Sunday, 30 September 2012

Awards! What are they good for? Absolutely nothing?

With apologies to Edwin Starr’s “War”.

Wine awards that is.  The summer of sport may have come to an end, but have no fear, for the wine awards season is now in full swing, with the winners awarded their own bronze, silver and gold medals in the major competitions.

But does it really make sense to judge wines and award them medals, just like Olympic athletes?  It’s not as if they’ve done something remarkable, like run really fast or thrown something a long way is it?

Awards are useful for a couple of things.  Firstly, pointing you towards a new wine that you haven’t tried before; and, conversely, confirming your already positive impression of a wine.  There’s nothing like having your own valued opinions confirmed by others for making you feel good.

And which competitions should you trust?  Some bottles are festooned with medals awarded in competitions that you have never heard of – do they really mean something? 

Australia, for example, has a well-established system of wine shows across their vast country.  Some well-performing wines can emerge from them looking like much-decorated army veterans, with rows of medals adorning the bottle.  In that country there is a strict training system for show judges, which is particularly hot on ensuring consistency of judging and on penalising any kind of wine fault.  So you can be sure that no wine that does well in Australia will be less than squeaky clean – whether your tastes coincide with Australian palates is less clear cut.

The Annual Wines of Argentina Awards, which have run since 2007, ensure they have a mixture of nationalities in their judging panel, which must surely make sense when export markets are so key for any major wine producing nation.  I am less keen on their policy of choosing one particular section of the wine business to judge each year – this time it was winemakers.  A more consistent and balanced set of results comes out of a mix, not just of nationalities, but background and experience.  Wine writers (ahem), educators, sommeliers, members of the wine trade – they all have something to bring to a judging panel.

Which brings me to the “big 3” of the UK wine awards jungle – the Decanter World Wine Awards (DWWA), the International Wine Challenge (IWC) and the International Wine and Spirit Competition (IWSC).  Each year, tens of thousands of wines are entered into these competitions and, around now, bottles with gold, silver and bronze medals proliferate on wine merchant and supermarket shelves.

I am a judge for both the IWC and IWSC, so can talk with confidence about the professional approach and rigour of these two.  Their judging procedures differ slightly – and DWWA differs again – but it’s interesting to see how, year in, year out, certain wines perform consistently well across the competitions.  This shows that, however the process might differ, the end results can be surprisingly similar – and quality will out.  And, let me stress, judges never get to know the identity of the bottles they are judging, beyond an indication of the wine’s origin and grape variety/ies.

To paraphrase E M Forster, two cheers for wine competitions.  They may not be perfect, but they are the best we’ve got.

Here’s a selection of wines I’ve tasted recently, or have long admired, and which have done well in competition this year.

Tilimuqui Fairtrade Torrontés 2011 – Argentina, £7.99 (but currently £5.99) a bottle from Waitrose
IWSC Silver – and Gold at the Wines of Argentina Awards
Sadly this 2011 vintage seems to be out of stock across most of Waitrose, though you might be lucky in your particular branch.  However, the 2012 is just as delightful – Fairtrade and organic, it is great value for money at full price and a steal at £5.99.  Torrontés flavours will not please everyone, with their tangerine peel and floral aromas, but give this a go if you’re feeling adventurous.

Amalaya White 2011 – Argentina, £7.65 a bottle from and other independents
DWWA International Trophy for dry aromatic wine under £10
I have to say I don’t like Decanter’s separation of wines into under £10 and over £10 for judging purposes:  a gold medal should be a gold medal, whatever the price.  The Decanter approach leads to a two-tier system where some golds are better than others.

That said, this is a cracking wine, made mostly from Argentina’s signature Torrontés grape, whose vibrant aromas are tamed with the addition of a little Riesling.  Dry, but intensely aromatic with hints of lychee, grapefruit and lime.  Drink on its own or with prawny things.

Plantagenet Great Southern Chardonnay 2010 – Australia, £16.05 from and other independents
IWC Gold, DWWA Silver
Plantagenet is a winery whose name crops up reliably across the major competitions.  This Chardonnay has great concentration of ripe but elegant fruit with nicely done oak to complement.  Also look out for their Riesling and Shiraz.

Cien y Pico “Doble Pasta” 2009 – Spain, £11.49 case rate at The Wine Reserve in Cobham
IWC Gold – also Trophy in the Sommelier Wine Awards
The best of old and new Spain in a bottle.  Full-on, ink-dark, brooding fruit from low-yielding ancient Garnacha vines, but clean and fresh too and bottled under screwcap.

Mount Horrocks Cordon Cut Riesling 2011 – Australia, £19.95 from and other independents
IWC and DWWA trophy
A year in which this wine didn’t score at least a gold medal in a major competition would be a shocker.  This Michael Phelps of a wine is an intense delight for the senses.  Lusciously sweet and piercingly bright Riesling from the Clare Valley, its flavours are concentrated by literally cutting through the vine’s canes in order to cut off the water supply as the grapes ripen.

Lustau East India Oloroso Sherry – Spain, £9.75 from Waitrose
IWSC Silver
The Lustau name is always a guarantee of quality when it comes to sherry.  Sweet, dark, sticky, figgy, nutty.  So unfashionable, yet so delicious and something to warm anyone’s cockles over the coming months. 

Friday, 14 September 2012

Sauvignon de St Bris - a hidden gem?

