This past weekend I was invited to be a judge at the Concours des Vignerons Independants, the Independant Winemakers' Competition, in Paris. As you can imagine, I was very honored. But then again, I'll take any excuse to go to Paris. Even for just 4 days.
Some of the most distinctive wines are being made by these small, often family-run wineries. Most of them are really representative of their terroirs and true to the art of wine making. But, there is still an unacceptable amount of crap being produced, and this weekend I saw the good, the bad and the (really) ugly.
I also got to thinking about the difference between judging a wine and tasting a wine. While it may not seem like there are any, I found there were some subtle differences in the way I looked at the glasses before me.
The format was blind tasting, with two tastings in the morning and two in the afternoon. We were told what regions we'd be examining (in my case, 2007 Chablis 1er Cru followed by 2007-08 Brouilly/Chiroubles, then 2007-08 Saumur whites and 2006-07 Anjou reds on Day 1, then on Day 2 2007 Cotes du Rhones all morning followed by 2007 Petit Chablis and 2007-08 Beaujolais Village/Brouilly in the afternoon) but the bottles were hidden in sleeves. We had to give our impressions of the color, the nose and the taste of the wine, with a final comment and grade (based on 20, using the French system and not the 100 point ratings preferred in the US). Lastly, we had a maximum number of wines that we could recommend for a medal (gold, silver or bronze to be determined at a later competition).
Everyone there was in the wine business in France, whether as active members of professional tasting clubs (of which there are surprisingly many, and which are amazingly well-organized, in contrast to those I frequent in NY) or as members of the wine trade (making, distributing or selling it). And I was happy to see that my palate was quite similar to my table-mates (in general), though there were some times where we had divergent views, as would be expected. It was at this point that I began to see the differences inherent in a judging as opposed to a tasting.
A judging, as the name implies, looks for the qualities in a wine. But drinking wine is, after all, a subjective experience. What I might consider a "good" wine might be considered "bad" by someone else. So it's not as easy as it sounds. I had to fall back onto my own personal standards of what makes a good wine, which I enumerated a long time ago here. Luckily, most of the other judges tended to agree with my scoring, though they did think that I was a harsher grader than they were (if a wine was undrinkable, it got a 0/20, no matter how great it looked).
I found myself doing the same things I'd do at a tasting, but it was all very scientific and cold and less, dare I say, soulful. At a tasting, I'm judging the wine, yes, but I'm also looking for those qualities of wine which make it enjoyable, pleasurable, as well. At a tasting, I can go back to a wine and watch it evolve, but at a judging, it's one after another and God forbid if the wine needs more time to breathe. In fact, there were times when we'd go back to a wine only to find it had changed dramatically, for better or for worse. At a judging, time is a factor, but usually tastings are during dinners so the only constraint is how much liquid remains in the bottle. In addition, I'm comparing the intrinsic value of each wine to see which is "better" and more deserving of both a better grade and a possible recommendation for a medal. So, there are some mental gymnastics going on as well, not something I'm very good at, admittedly.
See, I told you this wasn't as easy as it sounded.
And the results, you ask? Well, the 2007 Chablis 1er Crus were delicious if young, as you'd imagine, and the 2007 Cotes du Rhone were just glorious. The Brouilly and Chiroubles were OK, the Petit Chablis nice but lived up to their names (Little Chablis), the less said about the Anjou reds the better, the Saumurs were quite nice if young (tons of acidity in the 2008s), and the Beaujolais Villages/Brouilly were awful, awful, awful. I don't know who the producers of any of these were, but the medals will be handed out in Colmar, Alsace, at the end of the month. Perhaps one of the wines I recommended will be there, who knows?
In any case, it was an interesting weekend, I met many wine people, ate some great meals, drank some lovely wines, and enjoyed Paris as it's meant to be enjoyed.