How much power does one judge on a panel of five have? It turns out to be mostly negative -- a really bad mark can sink a wine, but a really good mark can't give it a medal.
The results are finally in from last month's Concours Mondial de Bruxelles, where I was one of 225 judges from around the world. I sat on a 5-judge panel in a competition organized differently from most: we didn't debate our scores, but instead just turned in scoresheets that were later tabulated and adjusted according to our grading tendencies. In other words, if I was a tough grader, my scores were, in theory, boosted up.
Our tasting was completely blind; we knew only the vintage, but not the region, varietal or even country. Looking at the results later of only the 150 wines I tasted, here are a few observations:
* Vino Nobile di Montepulciano is a very strong region. We tasted five wines and all won medals -- four golds and a silver. My favorites: Poggio Stella 2006, Gersemi Fassati 2006 and Pasiteo Fassati 2005.
* The Moravie region of the Czech Republic is a great source of white wines. We tasted six wines and all six won medals -- three golds and three silvers. However, my scores must have been boosted in this category because I wasn't as enthusiastic as I was about the Italian reds. My favorite: Vinselekt Michlovky Aurelius Private Selection 2000.
* I marked down the Vinne Sklepy Chateau Valtice Ledove Vino Veltlinske Zelene Icewin 2007 from the Moravie region because I didn't realize it was an ice wine; it was the only dessert wine in a group of dry whites, and I realized after turning in my scoresheet that I hadn't given it scores as high as it deserved. Fortunately, this didn't matter: the wine got a gold anyway, so I don't have to apologize to the winery. But as with the whole category, I have to wonder if my scores had any impact on the result at all.
* Conversely, I really enjoyed several wines from an "other white Burgundy" group, including Jaffelin Rully 2007, Ropiteau Frere Auxey-Duresses 2007 and Pierre Andre Meursault 2007. But none of them won a medal.
* Rhone reds from Gigondas and Vacqueyras aren't as strong as you'd expect compared to other categories. We gave three medals out of 15 wines tasted. I might have added a fourth, but I was surprised when this category was revealed. Our favorite: Clos du Bois de Menge Gigondas 2008.
* I enjoyed tasting Luxembourg Rieslings, and we gave four medals out of 18, all silver (I would have gone gold twice). But I wish we had tasted Luxembourg Pinot Gris: Five of those won gold medals, which makes me wonder if Pinot Gris is that much better in Luxembourg, or they got a more generous panel.
* Chilean Carmeneres, yuck. As a group we gave three medals out of 12, but I found only one wine deserving, and its identity surprised me: Casillero del Diablo Reserva Valle de Rapel 2007.
* Hungarian Cabernet is another tough category: we gave only one medal, a silver to the deserving Bock Magnifico Villany 2006.
* Reds from the Douro region of Portugal are trendy lately, but with some exceptions I found quality shaky at a recent tasting in San Francisco and our panel had the same reaction: three medals out of 12. Our consensus favorite: Callabriga Tras-os-Montes 2006.
* While the Concours Mondial may be the world championship of wine, American wines are rarely entered. Why? American consumers don't care. Would they pay more attention if there were more American judges? There were only four of us out of 225. I'm going to guess probably not -- as a nation, we buy wine by point scores, not gold medals.
* 13 American wines did win medals. But unlike the Luxembourg Rieslings and the like, small production wines that seem to be entered for pride, the American wines were almost all mass-produced wines entered with an eye to gaining respectability in Europe.
* Gallo is the main participant, taking 9 medals (6 for Gallo Family Vineyards, and one each for Dancing Bull, Rancho Zabaco and Redwood Creek). Coppola took two medals and Beringer one.
* The one non-mass market US wine to win a medal was Trefethen Estate Chardonnay 2007.
* The highest award for a US wine was a "great gold" medal for Rancho Zabaco Heritage Vines Zinfandel 2007. Congrats to the Rancho Zabaco folks for pleasing the European palate.
* I did not have the privilege of tasting any of the best-in-show wines (check out the Concours website). And I have to wonder how these wines were chosen, since nobody tasted wines outside their group. Does that mean the most generous groups picked the overall winners?