Anyone who claims to know all of France’s wine appellations (or PDOs as we should now learn to call them) is either a liar or has an extraordinary capacity for memorising lists.  There are literally hundreds of them, ranging from the world-famous (Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Chablis) to the vanishingly obscure.  Wines labelled Irancy, to name but one, are hardly household names, even in their own neighbourhoods.

Others, while obscure, stick in the mind.  Sauvignon de St Bris is one such.  The area of production is titchy, yet it’s a micro-region that I’ve known about ever since cramming for my Wine Diploma years back, learning that this is the only part of Burgundy where Sauvignon Blanc is grown.  I memorised that single fact as a way to avoid a trick question in an exam, then promptly moved on, content never to know more about this renegade Chardonnay-shunning corner of Burgundy, let alone know what the wines might actually taste like.

This summer, however, I finally set foot in St-Bris-le-Vineux, an attractive and typically deserted village in the valley of the Yonne river in a northern corner of Burgundy, which is the centre of production, such as it is.  St Bris is much closer to Chablis than to the Côte d’Or, so while yes, technically it is part of Burgundy, it is a long way from the heartland of the region.

When you ignore the administrative boundaries and just look at a map of France, it becomes clear that while St Bris may be next door to Chablis, it is also only a short drive from the Loire Valley and those twin powerhouses of Sauvignon Blanc:  Pouilly Fumé and Sancerre.  Why they grow Sauvignon and not Chardonnay here begins to make more sense.

St Bris shares the same Kimmeridgian and Portlandian soils as those found in Chablis, thereby giving a tantalising hint of what Chablis might taste like, if it was made with Sauvignon Blanc instead of Chardonnay.  You've never wondered this?  Oh, just me then.

What I hadn’t learned as part of my Diploma studies, was that this area also makes red wines from Pinot Noir, in line with Burgundian orthodoxy.  These are pleasant oddities, light and lacy versions of an already light style of wine – the kind of thing to chill and sip in the garden on a sunny day. 

And, to my surprise they also make wines from Chardonnay here (so much for my Diploma studies), though these Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays are entitled only to the generic label of “Bourgogne Côtes d’Auxerre”, a designation used to mop up various little vineyards around the town of Auxerre and which fall outside the Chablis area.  Sauvignon de St-Bris can only be used for, well, Sauvignon.

In St-Bris-le-Vineux (the clue is in the name) I hopped out of the campervan and decided to try some wine.  British tourists abroad often cite the difficulties involved in visiting wineries in France.  It is true that the willingness to knock on the doors of places which look resolutely closed and the ability to speak at least some French are pre-requisites.  I took the sign “cave ouverte” on a wine press outside one producer’s house as an encouragement.

Despite the “ouverte” claim, all looked deserted.  Having managed to disturb the lunchtime semi-siesta of an elderly lady, I was pointed in the direction of a bell to be rung.  In the manner of the shopkeeper in Mister Benn, a man emerged, as if by magic, from an ivy-camouflaged door that I had not noticed and I was welcomed into a cool tasting cellar.

Alert, perhaps, to my intention of tasting the Sauvignon de St Bris and then scarpering, having ticked it off my mental list of wines to taste before I die, Monsieur Goisot of Domaine Goisot Anne et Arnaud insisted that I start by tasting his Chardonnay.

Chardonnay-shmardonnay.  Was it really possible that this lowly Côtes d’Auxerre Blanc could have something to contribute to our understanding of that noble variety that its illustrious neighbours in Chablis and the mighty Côte de Beaune had not already done more emphatically, elegantly and eloquently? 

In a word, no.  Dear reader, Côtes d’Auxerre Blanc is no undiscovered gem.  M Goisot’s Chardonnay was perfectly decent with some peachy, floral aromas and a nutty, savoury palate.  But no scales dropped from my eyes; I was not moved to forsake Grand Cru Chablis or Chassagne-Montrachet forever more.  I moved on to the main attraction.

And what is it like?  St Bris Sauvignon may not have the depth and concentration of the best wines from Sancerre and Pouilly, but it does have distinct fragrance and a gentle, stony persistence in the mouth.  There is a softness, allied to the characteristic crisp acidity of the variety, that makes for pleasant holiday drinking. 

I bought some of M Goisot’s wines, along with another Sauvignon from a neighbouring domaine, Philippe de France, on my travels, so I will be able to find out if this is one of those wines that tastes perfect as part of a carefree sunny holiday, but that loses something in the move to a greyer, cooler UK, with work and family concerns to contend with.

I think you are more likely to trip over a black cat while on your way to redeem a winning National Lottery ticket than you are to stumble across any Bourgogne Côtes d’Auxerre, Rouge or Blanc, in mainstream wine outlets in this country - or in France for that matter.  However, you do stand more chance of happening on a bottle of Sauvignon de St-Bris.  The two domaines I visited do not seem to be imported into the UK, but there are a number of others that you can search out – so you can tick this wine off your list too.

French specialist merchants Nicolas list a Sauvignon de St Bris from the excellent Chablis-based co-operative, La Chablisienne, Les Vaux Sereins at £9.99.  Waitrose has Simonnet-Febvre’s version for £9.99.  Highly regarded organic producer Domaine Goisot’s Sauvignon de St Bris 2009 is available from at £10.49 a bottle.