Wine lovers the world over associate the word "chateau" with French wine estates, some of which produce the world's finest wines. However, Chateau Montelena is uniquely American and it, too, is a fine wine estate. Surprisingly, it made history and established its excellent reputation in 1976 in Paris, France.
Wine lovers the world over associate the word "chateau" with French wine estates, some of which produce the world's finest wines. However, Chateau Montelena is uniquely American and it, too, is a fine wine estate.
Surprisingly, it made history and established its excellent reputation in 1976 in Paris, France.
Steven Spurrier, a Brit operating a Paris wine shop, decided to create publicity by showcasing American wines from California in competition against top French wines. Recruiting a panel of distinguished French experts as judges, Spurrier blind-tasted four French whites against six Californians and four French reds against six Californians.
Never doubting French wines would win the competition, his expectation was the California wines would, however, prove highly respectable. As we know, events sometimes take unusual turns. The result of this event has been described as the "wine cork pop heard around the world."
The judges selected Stag's Leap Wine Cellars' 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon as the top red over France's Mouton Rothschild and Chateau Montrose. Against the likes of Burgundy's Meursault Charmes and Batar Montrachet, Chateau Montelena's 1973 Chardonnay took first place among the whites.
Wineries use egg whites in a fining process to remove sediment particles in a barrel of wine. In this competition, the egg was clearly on the faces of the judges who openly raved about the superiority of French wines only to have the wines they attributed as superior and French turn out to be the American entries.
"The Judgment of Paris," as the event is now referred to after a recent book by that name, established California wines on par with the world's best. Chateau Montelena made a major contribution to building credibility for American wines and put itself firmly in the spotlight. Since then, the winery has produced impressive reds and whites, with its cabernet selling for high prices, while its winning chardonnay remains a comparative bargain.
Montelena aims to craft its wines with the elegance and finesse of top French offerings. To do so, it uses a light touch with oak, avoiding the over-oaked tendency many California wines fall victim to. Impeccable balance is also a hallmark of this winery.
I recently attended a tasting of Chateau Montelena wines and was highly impressed. Chateau Montelena 2008 Chardonnay ($49) was incredibly delicious, evoking the style of excellent white burgundy. It delivers a heavenly bouquet and nice fruit in the form of peach, pear and apple flavors. It is superbly balanced, clean and light and is basically made in the same style as it was in 1976. 2008 Montelena Riesling ($22) is very affordable, reasonably dry and quite tasty.
Since that fateful Paris tasting, Montelena has become better known for its reds, with its cabernet sauvignon typically priced well over $100 a bottle. At the recent tasting, I sampled Chateau Montelena's top-of-the-line Estate Cabernet Sauvignon from the 1999, 2000, 2001 and 2005 vintages.
Conventional wisdom holds that California's weather is nearly ideal for wine every year, making CalCabs less susceptible to vintage variation. If you think that means each vintage tastes the same, attending this kind of vertical tasting will prove otherwise. True lovers of wine relish the sometimes subtle, sometimes large, differences on the palate each year's wine brings. Making wine that tastes consistently the same every year is the hallmark of inexpensive industrialized wine, not the creation of artisans, such as Montelena.
Here's what I thought of their Estate cabernets:
- 2005 Estate Cab ($135) was laid back, but very good, with delicate blackberry fruit flavors.
- 2001 Estate Cab ($150) is coming around nicely and is exceptionally soft.
- 2000 Estate Cab ($160) was ever so delicate and delicious. Wow! It's truly a terrific wine, although one for a special occasion.
- The 1999 ($175) was smooth, tasty, dense and drinkable now, yet it still has a backbone of tannin that will enable this wine to continue to age well for another decade or more.
- The surprise of the tasting was Montelena 2006 Calistoga Estate Zinfandel ($30). Who'd ever think a Zin could possess the light color of pinot noir as well as delicate, light fruit flavors instead of the usual fruit bomb? Made the way zins were 30 years ago, this wine is a real winner you should try.
Regular readers know I'm not high on California fruit bombs and think most California wines are overpriced. However, I recognize some California wineries craft exceptional wines. Montelena epitomizes that, and its wines should not be missed. Enjoy.
Mark P. Vincent is a Framingham, Mass., resident who has a passion for wine. Contact him at email@example.com.