“First, you hold up the glass and look at the colour. Swirl the wine around. Then you sniff. Then you taste – but don’t swallow!”
I am sitting at the kitchen table of my friend Alain and his wife in St-Cyr-en-Bourg, a wine-growing white-stone village just outside Saumur, which is known for its light red wines and the château overlooking the Loire river. Alain is preparing me for the next day when we are to be judges at the annual Saumur wine contest, which awards gold, silver and bronze medals to the wines of the region.
I had instantly agreed when Alain, a member of the Saumur gastronomic club, invited me to join the judges’ panels a few weeks ago. The invitation from the president of the Saumur wine-growers association stated that the judges would include “professional tasters and informed consumers”. I took the latter to mean gifted amateurs. But as the time approached I became increasingly apprehensive. Not only was I a novice, but also the only Brit on the panels judging French wines. How fraudulent and pretentious is that?
The next morning, under sunny skies, Alain drove me through the vineyards to the magnificent Saumur cavalry museum located in the renovated stables where the contest was held. As soon as I walked in, I realised that not only was I the only foreigner, but also one of only a few women.
There were 14 tables set out with samples of all the Saumur appellation wines: red, white and sparkling. I was placed on table 13, next to Alain, a retired physiotherapist who had slipped on his medal announcing his membership of the gastroclub, the “Club des Vingt”. There were 16 bottles, all covered with knitted green sleeves to preserve their anonymity for the blind tasting. Across from me sat a retired banker, who had taken part in the last three contests but who said he still considered himself a novice. The next to arrive on our table of five judges was a young local wine-grower. Finally, the former director of the Saumur Maison des Vins, Joel Deniau, who has spent his whole career in wine tasting, plopped himself down on my right.
Our task was to pick the gold, silver and bronze medal winners of Saumur-Champigny (Garde) 2012, a red wine from the cabernet franc grape that can be laid down for three to five years. As guidance, each judge had sheets of paper marked with the main criteria we were judging: the appearance, then the nose – divided into two parts, intensity and finesse. Then the mouth – divided into five parts, the “attaque” or first impression, aromas, balance, finish and length. That last category referred to the length of time the taste lingers on the palate.
Were we marking out of 10, or 20? Joel suggested that bearing in mind the final tally, it might make more sense to consider individual rankings rather than a score for each wine. But I ignored his advice, even after giving the first sample an improbably high mark. After the first couple of bottles, my poor nose already felt exhausted from concentration. To be honest, I couldn’t describe the aroma that came from the glass. On tasting, I could detect the tannin, but where was the raspberry, blackcurrant or vanilla? I helped myself to a piece of bread and some water from the table to freshen the palate.
There were two spittoons on the table, which were frequently emptied on to a larger plastic bucket on the floor. We worked in silence, only commenting occasionally. The others said that there was a homogeneity in the wines on the table and were pleasantly surprised by the quality. But when we tasted wine number six, my fellow judges started tut-tutting and talking about “reduction”. “This wine is suspicious,” said Joel. What do you mean? I asked. “We are the Sherlock Holmes of wine,” he said in the first joke of the day about the English. It was not the last.
Slowly and laboriously we worked our way through the samples. Ours was the last table to report. Our tongues were black. I asked whether we could re-taste the first bottle, and lowered its score by three points. Others asked for a second taste of different bottles. Then we listed our winners. To my surprise, the five of us had chosen the same candidate for the gold medal but we added another for good measure. No need for spittoons at dawn: we picked one silver and awarded a shared bronze with a large measure of consensus.
Then it was time for lunch, a four-course, four-hour meal washed down with a selection of Saumur wines – again with spittoons on the tables – during which the medallists’ names were announced to cheers. Out of the 307 samples provided by 80 wine growers, the judges had picked a total 90 winners.
It was a convivial and friendly contest, but there was a shadow hanging over the event. For the wine industry is at the mercy of the weather. M. Neau, the president and an award-winning wine grower himself, told me that the growing season had suffered last year from late frost and bad weather which meant that the 2012 wine production was only 40 per cent of the previous year’s volume. The full range of Saumur wines normally totals about 65 million bottles. Now there are fears of another bad year after a hard frost of minus 5 the night before the contest.
Back in St-Cyr, over a glass of rosé “pet-nat” (or pétillant naturel – natural sparkling wine), other wine growers were grumbling. One said the vines were already “three to four weeks behind” because of the cold winter. Another said he had been out in the fields after the frost, “and when you see buds dropping their heads, you know they’re gone.”
Even if the weather picked up, the wine quality would suffer because the grapes would ripen too fast, his wife pointed out.
At least things didn’t look as bad as in 1991, her husband added. “Back then, you might as well have cut them down with a chainsaw.”