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Until the mid-1970s, red Bordeaux wines from producers like Chateau Latour, Chateau Lafite Rothschild and Chateau Margaux were universally recognized as the very best in the world. But that all changed with the 1976 Judgment of Paris when two California winemakers (Chateau Montelena and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars) shocked the world by outperforming their French rivals. That single event gave birth to the modern wine industry in California and ushered in a period in which it became fun and even fashionable to compare California Cabernets and red Bordeaux.
At the outset, it is important to define the different terms being used. Cabernet Sauvignon, for example, is a grape varietal that is grown not only in California’s Napa Valley but also in Washington State, Australia, South America and just about every notable winemaking region in the world. In contrast, Bordeaux is a wine region, and the term “red Bordeaux” actually refers to a blend of the different Bordeaux grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec. It is quite possible that a red Bordeaux is a 100% Cabernet Sauvignon varietal, but it is much more likely that it is only a 70-80% Cabernet Sauvignon blend, with the remaining 20-30% comprised of the other Bordeaux grapes.
Thus, one important rule to keep in mind is that a Bordeaux can be a Cabernet, but a Cabernet is not always a Bordeaux. Only wines grown and produced in the specific Bordeaux region of France (located about a five hour’s drive from Paris) can be called “Bordeaux.” Even if California winemakers adhered to every rule followed by French winemakers, and even if they perfectly copied the blend of a particular Bordeaux, it would not be a Bordeaux. As a result, California winemakers have sometimes engaged in marketing initiatives – such as creating the Meritage blend that uses two or more of the “noble” Bordeaux varieties – to bring attention to the fact that they are often creating the same exact wines as their French counterparts.
In addition to differences in the grapes used to make the wines, there are also important stylistic differences in the expression of those grapes. Generally speaking, Bordeaux wines are balanced and nuanced, with less of a fruit-forward flavour to them. They also typically possess a stronger minerality. In contrast, California Cabernets are dense, rich, oaky and higher in alcohol content than Bordeaux wines. They are also much more dependent on rich, ripe fruit flavours on the palate.
Another difference between California and Bordeaux styles has to do with terroir. This is a French term that loosely refers to all the exogenous factors – soil, temperature and climate – that impact the way a wine tastes and what types of aroma it has. California winemakers typically think of terroir in a very literal sense – the “soil” of a vineyard that produces grapes – but the French take a more nuanced view of soil. As a result, Bordeaux vineyards can differ markedly in the types of wines they produce, simply due to subtle differences in growing conditions. This is part of what has always created a mystique around Bordeaux wines – and what has also led to them selling for thousands of dollars per bottle.
What is notable to point out is that some Bordeaux producers have actually started to make their wines much more in the California style. Perhaps stung by their resounding defeat in the 1976 Judgment of Paris, they decided to create wines that were much more in the California style: big, rich and fruit-forward. The best example of this is the group of Bordeaux producers known as the garagistes, who were creating wines in their so-called “garages” to compete with the Americans.
If you are interested in trying out a Bordeaux interpretation of a California Cabernet, many wine experts recommend the offerings from Chateau Valandraud and Chateau Gracia (both at the high end), or Beau-Sejour Becot and Chateau de Reignac (at the more affordable end).
And, likewise, it is possible to try out California-made Cabernets that have a lot more in common with Bordeaux blends than with traditional Cabs. One example here is Beringer’s 2012 Quantum, which is a Bordeaux-style blend with more earthy characteristics that replicate the effects of Bordeaux terroir. This is a 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, with the remaining 30% comprised of Merlot, Malbec, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc.
If, however, you are looking to try a big, classic California Cab, then you absolutely need to start with the winery that started it all: Stags’ Leap Wine Cellars. Other wineries and labels worth checking out include Opus One, Beaulieu Vineyards, Caymus, Duckhorn Vineyards, Louis M. Martini, Silver Oak, Ridge Monte Bello, Robert Mondavi, Frog’s Leap and Pine Ridge.
Interestingly, Robert Mondavi was not just a master winemaker, but he was also a master marketer. He delighted in hosting blind tastings of his Cabernets and Bordeaux rivals. What he knew was that the ripe, bold, fruit-driven characteristics of California Cabernet would always be given them an advantage during any blind tasting, especially when accompanied by food. And, indeed, to this day, the general consensus is that the master winemakers of Napa Valley are worthy rivals of their French counterparts.
So do you agree with the experts? Perhaps the best way to find out is by hosting a blind tasting of your own. In a blind tasting, you are tasting only what’s in the glass, and are not influenced by subjective factors like what’s printed on the label. And that’s why the debate over California Cabernets and Red Bordeaux will likely continue for the next 40 years as well. It’s really a matter of personal preference and whether you are part of the older Baby Boomer generation or the newer Millennial generation. Older wine drinkers may still have reverence for Bordeaux and the subtle nuances of terroir, but younger wine drinkers know that fantastic, world-class Cabernet is now made around the world, and especially in Napa Valley by California’s top winemakers.