Decoding the Judgment of Paris

Photo by Anthony Delanoix / Unsplash

May 24, 2016 marks the 40th anniversary of the Judgment of Paris, the day that California officially rocked the wine world. At the 1976 tasting, Napa Valley wines famously trumped those of Bordeaux in a French-led blind tasting, catapulting California winemaking into the international spotlight.

To celebrate the milestone, Napa-based Mira Winery is presenting the 2016 Judgment of Charleston, a private blind-tasting event held at the Mira Winery Napa Valley Education Center & Tasting Room in Charleston, South Carolina. There, 12 judges will sample top red wines from Bordeaux and Napa Valley and contemplate how the styles of the two renowned regions have evolved over time.

For those not at the forum, Wine Enthusiast asked Gustavo Gonzalez, co-founder and winemaker at Mira Winery, to help demystify the Judgment of Paris, the enduring Napa/Bordeaux comparison and blind tasting in general. Here are his top five takeaways.

The 1976 Judgment of Paris is still relevant in the wine world today.

“The Judgment of Paris established the idea that exceptional wine could be produced in other parts of the globe outside of the Old World,” says Gonzalez. “At the tasting, Napa Valley wines were validated by judges and producers from the world’s most acclaimed region, Bordeaux, putting them in a class of wines famous the world over.”

The impact? Napa Valley became broadly recognized by wine drinkers. This immediately solidified the brand of the region and established a demand for Napa wine that continues to this day, says Gonzalez.

In 1976, winemaking experience marked a big difference between Napa and Bordeaux.

“At the time of the Judgment of Paris, Bordeaux already had a long history of producing premium wine and had an established quality classification system which was over 120 years old,” says Gonzalez. “In contrast, Napa Valley, a much smaller region, was still in its infancy, experimenting with what varietals to grow and the best practices for growing them, as well as with old and new wine production techniques.”

When comparing Napa Valley and Bordeaux, terroir tells the story.

“The most important difference between Napa and Bordeaux is geographic: consider the differences of climate and soil type between the two regions,” says Gonzalez, “because today, production differences are diminished by winemaking technology and shared exploration of best practices.”

Gustavo Gonzalez
Gustavo Gonzalez

In Bordeaux, Gonzalez points to two separate soil profiles: gravel on the Left Bank, and clay and limestone on the Right Bank. Napa’s terroir is more complex and diverse. “Six of the 12 modern soil series are found in the space of an approximately 30-mile-long strip, allowing for remarkable diversity in the types of grapes grown in Napa.”

Just like in Bordeaux, growers in the Napa Valley have evolved to understand what grapes work best depending on soil type.

“Napa Valley has developed its own style based on a tried and tested understanding of its geographical elements,” says Gonzalez. “The Napa climate, particularly in areas where Cabernet Sauvignon is grown, is warmer than Bordeaux, resulting in a much more accelerated growing season, and generally speaking, more bold and assertive Cabs than their Bordeaux counterparts.”

The Napa/Bordeaux rivalry is just a legend.

“In 1976, there was no existing rivalry between Napa Valley and Bordeaux,” Gonzalez explains. “France’s Bordeaux was an established and acclaimed wine producing region and Napa Valley was the new kid on the block.”

However, in the aftermath of the Judgment of Paris, the legend of a rivalry between regions began to grow.

“The reality was more like a validation of Napa as an exceptional wine-growing region highlighting premium producers,” Gonzalez continues. “Wine producers don’t seek rivalries or one-upmanship; rather, they wish to be considered among the ranks of the elite.”

Blind tastings are intended to remove any preconceived notion or bias that a judge might carry based on producer, price or region.

“Just like in the Judgment of Paris, when you eliminate these potential biases, you create an opportunity to objectively consider the wine based on quality and stylistic preference,” says Gonzalez.

The result: blind tastings can give consumers a greater sense of confidence about what is actually in the glass, and findings may or may not confirm perceptions about existing wines—often yielding the kind of surprising results exemplified by the Judgment of Paris.

Amateur wine judges can also take part in the fun, hosting their own blind tastings at home.

“To determine one’s own definition of an exceptional wine, blind taste as many wines from both regions as possible,” suggests Gonzalez. “The conclusion rests on your own table with enjoyment in each glass.”

Published on May 24, 2016
Topics: Wine Trends + News