Thirty years after a shock defeat, French wines lose again to Californians in the great taste test

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The Independent Online

When eight of the finest palates in France gathered at the Intercontinental Hotel in Paris 30 years ago to sample the latest offerings from up-and-coming Californian winemakers, the day began in an atmosphere of relaxed informality.

In attempt to spice up the proceedings, the organiser Steven Spurrier thought it would be fun to compare American wine with the best French through blind tastings ­a decision that sent shockwaves through the wine trade.

Tasters stormed out crying "scandale" when the Paris tasting found the Californian wines had beaten the finest Bordeaux and Burgundies the natives could offer in white and red categories. New World wine had arrived.

Last night, exactly 30 years later, Mr Spurrier and the wine dealers Berry Brothers assembled 80 experts from both sides of the Atlantic to recreate the experiment. Meeting at Berry Brothers in Piccadilly and at Copia in the heart of Californian winemaking country, they tested the original wines to see if they had stood the test of time.

Almost unthinkably, California routed the French even more convincingly than it did three decades ago, upturning the critics' damning predictions that Napa Valley's grapes would not age so well.

The experts' top five wines yesterday were all Californian ­ among them the runaway winner, the 1971 Ridge Monte Bello.

"This has come as a real surprise to me," said Mr Spurrier, casting a doubletake at his tasting notes. "The Ridge Monte Bello was my top wine ­ warm and spicy with no sign of age, as fragrant as a fine Bordeaux, elegant and beautifully balanced."

In second place, some considerable distance behind, was the 1973 Stags' Leap ­ a shock in itself, given recent reports that it had deteriorated. The third spot went jointly to the 1971 Mayacamas ("concentrated, bursting with fruit and youthful," according to Mr Spurrier) and the 1970 Heitz Martha's Vineyard.

It is not until you search down the rankings to sixth place that the French register an appearance, courtesy of the 1970 Château Mouton-Rothschild.

The result will be about as palatable to the Rothschilds as a glass of cheap plonk, after their initial attempted boycott of the event. Due to the late hour the result emerged, it was not clear whether ­ or rather, how ­ they would seek to challenge the findings. Amid the pre-tasting tension, it was clear huge national pride hung on the outcome.

"What happened in 1976 was a complete shot in the arm for the Californian wine industry," Mr Spurrier said. "Until then growers had been having terrible trouble convincing leading restaurants even in Washington or New York to serve Californian wine. But two days later everything changed. It was a bloody good thing. Not only did it convince people that something good was coming out of California but it was a much-needed wake-up call for the French."

Another of the judges, Jasper Morris, agreed that the 1976 result " helped weed out slack practices in France". For the straggling French, then, it is a call back to the vines.

For the winner, immortality beckons. Both of the original champions ­ a 1973 chardonnay from Château Montelena and the 1973 cabernet sauvignon from Stags' Leap Wine Cellars ­ are on display at the Smithsonian.

Upstarts from New World savour glorious victoire

Imagine real Abba fans going to a Bjorn Again concert and you will get an impression of how participants contemplated this 30th anniversary " Judgement of Paris" tasting. What happens may bear a passing resemblance to the 1976 event, but it doesn't come close to the extraordinary impact of the original. When the 1976 tasting was first mooted, none of the nine French judges, nor even Steven Spurrier, the wine critic behind it, considered the possibility of anything other than glorious victoire for the French.

The fact that a California cabernet and chardonnay were judged superior to the crème de le crème of Bordeaux and Burgundy was more than a blow to Gallic amour-propre. At a stroke, it shattered the myth of the superiority of French terroir and handed California, and the New World with it, the confidence to believe it could beat Les Bleus. And it has. New World fine wines have arrived and regularly trounce French counterparts in blind tastings.

The bitter memory still lingers in Bordeaux. Although Mr Spurrier's idea in holding a re-run was to have a bit of fun, "Son of Judgement of Paris" has not gone down well there. When told of the plan, Baroness Philippine de Rothschild of Mouton Rothschild refused to supply her wines or allow her cousin, Jacob Rothschild, to stage the event at Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire, as originally envisaged. The boycott attempt shows their belief that they had everything to lose and nothing to gain.

Perhaps they guessed something that we didn't. I predicted that the older Californians would struggle to hold their own against the French wines with a record of ageing gracefully. Last night proved the opposite to be the case ­ an absolutely fascinating and totally unexpected result. Bordeaux will go ballistic.

Anthony Rose, The Independent's wine critic