Judgment Day in Paris

What does being a wine nerd mean? Actually, what does being a nerd mean? If we define nerdery, then we can define wine nerdery as being simply the fact of presenting nerdlike attitudes to the subject of wine. The key word in the last sentence is “subject”, a nerd needs a subject to obsess about. Nerdery, at least the way I understand it, is different than passion. Passion is a strong desire, an overwhelming attraction for something whereas nerdery is a consuming desire to learn and know everything about a subject. I goes beyond liking something, there needs to be a thirst (see what I did here) for knowledge and lore, no matter obscure.

And there is a wine lore, undeniably. Actually, there are several wine lores; one could approach the subject matter through geography (the producing regions), science (the fermentation process), botany (grape varieties), law (bottling and labelling regulations)… There is a lot to know, there is a lot to learn, there is a lot to bore your friends with.

Personally, I like history, and there is a history lore of wine. Of course, mostly it consists of trends, underlying tendencies and slow processes rather than seminal events. There are however such events that helped shape the wine world. Once such event, known as the Judgment of Paris seems a good topic to bore you with today.

Judgment of Paris by Rubens

Judgment of Paris by Rubens

First of all, let’s mention the pun aspect. The judgment of Paris is the seminal event that caused the Trojan War, with the Trojan prince Paris finding in favor of Aphrodite against her fellow goddesses. In the wine world, it refers to a blind tasting event, held in Paris, on May 24th 1976, that pitted French wines around their US counterparts.

Eleven judges, nine from France, one from the UK and one American, blind tasted ten red wines and 10 white wines. The reds were all Cabernet-Sauvignon dominated blends, pitting top Bordeaux against top Napa Valley wines. The whites were all Chardonnays, this time pitting Burgundy against the Napa Valley. Remember, the year was 1976, so if you think French people are snobbish about non-French wines now, imagine how it must have been back then. Also, the grades given by the non-French judges were not counted, so the rankings are purely French-based.

tasting

Why did that tasting become a seminal, world changing event then? Well, because the US wines won. Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars dominated the red competition and Chateau Montelena won the white wine contest. Just to be thorough and drool a bit here were the line ups for each contest (ranked by result with their final score).

Red wines

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars 1973, Napa Valley (127.5)

Château Mouton-Rothschild 1970 (126)

Château Haut-Brion 1970 (125.5)

Château Montrose 1970 (122)

Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon ’Mountain Range’ (Montebello) 1971, Santa Cruz Mts. (105.5)

Château Leoville-Las-Cases 1971 (97)

Mayacamas 1971, Napa Valley/Mayacamas Mts. (89.5)

Clos Du Val 1972, Napa Valley (87.5)

Heitz Cellars ’Martha’s Vineyard’ 1970, Napa Valley/St. Helena (84.5)

Freemark Abbey 1969, Napa Valley/Rutherford (78)

White wines

Chateau Montelena 1973, Napa Valley/Calistoga (132)

Meursault-Charmes 1973, Roulot (126.5)

Chalone Vineyards 1974, Monterey County/Soledad (121)

Spring Mountain 1973, Napa Valley/Spring Mountain (104)

Beaune Clos des Mouches 1973, Joseph Drouhin (101)

Freemark Abbey 1972, Napa Valley/Rutherford (100)

Batard-Montrachet 1973, Ramonet-Prudhon (94)

Puligny-Montrachet 1972, Les Pucelles, Domaine Leflaive (89)

Veedercrest 1972, Napa Valley/Mt. Veeder (88)

David Bruce 1973, Santa Cruz Mts. (42)

Of course this constituted a big surprise, there were controversy, protests, endless discussions about what it really meant. In the end, it did not matter, the result was that American wines were put on the map and I believe it’s a good thing. There is a movie about the event, it’s called Bottleshock and I plan to watch it soon. The question is rather, why did I decide to write about this now?

montelena

Well, it just so happens that last week, I was lucky enough to share a bottle of the Chateau Montelena Chardonnay with some friends. It wasn’t the 1973 vintage of course, it was a 2011, which in a way is good because, like the vintage used in the competition, it was 3 years old when drank. It is a fantastic wine, crisp, with aromas ranging from tropical fruits to citrus while still sampling some peach along the way, great balance and acidity. One of the best wines I had all year. The price also doesn’t hurt, you can find it for around $50 which for a “star” wine is a bargain. For instance another wine from the contest, the Puligny Montrachet Les Pucelles from Leflaive, will cost you around $200 for a bottle of 2011. I’d rather have the Montelena, thank you! It’s not often you can sample a wine that actually made history, or even just a wine that is famous. Price tends to be prohibitive for these bottles, and it is okay, it makes them even more special. An affordable, historic, great wine is something to celebrate though. This nerd will continue looking for wine knowledge, especially if it’s that tasty.

