When Titans Collide

Months of gleeful anticipation finally came to an end last Wednesday as perhaps the greatest tasting I have ever thrown came to pass. The tasting, entitled “Bordeaux Battle 2009” pitted some of Napa Valley’s greatest Cabernet Sauvignon’s against some of the most sought after wines from Bordeaux. Not only were these some of the hottest wines on the planet, I was also able to secure some awesome older vintages of these wines (which is likely why the event sold out within a couple of weeks).

The rivalry between the wines of California and Bordeaux is not a new concept. On the 24th of May, 1976 English wine merchant Steven Spurrier hosted a tasting in Paris that turned the world of wine on it’s head. At this time the Napa Valley was still relatively unknown in the world of wine and it was very different from the wine super-power it has become today. Most members of the European wine community would have considered the Napa Valley to be full of red necks and hippies with no chance of ever competing against the great wine regions of France.

This historic tasting, which would later come to be known as the “Judgement of Paris”, saw the best Cabernet Sauvignon based red wines from the Napa Valley and the French region of Bordeaux do battle. This tasting also featured California’s greatest Chardonnay’s going head to head against some of the greatest White Burgundies. Ultimately the tasting, which was conducted blind (ie no one knew which order the wines were poured in) by a group French judge’s saw a Californian emerge in top spot in both the whites and the reds. The wine world erupted and the rise in fame of California and the Napa Valley had begun.

Needless to say when I came across an opportunity to conduct my own little version of this classic battle I couldn’t resist. The tasting room at Bin 905 Wine and Spirits was abuzz as thirteen wine lovers sat facing me at the table. In front of us sat seven glasses containing some of the greatest wines in the world and as we dived in the excitement grew. I had my good friend Sylvain pour the wines from paper bags in an order of his choice so effectively no one at the table, including me, knew which wine was in which glass. We knew there were three California Cabernet’s, three Bordeaux’s and one ringer bottle but it quickly became clear it was not going to be easy to differentiate them. Many of the California wines used Bordeaux as a benchmark and it was clear they had hit the targets. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect tasting through the wines was how unique each of them was. Wine number one kept drawing me back with its unreal aroma’s of blackberry and cassis. Wine number two was showing more secondary aroma’s and flavours of damp earth, green spice and tobacco.  Wine number four was far richer and more approachable, causing many in the group to claim it was definitely one of the Californians. Although very unique it was clear these were all wines of outstanding quality and I could have sat and tasting those wines for hours.

After all of the participants, including myself, had tasted through the wines I brought out score cards and had the group rank each of the wines from their most favourite to their least favourite. It was a tough task for sure and as I tallied up the votes the anticipation rose to a fever pitch. Once the dust had cleared there were more than a few surprises. Here was the final results, in order from first place to last.

1. 1997 Dominus Estate (California) – California comes out on top with this stunning wine. This showed perfect balance between new world and old world style, balancing delicious Californian style ripe fruit with the leather and moist tobacco notes of a great Bordeaux. This should come as no surprise as Dominus is the Californian property of Christian Moueix, winemaker and owner of the legendary Chateau Petrus from Pomerol in Bordeaux. With current vintages of Chateau Petrus fetching several thousands of dollars and all of the Bordeaux competition in this tasting coming in at 3 times it’s price, this truly is a relative bargain at around $150.00 on the shelf. Stunning.

2. 1996 Ridge Monte Bello (California)- Heralding from the high elevation vineyards of the Santa Cruz Mountains, this is another legendary Californian gem. The nose on this wine was absolutely stunning and kept drawing me back again and again. As the first wine poured in the tasting this set the bar high and has made me even more excited for the prized bottle in my collection…a magnum of 1987 Monte Bello. California takes the top 2!

3. 1995 Chateau Mouton Rothschild (Bordeaux) – Few names in the wine world command the awe and respect of Mouton. The only estate to ever be elevated to first growth status after the original classification of 1855, this is truly the stuff of legend. This was tight and not giving up much on the nose. On the palate the purity of the acidity and finesse of the tannins were simply stunning. This may well need another 3-5 years to truly show it’s potential.

4.1995 Robert Mondavi Reserve Cabernet (California) – Another name that needs no introduction Robert Mondavi was the driving force that elevated the wines of the Napa Valley to the fame they share today. Although Robert Mondavi has passed away, this is a great example of how his legacy is living on. The most approachable, lush and inviting of the tasting this wine caused many in the tasting to immediately exclaim that it must be from California. This is simply delicious and drinking beautifully right now.

5. 1996 Chateau Angelus (Bordeaux) – This was an odd man out in the line-up being the only wine to be made predominately from Merlot (with a healthy chunk of Cabernet Franc thrown in the blend). This wine blew me away and I deducted that this must be the Angelus simply from its sheer power. Showing almost no colour degradation (or fading of the colour) this wine tasted like it could have been bottled a year ago rather than it’s true 13+ years of age. The finish on this wine lasted for a good minute with masses of tannin, acidity and dark fruit pumping through. As with the Mouton this wine needs several more years to show it’s true potential. Just awesome.

6. 1997 Chateau Latour (Bordeaux) – 1997 was not a stellar vintage in Bordeaux and it definitely showed through in this wine. Chateau Latour is considered by many to be the greatest of the 5 first growth estates. Given it’s grand reputation and the fact that is was the most expensive bottle at the tasting, the 6th place finish was a harsh blow. I still really enjoyed this wine with its distinct green/vegetal spice notes, dust, cedar, tobacco and elegant delivery however it was simply did not deliver quite as much drinking pleasure as it’s peers.

7. 1997 Errazuriz Don Maximiano (Chile) – This was the ringer that I threw into the tasting and most of the participants were able to pick it out of the line-up. Even though it placed last I thought this was still outstanding given it’s distinction as the least expensive bottle in the line-up. Still fresh and juicy, this showed the distinct green pepper/earth/spice on the nose that is unmistakably Chilean. A great value that in the end was just outside the reach of its world class competition.

Although there had to be a winner crowned in the end, I was very happy and impressed with all of these wines. It was a rare treat to try a line-up of this stature and the excellent company present at the tasting made this a night I will not soon forget.





  1. Pingback: 2009 Year in Review « Vine Arts: Wine made simple

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