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On the Rocks – Whisky’s Watershed Cometh by Anand Chintamani

Watershed*: an event or period marking a turning point in a situation.

And while this is a column in Swizzle, on whisky, let’s begin with some wine…

We’re round the corner from the 30th anniversary of one such event* – An innocuous wine tasting that took place in Paris on May 24, 1976 but will be remembered in Napa, home to the Californian wines or what was then called New World wines forever. The 1976 Paris tasting as it can be classified was a hastily organized set by Steven Spurrier, a part time wine merchant & an Englishman at it who also ran a wine school in Paris, and was aimed mainly at the upcoming U.S. Bicentennial celebration then. The event was to assemble some of France’s greatest experts one afternoon and do a blind tasting of French and California red and white wines. To cut a long story short – it was a French revolution part II. The first tasting was of white wines, with four California Chardonnays pitted against six white Burgundies from France. The jury of nine tasters included top France’s oenophiles, among them the secretary general of the Association des Grands Crus Classes.

No one in France had ever seriously tasted California wines before, yet the California white wines took three of the top four spots in the blind tasting, with a 1973 Chateau Montelena beating out a 1973 Meursault-Charmes Burgundy for the top rating. A 1973 Batard-Montrachet, which had been classed by the famous wine experts as one of the “greatest of all white Burgundy,” came in a distant seventh.

To add mockery to the calamity, the results of the crucial tasting of the reds, which in wine circles are far more important than whites was beholding. Four Grand Cru Bordeaux squared off against six California Cabernets. The judges were also informed the judges that a California white had won the first tasting. The alarmed judges did everything they could to segment what they thought were the California reds and make sure they didn’t win.

Even so, a 1973 Cabernet from California’s Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars took the top spot while the French wines took the next three. The French monopoly was crushed permanently. Many experts view the Paris tasting as the key event in the transformation of the California wine industry.

It was a seminal event and I cite it every time I speak about the growth of the California wine industry or now the whisky world.

The tasting, nonetheless, did nothing to dent the French belief that their wines are superior to all others.

Still, even many American wine experts and the world over agree that the best French wines are the best in existence. However, once you remove the top 0.5% of wines, California, Australia and S. Africa come roaring up – quite like in the W World. Cut to the dram and yes we are witnessing a changing Whisky world out there. Right here at home, Amrut’s flying off the shelves. Friends back in India are hounding every foreign returnee, to get him or her Japanese Malts. Last month on a holiday to S.E Asia I experienced the limitless charm and passion in Kavalan Single Malt Whisky, from the only distillery in Taiwan. Mind you, Kavalan won a Gold Medal at the IWSC 2011 and the list is growing.


Are we about to witness a watershed* soon? I’d say yes, so, sit back and penderyn-peated-single-maltpour yourself a dram, I’d recommend the Peated Penderyn Single Malt Welsh Whisky – Ms. Catherine Zeta Jones, you around?

by Anand Chintamani