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
Ridge Monte Bello
Stag's Leap Wine Cellars Cask 23
Château Cheval Blanc
Château Haut Brion
Château Lafite Rothschild
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.
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.