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Southwold - A Dinner in Honour of Steven Spurrier

Monday, 4th October 2021 by Thomas Parker MW
Steven tasting the 2010 Bordeaux at Farr Vintners in February 2020
Steven tasting the 2010 Bordeaux at Farr Vintners in February 2020

The dinner between the Southwold tasting days is always a highlight of the week, and often the year. After nine hours of tasting young - often highly tannic - red Bordeaux, you might think the last thing needed would be more wine. But, perhaps after a cleansing beer, these dinners can re-invigorate the palate and mind. Every year there is a theme; be it region, vintage, variety or other. This year, the wines took on the concept of the Judgement of Paris tasting, in honour of the late Steven Spurrier. Southwold 2017 is the first vintage without Steven since his passing earlier this year. What better way to toast to his memory than with a comparative tasting of American and French wines, much as he did to send shockwaves through the industry in 1976.

For those unaware of this famous tasting, the Judgement of Paris was an idea concocted by Steven in order to pit the best of France against their fast-rising Californian counterparts. The success of the New World upstarts surprised the judges and Old-World trade alike, revealing the quality potential of Napa’s greatest vineyards and producers. This tasting gained such renown that it has been immortalised in books, and the film Bottle Shock (2008), in which Steven is played by Alan Rickman in a loose adaptation of the events that took place. It is seen by many as a watershed moment when many realised the great potential of wines they had previously dismissed.

Much has been said about the quality of vintages served and the benefit of the more fruit-forward/ripe Napa wines, but this revelation clearly showed the need for many in the Old World to up their games and not rest on their historical hierarchy. It was clear even in the wines that we tasted at this dinner that the Californian wines were more fruit driven but also cleaner, showing a youthful vibrancy against the deeply savoury Bordeaux. Precision in the winery will have played a part in the former’s success at this tasting. Practices in the latter have come on leaps and bounds at the best addresses since 1976 and particularly in the last 25 years; it will be interesting to see how modern vintages evolve as signs of Brettanomyces, volatile acidity and over/under ripe fruit become far less common. Many consider these elements in small doses to be part of the complexity and brilliance of the best wines from the 20th Century. Time will tell, but the pristine Californian wines of the 1970s suggest we may not miss those traits as much as previously thought.

The goal of this dinner was not to see which was better – indeed, after a full day of tasting wines blind it is a relief to know what we are drinking – but rather to commemorate Steven with a selection of the best that both France and California have to offer. The generosity of the group was clearly on show as we were treated to several outstanding bottles from both sides of the Atlantic, in a dinner that would, I’m sure, make him proud. I have not added exhaustive notes of all the wines drunk, but instead chosen to highlight some of the very best on the night. There are no scores, but the Monte Bello was my wine of the night, a truly perfect wine that stood out even among such esteemed company.

Highlights

Freemark Abbey Cabernet Bosché 1971

A bottle kindly donated from a special private cellar collection and the closest wine to one served at the tasting in 1976 (the 1969 was served that night).

Deep garnet colour, with a strong graphite note matched by fleshy dark fruit. There is an earthy, slightly raisined quality that comes with age but this is leathery and sumptuous. Very silky and resolved in structure but long and pure to the finish. Very moreish.

Mouton Rothschild 1985 in magnum

With a label created by artist Paul Delvaux, the 1985 here represented the 1970 shown at the Paris tastings and highlighted most starkly the difference between Old and New World winemaking.

Deep ruby still. Very smoky and very earthy on the nose, this is full of briary fruit, cedar, bonfire and wet leaves. The palate is leathery and very savoury too, the non-fruit elements driving the intense flavour profile. This is very old school, chalky and dry, with a truffly, incense-lined finish.

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars SLV Cabernet Sauvignon 1985

A bottle selected to reflect the 1973 Stag’s leap Wine Cellars which was rated the highest at the original tasting tasting.

Deep garnet colour. Wild and smoky on the nose, with heady spices and cured meats. The palate is full of sultana, dried fig and mushrooms. This is complex, with a real sweet edge that transparently displays the California sun.

Leoville Las Cases 1986

To reflect the 1971 shown at the original tasting, which would undoubtably have been too young, this 1986 was finally in its stride.

Deep ruby colour. So youthful in aroma – pure graphite and cassis with hints of cedar and camphor. The palate is likewise pristine and chiselled. Cool black fruit is enveloped by integrating but persistent tannins. The fruit has a savoury edge but it is still full of life. Building to a driven and intense finish, there is still more to come here.

Dominus 1992

A winery that postdates the Judgement of Paris, with its first vintage produced in 1983.

Deep ruby-garnet colour. A clear mid-Atlantic style, blending the sweet fruit of Napa with the cool, earthy, graphite tones of the old world. This is smoky, savoury and yet generous on the palate. Rounded yet harmonious on a fine, long finish.

Haut Brion 2001

1970 Haut Brion was served at the Judgement of Paris, but this 2001 comes with a much higher reputation and duly delivered.

Deep ruby colour. Powerful and brooding on the nose with dark cassis but also ripe red fruits. There is a gravelly, earthy character so typical of great, mature wines from this estate. The palate is muscular, with a rich tannic structure and smoky black fruit at the core. Despite the power, the refinement is what impresses, with all falling into place by the long finish. The best is yet to come here.

Cabernet Sauvignon Monte Bello, Ridge 1992 in magnum

Sent directly from the winery ahead of the dinner, this incredibly generous offering reflects a bottle of 1971 served at the Paris tasting and was unquestionably my wine of the night.

Deep garnet colour. The nose is spectacular, a full array of spices, earth, wood and forest fruits. Despite the explosion of different aromas all fit together in harmony. The palate follows, the fruit pure and expansive but matched by spice and earthy, complex maturity. This is at its apex, with silky, ripe tannins perfectly framing the core of fruit that continues to push through to the finish. A stunning wine, perfect in every way.

Climens 1970

Sweet wine was not something judged at the tasting, and this vintage of Climens doesn’t have an illustrious background, receiving a meagre 70 from Robert Parker in 1998. This bottle was, however, excellent.

Copper colour. Honey, earth, dried orange peel on the nose – powerful. The palate is toasty and caramelised, bringing notes of popcorn, earth and heather. The sweetness has melted into the complex array of flavour. Long and lined with satsuma and honey on the finish, this was a perfect end to the evening.

Ben Browett - born 1992 - with the outstanding Monte Bello

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