wine world have known for years but some in Europe still choose to deny - that the New World can match and often surpass the Old in every market segment, right up to the very top. Chris Losh sets them straight.
The Judgment of Paris might appear an absurdly grand name to give to a wine tasting, sounding as it does more like a key episode from the French Revolution than a gathering of wine critics.
Yet it's not so hyperbolic as it might seem, since this 1976 tasting was genuinely revolutionary, marking the coming of age of the New World in the fine wine sphere and setting a marker for complacent Old World estates.
The Judgment (as it came to be known) was intended as an academic exercise to see how well some of California's finest Cabernets from the early-1970s stacked up against top Bordeaux of the same vintages, and all the tasters involved thought it would be no more than a bit of fun.
Yet 30 years ago yesterday, when the results of the blind tasting were revealed, the story reverberated around the wine world in a matter of hours. Europe's aristocrats had been comprehensively trounced, their reputations metaphorically guillotined by a completely impartial panel, many of whom were French and ran histrionically into the night wailing of 'scandale'.
This week saw, if you like, a return match. The same protagonists from 1976 were lined up and tasted blind by respected panels in London and California. This time France was quietly (rather than supremely) confident that over a period of several decades its class would out.
And once again, its expectations were confounded. The tasting panels on both sides of the Atlantic picked out the same wine as the star, and it came not from Bordeaux but from California. Adding insult to injury, so did all the top five wines…
There will doubtless be those who point out that the results were skewed by the heavy bias towards Californian wines shown by the tasting panel in the US - and certainly their "Caliphilia" is the main reason for the Golden State's clean sweep of the top places. Yet even the European panel (including French tasters, don't forget) gave three of the top six places to US wines, and what's more gave higher marks to the overall winner, the 1971 Monte Bello from Ridge Vineyards in Santa Cruz California, than the American tasters did.
The conclusion? The best wines from the New World deserve every bit as much respect as their counterparts from Europe, whether French, Spanish, Italian or whatever.
You might not think that such a bland truism is especially newsworthy, or even needed proving in the first place, particularly if you're reading this from a New World country. Yet it's astonishing how even apparently incontrovertible evidence like this tends to be ignored in favour of sloppy, outdated clichés if it happens to be inconveniently contrary to what European producers want to hear.
Earlier this week I was in Italy, where a Chianti producer told me in all seriousness that New World wines 'lacked personality' - a criticism that would have been easier to accept were his own wines not entirely lobotomised themselves, and expensive to boot.
And in the same way that European wineries didn't want to accept that their supermarket fortress was in danger until invaders from Australia, Chile et al. were inside the gates, so too, perhaps, with the fine wines.
No-one of any intelligence would conclude from this result that Bordeaux's top wines aren't any good. Latour, for instance, is now widely reckoned to be Bordeaux's top wine from the early-70s and might have taken the top slot had it been included. But it wasn't at the rematch because it hadn't been at the first taste-off in 1976.
In any case, arguing about which wines were and weren't there misses the point, which is, as one of the tasters, Jasper Morris MW, puts it, that "wine can be wonderful wherever it's from".
Or, to put it another way: whatever Europe's vinous aristocrats might think, respect is not automatically conferred by birthright, but has to be continually earned if it is to be retained. As rather a lot of non-vinous aristocrats found out to their cost (also in Paris) over 200 years ago.
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