The judgement of Steven Spurrier



We caught up with Steven Spurrier, wine personality and architect of the original Judgement of Paris tasting, to hear his views on why the result helped not hindered the French, the changes afoot in California and his take on Bordeaux 2013.

It’s not a millstone round my neck, but I’ve never been allowed to forget the first Judgement of Paris, the tasting which I held in May 1976. It was a blind comparison of Chardonnays from California from boutique wineries and the top white Burgundies; of the Cabernets from California against the top Bordeaux. I re-did the tasting in ’86 because the feedback from the Bordelaise was that their wines were far too young: this time, instead of California taking the first place and Bordeaux taking the next four, California took the first two places and had another wine in the first five. Such was the uproar that I didn’t want to do it 20 years on.

Under pressure, I held the tasting again in 2006 with huge support from Lord Rothschild who wanted to hold it at Waddesdon here and simultaneously in Napa. Then Rothschild’s cousin complained that she didn’t want her wines to be tasted – well that wasn’t going to stop us tasting, but she put so much pressure on Jacob Rothschild that he had to withdraw the offer of a venue. Berry Bros. & Rudd stepped in: the tasting was held at Berry Bros. & Rudd at 6pm here, and at 10 o’clock in Napa. This time, California took all five first places. To me, that meant that it was all over and I would never have to do it again, but then in later in California we did an open tasting of the 2000 vintage: Bordeaux wiped the floor with California.

In 1976, Bordeaux was resting entirely on its laurels – France had previously dominated the wine world but the ’76 tasting was the first chink in its armour. California, meanwhile, was trying terribly hard to make the best possible wine – it was the new kid on the block. Now, 30 years on, and California is resting on its laurels and Bordeaux has got the bit between its teeth.

People talk about the judgement of Paris as being damaging to French wine: I would say absolutely the opposite. It was a wake-up call to French wine, and what the intelligent people did, rather than complaining that their honour had been besmirched, was they went to California to see what was going on. They saw that their cellars were brand new, there was no dirt on the floor and that they were trying everything modern to make the best possible wine. Back then, that wasn’t so in France.

Everything changed in 1982. It was the first great vintage in Bordeaux after 59; it was the first modern Bordeaux vintage. It also coincided with the rise of Robert Parker, who started his column in 1978. He called 82 exactly right. The combination of Parker and that vintage really changed the rules in Bordeaux – there were high prices and everyone made money. If people make money in Bordeaux the first thing they do if they’re a wine producer, is to invest it either in the vineyard or in the cellar. In the 1960s, the real washout vintages of 63, 66 and 68 had left them all bust; there was no spare money. So 1982 began the economic circumstances where the châteaux had a substantial income which they invested in the best possible way.

Since then, the Bordelaise haven’t looked back. If the 2013 vintage, which I’ve just been tasting in Bordeaux, had happened 25 years ago it would have been a complete write-off. It’s been a very difficult vintage and if the winemakers hadn’t had the techniques to look after the whole of the growing season – and the money to do it – they would have had a very bad vintage. But in fact the wines are very nice.

In the old days, there was a phrase called “a good luncheon claret” to describe a light year – 73 or 81 for instance – and that’s what 2013 is. They are very, very attractive wines for drinking in the five to 12 year period and my club, Boodle’s, for which I am on the wine committee, will buy quite a few châteaux because it is exactly the kind of wine our members want to drink. We can afford to buy names they recognise like Ch. Prieuré-Lichine and Ch. Grand-Puy-Lacoste, possibly Ch. Canon that will go on our wine list between £50 and £60. Wine, after all, has got to be drunk.

Things are changing again in California. A bunch of us went to an incredible tasting based on the book by John Bonne, the wine correspondent for the San Fran Chronicle, called The New California Wine. It turns everything on its head. At this tasting were Chardonnays, Rieslings, Pinot Noirs even a Zinfandel – and yet there was hardly a wine around 15 degrees of alcohol – most were around 12.5. This a young generation of winemakers don’t want to go for ultimate ripeness; they don’t want sunny California in the bottle they want to put their terroir Chardonnay and their terroir Pinot Noir. The new California is about wines that express rather than impress – Jancis Robinson said in her introductory speech: “I am very pleased that Steven Spurrier is in the audience because he held the ’76 tasting and, for him, this must be coming back to where it all started.” Back then, those wines were made by small wineries to express rather than impress. In the minds of the intelligent purchasers this puts California back on the map.

Steven Spurrier is co-hosting a wine dinner with Jasper Morris MW at Avenue, St James’s, on 6 May.