For those who might find this interesting or others who need to get some sleep...
François Mauss, President of the Grand Jury European, invited me and many others to Sauternes in late September 2006 for two different tasting sessions. The first would relive the spirit of Steven Spurrier’s original 1976 comparison of the wines of France and Napa Valley, recounted in Judgment of Paris: California vs. France and the Historic 1976 Paris Tasting That Revolutionized Wine by Time’s George M. Taber. For the Grand Jury’s rendition, François meticulously paired 40 wines from the 1995 vintage in a traditional blind setting. In the second series of tastings, over 200 wines from Bordeaux’s 2003 vintage would be evaluated over the course of three days.
Here’s a recounting of a spectacularly memorable weekend of tasting with the Grand Jury Team. For those interested in some accompanying pictures from the event, I have published this personal journal to my non-commercial web site that I use to record my experiences with wine:
Thursday morning, a group of jury members and guests awoke at Château Lascombes in Margaux after a terrific evening enjoying the hospitality of Dominique Befve, former winemaker at Lafite Rothschild and l’Evangile, now running the program at Lascombes. After saying our goodbyes to our new friends from Lascombes, where some of us had stayed for the last several evenings, Wilfred Van Gorp, Kevin Shin, Toby Morrhall and I crammed into my Peugeot rental with as much luggage as you can imagine and headed south in search of Château Guiraud in Sauternes. With Toby as my navigator, we made short work of the hour-long trip to the stunningly beautiful countryside in Bordeaux’s sticky-wine region.
Greeting us at Guiraud were co-owner Xavier Planty and the President himself, an anxious but ever-charming François Mauss. As soon as a handful of us had begun to congregate in front of the château, Xavier graciously offered to take us down to see some botrytis affected plots of Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc that were slowly concentrating on the vines. As we strolled down the tree-lined path to the vineyard, Xavier told us of his passion to create a natural wine at Guiraud. In practical terms, that meant working with what nature provided and eschewing the increasingly common Sauternais practices of concentrating through cryo-extraction or elevating alcohol with chapitalization.
The lead picker from a team gathering the harvest rushed over as we approached, unveiling a sample of the morning’s work. How sweet they tasted, with the botrytis giving an almost tea-like flavor to the intensely sweet, melt-in-your mouth grapes. The skins of these grapes have the most unusual texture in your mouth. Raisin-like in their thick, gummy sweetness, they’re coated in a furry blanket of botrytis. The skin, which has been compromised by the noble rot, hits your taste buds like melting, fine-grained sandpaper.
While botrytis had arrived, so too did heavy rains days earlier. The latter had the affect of dropping the potential alcohol of the harvest by a degree and a half. Perfection in the vineyard would be elusive in 2006 – but, there was optimism that a fine Guiraud was in the making. Some portions of the vineyard were deeply affected by botrytis and pickers worked in targeted areas to gather the crop. But, in other sections, uneven ripening and a lack of noble rot meant waiting longer. It was quickly evident that Sauternes was a difficult, anxiety-producing wine to make. And, much more so than in the Medoc to the north, Mother-nature plays the leading role in this drama.
Arriving back at the château, my head was spinning with all of the new insights Xavier provided – the complexity that comes with multiple trie (harvests) as in 1988 and 2001 as compared with the more compressed harvests of 1990 or 2003, the importance of natural winemaking to the future of Sauternes, the role of the varietal in the blend. Surely it would take years to truly understand this complex subject – and Xavier remarked that there are very few in the world today who fully understand the sweet wines of Sauternes and Barsac. With that, we were off for a quick lunch at a surprisingly bustling hot-spot in the middle of sleepy Sauternes.
We arrived late to the restaurant. Kevin, Toby, Wilfred and I took our place near the end of the table next to an empty, ancient fireplace. Wine came at us from every direction, including Moreno Petrini's Tenuta di Valgiano, a spicy and energetic Syrah/Sangiovese blend from Tuscany's little known Colline Lucchesi appellation. After a salad du chevre chaud served in a beggar’s purse, the waiter-and-chef ignited bunches of grape cuttings in the fireplace for the grilled veal. My immediate reaction was, ‘hey, isn’t this wonderful? Smoke-infused veal chops are headed my way!’ Of course, it was 78 degrees and sunny outside. And, naturally, being under 110 degrees, there’s no consideration for air conditioning – so, my second thought was, ‘Great! I am sitting here at the end of summer’s glory in this stuffy little café with twenty other gentlemen roasting next to a raging fire!’ Off with the sweater vest and after a couple of glasses of Badoit and I’m feeling better. The veal was simply amazing.
