Luck or judgement?
Whether due to terrific bad luck or mono-cultural planting of vines in Europe in the early 1860s, when a particularly prolific and persistent aphid called phylloxera stowed away in the roots of some American vines on a steam ship from the US it took 40 years for the French wine industry to recover from its effects. First it took a long time to identify the cause that laid waste to at least two-thirds of European vineyards. Then various methods to try to stop it failed to work; this ranged from toads, hens and tobacco to chemical sprays and wee – bizarrely in Beaujolais, schoolboys were taken from their classrooms twice a day to urinate over vines. Eventually grafting European vines onto the American root-stock which had harboured the disease (and was also resistant to it) was adopted, with large-scale replanting of French vineyards commencing in the 1890s. No wonder the French held a grudge.
So in 1976 when a prominent British wine merchant, organised a high-profile blind tasting of top wines from Bordeaux against upstarts from California, named the judgement of Paris, just imagine how much salt must have been poured in old wounds when a Cabernet Sauvignon from Stag’s Leap, USA, won.
Was it luck, bad voting methodology or meticulous study of French winemaking practices and techniques by the Americans which led to this outcome? It’s still open to debate.
My eagerness to taste wines from two of the American wineries which were included in the Judgement of Paris meant I was among the first to arrive at Cave in Conrad, Dubai. Pah to the whites, I politely sipped some Stag’s Leap Sauvignon Blanc and then abandoned it to leap (like a stag?) into the reds.
Whether the French care to admit it or not, the influence that at first went one way across the Atlantic has come back in the other direction. For one, the scores given by Robert Parker’s (critic of The Wine Spectator) can impact on the sale of a wine to such a degree that wine makers may have pandered to the styles he rates most highly. Would I be able to detect a difference between French wines and these stellar names from the US?
Trying to keep an open mind, some preconceptions still lurk with words like ‘fruit bomb’ spinning around in my head before I’ve taken a single sip. My previous experience of tasting fine wines from the US has been slender, primarily Robert Mondavi and Opus One, so I’m raring to go. The wines are poured and my tastebuds cross the Atlantic with:
Ridge Vineyards, Monte Bello, Santa Cruz Mountains, 2010 (620 aed)
The green lighting in Cave means that it’s always difficult to judge the colour of the wine. Angling it by a candle (oh why do they use vanilla scented ones at a wine tasting?) over a white plate it seems to be medium intensity, with a watery purple rim – but don’t quote me. The nose takes me into Jo Malone. There is no need to drink this. I can just stand here all night inhaling. Dark lush berries, deep cedar with an edge given through a vegetal, mossy note and graphite (pencil shavings). Not quite so soft and lush on the palate sadly, this still needs age to round the slightly tight tannins. Cigar box and blackcurrants, and the finish of black, cherry sweets and hints of liquorice persist satisfyingly.
Dominus 2009 (890 aed)
This is much more nuanced on the nose after the Ridge with cigar box and cedar prominent and reticent black fruits which take a while to develop into layers of spice and mocha. There is a strange, not unpleasant, dustiness on the palate reminiscent of dried thyme, leading to soft mulberries, tobacco and significant length. Balanced, lean, subtle – a wine for the head and the heart and with loads of aging potential.
Coup de Foudre Cuvee 37.2 2009 (580 aed)
Clean summer fruit nose with tiny pops of vanilla and elusive wafts of tar – like sniffing ‘Black Jack’ sweets. Rounded, soft, velvety, luscious summer pudding fruits on the palate, an exquisite soft mouthfeel, violet freshness and a slight graphite, cooked cherry finish. I wanted to tuck this bottle away and finish it off curled up on the sofa. Sadly I mentioned this to all my companions and they agreed so I didn’t get to taste anymore.
Stags Leap Wine Cellars, Napa Valley, Fay Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 (330 aed)
Expecting this one to be ultra-heavy, I was a bit reluctant to break the spell of the last wine. The nose totally shocked me – it was like a Dime bar – coffee, chocolate, caramel with a little bit of raisin. The taste was not the assault that I thought it would be despite all the descriptions that now follow. A mouth full of soft black fruits with a hint of tar and lots of milk chocolate and vanilla, blackcurrant sweets and tobacco. Very un-French in style – if this had been in the judgement it would have stood out a mile… but I’m longing to taste it again with a great piece of sirloin.
The Paring Red 2009 (150 aed)
I probably didn’t do this justice by tasting it last. Bright cherry and vanilla on the nose, the blackcurrant and vanilla in the mouth potentially deserve the term ‘fruit bomb’ but acidity saves it from tipping over the edge into ‘Molly Dooker’ land. Will buy some to taste on its own without such stellar companions.
We also tasted Marimar Chardonnay, Don Miguel Vineyard, Russian River Valley 2005 (150 aed) , Stags Leap Wine Cellars, Napa Valley, Sauvignon Blanc 2012 (150 aed) and Hyde de Vilaine Chardonnay 2010 (290 aed). *
Maybe coincidence, but unlike most of the other Le Clos tasting sessions, I didn’t hear one French accent in the room.
So my personal conclusion from this tasting is that, apart from the Dominus, these Californian wines have their own distinct styles, very different from Bordeaux. Forward rounded fruits and masses oak driven aromas and flavours; these are showier and accessible wines but with plenty of complexity to keep them interesting. The Dominus had most affinity with Bordeaux probably due to French owner and acclaimed winemaker Christian Moueix at the helm.
So is it luck that the French still remain the benchmark of fine wine standards in the world – or do they? (In this 2011 article Andrew Jefford deems the Bordelais very lucky.) Would love to hear your thoughts.
*All prices at time of writing for Le Clos at Al Hamra Cellar – most also available at Le Clos in Dubai airport terminal 3 concourse A and B.