NO PRESSURE!

At the beginning of the year I was delighted and, above all, honoured to be asked to be a member of the jury asked to judge the wines from the 2009 and 2010 vintages in Côte-Rôtie at Le Marché aux Vins d’Ampuis. This annual show is one of the most important dates in the calendar for the producers of Côte-Rôtie and the neighbouring appellation of Condrieu. Over three and a half days 14,000 private buyers and professionals attend the fair with wallets at the ready, eager to secure what are sometimes miniscule allocations of some of the world’s most sought after wines.

Almost all the region’s producers are in attendance, including the large scale, well-known names of Guigal, Chapoutier and Jaboulet. In fact as with every year the only notable absentee was René Rostaing but then Rostaing has always marched to the beat of a different drum. For the private buyer it represents an incredible opportunity to taste all the top wines of the top producers under one roof. Generally speaking the wines that are on show are those that are commercially available from the estates but the growers are also expected to show the wines of the two most recent vintages that are either in bottle or ready to go to bottle, in this case 2009 and 2010.

As a regular visitor to the region I am fortunate to know who is making good wine and who is perhaps a little or, on occasion, a long way behind the play. However a quick visit to the fair will bring you up to speed in no time. Certain stands are thronged with visitors, each stretching over the next, holding out their glasses for a taste of the rare nectar whilst at others the producers stand forlornly behind their bottles waiting for a passer-by to stop out of curiosity or pity to sample their wines. This may sound harsh but just because Côte-Rôtie is a highly regarded appellation in terms of quality doesn’t mean that all the producers there make good wine. Year after year it is the same stands that are empty and it is on occasions like this that one realises the parochial nature of wine production in France and that for some producers it is just a basic agricultural activity in which they take part and from which they rarely look left or right to see what is happening around them. It’s a tough world out there making wine and sympathy won’t put food on the table for very long.

The competition for the wines of the vintage takes place on the Monday of the fair and the two vintages are divided amongst two tasting panels. The panels themselves are made up of winemakers from other regions, oenologists, barrel merchants, sommeliers and this year one Irish importer. This year each panel for the different vintages was made up of twelve people, split in turn, into groups of six. On my table were three sommeliers, one oenologist and one regional sales manager from Seguin-Moreau, the barrel maker. We were allocated the already highly rated 2009 vintage with an initial fifteen wines to judge (our fellow 2009 judges on the next door table having another, different fifteen to assess). Marks were to be awarded out of twenty with no specific direction from the organisers  to give marks for typicity, colour etc as the judges were already deemed to be experienced tasters. All the wines were tasted blind, labelled alphabetically A to O, and in a separate part of the building to the main fair. For me, the overall quality of the wines was excellent bar a few real shockers (see empty stands reference above). A lot of my scores were around the 14-15 point mark whilst the highest scorer was 17.5 and the lowest 8 ( I’m not totally lacking in sympathy). If I were to be critical I would say that the over-use of new oak was the main problem, giving the wines a sweetness that I find slightly sickly as well as contributing rough wood tannins. The best just shone like beacons – pure fruit, mineral backbones, lovely use of oak and overall great balance and always with a sense of understated majesty – in way that only the Northern Rhône can make Syrah appear.

(above: the Jury. Photo courtesy of www.leProgres.com)

An interesting element to the tasting itself was how different tasters score wines. Tasting opinions, I think, are sometimes reflective of people’s personalities. The introvert/pessimist taster is just much more severe than others often regarding a high score as being 12/20 whilst the extrovert/optmist throw scores of 18/20 or 19/20 around like confetti. Ultimately it didn’t matter as our scores were added up and averaged out but this thought struck me most obviously when  a sommelier scored one wine 17/20 whlist the barrel sales woman gave it an 11/20. His highest score was for a wine was 19, hers 13.

Once we got through the initial round the top three scoring wines from our table were put together with the top three wines of our fellow 2009 judges for a taste off. This time the two tables tasted the same six wines with the scores being averaged out. The top three wines from this second tier would then be awarded gold, silver and bronze, the places announced that lunchtime, followed by an unseemly scramble from the assembled masses in the main hall to purchase the winning wines. At this point it was interesting to note that there were three clear winners – no need to protest, re-taste, lie kicking and screaming on the ground or pull one’s hair out at the injustice of the results. Amazingly we all agreed on the winners. And the results…..well now that would telling. Suffice to say D came first, E second and B third.

Only kidding. Christophe Pichon placed first, Yves Cuilleron second and Patrick et Christophe Bonnefond third.

(above: The Winners – 2010 on the left, 2009 on the right. Photo courtesy of www.leProgres.com)

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