Monday, January 8, 2018

Bordeaux versus cult California cabernets

Back in 2001 Jancis Robinson wrote:
For 200 years Bordeaux was the red wine capital of the world, and its wine styles and prices set the standards for the international wine market. But in the last 10 years ... California [has] created its own wine kingdom with a quite different aristocracy and legislature.
The wines themselves may be made from the same Cabernet and Merlot grapes as red Bordeaux but they taste quite different ... Most of these California cult Cabernets carry names which were unknown 10, sometimes 5 years ago. But they are made in such small quantities ... that prices have overtaken those of Europe's established classics.

Nothing much has changed since then — compared to the top Bordeaux wines, the California cult wines still taste different and they still cost more money. However, an obvious question to ask is: does the difference in wine style result in different quality scores? Alternatively: are the higher prices reflected in higher scores?

To answer this, we can ask Jancis Robinson herself. In her article, she provides "an extraordinary assessment of the cult wines that cost more than Bordeaux's first growths", by tasting and scoring 34 wines of "seven of California's best Cabernets old and new" — 4-6 wines per winery, covering the 1990-1997 vintages.

For comparison, I have collated her scores for seven top Bordeaux producers, covering the same vintages. This is actually a bit tricky, because the 1991-1994 vintages were poor, and most chateaux have no Robinson scores for these years. However, I managed to get scores for each chateau for 1989-1990 and 1995-1997 — I chose the score that was dated closest to a 2001 tasting (which may somewhat disadvantage the Bordeaux wine style).

The 14 wines being compared are (alphabetically):
Caymus Special Selection 
Dalla Valle Maya 
Harlan Estate 
Ridge Monte Bello 
Screaming Eagle 
Stag's Leap Wine Cellars Cask 23 
 Château Cheval Blanc
 Château Haut Brion
 Château Lafite Rothschild
 Château Latour
 Château Margaux
 Château Mouton Rothschild

Robinson uses a 20-point scale, including half points. Her scores for the 69 wines are shown in the graph, where each dot represents one wine score. The 34 scores for the California wines are grouped on the left, and the 35 scores for the Bordeaux wines are on the right.

California versus Bordeaux cabernet wine-quality scores

Obviously, there is not much difference in the scores between the two wine groups, although there are more scores of 17.5 for the California wines versus 18.5 for the Bordeaux wines. However, a statistical analysis (2-factor nested analysis of variance) shows that this difference is no more than would be expected by chance. Indeed, this analysis shows that 71% of the variation in quality scores is actually due to vintage differences, with a further 27% being due to differences between the individual wineries, and only 2% of the variation attributable to California versus Bordeaux.

Most of the wineries have average quality scores within a fairly narrow range, with nine of them scoring averages of 17 to 18. However, the two Left Bank Bordeaux wineries have an average score of 18.3 (Cheval Blanc) and 18.6 (Petrus), and California's Screaming Eagle is at the top with 18.9. At the other end are two of the other California wineries: Dalla Valle Maya (average 16.2) and Harlan Estate (16.9).

So, it seems that, at least as far as Jancis Robinson is concerned, the fact that the California wines are "exuberantly fruity and ready to enjoy at what a European might regard as an almost obscenely young age" does not affect their standing in the points-scoring race. This means that their extra price is not determined by any extra quality. Presumably, the price is set, instead, by their relative scarcity — the cult California wines have hundreds of cases produced per vintage, whereas the Bordeaux wines generally have thousands of cases produced each year, and in some instances tens of thousands.


  1. Excerpts from Jancis Robinson, MW Website
    (September 16, 2002):

    “How to Score Wine”


    . . .

    I would be much happier in my professional life if I were never required to assign a score to a wine. I know so well how subjective the whole business of wine appreciation is and, perhaps more importantly, how much the same wine can change from bottle to bottle and week to week, if not day to day. I frequently find myself re-tasting a wine at the same stage in its life. So far I have rarely marked more than 0.5 points out of 20 differently on the two occasions, but it wouldn't surprise me at all if I did.

    And as for tasting the same wine at different stages in its life, this is even less likely to yield identical scores. Quite apart from bottle variation there are differences in tasters' moods and vast differences in how wines mature in bottle.

    . . .

    I find myself using all sorts of different scoring systems depending on the circumstances. . . .

