In honour of the late Steven Spurrier we have put together a list of Californian wines: some that featured in his famous 1976 Judgement of Paris tasting where they outperformed their French counterparts, and some that didn’t but certainly benefited from the event.
Spurrier played a key role in the development of New World wines and particularly those from California. By putting relatively unknown Californian producers against well-known French producers at a blind-tasting over 40 years ago he encouraged the world to take wines from outside Europe, and France in particular, more seriously. Spurrier’s likely intention was for an interesting event rather than a ground-breaking moment in wine history but this merely adds to the charm. And the anger and outrage from the French judges at having praised the Californian wines so highly at the time makes it all the more entertaining.
Hindsight has allowed for many arguments to be put forward in terms of whether the scoring was truly ‘fair’ as well as looking at the French vintages judged. Many argue the French wines put forward were from average years and therefore hindered from the beginning. However, despite the caveats, these hitherto unknown producers from Napa made an impression on the judges (albeit unwelcome) and subsequently the wider wine industry. The judges were highly trained and educated wine experts making it difficult to feel they were misled by a mere merchant.
Regardless of what people thought then and how they feel about the Judgement of Paris tasting now, California, particularly Napa, has firmly established itself as one of the top wine regions in the world.
2010 Chateau Montelena Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley (Magnum) £280 per bottle
Montelena topped the list of Chardonnay with their 1973 vintage. They have since gone on to establish themselves as a consistent, quality driven producer in the region particularly for Cabernet Sauvignon. 2010 was a vintage with a fruit forward appeal rather than the classic Cabernet style Montelena is known for. As a result it is more approachable in its younger years and has hit its stride already.
2017 Ridge Vineyards Monte Bello £245 per bottle
The Ridge Vineyards Monte Bello, their signature Cabernet Sauvignon, did well at the 1976 tasting and even better when revisited for several anniversary tastings decades later. This makes the 2017 a very young offering but is a very highly rated vintage and one that should last a good while. A full bodied, classic Californian Bordeuax blend, it has good balance and depth of flavour that should evolve over the next decade and more.
2012 Joseph Phelps Vineyards Insignia £210 per bottle
Joseph Phelps weren’t part of the Paris tasting but with their first vintage produced in 1974 the shift in focus to Californian producers helped them along the way. Insignia is their flagship Bordeaux blend and is known for its ageing capabilities with some vintages still going after 30 years. The 2012 is one of these long lasting, bold, inky wines that has a fairly hefty repertoire of flavours but doesn’t lack elegance.
2016 L’Aventure For Her Paso Robles £165
L’Aventure have stuck with the trend for French blends but this time from the Rhône with a Syrah and Viognier blend that has all the classic notes of a good Côte Rôtie but in a very Californian way. 2016 is a great vintage of For Her with a smooth, velvety texture that allows all the spice, pepper and red-berry fruit to come through easily.
2013 Calera Wine Company Reed Vineyard Pinot Noir Mount Harlan £82 per bottle
Another producer that started in the 1970’s Calera began planting Pinot Noir and Chardonnay on an old limestone quarry in Mount Harlan on the basis that these grape varieties enjoyed limestone soils in Burgundy and might well prove the same in California. The logic paid off and Calera are a well-regarded producer from the region. The 2013 single vineyard Reed Pinot Noir is well-balanced and elegant with a distinctive Californian style.