Cult California Chardonnay vs Top Cru White Burgundy - the judgment of Green Hills

Most know Chardonnay.
Of all major wine grapes, it is the most capable in delivering stunning results from across a wide range of climates. From the cold Chablis in northern France to temperate Cote d’Or in Central France to warmer climate in Sonoma to the heat of Napa. Ever since the Judgment of Paris in 1976, when Napa Valley’s own Chateau Montelena’s Chardonnay reigned supreme in a blind tasting against France’s crème de la crème, California Chardonnay has enjoyed blockbuster status in the United States, and has spurred planting and popularity across the new world. A recent Hollywood flick Bottle Shock helped distill (or dilute?) the momentous Judgment of Paris story for the masses rekindling the American Chardonnay pride at least in some. For years after 1976, the debate about the Judgment of Paris continued, and occasionally small groups of devoted wine lovers have conducted a sanity check. I have documented one such event – the Judgment at Ross Bott - recently run by the Ross Bott wine tasting group in Palo Alto, where California Chardonnays of Kistler, considered by most the penultimate expression of the California style, commanding cult status and commensurate price tags, were pinned against 1er Cru Chablis, some of the best representations of the cooler and leaner Chardonnay style that most wine geeks I know consider superior to California. Well, to make the long story short, the Ross Bott group preferred Kistlers (!!!), and when the tasting concluded, a debate commenced. Arguments from the Francophile camp abounded: “how can such different styles be comparable?!”, “why Grand Cru level (a class above 1er Cru) was not used?!”; “the best of French wines was corked!”, “oh, was the group composition skewed toward California palates?!”, etc, etc, etc.

Until Alex Bernardo of Vineyard Gate Wine Sellers heard about that, and decided to put an end to the debate. Thus, the Judgment of Green Hills was born. This is the account of what transpired.

One comfortable night at the start of spring 2009, a group of 20 wine aficionados gathered in an old country club of Green Hills in Millbrae, California, a small town along highway 101 just minutes away from San Francisco airport. They responded to a call of duty, a request on behalf of Vineyard Gate to a small exclusive brigade of close friends, whose palates and judgment could be trusted in a matter as important as this. 20 people, 10 per table, how can criticisms of the Ross Bott tasting be addressed?

After careful consideration, these were the rules… It was to be top California Chardonnay (not just Kistler) against top White Burgundy (not just 1er Cru Chablis), tasted blind. Let the best wine win! 19 wines, 1 corked, gave each table an even split of 9 bottles to rank. The bottles were carefully divided such that each table received balanced representation of regions and statures. Guests were to rank their top 5 only, while a crab dinner was served to allow everyone to assess wines both with and without the food.

The Wines

Table 1:
A1: Marcassin 1998 estate
B1: Peter Michael Mont Plaisir 2001
C1: William Fevre Chablis Bougros Grand Cru 2004
D1: Louis Jadot Puligny-Montrachet Les Folatieres 1er Cru 1999
E1: Kistler Dutton Ranch 1998
F1: Raveneau Chablis Butteaux 1er Cru 2001
G1: Domaine des Comtes Lafon Meursault-Goutte d'Or 1er Cru 1997
H1: William Fevre Chablis Le Clos Grand Cru 2002
I1: Kister McCrea 1998

Table 2:
A2: Marcassin 2004
B2: Walter Hansel Russian River Valley 2002
C2: William Fevre Chablis Bougros Grand Cru 2004
D2: Louis Jadot, Domaine du Duc de Magenta, Puligny-Montrachet 1er Cru Clos de la Garenne Monopole 2004
E2: Kistler 1998 Hyde
F2: Domaine Etienne Sauzet Puligny-Montrachet "Les Combettes" 1er Cru 1990
G2: Jean-Claude Belland Corton-Charlemagne Grand Cru 1996
H2: Domaine de la Vougeraie, Vougeot Clos du Prieuré Blanc Monopole 2005
I2: Kistler Durrell 1998
J2: Mount Eden 2005 (moved to table 1 to replace the corked D1)

After 2.5 hours of drinking, eating, and discussing, the votes piled in and the final tally was taken. Here is how the chips fell from most preferred (5 points per vote) to the least (1 point per vote).

