The Judgment of Lausanne

By now it’s a familiar story: when a local kid makes good the locals want to crow. And when the local kid is a wine they throw a blind tasting party. This particular party was subdued with masked guests and enforced silence. We, the invited arbiters, didn’t know who to cozy up to and who to avoid. No peeking! In the end, like we always do, we had to rely on our instincts to survive.

Blind wine tasting is like that. Take the Judgment of Paris in 1976 when California bested France in a blind tasting gone wrong. Careers were threatened and fortunes were made. Sheer glee was offset by outright humiliation. Ultimately it was good for everyone because wine was the winner. That tasting demonstrated that great wine is a matrix of directed talent, geographic good fortune, diligent farming and the desire to share and create a happier world. It also proved that great wine is not an inheritance or a birthright unless you sustain it with all your might. Since then, blind tastings have never been the same.

And so on this day, a self-appointed Grand Cru from Switzerland dared to put it all on the line against some of the established icons of the wine world. Eleven wines were presented in a modified double-blind format. What we knew: all were from the 2013 vintage, they were all expensive with CHF100 the starting point, and Valais Mundi’s top-of-the-line Electus was among the masked bottles. The purpose of the tasting was to evaluate its relative position against the best. To assess the positives and negatives and perhaps to chart a course for refinements in viticulture, processes and philosophical direction. I and several top-notch palates were only too happy to render a verdict. Such is the hubris of a wine professional.

Order of Double-Blind Tasting

  1. Ch. Pape-Clement (Pessac-Leognan)(51% C.S., 46% merlot, 2% P.V., 1% C.F., 13% alc.)
  2. Ch. Pontet-Canet (Pauillac)(65% C.S., 30% merlot, 4% C.F., 1% P.V., 13% alc.)
  3. Tenuta San Guido “Sassicaia” (Bolgheri, Tuscany) (85% C. S., 15% C. Franc, 13% alc.)
  4. Côte-Rôtie “La Mouline” (Guigal) (89% syrah, 11% viognier, 13.5% alc.)
  5. Marchesi Antinori “Solaia” (Tuscany)(75% C.S., 20% sangiovese, 5% C.F., 14% alc.)
  6. Ornellaia (Bolgheri, Tuscany)(45% C.S., 38% merlot, 10% C.F., 7% P.V., 14% alc.)
  7. Ch. Pichon-Baron (Pauillac)(83% C.S., 17% merlot, 13% alc.)
  8. Valais Mundi “Electus” (Provins, Valais)(cornalin, humagne rouge, diolinoir, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, cabernets franc, 14.5% alc.)
  9. Ch. Angélus (St.Emilion)(62% merlot, 38% C.F., 13.1% alc.)
  10. Opus One (Napa Valley)(79% C.S., 7% C.F., 6% merlot, 6% P.V., 2% Malbec, 14% alc.)
  11. Ribera del Duero “Alion” (Spain)(100% Tinto Fino, 14.5% alc.)

 

The Results in Ascending Order of Preference

The 2013 vintage in Bordeaux was fraught with difficulties, from bud break to harvest, and many experts consider it to be the poorest in decades. The overarching problem is one of balance: an excess of acidity given the level of fruit and an overabundance of astringent, green tannins. The evidence of uneven ripening—raisined elements mixing with an ungenerous, hard-to-like austerity—was obvious. Millerandage, caused by difficulties at flowering, is an admitted issue for Château Angélus and may account for some of its green flavors. The individual colors were not particularly healthy looking either—each was somewhat dull and lifeless—with varying washed-out flavors and finishing astringency.

(9, 10, 11) Chateaux Pape-Clement, Pichon-Baron and Angelus all suffered, to one degree or another, from these defects. They landed at the bottom of this tasting, in no particular order. These three, as expensive as they are, are significantly discounted in the trade compared to more favorable vintages.

(8) A trio of Super-Tuscans fared better with only Sassicaia a slight disappointment. Its slightly volatile nose and hints of reduction suggested that air is needed. Its fruity core was not particularly generous and its structural elements seemed overly imposing. It just didn’t seem especially balanced.

(7) The most complete wine of the Bordeaux cohort was the Pontet-Canet. It possessed a healthy garnet color with purple edges, a fine nose of violets and cassis and a reasonably ripe and fresh palate. Alas, like the others, it was plagued by out-of-balance tannins and a slightly bitter finish. Despite this, it was my preferred Bordeaux of the day.

(6) The Solaia was fine and ripe and probably benefited from the excellent sangiovese harvest in 2013. The wine was juicy, crisp and textured with enough fruit and structure for several years of positive development. Not endowed with tons of complexity, but not bad.

(5) The standout Tuscan was Ornellaia with its distinctive merlot nose of cherries and cocoa and a spice-flavored, oak-influenced texture. Notes of darker berries, both raspberry and creamy mulberries, surfaced mid-palate before ending on a structured, grippy note. I liked this quite a bit.

(4) A one off syrah, Côte-Rôtie “La Mouline” from Guigal, was oaky and sexy with ripe, slightly leathery fruit and a hint of creosote-like reduction. It had real sweetness and saturated flavors of red and dark fruit. As a side note, I number myself among those who find Guigal’s Côte-Rôties too oaky. I believe new oak masks the more nuanced elements of this terroir and negates the aromatic complexity intended by adding viognier to the blend. But that’s my problem as the Guigal portfolio enjoys international acclaim without me.

(3) Electus was the first breath of fresh air in the tasting. Its ornate aroma of violets and roasted fruit should have given away its pedigree and cornalin roots, but its oaky character served to mask some of that. Nevertheless, it was impressive in its concentration, sweetness of fruit, and saturation of flavor. Given all that, it remained fresh throughout with both dried and fresh herbal notes. This was the most balanced and complete of the first eight wines.

(2) Just a nose ahead of the Electus was a feisty Spaniard from the Ribera high-country—the slightly brooding Alion, from the folks at Vega Sicilia. This was a youthful and vigorous mouthful of blackberries with a smooth, chamois-like texture. It was very polished and balanced with an intriguing peppery finish and none of the heat one expects from this part of the world. This one is still a baby.

(1) My overall favorite was the lone new world representative—and from my home state of California, to boot—Opus One. Now before anyone accuses me of having a California palate—I don’t—Opus One is not your typical California wine. It is not designed to max-out in ripeness like many California reds but chooses to ease into it’s frame with elegance, grace and poise. A European aesthetic—and the wherewithal to pull it off—will do that. This is ripe, saturated and intense without any exaggeration and it retains a freshness that is often lacking in California reds. This is reputed to be one of the best vintages ever for Opus One. I believe it.

So what did we learn? Among this group of wines Electus acquitted itself very well. Against Bordeaux from another vintage, maybe less so. Or Super-Tuscans from a warmer year, maybe not so much. The point is, we all know that Switzerland can make world-class wine and it’s only going to get better. Blind tastings are fun, informative and sometimes humbling but they should not substitute for the really hard work that goes into producing the best terroir-driven wine in the most sustainable way possible. The Swiss legacy should not only be about fantastic wine but also about taking care of the land, its native varieties and its precious vineyards.

I think Electus can be a shining representative of that message.

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