The Battle of Wines: Factual or Mythical?

If you’ve ever attended a wine competition, you know that there may be a lot of banter and disagreements. It’s unlikely, however, that every red wine would be automatically dismissed as inferior, praised for its ability to rip your eye out. Furthermore, it would be unexpected for a judge to threaten the winemaker with murder or that anyone in attendance — much less a tasting panel member — would drink enough to pass out for three days.

So what’s the story behind the “Battle of Wines?” Is it merely a tall tale, or does it hold some truth? Let’s explore.

The Battle of Wines

The “Battle of Wines” refers to an event that allegedly took place in 1976 during a wine tasting held in Paris. The story goes that Steven Spurrier, a British wine merchant and self-proclaimed expert on all things vinous, was hosting a tasting of California wines to prove their inferiority to the French wines he loved. He lined up what he considered to be the best Bordeaux and Burgundies against their Californian counterparts and invited some of France’s most respected tasters to sample and judge the wines blindly.

Steven Spurrier – Image by Sarah Stierch

To Spurrier’s horror, the Californian wines not only held their own against the French wines, but they were actually preferred by the vast majority of the judges. In particular, two bottles of Californian wine — a 1973 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon and a 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay — were unanimously praised as being superior to their Bordeaux and Burgundy counterparts.

In an interview with Decanter magazine years later, Spurrier attributed his defeat to several factors, including his personal bias against New World wines and the fact that many French tasters were unfamiliar with Californian wines. Whatever the reason, there’s no doubt that the “Battle of Wines” was a watershed moment in both California wine history and the world of wine competitions.

Bataille des Vins

But this isn’t the 13th century, and you aren’t caught in the middle of the “Bataille des Vins,” meaning “Wine Battle.” The poem of the same name, written in 1224 by clergyman and poet Henri d’Andeli, portrays what could be characterized as a wine competition; however, by today’s behavior standards, “war” is a better phrase. The conflict sets about 70 wines against each other, mainly from grape-growing enclaves surrounding France and the Mosel, Spain, and Cyprus, coordinated by the French king Philip Augustus.

Fun Fact: Henri D’Andeli would regularly start his morning with a draught of Ale or Wine! Who knows what state he was in when he wrote his famous poem.

But in the poem, amidst a battle of wines, all hell broke loose. “Clear as a tear from an eye,” proclaims the wine of Argenteuil, a once-prestigious region that suburban Paris eventually overtook. “Oh, shut up…” he is told. “You’re playing for the sake of losing!”

The wines swiftly chose sides based on their geographical location. The wines of the Bordeaux/Saintes/Atlantic region (at the time, British territory) boasted about their vigor and strength — a strange trait to boast about in a glass of wine. They also bragged about how they “bring all the cash.” The elegance and agreeability of the wines from more eastern France appealed to the king.

At this point in the story, it was time to choose a winner. The priest is off reciting Mass to himself before putting down his candle and sleeping soundly. The French king observes his kingdom’s magnificent wines and bestows the most significant distinction on the Cypriot wine, “Pope.” We will never know if the poem “Battle of the Wines” is factual or mythical, but it is a massive success for Cypriot wine, even if it is a myth.

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Whether you believe the “Battle of Wines” is fact or fiction, there’s no denying that it’s an entertaining story. And while it may be embellished (or even fabricated) in some parts, there is definitely some truth to it. After all, it did result in increased recognition for California wines on an international stage — not to mention giving winemakers in the Golden State a good chuckle at Spurrier’s expense.

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