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You know who I am. Say my name

I have a confession to make, I like maps. I mean I love maps, love them. I have a few wine related maps decorating my apartment, I don’t know why, I just like maps, I think they look cool. I recently found a nice one on Wikipedia. It’s a map of Europe with the name for wine in several languages.

wine names

As you can see, pretty much everybody got on board with using some version of the Latin word, vinum. I’ll give a pass to Turkey and other countries that formed their words from the Arabic root. The Greeks used ancient Greek, ok fine, they invented democracy, I think they earned a freebie. But seriously, Hungary? I mean get on with the program would you? Bor? What kind of name for wine is that? You make Tokaji for Christ’s sake. I want to like you, why won’t you let me?

Vinum is Latin for wine

When I was in middle school and high school, as many French kids do, I had to learn Latin. It has no direct application but it’s actually a good way to learn about grammar and the way the actual languages you speak were formed. Also, and I’m aware I might be the only to think that but it’s my blog so it’s fine, quotes in Latin are awesome.

There is concision, an ability to express complex thoughts with only a few words that can’t be matched in French, or in English for that matter. Case in point, the description Louis XIV, King of France, gave of Tokaji wine from Hungary. As he gave a bottle of the sweet white wine to his mistress, he referred to it as “Vinum Regum, Rex Vinorum”.

Louis_XIV_of_France

It would translate as: Wine of Kings, King of Wines. As far as marketing goes, it’s a pretty solid tagline. Actually, the Latin locution is still used today by Hungarian producers on their labels. I told you, Latin is awesome.

Napoleon and wine

Napoleon was a great wine lover, sadly there were no wines from his native Corsica in his favorites, but he was known for loving 3 wines in particular: Moët & Chandon Champagne, Vin de Constance from South Africa and Chambertin wines from Burgundy. One could argue that they are all better than Corsican Vermentinu, but I don’t want to have Corsicans angry at me.

Glass of Chambertin not pictured

Glass of Chambertin not pictured

He actually had more than 300 gallons of Vin de Constance shipped to St-Helena, the small South Atlantic Island where he lived out his final exile. Reportedly the last thing he had before dying was a single glass of that sweet dessert wine. I guess he drank till the not so bitter end. I am slightly ashamed of that last joke… Was it bad? Was it really bad?

Anyway, It’s good to know that being Emperor of the French did not prevent him from enjoying foreign wines.

In vino veritas

The Roman Empire is responsible fro spreading culture, civilization and wine to most of Western Europe, however wine production was quite peculiar back then. Romans tended to dump a piece of toasted bread in their wine to buffer against unpleasant tastes. They would also use lead, either in pots or mixed in the wine to help preserve it. For those who can’t remember their chemistry, or do not watch Breaking Bad, lead is highly poisonous.

lead1

Somewhere in there, there is a really bad pun about Saturn to make. I would do it but it’s the end of the year, good resolutions and all that… I’m trying to be a better person so I’m going to let it go. But it’s costing me…

Reviewing vintages before it was cool

The oldest reference to a specific vintage can be found in a treaty by Pliny the Elder, a Roman historian. He referred to 121 BC as a vintage “of the highest excellence”. Kind of like the Antiquity equivalent of 1982.

Plinyelder

You know what the crazy part is? Pliny wrote his History of the Roman Empire in 70 AD! So, almost 200 years after it passed, 121 BC was still considered an awesome year. It’s nice to know that historians had their priorities straight.

Prohibition walkarounds

During the Prohibition period some people sold grape juice concentrate bricks. On the side of the packaging were a set of instructions labelled as such : “Caution, if you do this, the grape juice concentrate will turn into wine”. Mostly the instructions were about adding yeast to induce fermentation

Clever way to go around the 18th amendment ! Also, wine for religious purposes was legal too. I’m sure a lot of people became interested in religion at the time !

kosher-wine1