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)
It was a wine competition I had never heard of: the Concours Mondial desBruxelles. But the invitation to be one of the judges for thehuge international smackdown this year — in Bordeaux — couldn’treasonably be passed up.
Three days of blind tasting cracked some clichés for thisWest Coast wine editor. What I learned (among other things):
• Grand crus notwithstanding, there’s an awful lot of badBordeaux in the world (but some good, unknown ones are amazingdeals).
• There’s less of a style split between New World winesand Old World wines now than most of us think.
• The West Coast’s fabulous wines aren’t on the radar formost of the wine-drinking world.
• And Europeans can be won over, if you just ply them withenough beer.
April 18: Day one, when the judge fromCalifornia can’t tell her Albariños from her Viogniers
Flags are flying high and low as we crowd into the cavernousconvention center in Bordeaux. Our task here is to taste wines fromall over the world and award medals (or not) at the 2008 ConcoursMondial des Bruxelles international wine competition.
I take it that the flags stand for the countries all the tasterscome from, not the wines, but it’s practically the same thing. I’vebeen invited to be a judge in the U.S. contingent. My firstreaction was, I can’t possibly do that. I spend so much timetasting as many West Coast wines as I can for Sunset that I haven’tsacrificed enough taste buds for French ones, let alone Greek,Romanian…
But when I see the flags — and each of us has one on our ownlittle tasting table, I think again: Probably few of the other 240judges in the room taste widely around the world either. We drinkfrom our regions, and the little else we can explore when we canspare a meal for a recommended Malbec from Argentina or Tempranillofrom Spain.
Reassuring. But as the five of us on my assigned jury dig intoour first flight of whites, I get the sense that our leader — anextremely pleasant and efficient German who’s making wine inRomania — is more concerned about unity than diversity ofopinion.
She hovers to see if we’re all on the same page, and (it mightbe my imagination) she seems to especially need to monitor myAmerican palate. I’m too generous at first, then I don’t award amedal to a wine she thinks deserves one; would I retaste it?(Sure.)
A few flights later, she says simply, “I think we like the samewines.”
This tasting is blind in every way. We have no idea where in theworld the wines come from (Sicily? Tunesia?) or what grapes they’remade out of. This doesn’t seem like a good idea to me. I wouldexpect different things out of a Pinot Gris from Oregon thanFrance, Italy… I’m flailing around for a context. It’s clearlynot forthcoming here, so I focus on the elements of every wineinstead: layers of flavor, balance, length … A well made wine isa well made wine … And a whole lot in our first 50 this first dayare 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 runinto one from Puglia, duck and cover.
There are some mighty mediocre Bordeaux in the world. I knowit’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 invitedto this afternoon in some of the better chateaux.
On the bright side, Albariños from the Rias Baixas regionof Spain are wonderful — crisp and aromatic. And it’s no big dealthat I think I’m drinking white wines from the Rhône…Really.
Out-take: Midnight beers in the bar produce friendly relationswith Holland.
April 19: Day two, when Jury 26 pansSouth Africa, Italy, Australia, and France
Day two starts out with much accord on our team, which I’mreally starting to like — Jean from Ireland; Felicity fromGermany; a gentleman from Spain whose name I still don-t know,because he can speak no English, French, or German, and seems tobelieve the barrier extends to introductions; and Mathilde, ouraforementioned leader. The only problem is that what we agree on isthat all the wines are boring. Only our Spanish member is findingbright spots — awarding medals right and left — which leavesMathilde shaking her head. She has no way of exhorting him to bemore critical, though, so she leaves him to sip and spit inpeace.
When the crib sheet comes out, here’s what we’ve dissed:
• South African Chardonnays
• Sicilian dessert wines (although I really want to trysome more, because I hear that the “passito” style these are madein―partially dried before crushing, for rich, concentratedflavor―produces some outstanding wines; ours just weren’tgreat specimens).
• Italian Prosecco (which I usually love!)
