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Cults Shine in 2003 Against Top Bordeaux

Posted: Jun 2, 2008 10:33am ET

I am not so sure what it proved, other than that California cult wines are as good, or better, than the best of Bordeaux in a given vintage. But it’s fascinating to see how, in a blind tasting, the top wines from the two different regions can be very, very hard to differentiate from one another – especially when the Bordeaux come from a hot and ultra-ripe vintage such as 2003. I remember how many Bordelais themselves called 2003 a “California vintage.” I assume that was a little derogatory on their part, but I am still convinced 2003 is a great year for the region!

Moreover, as one of my neighboring tasters said at the dinner/tasting in Bordeaux this spring that I am going to tell you about, “Bordeaux has become so modern that it is not that easy to see the difference between it and California.”

The tasting was held in late March during the start of barrel tasting Bordeaux’s newest vintage, 2007. Silvo Denz, the hip owner of St. Emilion’s Château Faugères, organized the event with a dinner for about two dozen people. I have been to a number of Denz’s tastings, and he is a curious and thoughtful host, with a passion for California cults as well as Bordeaux and Tuscan reds. He has a great cellar. And I think he also is making excellent wine at Faugères.

Anyway, most of the tasters were wine trade members from Switzerland, including wine critic Rene Gabriel, whom I respect immensely as a taster. There were also wine merchants Thomas Bohrer from Hong Kong and Andy Lench from Seattle/London, among others. We knew what wines were going to be in the tasting. There were awesome bottles – first growths, Ausone, Pétrus, Pavie, Colgin, Harlan, and Screaming Eagle. You get the idea. But we didn’t know the order. There was even one of Spain’s top reds, Pingus, thrown in for good measure.

We tasted the wines in flights of five or six. All were served blind. They were, for the most part, all so juicy and yummy with wonderful ripe fruit and soft velvety tannins. Some need more time to soften some of their youthful rough edges, but many were already a joy to drink.

My favorite wine of the night was the Colgin Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Herb Lamb Vineyard. I scored it 99 points, unofficially. And five tasters gave it 100 points, including Gabriel. It was easily the most popular wine of the tasting. Most people thought it was Bordeaux, including myself. I loved the complexity of the wine on the nose with dried flowers, truffles and fruit. And the palate was rich yet reserved, with refined tannins and a long finish. It needed bottle age to really show it true potential.

My second wine of the tasting was the Latour, but it only came in seventh with the group. It has such gorgeous coffee bean, and ripe fruit aromas that turned to a full-bodied, silky and refined palate. I scored it 98 points, unofficially. The group voted for the Harlan Estate Napa Valley as second. It was my third favorite.

I love the violet, truffle and berry character of the Harlan, and although it was full bodied and rich, it showed an impressive amount of finesse and grace. I scored it 97 points, unofficially. Give it anther six or seven years of bottle age, if you are patient enough and lucky enough to have a bottle..

The group chose the Robert Foley Claret Napa Valley as its third favorite. In fact, the first Bordeaux to get a top vote of the group was the Pavie, which came fourth. The lowest scorer was the Pétrus.

Of course, it was splitting hairs when you consider the highest aggregate score was 98.21 for the Colgin, and 93.07 for the Pétrus. “Everything was excellent,” as Denz said after the tasting.

During dinner, everyone excitedly discussed the results of the tasting. Like I said at the beginning this post, few thought that the results were earth-shattering or proved a whole lot, other than both regions make super wines at the top level. But I must say that most of the people at the table were rooting for the Bordeaux, so they must have been a little surprised when the group voted California in the top three positions for the tasting.

Here are my tasting notes for the wines. The wines were served blind, in the order that they're listed below.

Araujo Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Eisele Vineyard 2003: Blackberry and chocolate aromas with hints of plums. Full bodied, with velvety tannins and a long toasted oak, coffee and jammy finish. Needs time to come together still. Best after 2012. 93 points, unofficially.

