Occasionally I re-visit an established Napa estate to see what has become of it, its owners, and/or its wines (Plus Ca Change, 3/6; If It’s Not in the Vineyard…, 3/12; The Red Room, 3/23).
Comparisons may be odious but sometimes they’re unavoidable. The contents of goatskins and amphorae were no doubt compared long before bottles; the Bordelaise made wine comparisons official with their famous classification of 1855, which assigned a rank to each chateau according to the average market price and perceived quality of its wine. This theoretical pancake stack, topped by the “first growths” of Bordeaux, though long since outmoded has survived.
Fortunes were and are still made on that original hierarchy, and despite complaints from the owners of chateaux whose wine deserves to be elevated, the French have been reluctant to change things. And quasi-official competitions between the best French and California wines have had a similar effect on American fortunes, especially the one took place in 1976, the famous blind “Paris tasting” held by the Académie du Vin.
The French wine critics participating mistook some California wines for French ones, with all the attendant blather. Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars from Napa was chosen as the best cabernet out of a stellar lot that included two much more expensive first growths, and as a result Stag’s Leap was instantly canonized and Chateau Montelena came in first in the whites, Napa thus beating out hallowed bordeauxs and burgundies.
Many know of all this because of a silly movie – Bottle Shock – that focused on the (largely fabricated) chardonnay storyline instead of the more interesting cabernet one. The ten cabs tasted in 1976 were, in order of rank, the Stag’s Leap '73, France's Chateau Mouton-Rothschild ’70, Château Haut-Brion '70, and Château Montrose '70; California’s Ridge Vineyards Monte Bello ’71, Bordeaux’s Château Léoville Las Cases '71, and California’s Mayacamas '71, Clos du Val ’72, Heitz Cellars Martha’s Vineyard '70, and Freemark Abbey '69.
The defense offered by the French in trembling voices was that the wines of Bordeaux were built to last, while California cabernets were more approachable at an
early age. So the Académie du Vin - founded by the rigorous Englishman Steven Spurrier - arranged a second tasting of the same wines about a decade later, this time in New York. The judges were all American, with the exception of the English director of the Académie, and one Frenchman, the sommelier from the Ritz in Paris.
The Americans were all respected wine professionals without a noticeable California bias, but it was another slam-dunk victory for the Californians. The wines were ranked in that blind tasting as follows: Clos du Val ’72, Ridge Monte Bello '71, Montrose '70, Léoville-Las Cases ’71, Mouton '70, Stag’s Leap ’73, Heitz '70, Mayacamas '71, and Haut-Brion ’70.
This tasting seemed to answer the big question about the ability of California cabernets to age well, with some caveats: Freemark Abbey didn’t compete, and Stag’s Leap went from first to sixth place. But the 1970 vintage in Bordeaux had produced highly concentrated, often quite tannic wines that required a lot of age. I remember tasting a '70 Las Cases in the late ‘90s that was still hard as a nail, and a Leoville-Barton '70 that had begun to dry out but was still mouth-puckering.
Barbara Ensrud, a wine writer and one of the judges, said that the bordeauxs seemed a bit harder to her, but that the differences among the top six wines were infinitesimal. "They were all very good," she added. The stand-outs, however, were Ridge, and Chateau Montrose, since both made the cut in both tastings and both improved in rank, and Napa’s Clos du Val, which had won.
This was ironic since the man responsible for its success was the Frenchman, Bernard Portet, who grew up in Bordeaux where his father was the winemaker at first-growth Chateau Lafite-Rothschild. Bernard came to Napa in 1972 to manage the fledgling Clos du Val vineyards and winery, and made consistently good wines until he retired two years ago. But Portet’s vines were only five years old when the Clos du Val '72 was made, where the vines in Bordeaux were 25 to 30 years old.
Portet had a theory about aging: "It’s a staircase. In California, the nose and color change first, followed by taste. In France, aging is more streamlined." Fortunately his standards for making wine endured, the most important being balance. This is still apparent in the ‘07 reserve cabernet (with 15 per cent petit verdot and 5 per cent merlot), deeply-colored, with intense black fruit flavors and a long finish. It should be put away indefinitely.
The somewhat less expensive Clos du Val ’07 cabernet from Stags Leap district (with 6 per cent merlot) has a deeply garnet hue, complex dark fruit, and a good finish with detectable tannins. I left it standing open for an hour after first tasting it and the expansion of flavor and intensity was striking. I would put this one away for at least three years.Clos du Val’s least expensive cab ($38) is the ’09 Napa Valley, made from their vineyards in Stags Leap, Oakville and Yountville districts, drinkable sooner than its mightier siblings and also offering signature black fruit and commendably low alcohol of 13.5 percent. This is a wine with its own historic provenance, imbued with the essence of the ever-reinterpretable cabernet sauvignon.