Montesquieu Winery’s Blind Tasting for the Ages: Comparison of Top Bordeaux, Hermitage and California Wines Offers Lessons to Live By

January 6, 2011, by: Stephen George

With 2010 now behind us, we at Montesquieu Winery have been thinking back on some of our favorite wine experiences of the year.  Near the top of the short list is an epic tasting we did back in June, well before the launch of this blog.  This tasting included such a cool line-up of wines, and brought with it such a bevy of learning points, that we want to share it with you in this space.  Enjoy!

1990 Cheval Blanc. 1990 Margaux. 1990 Latour. 1999 Chave Hermitage. These are some of the greatest wines on earth.  Those who have had the pleasure of experiencing them count themselves fortunate, and each wine is worthy of extended contemplation.  So as you might imagine, opening all of them in the space of five minutes for our tasting was a rather surreal experience, to say the least.

Montesquieu Winery's tasting of 1990 Bordeaux and 1991 California Cabernet

We were inspired to put this tasting together by the famous 1976 Judgment of Paris tasting, in which a panel of French critics blind-tasted California Cabs and First Growth Bordeaux (as well as California Chardonnays and top-flight white Burgundies).  The event was essentially a publicity stunt for the British-born Parisian wine merchant who organized it.  But to the critics’ shock, the California entrants more than held their own, including surprising first-place finishes by the 1973 Stags Leap Cellars Cabernet and 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay.  The results of the tasting put Napa on the map as a wine region, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Our tasting was a little bit different, but cut from the same cloth.  We pitted the best of 1990 Bordeaux against the best of 1991 California Cabernet, followed by a flight of top 1999 red Hermitage and 1999 California Syrah.

 Stéphane Derenoncourt takes notes on the first flight while Hélène Mingot pours the Syrah

Stéphane Derenoncourt takes notes on the first flight while Hélène Mingot pours the Syrahs

Our group consisted of fourteen tasters seated around a long U-shaped table, set against views of the San Francisco Bay at Fort Mason’s Officers Club.  We served and tasted each flight of eight wines single-blind — that is, we had a list of the wines that were present but no one knew which wine was which.  After introductory remarks by Bordeaux-based winemaker/consultant Stéphane Derenoncourt, Rhone winemaker Greg Viennois, and our California winemaker Hélène Mingot,  we tasted the wines in silence, took notes and ranked the wines 1 through 8 in order of our personal preference.  We then discussed our impressions of each wine one-by-one, tallied our votes, and announced the order in which the wines placed on average, revealing the identity of each wine as we did so.

Predictably, the overall quality of the wine was exceedingly high.  But the results were full of surprises.  (Scroll down to see the complete list of wines and how the group ranked them.)

Most interesting, though, were the lessons in wine appreciation that the process of the tasting and the nature of the results offered us.  Here’s some of what we learned:

There’s no relationship between a critic’s score and your enjoyment of a wine

The 1990 Margaux received a perfect 100 points from Robert Parker.  But in our tasting, it finished tied for fifth place out of eight, and not a single person gave it a first place vote (indeed it received one seven and one eight!).  Not only that, but it tied with the 1991 Ridge Monte Bello, which Parker rated a mere 92.

The Margaux wasn’t a bad wine — in fact it was quite lovely — but none of us would have considered it a perfect wine.  And on average, we liked it about the same as a wine that, according to Parker’s palate, fell far short of perfection.  What’s more, the second-place wine among the Syrahs — the 1999 Marc Sorrell Hermitage — was the lowest Parker-rated wine in the entire flight, with a mere 90-point score.

The lesson, as always: trust your own palate, not a critic’s!   A single critic’s score reflects that individual’s subjective impressions of a wine tasted under unique conditions at a particular moment in the wine’s evolution.  It’s not a reliable guide to how much you will enjoy your bottle of that same wine at the moment you choose to drink it.

Price matters less than you think (as does reputation)

Simply put, neither the price of a given wine, nor that wine’s pedigree, correlated directly with how the wine finished in our tasting.

It’s true that the 1990 Cheval Blanc — one of the greatest Bordeaux estates and one of the most expensive wines– finished first on almost everyone’s score card. But it’s also true that one of the cheapest wines in the first flight (and the least prestigious of the Bordeaux), the 1990 Leoville Las Cases, came in second place, beating out Margaux and Latour.