• Australian Syrah, Grenache, Tempranillo, and Cabernetblends
• And finally, Beaujolais
Things pick up in the afternoon, as we pile onto buses and headout 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 theclassified Grands Crus, but borrowing on the fame of neighbors likeChâteau Margaux itself. Honestly, though, tanks and barrelslook amazingly alike the world over, and explanations of goodwinemaking techniques echo wherever anybody’s paying attention tothe details. The only differences are the structures around thosevats and barrels and the liquid inside.
Paveil de Luze doesn’t bowl me over (although I wouldn’t turn itdown 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 vineyardson the Left Bank of the Gironde River were capable of producing thebest wines; only 5 made the top cut (first growths) and 14 thesecond, Pichon among them. Stunning 18th-century château,high-tech equipment in the cellar, sleek tasting room — it’s ashowcase. And the three year’s worth of the wine we taste — 2006,2005, and 2004 — meet all of our expectations, Europeans and NewWorld tasters alike.
Most of us came prepared to swoon over the 2005―byreputation a perfect year―but my money’s on the 2004. It’s adeeply 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 topour us their wines and host us for a candlelight feast that takeson a sort of brotherhood quality — members of a society gatheredto revel in their wares. I struggle to remember the wines I’mtrying, the years, the highs and lows (must take notes), but thengive it up. Bordeaux’s legendary (and legendarily expensive)dessert wine, Sauternes, starts circulating, and a new Germanfriend comes over with a glass of rum. Huh?
Out-take: Beers in the bar at midnight produce heated argumentwith Holland (who drinks pretty much only Bordeaux, although he’stasted Gallo) about whether California is really capable ofproducing great wine. He thinks not. Truly and honestly. Is therestill thinking like this in the world? I have some serious PR workto do, with only one more day of the competition left.
April 20: Day three, when Hollandcapitulates
Our last morning of work, and there’s a buzz in the hall.Cameras come out; big applause for the black-suited army of winestudents who’ve poured thousands of wines for us (I’m sure the kiddedicated to our team isn’t old enough to pour wine, but this isFrance …).
And as we tick off our final flights, we’re just a bunch of kidsfinishing up a long test (cheers when a table’soverturned―glasses, spit bucket, and all).
But our group ends on a tiny discordant note. We’ve had a greatsession until now: The wines are more interesting than yesterday,and we’ve found the gems in unison. I can’t quite place the lastflight―red―but I like the style: good structure, goodacidity, generally good fruit… I give a few medal-levelscores.
But then I see Mathilde laboring with Jean and Felicity.Apparently, they aren’t charmed by these wines: too astringent, intheir 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 ofmediocrity, they leave Mathilde muttering behind: “Those werebeautiful wines. They deserve some medals.”
They turn out to be Bordeaux! Well, of course! Every jury hasended with a flight of the host region’s wines.
But there you have it — different expectations of the bones agreat 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 consistentlyelicited an “ooh, that’s good.” As Felicity puts it simply, “I’msorry, I need a little more fruit in my wine.”
It strikes me, though, that this isn’t necessarily an OldWorld-New World split. If the theory holds that the wines of Europeare, 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 clueas to what part of the world they were from, Old or New. Therereally must be more ripe fruit creeping into central Europeanwines.
My theory is that, while that’s happening, we’re all stilltalking the old talk: Lovers of Bordeaux still heartily believe inthe superiority of lean balance over seductive fruit, while thespectrum is shrinking between us.
Group photo, and we’re off to lunch, hosted by the country wherethe competition will be held next year―Spain, as it turnsout. So over paella, everyone’s angling for an invitation toValencia. I can’t imagine mine will get lost in the mail,considering all those medals I gave to the Spanish Albariñosthat 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 atPetit Villages, where the view of the superstar neighbors — ChevalBlanc, Petrus, Le Pin — overshadows the wines.
On the way to Château Canon, we get hopelessly lost andfinally bail on the bus and walk the last half-mile. Acres andacres of caves carved out in midieval times snake under thevineyards themselves, acting as a bit of a frost buffer for thevines above. And the Merlot they produce defies reputation: It’smuscular and angular — fabulous.
