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Black Tie International Travel  1
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Black Tie International Magazine Travel
Concours des Vins Orange

  A Confrére from Chateauneuf du Pape

A Confrére from Chateauneuf du Pape
Photo by:  Jesse Nash

Concours des Vins Orange:
A Wine Competition For The People!
by Barney Lehrer and Jesse Nash


We’ve all seen them: small stickers on French wine bottles indicating an award from a prestigious French wine competition someplace. The sight of one can often tip the balance when you’re hesitating over which bottle to buy. But what’s the story behind these stickers? Did you ever wonder how the competitions work? Who are the judges? What gives them the right to award a certain wine a gold medal? Here’s an inside look at one of these contests.

There are more than 100 wine competitions held throughout France every year, and the ancient city of Orange, in southeastern France, is home to one of the oldest and largest of these. Held the first Saturday of each February, the competition is open to all winemakers in the Rhone region, including from such famous appellations as Chateauneuf du Pape, Croze Hermitage, Tavel, Gigondas and, of course, the ubiquitous Cotes du Rhone.  The Orange competition is a bit unusual in that the philosophy is to make the process as democratic as possible. This means, keeping in mind the French national motto born in the Revolution of 1789, “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” (Freedom. Equality, Brotherhood), there are no elites in the Orange wine award process. Each jury is comprised of at least three people, of whom at least two are wine professionals (winemakers, oenologists, merchants) and the other one or two are amateurs (wine lovers). And that’s how I, a lowly American wine lover, have been privileged to be an Orange judge for the last six years. Introduced to the competition by a winemaker friend, I apply every year as an amateur just as the French do, and have always been accepted.     

There was even more anticipation than usual this time round, as 2012 was the 60th annual competition in Orange. Concours des Vin Orange Executive Director Anne Mouralis and President Michel Bernard spent more than two years planning this milestone anniversary. At 8:30 AM on February 4, the six hundred juges (judges), also called dégustateurs (tasters), battled the cold weather and furious Mistral wind to take their places in the Alphonse Daudet community center. The vast hall was soon filled with excited chatter as old friends greeted each other with ritual handshakes and multiple kisses (there is a strict kissing protocol as to the number of kisses, which varies from region to region in France. In Provence, women must be kissed three times – left cheek, right cheek, left cheek  – and men who are good friends and colleagues commonly kiss each other twice, once on both cheeks).

Each judge is assigned to a table for four that is already populated by about 15 bottles of wine, each identified only by a number. Each place is set with a wine glass, a napkin, a pen and a paper with the number of each wine to be sampled  and columns headed Visuel (visual), Olfactif (smell or nose) and Gustatif (taste).  And every two judges has ready access to a crachoir (spittoon), a crucial tool for wine tasting, particularly early in the morning! This year the co-judges at my table consisted were two professionals, a négociant (export agent for several winemakers) and the winemaker from a wine cooperative, and my fellow amateur was a gynecologist from Avignon.   

At about 9:25 Mr. Bernard opened the proceedings with a speech thanking all of the people who made the event possible. Then, as every year, precisely at 9:30, the tasting begins. For the next two hours the huge room is filled with the sounds of intense discussion, gurgling and spitting.  Judges debate the colors (10 points maximum), smells (10 point maximum) and tastes (20 points maximum). Some comments include speculations on the types and blend percentages of cépages (grape varietals) and the technologies that might have been used to produce the wine. After all the wines have been tasted and thoroughly and heatedly discussed,  all four jury members come to a consensus as to which (if any) of the fifteen wine should be awarded either a Bronze, Argent (Silver), Médailles D’Or (Gold) or Médailles D’or avec Félicitations (gold medal with special recognition).  The jury can grant one or more awards, not exceeding 20% of the samples presented. The “Président” of each jury, who is “appointed for his/her tasting skills,” fills out a form certifying the results. The form is given to Anne Mouralis who immediately feeds the results on to the competition’s website. Two hours after the tasting ends, anxious winemakers log on to see what, if anything, they have won. Within days they get the round stickers to apply to their bottles. An excellent entertaining video of the process and history of the Concours can be seen at http://www.concoursdesvins.fr/pagesFR/06video.php. Watch it even if you do not understand French!