Could our methodology be flawed?  Of course.  These weren’t scientific conditions (wine tasting, however blind, is by its nature a non-scientific process).  But it’s just as likely that price doesn’t matter as much as we’d expect it to, at least when we’re tasting wine without the preconceived notions a price tag brings with it.

Guidance from people who know what they’re talking about enhances your wine experience

Rhone winemaker Greg Viennois discusses the terroirs of Hermitage

Rhone winemaker Greg Viennois discusses the terroirs of Hermitage

During the tasting, we were fortunate enough to have experienced voices in our midst who could give us the kind of background on the estates, terroirs and vintages reflected in our glasses that only comes from focused and repeated tasting of the wines in question.

Stéphane spent time walking us through each Bordeaux estate, helping us understand how they differed from one another and how we might try to identify them. Greg explained how the different plots on the tiny hill of Hermitage taste totally different thanks to soil and exposure variation (so much so that grapes from the climats Le Méal and Le Greal, although separated by only 150 meters, are picked three weeks apart!).  And they each leveraged their vast experience to help us understand how to interpret the scents and flavors we perceived in each wine.

Without these rarefied experts on hand, we still would have had fun.  But their guidance made the experience more educational and more meaningful.

Opinions differ — and that’s ok!

Two of the wines we tasted–one in each flight–sparked remarkably uniform reactions.  The Cheval Blanc showed brilliantly, collecting eleven out of fourteen first place votes (the lowest vote it received was third place), while everyone hated the 1999 Sean Thackrey Orion, which received a startling twelve last-place votes (the highest vote it received was sixth). But aside from that, our reactions fell all over the map, and we often disagreed vociferously over the merits of a particular wine.

Fonda Hopkins, President of Montesquieu Winery, reflects on her impressions of the eight 1999 Syrahs we tasted

Fonda Hopkins, President of Montesquieu Winery, reflects on her impressions of the eight 1999 Syrahs we tasted

The point, as we know, is that individual taste dramatically affects different persons experience with the same wine.  One person can love a wine, and another person can hate it, and they can both be perfectly right. We each have different tastes, and those preferences color how we perceive the quality of any given wine.

This is what makes wine such a fascinating subject and such great fodder for conversation and debate. And, if you’ll forgive the self-promotion for a moment, it’s one of the reasons that we think a relationship-based sales approach like we at Montesquieu Winery embrace offers crucial added value in the wine industry.  Montesquieu wine brokers’ direct, individual conversations with our clients enable us to figure out these issues collaboratively on the basis of each client’s unique palate, something email-offer merchants and most wine shop proprietors simply can’t do.

Results: (number of first place votes in parentheses)

CA Cabernet v. Bordeaux
1 — 1990 Cheval Blanc, St. Emilion (11)
2 — 1990 Leoville Las Cases, St. Julien (2)
3 –– 1990 Latour, Pauillac
4 –– 1991 Dalle Valla ‘Maya’ (1)
5 (tie) –– 1991 Ridge ‘Monte Bello’
5 (tie) –– 1990 Chateau Margaux, Margaux
7 –– 1991 Dominus ‘Napanook Vineyard’
8 –– 1991 Dunn Howell Mountain

CA Syrah v. Hermitage
1 –– 1999 J.L. Chave Hermitage (7)
2 –– 1999 Marc Sorrel ‘Le Greal’ Hermitage (3)
3 –– 1999 Sine Qua Non ‘The Marauder’ Syrah (2)
4 –– 1999 Araujo ‘Eisele Vineyard’ Syrah (1)
5 –– 1999 Paul Jaboulet ‘La Chapelle’ Hermitage (1)
6 –– 1999 Chapoutier ‘L’Ermite’ Hermitage
7 –– 1999 Kongsgaard ‘Hudson Vineyard’ Syrah
8 –– 1999 Sean Thackrey ‘Orion’ Syrah

{1 Comment}

One Response to Montesquieu Winery’s Blind Tasting for the Ages: Comparison of Top Bordeaux, Hermitage and California Wines Offers Lessons to Live By

  1. Lisa Duff Khajavi on January 6, 2011 1:37 pmWhat an epic tasting. I wish I had been there!

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