From Canon, we just walk down the lane to the village of StEmilion, a tilting riot of stone walls and precipitous cobblestonetracks built into the hills sometime back about the 11th century.The church clearly got the most attention: No fewer than fourorders built a cathedral or monastery here, one of them being thelargest underground, single-rock church in the world, chiseled outof the limestone. Shored up now, it offers up a few old bones andpaintings as we wander through.
Our final stop is the Dominican monastery, where the centralnave has been decked out for our final gala dinner. (Many jokesabout the religious experience it might be.) No dinner for ourgroup 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 whenwe don’t. (Who do we think we are?!)
Dinner banishes critical thinking, even reaching a Miles momentat my table. Holland―who does have a name by this time (it’sChris Alblas), and who not only sticks to Bordeaux; he’sspecifically a Left Bank man, where Cab is king — melts when ourhosts pour 1997 Cheval Blanc with our last course. “Not the bestyear,” he mumbles, before he gives it up. The bottle of Blanc Milespulled out to drink with his hamburger at the end of Sideways mighthave been a better vintage, but that’s all he’s got on ustonight.
Out-take: Champagne in the bar at midnight produces a truce withHolland: There will be California bottles in the mail from me (isthis legal?), and Chris will do his darndest to drink them with anopen mind. Now, what to send… ?
April 21: It’s all about theoysters
Competition over, I stay on with a few writers and editors for acouple of days of extra exploration — today Arcachon, a town onthe coast to the west where 19th-century burghers came for thecure. The international mix on my mini bus skews south this time,to Spain, South Africa, Brazil, Chile, and Argentina. (One guy fromthat 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 weathertamps this energy.
We climb the massive dunes edging the Bay of Arcachon to see thevast forest of pine trees residents planted in the 18th century tostop their march. And — this being the oyster capital of Europe –we eat a bunch in a little oyster cabin, where we also learn howthey’re farmed: The little guys stick to tiles placed in theestuary (where they get prodigious changes of water with thetides).
After three months, they’re collected, stripped off the tiles,bagged in fine mesh, and put back in the water. And here’s thewho-knew part: As they grow, they’re rebagged every few months forabout three years before they’re ready to eat.
I especially recommend them on green plastic oyster plates withrye bread and good butter and a briny white Bordeaux (mostlySauvignon Blanc and Semillon). We’ve been drinking an awful lot ofChâteau Bonnet blanc from Entre-Deux-Mers; I bet it’savailable in the States.
Bordeaux blanc is starting to grow on me, in fact. Gravellyand aromatic all at once, these blends of Sauvignon Blanc,Semillion, and sometimes Muscadel have refreshingly low alcohollevels, so you can just keep drinking … And Ido―fourth-floor hotel window ledges being perfect places tokeep a bottle chilled.
April 22: Cheap wine finds and funnySouth Americans
A couple of visits to wineries in lesser-known regions ofBordeaux on this last day convince me that, outside the pockets offame, these wines are good deals. Domaine des Graves D’Ardonneau,for instance, in the Côtes de Bourg is a surprise, because inthe 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 forus, and then — if we could get it in the West — every tier in ourcomplicated 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. Noteto Seattle: They tell me you can find D’Ardonneau there. I’d bereally curious to know their final price.
A boat trip on the Gironde takes us to our final dinner on theriverbank. I work up the courage to abandon the easy Englishspeakers and sit with the Spanish, Chileans, and Argentiniansinstead, wondering if they’re secretly groaning at the effort it’sgoing to take to speak English for my benefit.
But it just doesn’t work out that way. In the course of twohours of words that meander over grilling around the world, RobertParker (no conversation with wine people is complete without him),Barack and Hillary, Chilean cocktails made with ice that’s calvedoff glaciers, how to tap into wireless using your cell phone andsome getup of wire and aluminum foil … we end up in stitches. Ihaven’t laughed this much in recent memory.
Wonderful diversity and connections.