Miljenko “Mike” Grgich is rightly famous for having crafted the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay wine that bested Burgundy Grands and Premiers Crus at the infamous Judgment of Paris blind tasting in 1976. The illustrious French wine judges not only awarded the Chateau Montelena top prize for whites, they scored it the highest of all the wines, red and white.
The Judgment of Paris was a pivotal event in the US wine industry as chronicled so well at the SFMOMA Exhibit “How Wine Became Modern” five years ago. The triumph of Napa wines in both the white and red categories gave US vintners a bravado that spawned the modern global wine industry we know today. It was so significant that even the Smithsonian Institute recognized the wine – among 137 million artifacts in its collection – in its exhibit “101 Objects That Made America.”
Grgich scored another victory in 1980 with his own brand Chardonnay, the 1977 Grgich Hills Estate Chardonnay during the Great Chicago Showdown, the largest blind tasting of international Chardonnay at the time with 221 entries. The 1977 represented the inaugural vintage of the newly founded estate.
These are truly memorable moments in the history of US wine, but what distinguishes award-winning wines from truly great wines? The ability to age. I recently attended a vertical tasting of Grgich Hills Estate Chardonnay from the 1970s to today, and this is what I found.
Backstory on the wines: The old vines are organically farmed and hail from three main holdings – Carneros, American Canyon (about 2 degrees cooler for them than Carneros) and the Rutherford estate. Clones include Robert Young, Mount Eden and Wente. Their focus is on freshness and ageability so malo is inhibited. The original wines pre-1983 were made in stainless steel; today, the wines are oak fermented and aged using indigenous yeasts.
The earliest wine in the tasting was the Great Chicago Chardonnay Showdown winner, the 1977 Grgich Hills Chardonnay. Nearly 40 years later, this golden beauty has faded, but hints of its former glory remained in its richness and complex nose, and it was a privilege to taste it.
It was the 1995 Chardonnay that really floored me for its quality. It was a vintage of extreme weather, late harvest and lower crops. This 20-year old wine was very complex, sherry-like in its honeyed, nutty notes and on the palate, there was no denying the depth of fruit and seamless balance. This is a wine I would love to taste again in the future because it does have years of life left in it.
Another outstanding wine was the 2001 Chardonnay, Carneros Selection. This was an early vintage start to finish with many hot days but it didn’t affect the wine’s ability to age gracefully. This is an elegant wine with floral and fruity nose but again, with excellent depth and concentration of fruit and beautifully balanced. The weight of the Old Wente clones justified the use of about 70% new French oak and today, it is seamlessly integrated.
We also tasted three Chardonnays from the 2012 vintage, the Napa Valley, the Carneros Miljenko’s Selection and the Paris Tasting Commemorative. I loved the distinct difference in styles between the last two wines, the Miljenko’s Selection being more elegant, round and fruity while the latter was more rich and complex. The Paris Tasting Commemorative was made with 20-year-old Wente clones from Grgich’s Carneros vineyard, aged for a year in French oak followed by six months in large, neutral 1,200 gallon oak casks.
Judgment: Grgich Hills Chardonnay wines stand the test of time.
Grgich Hills Estate is located at 1829 St. Helena Hwy, Rutherford in the Napa Valley