Dominus Estate Napa Valley 2003: Wonderful aromas of flowers, blackberries and jam with just a hint of mint follow through to a full body, with very jammy flavors and a medium finish. Doesn't hold together that well now, but give it some time. Best after 2010. 91 points, unofficially.

Château Cheval-Blanc St.-Emilion 2003: Complex aromas of prunes, plums and tobacco with hints of cigar box follow through to a full body, with fine tannins and a fruity, and refined finish. Love the nose in this. Best after 2010. 93 points, unofficially.

Château Mouton-Rothschild Pauillac 2003: Fabulous aromas of blackberry, grilled meat, raspberries and plums. Full bodied, with a solid core of ripe fruit and velvety tannins and a long, long finish. Very young, but soft and seductive. Better than I remember. Best after 2012. 96 points, unofficially.

Shafer Cabernet Sauvignon Stags Leap District Hillside Select 2003: Impressive nose of crushed blackberries, minerals, mint and violets with tangerine and citrus fruit undertones. Full-bodied, full-throttle with loads of wild fruit. Exotic and seductive. A little loose but love it just the same. 94 points, unofficially.

Sloan Rutherford 2003: Fabulous aromas of crushed berries, cherries, lightly toasted oak and pie crust follow through to a full body, with silky tannins and a long, ripe, rich finish. Big and jammy. Best after 2012. 95 points, unofficially.

La Mondotte St.-Emilion 2003: Intense aromas of flowers, strawberries, blackberries. Full-bodied, with a solid core of ripe, silky tannins. Fabulous texture. Caresses your palate. So layered and beautiful. Holding back a lot. Best after 2013. 97 points, unofficially.

Blankiet Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Paradise Hills Vineyard 2003: Black color. Aromas of dried rose petals, licorice and tar. Full-bodied, chewy, with lots of tar. Tight and not giving much. A little one-dimensional and disjointed now. Best after 2012. 90 points, unofficially.

Château Pétrus Pomerol 2003: Pretty coffee, tobacco and toasted oak character on the nose. Full-bodied, with silky, polished and refined tannins. Solid core of fruit, yet reserved and very attractive. Best after 2011. 93 points, unofficially.

Dominio de Pingus Ribera del Duero 2003: Aromas of Christmas pudding, dried fruit and nuts follow through to a full body, with lots of Port-like fruit and a long fruity finish. Excellent tannins as well. Full-throttle red. Why wait on it? 94 points, unofficially.

Schrader Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Beckstoffer To Kalon Vineyard 2003: Big and ripe California wine with lots of jammy, pruney and raisiny fruit character on the nose and palate. Full and juicy. Porty. Slightly ponderous, but I like it a lot. Drink now. 91 points, unofficially.

Château Lafite Rothschild Pauillac 2003: Gorgeous aromas of blackberries, toasted oak, coffee and cigar box. Fab nose. Full bodied, with super silky tannins and a long caressing texture. A wine all in texture and complexity for the vintage. Best after 2012. 95 points, unofficially.

Château Bellevue-Mondotte St.-Emilion 2003: Full throttle yet not too much in your face. Full bodied, with lots of juicy fruit and raisiny spicy character long and rich. Soft and juicy. Best after 2012. 92 points, unofficially.

Harlan Estate Napa Valley 2003: Violet, berry and light toasted oak with hints of truffles. Full-bodied, yet reserved and silky with a solid core of fruit and a long caressing finish. Super fine and structured. Best after 2014. 97 points, unofficially.

Château Haut-Brion Pessac-Léognan 2003: Loads of plum, currant, coffee bean and cedar aromas follow through to a full body, with fine tannins and a long caressing finish. Silky texture and pretty for the vintage. Finesse for the year. Best after 2012. 93 points, unofficially.

Abreu Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Madrona Ranch 2003: Aromas of prunes, dried flowers, and ripe strawberries follow through to a full body, with lots of chocolate and ripe fruit on the palate. A bit one-dimensional and very ripe, but impressive. Best after 2010. 90 points, unofficially.

