French Wines vs. California Wines
In the fall of 1980 I wrote an editorial entitled “French Wines Are Probably About As Good As They Are Going To Get…” But the other side of this was expressed this way: “…California wines have a lot further to go. So to the ‘authority’ who suggests that California wines are at their peak, we suggest the contrary.”
Since then which wines have shown the most improvement – French or California? That’s debatable for sure. In the case of France, Bordeaux and the Rhone Valley have both have moved toward more extracted, riper, more alcoholic wines. Some for the better and some over the top, but we’ll see over time. Other areas of France continue to make very great wines in mostly traditional ways. Burgundy and Champagne are prime examples as are a lot of the wines from the Loire Valley such as Sancerre. California has shown improvement in terms of more quality wines being made in more different areas. This is good. But many have pushed the envelope to the point of going in the other direction. This includes almost all types of California wines – especially Syrah, Cabernet, and Pinot Noir.
So the game continues. In California, it is a constant quest to plant grapes in the right areas. This is a far cry from the 1960s when growers were encouraged in most areas to plant a little of everything such as Riesling, Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, etc. Later there were many other varieties planted all over the state, particularly in the Central Coast and Santa Barbara County. These include varietals such as Syrah, Grenache, Viognier, Marsanne, and many others. Now the challenge is to pick the grapes before they are overripe and not do too much manipulation in the winemaking process. With only a few minor exceptions, the entire history of premium California wines spans perhaps 80 years. And in the newer areas, such as the aforementioned Central Coast and Santa Barbara County regions, the history is much shorter. No question, wine production in California has come a long way. But, compared with the French who have had centuries of history in the major wine growing areas, we are in our infancy.
I still stand by my earlier statement about French wines. But, with some caveats. First, I believe that the French need to be very careful about following the pied piper in making big, over-extracted wines. The great wines made in Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Rhone Valley, and Champagne in the early to mid 20th century are prime examples. However, each decade since the 1980s seems to have produced more and more over-extracted wines from Bordeaux and the Rhone Valley. In my opinion, this is not a good trend. Yet there are other areas in France that have great potential such as the Languedoc and Southern Burgundy. And, as for California, I stand by my earlier statement there too. But, again for slightly different reasons. First, the new plantings of newer varietals in many different areas of the state show great promise. Second, while we don’t have too many thin, stemmy, wines anymore, those types of wines have been replaced by a lot of alcoholic, jammy wines which I think are nearly as bad. In fact, our next phase here may very well be to simplify things a bit and turn back the dial. At least, that is what I hope will be the trend. If that is the case, the producers in France who have pushed the envelope may very well follow. The market will decide!
1928 And 1929 Bordeaux
The next article was a review of the great back-to-back Bordeaux vintages of 1928 and 1929. The point that we were making was that bottles from those vintages showed a lot of variability. And, that was in a day when the wines were available from very good cellars in the U.S. and Europe. But, this was also long before the outbreak of counterfeit wines. Later, many wines that we had tasted that were variable, tired, or not so good somehow were transformed into voluptuous nectars that received great accolades from many people who had never before tasted the wines. This was a tragic trend that developed and I will have a lot more to say about this in later articles. But we confined our notes to the best bottles of each respective wine that we tasted. Latour and Palmer were noted as the best 1928s and Leoville Las Cases and Mouton Rothschild were at the top. Petrus and La Mission Haut Brion were good, but not great. Latour, La Mission Haut Brion, Calon Segur, and Mouton Rothschild topped the 1929s. And, at its peak, we opined that the 1929 Latour may well be the best Bordeaux of the century. That today is debatable as the 1929 has not held up as well as the 1928 and the 1928 continued to evolve and improve for many years.
Interestingly, since that time I have continued to experience variable results with the 1928 and 1929 Bordeaux as have many of my friends. But, there have been notable exceptions for me such as 1928 Palmer and 1928 La Gaffeliere Naudes. I had an original wooden case of both of these wines that I purchased at auction in London in the 1970s. The source of the wines in both instances were Bordeaux negociants. I did not open the boxes until some time in the 1990s. All of the bottles from these cases that I have drunk since have been absolutely great. The real surprise has been the La Gaffeliere Naudes. It is a Grand Cru from St. Emilion without a history of making great wines that would match the highest classified wines of the area such as Cheval Blanc. But the bottles that I have drunk from this case have been among the best bottles of Bordeaux that I have ever experienced. And this despite a wide variation in the ullage – but more on that in a later article.
Today I would say that anyone buying 1928 or 1929 Bordeaux (or any other old wine for that matter), needs to be even more selective than in the past. In my opinion, in the last 30 years, many older wines have been faked and put into the market – but I will have more to say on that as well in a later article. This makes it extremely important to not buy any old wine without knowing everything about the history of the wine. Having said that, there are still a few 1928 and 1929 Bordeaux that can be great today (like the ones previously mentioned). But, now, just as then, most are past their prime.
1976 California Cabernet Sauvignon
In our review of 69 1976 California Cabernet Sauvignons we said: “Many of the best wines are years away from offering a glimpse of their potential.” We found none of the wines reviewed to be outstanding, but 23 were rated Very Good, 44 were rated Good, and 2 were rated Below Average. Interestingly, 3 of the 5 top rated wines came from the Santa Cruz Mountains despite the fact that there were very few wineries there at that time. Overall, I believe our reviews were very conservative. A prime example is the 1976 Diamond Creek Gravelly Meadow. We scored it Very Good. Today it is Outstanding and is one of the very best California Cabernets of the 1970s decade. There were only 122 cases produced in the drought year of 1976 and we said then that it was nearly impossible to find. Today I would assume very few bottles exist, but if you have any or find any for sale you are in for a treat. In a later article I will do an update on some of the 1976 California Cabernets from my cellar along with reviews of some 1977s and 1978s. There are some absolutely amazing California Cabernets from those years.
1978 White Burgundies
In our review of the 1978 White Burgundies we loved them calling the best of them “the finest dry white wines in the world.” Out of the 25 wines reviewed six were rated Outstanding, 15 were rated Very Good, and four were rated Good. Our selection of the top wines was a rather unusual mix of styles. The two Meursaults from Michelot-Garnier were very rich and were best in the first few years of their life. These were old style Meursaults that today have mostly been replaced by wines of more finesse with emphasis on the fruit and less oak. The Batard from Latour I have not had in many years, but the Corton-Charlemagne from Bonneau du Martray, the Criots-Batard-Montrachet from Delagrange-Bachelet, and the Montrachet from Drouhin Marquis de Laguiche I have all tasted in the past few years and all are great. The Montrachet, in particular, has evolved beautifully and today is off-the-charts great! I have drunk it several times in the past couple of years and every bottle has been Extraordinary. There was an error in the article that I don’t believe any one noticed at the time. The Chassagne-Montrachet Les Ruchottes that was rated just below Outstanding was from Ramonet, not Bachelet-Ramonet. The Ruchottes from Bachelet-Ramonet was rated lower. In our review of the Ramonet Ruchottes we noted the high acidity. Little did we know that this wine would close up within a few years and become almost undrinkable for some 20 years before finally opening up and becoming a classic Ramonet.
In Vino Veritas,