GRAPEVINE with LIZ SAGUES: Winning Californian wines

Cast your mind back to 1976... OK, perhaps you weren t even born, or certainly not yet drinking wine. But it was an iconic date in vinous history – the year of the judgement of Paris . If you don t know the story, it goes like this. An Englishman runnin

Cast your mind back to 1976... OK, perhaps you weren't even born, or certainly not yet drinking wine. But it was an iconic date in vinous history - the year of the "judgement of Paris".

If you don't know the story, it goes like this. An Englishman running a wine shop in the French capital had been so impressed by the quality of cabernet sauvignons from California that he wanted to present a selection of the best to some of the finest palates then at work in France.

At the last minute - because he was concerned that the VIPs (very important panellists) would not consider his chosen bottles seriously enough, regarding them as mere new world whipper-snappers - he decided to add some benchmark clarets into the blind tasting.

"I didn't intend a Californian to win," a now elegantly matured Steven Spurrier told members of the Circle of Wine Writers recently. But one did, outshining even Mouton-Rothschild and Haut-Brion from the very good 1970 vintage. Astonishingly, Stag's Leap Vineyard 1973 was the product of vines a mere three years old, an age generally regarded as far too precocious for quality fine wine.

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But nothing is wrong with extreme youth, argued Stag's Leap Wine Cellars founder and owner Warren Winiarski at that same CWW event - provided the fruit is consistent.

Half a lifetime on from that extraordinary tasting, Winiarski had none of his 1973 left to offer. But he did bring to London rare bottles from the 1977 and 1984 vintages - the Cask 23 especially, which blends fruit from the very finest blocks of vines.

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The wines were, extraordinary, not Californian at all in the powerful, super-rich, oaky fruit-bomb style which is too often delivered. They were elegant, delicate yet intense and mineral, with clean acidity balancing the tannins and great depth of pure fruit. No wonder a wine of this style won over the chauvinistic French tasters.

"It won because they thought it was French," added Spurrier only partly in jest.

But Winiarski insisted that neither then, nor now, has he aped the French classicists. "We are not trying to emulate them, but to make beautiful wines where we are."

Only a privileged few, however, can share the experience. The newly-released vintage of Cask 23 cabernet from Stag's Leap is 2004. The price is £150-plus a bottle and just 30 - bottles, not cases - have been allocated to the UK and Ireland. But the austerely beautiful Arcadia Vineyard chardonnay 2005 (£23, offers a more affordable taste of what the winery's very special Napa Valley location can produce.

Winiarski admits to sadness that few buyers cellar his wines for as long as they need (along with several fellow tasters, I found the younger wines, even 2001, far too raw to drink with any pleasure at the moment). But it's a sadness tempered by the pleasure he takes in know-ing how popular his wines are.

Interestingly, when the judgement of Paris was repeated thirty years on, though with panels in the UK and USA rather than France, Stag's Leap 1973 proved the fruit of those young vines had staying power. It came second overall behind Ridge Monte Bello 1971, with the Mouton-Rothschild still top of the clarets, but only sixth in popularity behind five Californians.

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