Total Score:312421181212776
ranked #1321210000
ranked #2130102111
Total Score:30282221189765
ranked #1412100010
ranked #2122201200

So, what did we get?

Table 1 overwhelmingly preferred Marcassin – California – it wasn’t even close!!! Then two Chablis, then two more California. Granted, one of their white Burgundies was corked and had to be replaced by another California.

Table 2 chose French for their top 5, with the top two being far ahead of the rest of the pack.

The groups tasted an even split of 9 California and 9 French (excluding the corked wine which one guest ranked as the #4! – that score was discarded). If you look at it purely based on scores, the Marcassin earned the highest score of 31. The white Burgundy Grand Cru was a close second with 30 points, followed by 5 more white burgundies before the next California. More people at table 2 were united around the top choice (4 top votes) than on table 1 (3 top votes).

The total score for California was A1+J1+I1+B1+E1+E2+B2+A2+I2 = 31+18+12+12+7+9+7+6+6=108

The total score for France was F1+C1+G1+H1+G2+F2+H2+C2+D2=24+21+30+28+22+21+18=164

It is noteworthy to mention that on that night the 3 wine professionals present – two winemakers Eric Lecours and Loren Tayerle, and the Vineyard Gate’s founder Alex Bernardo – chose William Fevre “Bougros” 2004 Grand Cru Chablis as their top choice!

We appreciate and acknowledge all guests who brought the gems from their cellars in order to make this night memorable and meaningful.


Based on the combined scores, it wasn’t even close – France handily beat out California, which was further evidenced by the 4 Kistlers sitting half-unfinished on the table at the end. Yet, the fact remains – the highest scoring wine was the ’98 Marcassin Estate bottling, just as in 1976 Chateau Montelena reigned supreme atop of pedigreed array of French crus. Does the Judgment of Green Hills help close the debate, or just open it ever wider? As answers lead to more questions, I look forward to being an eyewitness to future judgements and debates that prove the process itself to be far more delightful than any possible final outcome.


Unknown said…
Nice post, Gary. It was a pleasure meeting you at this great event. Besides enjoying some fantastic crab and wines, I think I learned a little more about my palate. Several musings in no particular order:

I'm predisposed to like mature wines. So much so, in fact, that a wine's maturity can successfully distract me from some of its minor flaws. For example, during the flight the '98 Kister McCrea 1998 , had a beautiful open nose of nuts, yeast and some smoke. Combined with the open and seductive palate, this wine completely charmed me—somewhat obscuring its lack of complexity that was more apparent after I came back to this wine after scoring had completed.

Maturity matters—not age. The California Chardonnays that I preferred in Table One's offerings were fully mature, likely at or around their peak. The Burgundies, by contrast, were either obviously young or just beginning to stretch their limbs. Although I already mentioned the Kistler McCrea, the Marcassin and Peter Michael were absolutely singing with an open nose and palate, still balanced and refined. Meanwhile the Burgundy noses were reticent, struggling to open and show their complexity. As the night wore on, the mature Chards began dying off while the Burgundies were starting to grow up. Fast forward this snapshot five years and I suspect that the results would skew even further toward Burgundy.

Burgundy guards its secrets. I'll start by saying that this really doesn't apply to folks familiar with high-end burgundy. Many attendees were very much keen to the nuances of Burgundy that can confound the relative novice and immediately embraced them as an old friend. For people like myself who usually confine themselves to village and low-end premier cru—and derive much satisfaction from them—high-end white Burgs need to be engaged as if in an intellectual jousting match. For example, the first whiff of the Raveneau, nearly turned me off completely. Its flavors initially seemed to contrast rather than compliment. Only after more time in the glass and additional scrutiny did I come to appreciate the complexity was not contrasting, merely daunting. That I appreciated this realization is reflected that I ranked it within my top five only at the last minute. Given more time, the same would have happened for the Comtes Lafon. Clearly, the clarity that elegant CA Chard expresses does so to its benefit during these types of high-stakes scenarios.