Later that afternoon, the Grand Jury convened at Château Guiraud for what would later be referred to as The Judgement at Sauternes. In this first-annual tasting comparing the best wines of Napa Valley to those from Bordeaux, we would taste the 1995 vintage. Forty glasses, arranged in two half-moons of twenty each, surrounded each taster. We were given an unmarked GJE scorecard, a spittoon, a bottle of Acqua Panna, and a piece of bread. Each of us was carefully and repeatedly instructed to begin with the numbered wine corresponding to their seat at the tasting. Odd seats would work counterclockwise through the tasting and even seats clockwise. This, of course, generated some confusion and, after translating into several languages, we were thankfully and mercifully on the same page.
Despite the anticipation that had built up for weeks, as an amateur, it is very difficult to avoid feeling intimidated in the presence of the many highly respected producers, journalists, and expert tasters assembled by the Grand Jury. Adding the television news crew and photographer served only to heighten my nerves. But, a few warm smiles, winks, and nods later, enthusiasm, excitement, and curiosity pushed anxious thoughts to the background. I was ready to get down to business.
The first task was to make sense of the empty tasting sheet glaring back at me. The blank portions asked me for commentairies positifs, commentairies négatifs, a note/100, and finally, a guess at country. So much empty space, I thought… it was then and there that I recognized the distinct possibility that I was about to make a grand fool of myself -- that all of these years of blind tasting back in St. Louis were somehow different and no preparation for this, the big leagues. And, with that thought, I began to sniff away.
Being in seat number 17 meant that, unbeknownst to me, my first sniff was into a glass of the 1995 Abreu – a wine that would ultimately be crowned best -- that distinctly American wine attribute. On the fly, I came up with a strategy for approaching the forty glasses surrounding me. Rather than taste them one at a time, I decided to make observations about color and aromatics first. As I looked around, it was obvious that I wasn’t the only person with this thought.
In most cases, it was possible to venture a guess on country of origin on these attributes alone. The California wines, quite often, showed darker colors than their French counterparts. The relative lightness of the French wines was particularly true where Merlot was the featured grape, as was the case with most of the wines from the right bank, such as Pomerols Petrus and Trotanoy, along with St. Emilions Valandraud and Tertre Roteboeuf. On the nose, unusually sweet, dense and dark fruit scents, often accompanied by eucalyptus and coconut notes were, other sure clues to a California origin. On this basis alone, wines like Shafer Hillside, Harlan, Beringer Private Reserve, and Colgin were unmistakably new world in origin.
All-to-often, a key indication that a wine might be French was the presence of band-aid or adhesive tape aromas that suggest brettanomyces or brett. For some, it was a defect, while to others, it was a positive attribute that might cause a commentator to start its discussion with, ‘trés classique…’. A generalization I would draw only after the event is that the more famous French addresses seem to have better luck with their barrels, having produced wines that lack the sour oak, eucalyptus, or green tannins that poorly sourced and inadequately prepared barrels seem more apt to produce.
After smelling my way through ten or twelve wines, my nose begins to struggle with nuance fairly quickly. An ingenious little trick I learned years ago at a perfume manufacturer in Grasse was a big help here – smell your sleeve, or what I found worked even better, that tiny piece of bread in front of me. It did a good job resetting things and, once I started using it every couple of wines, it helped ensure a reliable smeller for the relaxed pace I was maintaining. As the tasting moved along, I began to circle wines I found especially pleasant based on the nose alone and marked with a square the less than agreeable samples.