Château Péby-Faugères 2003: Dark chocolate, blackberry and licorice on the nose with hints of coffee. Full-bodied, with velvety tannins and a long caressing finish. Super well-integrated with beautiful tannins and fruit. One of the big surprises of the tasting, and an excellent value! Best after 2014. 96 points, unofficially.

Château Latour Pauillac 2003: Gorgeous coffee bean, ripe fruit and cedar with a sweet tobacco undertone in the nose. Full bodied, yet refined and silky with fine tannins and a long complex finish. Ripe but very Bordeaux. Best after 2015. 98 points, unofficially.

Bryant Family Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2003: Full-throttle with loads of ripe fruit from prunes to blackberries as well as loads of vanilla cream. Full-bodied, with soft and silky tannins and a long, long rich finish. Thick and raisiny. Porty. Slightly one-dimensional. Best after 2010. 91 points, unofficially.

Château Margaux Margaux 2003: Cedar, berry, sweet tobacco and subtle coffee aromas. Full-bodied, with fine tannins and a long finish. A bit tight and reserved but fine and structured. Chewy. Almost austere. Not a good bottle? Best after 2010. 90 points, unofficially.

Château Ausone St.-Emilion 2003: Blackberry, prunes and asphalt on the nose. Some dried flowers as well. Full-bodied, with super-fine tannins and a solid core of fruit. Layered and classy. Long and focused. Muscular and beautiful. Give this time. Best after 2016. 95 points, unofficially.

Screaming Eagle Cabernet Sauvignon Oakville 2003: Exotic fruit aromas with light toasted oak, cigar box with plums and prunes as well. Full-bodied, and very Porty with loads of ripe fruit and a long finish. Ripe tannins but full-throttle fruit. Best after 2010. 93 points, unofficially.

Colgin Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Herb Lamb Vineyard 2003: Very, very complex with dried flowers, truffles, blackberries, and violets on the nose. Full bodied, with ultra-fine tannins and a long, long finish. Milk chocolate, fruit and berries. Almost nutty. Love it. Best after 2014 but who can wait? Seductive. 99 points, unofficially.

Robert Foley Claret Napa Valley 2003: Aromas of very ripe fruit as well as toasted oak with vanilla under tones. Super pure fruit. Not overdone. Full bodied, juicy and very rich with a velvety texture and a long finish. A little disjointed at the moment but will come together. Best after 2010. 92 points, unofficially.

Château Pavie St.-Emilion 2003: Floral and ripe fruit on the nose with light vanilla as well. Full-bodied, with fine tannins and very pretty fruit though it's still in reserve, and a long finish. Give it some time. Best after 2012. 93 points, unofficially.