In 2012 there were 2931 wines evaluated. 39 received Médailles dOr avec Félicitations du Jury, 252 Médailles dOr, 236 Médaille dArgent and 90 Médaille de bronze. The results can be seen at www.concoursdesvins.fr/pagesGB/02palmares.php

But that’s not the end of the event. Normally after the competition most of the dégustateurs travel 10 km to Chateauneuf du Pape to attend a magnificent lunch, with each course prepared by a local distinguished chef and an abundance of wine on each table. The French know how to savor an occasion.  As with any truly gourmet French meal, lunch takes a leisurely four hours or so, but the competition banquet is also accompanied by much pomp and circumstance, as only the French know how. There are speeches, processions by the “Confréries” of each major appellation, all decked out in medieval finery and of course, more discussions about wine and food and life and love! Because 2012 was the 60th anniversary, this year’s celebration was even more elaborate; no mere lunch this time. The Alphonse Daudet center was cleared and four chefs and their staffs arrived to create a “Gala” dinner for the evening.  The chefs, whose restaurants are all located in small wine villages in the area, Pascal Alonso of the restaurant Le Pré du Moulin in Sérignon-du-Comtat www.predumoulin.com , Thierry Bonfante of La Temps de Vivre in Urchaux, Raoul Reichrath of Le Grand Pré in Roaix www.legrandpre.com  and Christian Peyre of La Maison de Bournissac in Paluds de Noves www.lamaison-a-bournissac.com , created a six course menu, each course paired with wines that have won gold medals in the past. And, unlike the usual lunches, in addition to the usual speeches and processions, this year had an entertainment program--a mime, a magician, a band playing traditional Provencal music and a choir of local winemakers who had practiced specially for the occasion. Vive la France!


Sidebar 1:

Before each wine competition in Orange, the management of the competition offers the amateurs an opportunity to learn how to taste and evaluate the wines.  Held at the tasting room of the Institut Rhodanien (Rhone Institute), in the same building as the Lycée Viticole (high school for the study of winemaking) the seminar lasts two hours. Philippe Dauguet, Champion de France de dégustateurs amateurs (French Amateur Tasting Champion), is the lecturer. To be an amateur wine taster in France is a very serious business, indeed. As Philippe says, “Vous aller apprendre à déguster des vins ... La tâche est toujours délicate mais jamais insurmontable" (“You are going to learn to taste wine. The task is challenging but not insurmountable”). In very theatrical style he leads the group through the process of proper wine tasting, explaining the theory of wine color, smell and taste in great dramatic detail. And then an actual tasting is performed as if the amateurs were on their jury at the Concours. Wine are poured to all attendees, Philipe tastes each wine and explains and demonstrates how he works when he is on a jury.

His method:

     1  Before tasting each wine take a breath, close your eyes and calm your senses.

   2    Look at the wine in the glass. Evaluate the sensuality, color, clarity and density.

    3   Smell the wine by moving your nose from the top to the bottom of the rim of the glass.

      4         Take a small amount of wine into your mouth, swirl it and spit it out immediately.

       5          Take another small amount of wine into your mouth, swirl it and keep it in your mouth for a few moments before spitting it out.

          Count how many seconds (or even minutes n some cases) the aftertaste (“finish”) stays in your mouth. The longer the finish, the more likely this will be a good wine that will last many years in a bottle and will deserve some level of prize at the competition.

 At each step, Philippe advises that the judges make a note on their report sheet. His own philosophy is to almost never assign a rating of more than 8 for the color and small and 14 for the taste. That leaves room for him to assign a 15-20 for truly exceptional wines that he would want to award a “Medaille d’Or avec Félicitations.”

Once the seminar is over, the participants learn the name of each wine they tasted and can pour themselves a few glasses AND swallow it, to the accompaniment of cheeses and charcuteries. All in all it is a wonderful way to spend a Saturday morning!


Sidebar 2

The Gala Dinner for the 60th Concours des Vin was an event not to be missed.  It is an amazing feat to serve more than 500 guests such an astounding gourmet meal!  Aperitifs were a just-bottled dry and fruity 2011 Cotes du Rhone white wine and a fragrant just-bottled 2011 rose.  This was followed by cold foie gras on a crust spiced with ginger and sweet Muscat wine from Beaume de Venise, which was paired with what some wine critics name the best rose in the world: Tavel, 2010 Chateau d’Aqueria.  Next course was a chicken broth spiced with ginger and “truffle cappuccino,” paired with three red wines from the Cotes du Rhone and the villages of Sablet and Rasteau.  Then came the main course:  lamb “Allaiton” stewed in violet mustard, served with braised endives and toast smeared with lamb liver paste, paired with a strong Chateauneuf du Pape. The cheese course was Brie de Meaux. Dessert was a phenomenal Fondant made from praline and hazelnuts and topped with a vanilla sauce. Dessert wine was a local Muscat from Beaume de Venise. The chefs, Pascal Alonso of the restaurant Le Pré du Moulin, Thierry Bonfante of La Temps de Vivre, Raoul Reichrath of Le Grand Pré and Christian Peyre of La Maison de Bournissac, all Michelin-starred celebrated chefs from the Rhone valley, formed an association, “Amitié Gourmande,” with the motto “Quatre maisons, une meme passion” (Four houses, one single passion) And passion
it was!


Joyce Brooks

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