Once I had come full-circle, reaching wine number 18, which ended up being famous first growth Château Margaux, I was ready to begin actually tasting the wines. It took a while to really gain focus. The television camera, photographers, and our friendly host’s proctor-like pacing, all provided varying degrees of distraction and intimidation that afternoon. Professor Mauss reminded me a bit of a head mother, managing the floor as if he was preventing rampant cheating or preparing to swat at anyone even thinking about getting chatty. But, you got used to it eventually, remembering that there were plenty more glasses that needed to be tasted. And it was exciting, tasting what would be Latour immediately after La Jota and before Petrus – or a mediocre Screaming Eagle in the middle of Harlan and Rollan de By.
As things wrapped up, I was a little surprised to see everyone managed to finish tasting with time to spare. Now just after 6:00 in the evening, members of the Grand Jury and guests alike gathered in Guiraud’s beautiful courtyard behind the château for my favorite part of the weekend – the debriefing. Here, following each tasting and in painful detail, we would learn just how foolish our palates had made of us. The diamonds in the rough would be found and polished. And, the fallen angels would be scorned and cast down from their heavenly perch, some, without a redeeming bottle, never to be thought of (by us, at least) in the same way again.
We organized ourselves in the same half-moon shape our glasses found themselves in at the tasting room. All of us focused intently around Président, as members affectionately call François Mauss, eager to learn the fate of the various wines. Here, it is François, the King, seeming to evaluate the caliber of his subjects, much as we had the wines only minutes before. And, one after another, we debrief on the experiences we’ve all shared with the same wines, served on the same day, from the same bottles, at the same temperature.
Our first wine discussed was Napa legend Screaming Eagle. It, along with several other astronomically expensive wines, was summarily dismissed by the majority of tasters, cast away for ridicule in future conversations spanning the entire weekend. A much better Harlan came next – a wine that, while surprisingly disliked by many of the Americans present, I enjoyed very much. It was followed by names like Haut Brion, Araujo, Lafite Rothschild, Petrus, Palmer, Trotanoy, Shafer, and so on.
As far as the identification of origin is concerned -- the beginning started rocky for me, as I missed the country on two of the first five wines discussed. A bretty and weak Screaming Eagle, along with a herb-tinged, coffee scented Diamond Creek both convinced me they were Bordeaux. It seemed to me that in order to be a good taster, one should be able to tell the difference between a Bordeaux and a wine from California – especially with the amount of practice an American like me gets doing just that in weekly and monthly blind tastings. With confidence a bit shaken, I crouched over my notes hoping things might get dramatically better, and wondering whether I was in the process of making a grand fool of myself.
My mood improved quickly, and in the end, I managed to correctly identify all but five or 87% of the Bordeaux and California wines by region. In addition to the Diamond Creek and Screaming Eagle I mentioned above, I also missed the thoroughly ripe, fruit driven ringer wines Rollan de By and Croix de Labrie, and, surprising to me, first growth Château Margaux. Several that I guessed correctly could have gone either way – so, there’s certainly some luck involved. Tasters Kevin Shin from Washington, D.C. and 2000 World Champion Sommelier Olivier Poussier turned in the best performances in this little sub-contest, each identifying 37 and 36 of 40 respectively. It’s as close as I’ll ever get to a bronze medal in anything in life, I joked to a new friend…
François orchestrated what, for some, would be considered the education of a lifetime in wine, in a few short hours. As we opened up to each other and discussed the wines in front of us, my already strong belief that experienced and brilliant palates can share equally valid, opposing assessments of the exact same wine strengthened. Anyone believing that there is a universal truth in wine deserves to spend a weekend with the Grand Jury.
There was something liberating about tasting a selection of the greatest wines of the world in the Grand Jury’s meticulously controlled, blind setting. An individual who might otherwise consistently lean on an Emperor for truth is likely to leave a tasting like this feeling a bit unsettled. By forming his or her own impressions, developed absent the knowledge of what is in the glass or its associated score, he is forced to either acknowledge a disagreement with his suddenly more-human ruler or, he concludes that the entire event is a farce, producing excuses for those wines that failed to perform as expected. It’s a fascinating study in wine and in people. And, it’s a great and humbling memory I’ll never forget.
Bravo and thank you François.
Thank you generous members of the Grand Jury European for letting me share in this great event.