Sunset wine editor brings news from Bordeaux

Sara Schneider takes her Western taste buds to France and comes back feeling pretty good about our wine. See what she liked (and what she didn't)

Sara Schneider

It was a wine competition I had never heard of: the Concours Mondial des Bruxelles. But the invitation to be one of the judges for the huge international smackdown this year -- in Bordeaux -- couldn't reasonably be passed up.

Three days of blind tasting cracked some clichés for this West Coast wine editor. What I learned (among other things):

• Grand crus notwithstanding, there's an awful lot of bad Bordeaux in the world (but some good, unknown ones are amazing deals).

• There's less of a style split between New World wines and Old World wines now than most of us think.

• The West Coast's fabulous wines aren't on the radar for most of the wine-drinking world.

• And Europeans can be won over, if you just ply them with enough beer.

April 18: Day one, when the judge from California can't tell her Albariños from her Viogniers

Flags are flying high and low as we crowd into the cavernous convention center in Bordeaux. Our task here is to taste wines from all over the world and award medals (or not) at the 2008 Concours Mondial des Bruxelles international wine competition.

I take it that the flags stand for the countries all the tasters come from, not the wines, but it's practically the same thing. I've been invited to be a judge in the U.S. contingent. My first reaction was, I can't possibly do that. I spend so much time tasting as many West Coast wines as I can for Sunset that I haven't sacrificed enough taste buds for French ones, let alone Greek, Romanian...

But when I see the flags -- and each of us has one on our own little tasting table, I think again: Probably few of the other 240 judges in the room taste widely around the world either. We drink from our regions, and the little else we can explore when we can spare a meal for a recommended Malbec from Argentina or Tempranillo from Spain.

Reassuring. But as the five of us on my assigned jury dig into our first flight of whites, I get the sense that our leader -- an extremely pleasant and efficient German who's making wine in Romania -- is more concerned about unity than diversity of opinion.

She hovers to see if we're all on the same page, and (it might be my imagination) she seems to especially need to monitor my American palate. I'm too generous at first, then I don't award a medal to a wine she thinks deserves one; would I retaste it? (Sure.)

A few flights later, she says simply, "I think we like the same wines."

This tasting is blind in every way. We have no idea where in the world the wines come from (Sicily? Tunesia?) or what grapes they're made out of. This doesn't seem like a good idea to me. I would expect different things out of a Pinot Gris from Oregon than France, Italy... I'm flailing around for a context. It's clearly not forthcoming here, so I focus on the elements of every wine instead: layers of flavor, balance, length ... A well made wine is a well made wine ... And a whole lot in our first 50 this first day are not. Here's what I can tell you.

Primitivo -- Italy's identical genetic twin to our Zinfandel -- is in awful shape, if the 10 in our lineup are any sign. If you run into one from Puglia, duck and cover.

There are some mighty mediocre Bordeaux in the world. I know it's sacreligious to say it, here on the altar of the wine world, but we had a miserable 13 glasses from the Côtes de Bourg. High hopes for better specimens in the tastings we've been invited to this afternoon in some of the better chateaux.

On the bright side, Albariños from the Rias Baixas region of Spain are wonderful -- crisp and aromatic. And it's no big deal that I think I'm drinking white wines from the Rhône... Really.

Out-take: Midnight beers in the bar produce friendly relations with Holland.

April 19: Day two, when Jury 26 pans South Africa, Italy, Australia, and France

Day two starts out with much accord on our team, which I'm really starting to like -- Jean from Ireland; Felicity from Germany; a gentleman from Spain whose name I still don-t know, because he can speak no English, French, or German, and seems to believe the barrier extends to introductions; and Mathilde, our aforementioned leader. The only problem is that what we agree on is that all the wines are boring. Only our Spanish member is finding bright spots -- awarding medals right and left -- which leaves Mathilde shaking her head. She has no way of exhorting him to be more critical, though, so she leaves him to sip and spit in peace.

When the crib sheet comes out, here's what we've dissed:

• South African Chardonnays
• Sicilian dessert wines (although I really want to try some more, because I hear that the "passito" style these are made in―partially dried before crushing, for rich, concentrated flavor―produces some outstanding wines; ours just weren't great specimens).
• Italian Prosecco (which I usually love!)
• Australian Syrah, Grenache, Tempranillo, and Cabernet blends
• And finally, Beaujolais

Things pick up in the afternoon, as we pile onto buses and head out to different château around Bordeaux.

