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When The New World Of Wine Shocked The Old

A supplier of fine wine considers a wide range of different factors when choosing the best wines to stock in their establishment, from the complexity of the taste, the notes and the body.

It is a qualitative assessment and many great suppliers, critics and judges will have their own criteria for what makes a fantastic wine.

In the past, providence was a considerable factor, with certain regions that made up the “Old World” of wine often assumed to be the best producers of wine based as much on reputation as on the final product.

This would change in dramatic and largely accidental fashion as the result of an event that has since been dubbed the Judgement of Paris, a wine-tasting event so monumental that it became the subject of an equally controversial feature film.

The Wine War Of The Worlds

One of the most defining moments for wine in the 20th century began with an Englishman in France. Steven Spurrier was the owner of Cave de la Madeleine and the Académie du Vin, both surprisingly prestigious Paris establishments given the national pride France has for its viticulture.

Part of the reason for his reputation was his openness, in no small part the result of his status as a foreigner, and he leaned into this status as an iconoclast by showcasing foreign wines and staging regular taste tests.

To that end, his American colleague and director of Académie du Vin, Patricia Gastaud-Gallagher, suggested that Californian wines had improved by leaps and bounds, suggesting a competition coinciding with the Bicentennial celebration of America’s independence.

This would become the Paris Wine Tasting of 1976, a blind taste test of high-quality Chardonnay white wines and red wines from France and California, to see which would be judged by a panel of French judges as the greatest.

Mr Spurrier himself was impressed by the Californian wines but assumed, like the rest of the wine world, that the French wines would win out, although hopefully, the American counterparts would create a welcome surprise.

What happened was far more shocking and controversial, with an impact that has endured to this day.

Triumph And Debate

On 24th May 1976, the competition began with the then-novel approach of a blind taste test, to avoid the potential for bias that can come from a judging panel all based in Paris, a decision made to avoid accusations of bias that had been levied against earlier tastings in the United States.

This tasting format became critical, as several observers, including George Taber from Time Magazine, noted that the comments of the judges criticised wines such as the Batard Montrachet ‘73 (a relatively young French chardonnay) for lacking a nose.

Once the judge’s results were tallied, the winners were both from the Napa Valley, with Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars' 1972 vintage being the overall red wine winner and Chateau Mont-Helena from 1973 the winning white wine.

The results were shocking to the French judging panel, to say the least. Odette Kahn of La Revue du vin de France wanted her ballot paper back and Mr Spurrier was banned from wine-tasting events as punishment for “spitting on” the French wine industry.

Many theories, critiques and outright conspiracy theories have ensued, but whilst it was the case that French wines age better, later blind tests would find similar results.

Ultimately, the Judgement of Paris highlighted the importance of avoiding complacency for both makers and tasters alike, at least with younger wines before French wines age to an almost mythic level of refinement.

What it did show, however, is that care, knowledge and dedication can create fine wines even in locations one would not expect, with the overall quality of wine throughout the world reaching unprecedented heights since the Judgement of Paris.

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