Knowing what you're drinking. Although I realize the circumstances did not permit it, it would have been interesting to see the results if the tasting had been conducted double-blind. Though no fault to them, I suspect that the fact that many folks knew that certain wines were in the tasting led them to identify and rank them in an order already established through previous non-blind tasting experiences. I was quite happy in my ignorance.

California Chardonnay can be brilliant, but that brilliance will cost you. Most of the CA Chards that I can normally afford—$50 or less for most bottles—I really can't stand. The lack of acidity and vanilla oak often rids the wine of any elegance. However the Peter Michael, Marcassin and Kistlers were exquisite, full of pleasure and elegance. I don't think it will change my buying habits, but its nice to know that California can make Chardonnay that can hold its own.
Iron Chevsky said…
Great comment, Jim.
I will add this... Many California Chards have great power, that comes from the climate and the popular winemaking style. Very few reach acidity and balance. These top California Chards certainly do. However, I wish you had G2 and F2 that took the top 2 spots at our table. Their complexity was no match for any of the Californians, and that to me makes all the difference. I too am a sucker for older vintages, where complexity is enhanced by age transforming the wines' flavors from mere fruit to something less obvious and more alluring. Recently, I had the pleasure of tasting 3 different Batard-Montrachets. While all were regal, the oldest one (supplied by Alex, in a magnum format) was mind-boggling. The Judgment of Green Hills confirmed that. On top of that, my respect for Chablis grew as well. While not the most show-stopping wine in the line-up, William Fevre Bougros 2004 was the most refreshing of all tasted, paired perfectly with the caesar salad and tortellini, and was a welcome departure from the butter and toast overload of the California powerhouses.
enochchoi said…
$60 for William Fevre “Bougros” 2004 Grand Cru Chablis is a steal... would have loved to finish the kister for ya! ;)
Unknown said…
I got the Kistler Hyde leftover and drank it last night, a good 26 hours after it was opened. Amazing still! It was big, buttery, with more tropical fruit than the typical Burgundy but with great balance and acid. It does have some mineral and no noticeable oak.

This has definitely inspired me to search for more '98 Kistler Chardonnay to share with the wino friends who could not make it Saturday night.

Thank you all again.

Wine Yoda said…
My tasting card in order of preference:
1. C1: William Fevre Chablis Bougros Grand Cru 2004
-lemon oil, sweet corn, elegant understated
2. H1: William Fevre Chablis Le Clos Grand Cru 2002
-intense, sharp attack, citrusy, elgant
3. G1: Domaine des Comtes Lafon Meursault-Goutte d'Or 1er Cru 1997
-mineral, fruit essence, intense
4. E1: Kistler Dutton Ranch 1998
-vanilla cream toast, mineral, rich, powerful, a bit hot
5. A1: Marcassin 1998 estate
-butterscotch, caramel, very ripe pears, honeyed, viscous, sexy, hot finish
6. J2: Mount Eden 2005
-not bad, good fruit balance, elegant
7. F1: Raveneau Chablis Butteaux 1er Cru 2001
-dominated by tangerine flavors, intense, interesting but orange tangerince note too dominating
8. B1: Peter Michael Mont Plaisir 2001
-fragrant, but very hot, and the fruit is drying out with a sherry-like flavors
9. I1: Kister McCrea 1998
-caramel, butterscotch flavors, very soft and flabby, lacks freshness, fading

We should do this fun exercise often. Thanks to Gary for tracking the numbers and writing this brilliant summary.

If nothing else, I think we learn that tasting enhances our appreciation and enjoyment of wine. There isn't any substitute to it--not reading books or following scores, or listening to people talk about wine.

I encourage everyone to taste as often as possible. At Vineyard Gate we have tastings almost everyday of the week. I urge everyone to take advantage of this opportunity.

Anonymous said…
Interestingly, Crushpad Winery in San Francisco held an event in conjunction with the release of Bottle Shock where participants tasted the current releases of the wines featured in 1976 in Paris. Both the crowd and the expert panel chose the Chateau Montelana chardonnay as their favorite amongst the whites. I am not sure this "proves" much, but it is intriguing

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