I'm on the bus to Margeaux (the region, not the châteaux -- if only!). First it's Château Paveil de Luze -- not one of the classified Grands Crus, but borrowing on the fame of neighbors like Château Margaux itself. Honestly, though, tanks and barrels look amazingly alike the world over, and explanations of good winemaking techniques echo wherever anybody's paying attention to the details. The only differences are the structures around those vats and barrels and the liquid inside.

Paveil de Luze doesn't bowl me over (although I wouldn't turn it down with a good burger).

Higher hopes at our next stop: Château Pichon-Longueville (we're in Pauillac now), which is a Grands Cru.

In the wisdom of 1855, the authorities decided which vineyards on the Left Bank of the Gironde River were capable of producing the best wines; only 5 made the top cut (first growths) and 14 the second, Pichon among them. Stunning 18th-century château, high-tech equipment in the cellar, sleek tasting room -- it's a showcase. And the three year's worth of the wine we taste -- 2006, 2005, and 2004 -- meet all of our expectations, Europeans and New World tasters alike.

Most of us came prepared to swoon over the 2005―by reputation a perfect year―but my money's on the 2004. It's a deeply structured and layered thing of beauty.

The afternoon ends at Château Giscours, a third growth, where many vintners from both Margaux and Pauillac have gathered to pour us their wines and host us for a candlelight feast that takes on a sort of brotherhood quality -- members of a society gathered to revel in their wares. I struggle to remember the wines I'm trying, the years, the highs and lows (must take notes), but then give it up. Bordeaux's legendary (and legendarily expensive) dessert wine, Sauternes, starts circulating, and a new German friend comes over with a glass of rum. Huh?

Out-take: Beers in the bar at midnight produce heated argument with Holland (who drinks pretty much only Bordeaux, although he's tasted Gallo) about whether California is really capable of producing great wine. He thinks not. Truly and honestly. Is there still thinking like this in the world? I have some serious PR work to do, with only one more day of the competition left.

April 20: Day three, when Holland capitulates

Our last morning of work, and there's a buzz in the hall. Cameras come out; big applause for the black-suited army of wine students who've poured thousands of wines for us (I'm sure the kid dedicated to our team isn't old enough to pour wine, but this is France ...).

And as we tick off our final flights, we're just a bunch of kids finishing up a long test (cheers when a table's overturned―glasses, spit bucket, and all).

But our group ends on a tiny discordant note. We've had a great session until now: The wines are more interesting than yesterday, and we've found the gems in unison. I can't quite place the last flight―red―but I like the style: good structure, good acidity, generally good fruit... I give a few medal-level scores.

But then I see Mathilde laboring with Jean and Felicity. Apparently, they aren't charmed by these wines: too astringent, in their view; no complexity. And there's no budging them.

In the end, there are probably no medals in our average scores. Heading for the crib sheets, hoping for some affirmation of mediocrity, they leave Mathilde muttering behind: "Those were beautiful wines. They deserve some medals."

They turn out to be Bordeaux! Well, of course! Every jury has ended with a flight of the host region's wines.

But there you have it -- different expectations of the bones a great wine needs. A lifetime of drinking a certain range of wines (and who can possibly drink them all?) creates prototypes, reference points for characteristics that have consistently elicited an "ooh, that's good." As Felicity puts it simply, "I'm sorry, I need a little more fruit in my wine."

It strikes me, though, that this isn't necessarily an Old World-New World split. If the theory holds that the wines of Europe are, as a bunch, lean and earthy as opposed to lush and fruity, then we should have been able to nail every flight.

Not so. There were several that we just shrugged at -- no clue as to what part of the world they were from, Old or New. There really must be more ripe fruit creeping into central European wines.

My theory is that, while that's happening, we're all still talking the old talk: Lovers of Bordeaux still heartily believe in the superiority of lean balance over seductive fruit, while the spectrum is shrinking between us.

Group photo, and we're off to lunch, hosted by the country where the competition will be held next year―Spain, as it turns out. So over paella, everyone's angling for an invitation to Valencia. I can't imagine mine will get lost in the mail, considering all those medals I gave to the Spanish Albariños that I thought were French Viogniers the first day.

All the proverbial stops get pulled out on our last afternoon, on the Right Bank of the river -- Merlot territory. My bus stops at Petit Villages, where the view of the superstar neighbors -- Cheval Blanc, Petrus, Le Pin -- overshadows the wines.

On the way to Château Canon, we get hopelessly lost and finally bail on the bus and walk the last half-mile. Acres and acres of caves carved out in midieval times snake under the vineyards themselves, acting as a bit of a frost buffer for the vines above. And the Merlot they produce defies reputation: It's muscular and angular -- fabulous.

