I opened two $20 wines, one from Napa Valley and one from Bordeaux’s Paulliac appellation, for a few remaining tasters hanging around after our challenging 2007 Southern Rhone tasting. Don’t let the retail values throw you; price tags are acquisition costs for the 1985 Chateau Montelena Cabernet Sauvignon and the 1985 Lynch Bages that I stashed away in my cellar in the late 80’s. The whole affair was as spontaneous as Steven Spurrier’s 1976 “Judgment of Paris” tasting was planned, but it underscored what the Paris tasting side stepped:
California Cabernet Sauvignons show well on the world stage from release through 20 years of bottle age, but Bordeaux’s long standing track record for producing wines that magically improve in the bottle for decades and centuries is reliable and unyielding.
We decided to celebrate a taster’s half-birthday with a couple of birth year wines, and figured an ’85 Bordeaux/California comparison would be interesting. This test was most definitely less comprehensive than a recent replay of the original Paris tasting that was seemingly staged to debunk defensive French claims that:
“Our wines will improve with time. But these California wines will not age well. They will tire quickly, lose their character, lose their balance.”
The results of this 2006 thirtieth anniversary rematch defied our two-bottle test and my own affirmation of superior French age-worthiness. The re-staging of the Paris event actually showed the California wines of the early 70’s as hanging around in dominant fashion, which you can read about in this San Francisco Chronicle article:
When the results were combined, the 1971 Ridge Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon from the Santa Cruz Mountains finished first, followed by the 1973 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars S.L.V. Cabernet Sauvignon; a tie between the 1970 Heitz Martha’s Vineyard Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and 1971 Mayacamas Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon; and the 1972 Clos du Val Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Bordeaux took the next four slots — 1970 Chateau Mouton-Rothschild, 1970 Chateau Montrose, 1970 Chateau Haut-Brion and 1971 Chateau Leoville-Las-Cases. The 1969 Freemark Abbey Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon was 10th.
It’s hard to argue those results since the tasting panel was of the highest caliber, including folks like Paul Draper from Ridge, producer of the winning Monte Bello wine. But, our panel had experience and credibility too, consisting of a few Boston Food and Wine writers, a member of the wine trade, and a few reliably strong enthusiast palates. Certainly, a different set of conditions and vintage context will challenge the fairness of drawing lines and direct comparisons between these two eras and vintages separated by 15 years.
Upon release, the 1985 California vintage joined ’84, ’86, and ’87 as vintages of a lifetime in the wine press. The 1985 Bordeaux vintage was marked by higher than normal yields and wines that were uncharacteristically approachable upon release with softer, round, and more voluptuous mouthfeel and flavors supporting early drinking and threatening the sensibility of long term cellaring.
In our small test, the 1985 Montelena showed poorly compared to the Lynch Bages. This was a unanimous and vehement conclusion by all the tasters. The Montelena was lean, angular, and missing the rich Cabernet cassis fruit that I remember it offered during the nineties. It did show an advanced nose of herbs combined with damp basement or wet cardboard, and the wine had not completely deteriorated into flabby non existence. I would rate the wine 85-88 points and say that I am happy to have hung on to a few bottles this long so we could run an experiment like this. But, if I was served this wine in a restaurant I would be disappointed with the hard edged, hollowing product.
The Lynch Bages, which I drank by the case load at $20 a bottle in the late eighties, was silken magic in comparison. The wine retained its youthful roundness and silky mouthfeel, but adopted aromatic characteristic aromas of cedar and lead pencil shavings. The voluptuous character of this wine has always been there, but the wine has taken on regal-like qualities of old classic Bordeaux to match its easy going silken ways. The wine is turning into a classic and defying early paranoia that rushed consumption for far too many. But who can really blame anyone, the wine was so irresistible upon release. In his 1995 notes, Robert Parker’s eyebrows also rose regarding the staying power of the 1985 California Cabernets:
A blind tasting of sixty 1985s, followed by several mini-tastings of some of the less renowned wines of the vintage, in addition to significant tastings I have done of more recent top years of California Cabernet Sauvignons, 1990, 1991, 1992, 1993, leads me to conclude that 1985 is an excellent rather than extraordinary vintage. In the context of what has happened during the decade of the nineties, 1985 neither surpasses nor rivals the quality California achieved in the first four vintages of this decade. Some of the disappointments are the result of wines that were too high in acidity, without enough physiologically ripe flavor, and/or wines that were excessively fined, filtered, or otherwise manipulated, beaten up, and eviscerated at bottling.
Yet, Parker lauded the staying power of the Chateau Montelena, calling it one of the potentially longest lived Montelena’s ever.
The 1985….has the potential to be among the longest-lived Montelena Cabernets this fine winery has ever produced. In this tasting, the 1985 was unevolved and youthful, with an opaque ruby/purple color, and a closed but promising nose of cassis fruit, earth, minerals, and oak. Full-bodied, marvelously concentrated and pure, this highly extracted, muscular, blockbuster effort requires a minimum of 5-6 more years of cellaring. A candidate for 20-30 years of longevity, it should prove to be one of the great Montelena Cabernet Sauvignons, but patience is required.
Parker reflected the vintage challenges of excess acidity, manipulation, and under ripeness in his overview but set aside Montelena as a serious wine with the bones to support a long life. That has not turned out to be true. And, back in 1992 after urging early drinking of the Lynch Bages following the wine’s release four years earlier, Parker just first noticed the potential for cellaring:
This was the finest showing yet for this seductive, immensely appealing vintage of Lynch Bages. I have had fully mature bottles of the 1985 that suggested it should be drunk over the near term. This particular offering, shipped directly from the chateau for a vertical tasting, was also ready to drink, but built well enough to last for 15 or more years.
This has turned out to be true, again proving the fickle nature of wine and the uneven reliability of the most powerful wine reviewers. Drink up your 1985 Cabernets, and if you need proof, just open one next to some 1985 Bordeaux you have laying around. Despite the Paris rematch, I will continue to place my money on Bordeaux for reliable long term cellaring. With more French wine history available than actual United States history, it’s pretty easy to handicap that bet.