Andrew J Walter
Sacramento,CA —  June 2, 2008 3:30pm ET
I know its been said before, but you have a great job!! This tasting is absolutely fascinating and shows me several things: 1. Even in a bad vintage, the best of California completes very favorably with the best of Bordeaux; esp among serious tasters with likely preferences for the latter (although maybe in California, 2003 was more "Bordeaux-like" and Bordeaux more "California like" and also I am sure everyone knew that 2003 was generally considered an off year for California and a great one for Bordeaux--did this knowledge have an impact??). It would be interesting to repeat this tasting in 2015, when theorectically, all wines have reached their peak. 2. The absolute importance understanding the tasting note and the taster. I just happened to have my stats program open so, when treating scores as a continuous and a categorical variable, there were significantly higher scores given to the California wines by you than by Mr Laube (93.5 vs 89.4, p< 0.05). Obviously, this cannot be a direct comparison as you knew you were drinking the "cults" and thus were not completely blind but this confirms my general impressions based upon my own palate -- I think Laube is stingy with the numbers and you are generous (neither bad nor good but valuable information for me to have when I am making purchases). And 3 -- While the scores were different the tasting notes were reasonably similar in describing the wines further reassuring me about the internal validity of the Spectator's tasting program. Thanks again for sharing this fascinating information!!
Sandy Fitzgerald
Centennial, CO —  June 2, 2008 3:59pm ET
Sounds like an incredible tastings. It would be interesting to know what you had for dinner and what best complimented that meal. Was the results the same. For example, I recently had the 03 Screaming Eagle. It clashed terribly with the Ribeye and lamb that was served. To ripe, to porty. We ended up sitting it aside and having it as a dessert. A great dessert wine, but that isn't what a cab is generally bought for. The group enjoyed two non cults cabs much more with our meals than the cult.
Arshavir Kouladjian
Los Angeles, California —  June 2, 2008 6:52pm ET
WOWW! What an amazing Blog. I have to represent California on this one with 2 notes that it clearly present in this tasting. Note 1: I wish we can do the exact tasting for 2001, 2002, 2004 ;) 2003 was a bad year for california that got saved by experience from 1998 and 2000, with that being said, California still held its own. Note 2: I think there is a coincidence that you preferred all the Meritage blends or softer CA wines and you happen to be a European Editor. It would of been nice to have Laube present who can handle the "Big, Bad, World Class" CA Cults such as Schrader!