From Canon, we just walk down the lane to the village of St Emilion, a tilting riot of stone walls and precipitous cobblestone tracks built into the hills sometime back about the 11th century. The church clearly got the most attention: No fewer than four orders built a cathedral or monastery here, one of them being the largest underground, single-rock church in the world, chiseled out of the limestone. Shored up now, it offers up a few old bones and paintings as we wander through.

Our final stop is the Dominican monastery, where the central nave has been decked out for our final gala dinner. (Many jokes about the religious experience it might be.) No dinner for our group starts without a walk-about tasting of the region's wines. You'd think we'd had enough, but we shamelessly swirl Merlot, nodding sagely when we like it, shaking our heads dismissively when we don't. (Who do we think we are?!)

Dinner banishes critical thinking, even reaching a Miles moment at my table. Holland―who does have a name by this time (it's Chris Alblas), and who not only sticks to Bordeaux; he's specifically a Left Bank man, where Cab is king -- melts when our hosts pour 1997 Cheval Blanc with our last course. "Not the best year," he mumbles, before he gives it up. The bottle of Blanc Miles pulled out to drink with his hamburger at the end of Sideways might have been a better vintage, but that's all he's got on us tonight.

Out-take: Champagne in the bar at midnight produces a truce with Holland: There will be California bottles in the mail from me (is this legal?), and Chris will do his darndest to drink them with an open mind. Now, what to send... ?

April 21: It's all about the oysters

Competition over, I stay on with a few writers and editors for a couple of days of extra exploration -- today Arcachon, a town on the coast to the west where 19th-century burghers came for the cure. The international mix on my mini bus skews south this time, to Spain, South Africa, Brazil, Chile, and Argentina. (One guy from that last country I'm sure I've seen on the wall at Abercrombie & Fitch.)

It's been a cold, wet week in Bordeaux, but no grim weather tamps this energy.

We climb the massive dunes edging the Bay of Arcachon to see the vast forest of pine trees residents planted in the 18th century to stop their march. And -- this being the oyster capital of Europe -- we eat a bunch in a little oyster cabin, where we also learn how they're farmed: The little guys stick to tiles placed in the estuary (where they get prodigious changes of water with the tides).

After three months, they're collected, stripped off the tiles, bagged in fine mesh, and put back in the water. And here's the who-knew part: As they grow, they're rebagged every few months for about three years before they're ready to eat.

I especially recommend them on green plastic oyster plates with rye bread and good butter and a briny white Bordeaux (mostly Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon). We've been drinking an awful lot of Château Bonnet blanc from Entre-Deux-Mers; I bet it's available in the States.

Bordeaux blanc is starting to grow on me, in fact. Gravelly and aromatic all at once, these blends of Sauvignon Blanc, Semillion, and sometimes Muscadel have refreshingly low alcohol levels, so you can just keep drinking … And I do―fourth-floor hotel window ledges being perfect places to keep a bottle chilled.

April 22: Cheap wine finds and funny South Americans

A couple of visits to wineries in lesser-known regions of Bordeaux on this last day convince me that, outside the pockets of fame, these wines are good deals. Domaine des Graves D'Ardonneau, for instance, in the Côtes de Bourg is a surprise, because in the competition, we had panned our flight from the region. Apparently we didn't have the right wines!

In a cozy, beamed tasting room, we try a beautiful crisp, aromatic white that we're told sells for about 6 Euros. Of course, with the dollar in such miserable condition, that's $9 or $10 for us, and then -- if we could get it in the West -- every tier in our complicated system adds a middleman fee.

Still ... The first, simple red we try is only about 3 Euros! (And it beats Two-Buck Chuck all to heck.)

Their really well-made reserve red goes for about 12 Euros. Note to Seattle: They tell me you can find D'Ardonneau there. I'd be really curious to know their final price.

A boat trip on the Gironde takes us to our final dinner on the riverbank. I work up the courage to abandon the easy English speakers and sit with the Spanish, Chileans, and Argentinians instead, wondering if they're secretly groaning at the effort it's going to take to speak English for my benefit.

But it just doesn't work out that way. In the course of two hours of words that meander over grilling around the world, Robert Parker (no conversation with wine people is complete without him), Barack and Hillary, Chilean cocktails made with ice that's calved off glaciers, how to tap into wireless using your cell phone and some getup of wire and aluminum foil ... we end up in stitches. I haven't laughed this much in recent memory.

Wonderful diversity and connections.