1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay: The Wine that Put Napa Valley on the World Wine Map

 

When a California Chardonnay causes a stir among renowned wine experts, you know it’s going down in history as an important, revered, and famous (or infamous, depends on how you look at it) blend. That’s the story behind the 1973 Chateau Montelena– the California wine that won top prize at what is now known as the Judgment of Paris.

The Grape Win of California

Montelena Body 1The 1973 Chateau Montelena made headlines in the world of wine when it dethroned some of the best and most prestigious white burgundies of France. At that famous Paris Wine Tasting of 1976, the Chateau Montelena Chardonnay bested 10 French and Californian Chardonnays in a blind taste test.

The Montelena received the highest scores from six out of nine French judges (one of the judges inhibited as he was hosting the event).

Behind the Grapevine

Other than its surprise win, the Montelena 1973 –which is made from young vines– challenged a longstanding French conviction that top-quality wines should only come from mature vines.

There remains only one tasting note from the 1976 tasting event.

Christian Vannequé, head sommelier of the Tour d’Argent restaurant in Paris, described the California Chardonnay as “a very agreeable wine, which will blossom pleasantly, and has a good equilibrium.”

Probably due to the pride of the French and their love for their wines, Vannequé was later rebuked by the owner of the celebrated restaurant for participating in the tasting event and for choosing the non-French blend.

British Master of Wine Michael Broadbent wrote in 1980 that the Montelena 1973 was “certainly [his] idea of a fine California Chardonnay.”

“…Broad, slightly sweet, fully developed…positive but not excessive; dryish, more body than a Sauzet Puligny-Montrachet, but not heavy. Fine, rich, a touch of meatiness. Very good acidity. Perfect.”

Montelena Technical Sheet

There were 26,400 bottles (2,200 cases) of the 1973 Chateau Montelena wine. It was made from 100% Chardonnay grapes, and the bottled blend has an ABV of 13.2%.

At the time, its release price was around US$6.50, but remaining bottles can easily go over $20,000. In 2014, a bottle of the ‘73 vintage sold for $24,000 at a charity auction.

A Piece of American History

Of the 2,200 cases produced, only 11 bottles remain with the Chateau Montelena Winery. A bottle is also housed at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History as a National Treasure. The 11 bottles at the Winery are not for sale, but are allocated by the Barrett family for worthy causes.

The vintage was made by Miljenko “Mike” Grgich, a vintner at the Chateau Montelena Winery, which was owned by James Barrett and family.

The Terroir

Montelena 2In 1973, winter in Napa Valley was relatively cool, leaving the Chardonnay grape vines free from mildew and other diseases. Come August, temperature rose and the grapes ripened rapidly. The fruits, however, were able to preserve enough natural acidity– Grgich did not need to add tartaric acid to the must.

At the time, the estate owned extensive vineyards, but part of it were being re-planted to supply the winery with better quality grapes. The ‘73 vintage was then sourced from nearby independent growers.

In 2014, the Montelena Estate said 39% of their grapes came from the Belle Terre Vineyard in Alexander Valley; 35% from the Bacigalupi Vineyard in the Russian River Valley; 23% from the Hannah Vineyard in nearby Oak Knoll; and 3% from Calistoga.

By now, the story of two California wines (the Montelena and the 1973 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon) besting their French counterpart in a blind tasting event in Paris is a familiar story in the wine world. It’s a legend that’s been and will be told for years to come.

The 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay and the 1973 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon will forever be in the books as the two bottles that put Napa Valley, and the US, on the map of the wine world.