    I like the five-star system used by Michael Broadbent and Decanter magazine. Wines that taste wonderful now get five stars. Those that will be great may be given three stars with two in brackets for their potential. But Brits being as polite, or just plain cowardly, as we are, almost all the wines get between three and five stars in Decanter so it's not an especially nuanced scoring system -- although I have been known to use it for wines likely to be very close together in quality such as de luxe Champagnes or mature vintage Ports.

    . . .

    I know that Americans are used to points out of 100 from their school system so that now they, and an increasing number of wine drinkers around the world, use points out of 100 to assess wines. Like many Brits, I find this system difficult to cope with, having no cultural reference for it.

    So, I limp along with points and half-points out of 20, which means that the great majority of wines (though by no means all) are scored somewhere between 15 and 18.5, which admittedly gives me only eight possible scores for non-exceptional wines -- an improvement on the five star system but not much of one. (I try when tasting young wines to give a likely period when the wine will be drinking best, so I do cover the aspect of its potential for development.)

    But, perhaps strangely for someone who studied mathematics at Oxford, I'm not a great fan of the conjunction of numbers and wine. Once numbers are involved, it is all too easy to reduce wine to a financial commodity rather than keep its precious status as a uniquely stimulating source of sensual pleasure and conviviality.

  2. Robinson's highest scoring California "cult" wine was Screaming Eagle.

    For those who are not "Purple Page" subscribers, here are Robinson's tasting notes when the posting was "FREE FOR ALL."



    (Preface:) The sea change among the sea of glasses came when the Screaming Eagles were served. European noses twitched appreciatively. Eyebrows were raised and the odd smile played on European lips. I thought they were delicious. In fact the 1993 was the only one I scored less than 19 out of 20 and they all had some way to go despite being utterly and seductively packed with sweet, lively fruit now -- fruit which carried on right through the palate, unlike the Dalla Valle wines and the less successful Harlan vintages. Even Messrs [Hugh] Johnson and [Michael] Broadbent were impressed. Hans Johannson when asked to comment on the Stag's Leap flight that followed could not stop himself bubbling with enthusiasm for the Screaming Eagles. Honour was most definitively saved.

    1992: 19.5 and still improving

    "Very very deep colour, Lively, edgy nose. Round palate but with revitalising edge of acidity. Very slightly drying at the end but markedly long (the longest-lasting wine of the tasting) and elegant. Sweet and appetising (the bullseye) right through to the end.

    "1993: 18 and climbing

    Much less obvious bouquet than the 1993. Sweet and full and a great impact on the palate if less lively and subtle than the 1992. Sweet and almost overblown but with an attractive kick on the finish.

    1994: 19 and climbing

    Again, that magic combo of life and sweetness. Richly explosive on the palate. Plumminess gives way to tea flavours and then a soft, neat lively finish. Bravo! Not overwhelmed by sheer mass.

    1995: 19 and climbing

    Dusty nose precedes convincing layers of exciting flavour:although there is some of that dust on the palate too (and this ain't Rutherford, but way over on the Silverado Trail). Again, though, the fruit carries right through to the end of the palate, much more than say Dalla Valle and some of the Harlan vintages.

  3. On the 1995 Harlan Cabernet-blend . . .

    Excerpt from the Los Angeles Times “Food” Section
    (December 26, 1999, Page F4ff):

    “Top o' the Century: The best wines of the 1900s.
    Journey back with us to 1978, 1959, 1945, 1921 . . .”


    By Jancis Robinson MW

    I hate having to choose my favorite anything, but because I'm not likely to have to choose the century's top wines again, here is my list:

    1995 Harlan Estate Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley)

    Let no one underestimate California's finest Cabernets. This is certainly one of them, perhaps thanks partly to French consultant Michel Rolland but also to that great combination: Cabernet Sauvignon and one of the top vineyards in the Napa Valley.

    -- contrasted with her take on the 1995 Harlan in the 1990-1997 vertical tasting with Hugh Johnson and Michael Broadbent cited above.


    1995: 17 and less development ahead than the 1994

    Extraordinary ripeness. Not a wine to serve as any traditionalist's introduction to California cult wines! All chocolate-covered prunes. Good texture even though very sweet but worryingly hot, alcoholic finish. Presumably this is a true expression of the vintage though.