There was a lot of anticipation in the room. The nine of us who gathered for the blind tasting of top Bordeaux versus Napa are friends, getting together to share great bottles and enjoy each other’s company. We are wine lovers and avid collectors, not part of the trade, except for Paulo Pong, founder of Altaya Wines, and me. Everyone participated in nominating these 16 greatest wines from Bordeaux and Napa Valley to be tasted blind, so we expected every wine to be excellent.
Despite having been to numerous great tastings, this was one of the most memorable for me. The lineup of the wines were fantastic; the decade we chose to explore, 1989-1999 in Bordeaux and Napa, revealed wines at perfect maturity; the slow pace where we were able to drink and follow the evolution in the glass was ideal; the company and environment were wonderful.
Everyone had a list of the 16 wines (but not in their correct order) and were aware of the format: Four flights of four wines per flight with each flight including two wines from Napa Valley and two wines from Bordeaux. We had a tasting sheet where we wrote down notes and rated each wine out of 100 points. Three of the tasters chose not to rate the wines. Although I discouraged everyone to stop trying to identify the wines, it was difficult not to participate in this game. The list of the wines were only revealed at the end of the evening.
The first flight elicited many “mmmms” and “ahhhhs”. It wasn’t that difficult to guess which wines in this flight were Californian and which from Bordeaux. In this flight, the Californian wines led the charge. Even though everyone agreed that the first wine was Californian, we voted it as the best wine in the flight. I was relieved to see that there was no origin or palate bias against Californian wines. The first wine was 1991 Dominus; it beat 1994 Le Pin, 1990 Margaux and 1993 Abreu Madrona Ranch. I was disappointed in the 1990 Margaux, which lacked the depth and liveliness that I had enjoyed in previous bottles.
The second flight had two first growth Rothschild wines: Lafite and Mouton from a great vintage, 1996. It was up against a fantastic vintage from Napa, 1997. The two Californian wines, Colgin and Bryant Family, proved they were equals to their French counterparts. What confounded the tasters was the Lafite Rothschild – it was such an extraordinary and beguiling wine that was clearly Bordeaux, but which wine? Some guessed 1989 Haut-Brion while others thought it could be a 1990 La Mission or the 1996 Mouton. We were stunned to find out that Lafite could be so charming, exuberant and very close to perfection in a glass. Half of the tasters rated it 100 points.
In the third flight, the Bordeaux wines, which were relatively easy to spot, took the trophy. Both the Montrose 1990 and La Mission 1990 were fabulous. The exuberant Montrose 1990, in my experience, could be phenomenal or disappointing because it is tainted with brettanomyces, a type of yeast that can impart off odors with the intensity of its infection varying from bottle to bottle. This bottle was sublime, though I could still detect a touch of funky, barnyard odor, thus not rating it as highly as everyone else. La Mission was sublime! It received either 99 or 100 points from each person in the group. Both Harlan 1991 and Dalle Valle Maya 1995 showed really well, but under the circumstances, the light was stolen from their limelight.
The final flight was extraordinary, because each wine was a star in its own right: the elegant Araujo Eisele Vineyard, the superb 1990 Petrus and the outstanding Screaming Eagle 1994. However, it was the 1989 Haut-Brion that brought silence in an otherwise boisterous atmosphere, as though we were hushed in the face of magnificence, of perfection. I remember seeing the nodding of heads, big smiles, shaking of heads in disbelief at how long the flavors lingered and persisted on the palate. This wine made time stand still; it makes five seconds seem like 50 minutes. When the silence was broken, it was to murmur the wine’s praise as each of us unanimously gave it 100 points.
What did the blind tasting of the best Bordeaux and top Napa wines prove? It showed how magnificent the decade of 1989 to 1999 were in both regions. It proved that young vines that were newly planted in Napa can produce extraordinary wines that compete with the best Bordeaux. It revealed that glorious wines are made in all shapes and sizes, from sinewy and perfumed to lush and curvaceous. It showed that each region possesses a clear identity that allows the grapes and the wines to be their conduit for expression.
At the pinnacle of quality, Bordeaux seems to have an advantage over Napa. Perhaps it is the older vines, or the multiple century’s head start on wine growing and making, or the cooler growing conditions, or the leaner frame that allows more detail and nuances to express themselves. Whatever the explanation, this blind tasting showed that for pure quality, Bordeaux is inimitable but Napa has its charm. At this extreme, high end of the quality spectrum, the difference between a 97-point or 100-point wine, comes down to personal taste.
Results of the blind tasting listed in order of the group’s preference, with the wines rated out of 100 points:
1 1989 Chateau Haut-Brion 600 points
2 1990 Chateau La Mission Haut-Brion 597 points
3 1996 Chateau Lafite Rothschild 595 points
4 1990 Petrus 595 points
5 1990 Chateau Montrose 587 points
6 1994 Screaming Eagle 582 points
7 1997 Colgin Herb Lamb Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 578 points
8 1997 Bryant Family Vineyard Proprietor Grown Cabernet Sauvignon 577 points
9 1995 Araujo Eisele Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 575 points
10 1991 Dominus Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 574 points
11 1995 Dalla Valle Maya 573 points
12 1991 Harlan 573 points
13 1994 Le Pin 568 points
14 1993 Abreu Madrona Ranch 566 points
15 1996 Chateau Mouton Rothschild 565 points
16 1990 Chateau Margaux 560 points
Image Credit: Caroline Blumberg/Bloomberg News