Thanks for your notes, I have alot of those bottles in my cellar, both CA and France, so this is definetely going to saved for reference later. -Arsh
Doug Eaton
Phoenix, AZ —  June 2, 2008 7:00pm ET
Similar to the comments from Andrew I went to the tasting reports and noticed that the Colgin rated 88 and the Dominus at 82. The sensational performance of these wines seems inconsistent to say the least especially since it was only just a year and a half ago the '03's were scored? I'm a Foley Fan and wasn't surprised in the outcome. The original WS score was 96.
Matt Scott
Honolulu HI —  June 3, 2008 12:08am ET
I can't help but to wonder if the results would be the same if this was done in 2018? I don't think that the '03 Napa Cabs will age as well and the '03 Bordeaux's are still too tight to compare with less austere wines. This has, however, been a wonderful blog. Thank you!
James Suckling
 —  June 3, 2008 1:47am ET
Matt. I will have to do the tasting again in 2018 -- I hope! But I think that the California wines I tasted will still be great. I have tasted a large part of those with 10 to 15 years on them and they age well.
James Suckling
 —  June 3, 2008 1:50am ET
Doug. I think that many people highly scored the wines because they knew that all the wines in the tasting were blue chip quality. So may be the scores were slightly inflated. Regardless, it still shows that some of the top California wines compared wonderfully against the Bordeauxs.
Peter Chang
Hong Kong —  June 3, 2008 2:27am ET
James, there has been a heated discussion on the Parker board about whether we overpay and overhype the top wines (or something like that). Given that the tasting was only semi-blind (and not to take anything away from the wines), do you think the scores were skewed to the high side?
James Suckling
 —  June 3, 2008 5:00am ET
Hey Peter. I think we were writing the same thoughts at the same time. Anyway, the answer is yes. I think that the scores were skewed on the high side. But I still think they were all outstanding wines. Also, I didn't see the discussion but I think that most of the top wines of today that we pay high prices for live up to their reputation and expectations...
John Shuey
Carrollton, TX —  June 3, 2008 9:16am ET
Interesting. And best of all, I have about 6 cases of various '03 Bordeaux set down...including 6 Peby-Faugeres. (Unfortunately the 1st growths are beyond my reach.)Your report did make some work for me, because I had to go into my d.b. and add a year or two to the ready-to-drink dates on most of them.
Sam Chen
The Golden State —  June 3, 2008 11:14am ET
Hi James,This must have been a great tasting. I think it is time for another Paris Tasting of 1976 (Part II). In Golf, there is the Ryder Cup (US vs. Europe) and the Presidents Cup (US vs. International). I think we can do the same in wine.
Claude Kaber
Luxemburg —  June 3, 2008 11:22am ET
Very interesting to see Bordeaux and California getting so close in taste when Bordeaux experiences such an ultra-hot summer.Maybe the Californians came first because Californian winemakers are more experienced making wines under such conditions ?
Kevin Callahan
Montreal, QC —  June 3, 2008 8:55pm ET
Interesting tasting, indeed. Thanks for the fine notes, as always. It does seem that not ALL the scores were necessarily 'inflated', or 'skewed' to the high side. The '03 Pavie has scored 96 in past 'official' tastings, while this bottled scored 93. Quite a difference really, between the two. Bottle variation? Timing of the maturation process?
Peter Chang
Hong Kong —  June 4, 2008 3:11am ET
Sam, I thought there were already at least 2 tastings done in 2006 in honor of the original 1976 Paris Tasting? The recreation at Copia/BBR had the Californians coming on top (again). The "Judgement of Sauternes" done by the Grand Jury Europeen also had the Californians coming on top. James, the discussion on Parker board asked the question how many of us could really tell the difference between First/Second Growth or Grand/1er Cru wines, and if we could not tell them part (except by looking at the label), whether we are justified in paying the premium.
Sam Chen
The Golden State —  June 4, 2008 11:16am ET
Peter,I have heard of the first tasting but I must have missed the second one with the Sauternes. I would love to see a 'Cult vs. Cult' with California Cult going against Bordeaux's avant garde garage wines.
Joshua Sun
Mountain View, CA —  June 4, 2008 3:23pm ET
I had a party where we did a CA vs. Bordeaux blind tasting and generally people preferred California. I think that Bordeaux wines are generally less concentrated and intense than California cult wines and may come across as weaker in a side by side tasting. It will be interesting to see how the wines compare in a decade from now.
Jason M Meyers
Medford, NY —  June 5, 2008 6:54pm ET
James...great reading here. Pouring through your blogs, to me, are like soap operas, romance novels: pure unadultered fantasy...keep me dreaming, please...Question though: in reference to your recent tasting note of the '05 Pavie in the magazine, I was confused as to how you wrote that the wine wasn't the blockbuster it was from barrel, but yet still garnered a 100 point score..."not the blockbuster" seems to me that it failed to live up to expectations? Can you clarify? Thanks, man...
Chris Tenggren
Elburn, IL —  June 11, 2008 10:25am ET
My Taster Can't Even Imagine How Great This Must Have Been!
James, What a line up to taste through! I wish my Tongue & Teeth were purple from this event along side you and your cohorts! Another Great 70's California/France Tasting here maybe?! It would/will be fun to see your blog on this 20 year retrospect! Can these offerings in today's Modern Styles make it there?! We'll (hope I am around to) see! Keep up the great work and blog... U R Lucky One!!!
Theodore Mukamal
NY, NY —  February 8, 2009 11:35am ET
Hi James!

SERIOUS QUESTION--please help.

I have enormous respect for your palate and understand that ratings are not fixed in stone and bottles can vary, but do you have any thoughts on why many 03 bordeaux are not living up to your official ratings? Are they ageing poorly or were you especially critical that day? (it was a very unusual, unprecedented vintage, no?)

margaux 03--98 official, 93 here

pavie 03--96 official, 93 here

petrus 03--98 official, 93 here

cheval blanc 03--96 official, 93 here

haut brion 03--96 official, 93 here

I believe you 100%, but these are really troubling results for people who bought 03 bordeaux. many thanks!
James Suckling
 —  February 8, 2009 11:50am ET
I think that now is not the best time to taste those wines. Top Bordeaux usually go through a dumb period, starting about a year or two after bottling and continuing for about six to eight years. So you are tasting the wines at the worst times, which is why they were probably not giving you what they should.
Theodore Mukamal
NY, NY —  February 11, 2009 12:28am ET
Thank you so much, James, I really appreciate your responses!

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