|Big tanks of Champagne at Nicolas Feuillatte. Big tanks might not sound sexy, but often they're better|
This was one of several observations from three days of judging at this year's Concours Mondial de Bruxelles, the world's largest wine competition.
More than 8000 wines were submitted this year and each panel tastes only 150, so for any individual judge it's an ant's view of the forest. The competition was held in Bulgaria, but my panel got no Bulgarian wines. Mexican wines did well at the Concours this year, but we got none.
At this competition, you know the vintage of each wine you taste, but nothing else, so when you get a group of red wines, you don't know if they're from France, Greece, Chile or wherever. Often we guess based on the flavor profile, but we don't know until the end of the day's judging, long after we have turned in our scores, if we were right.
On our first day, we got a flight of 12 sparkling wines. Many were frothy and a little sweet and I was sure they were Prosecco or some imitation. Our panel chairman suggested that they might be Champagne, but we didn't believe him: Champagne has more body than this, more texture, more complexity. It doesn't taste this cheap. And considering what Champagne vintners charge, it shouldn't taste cheap.
How weak was this flight? I have defended Prosecco in past competitions because I don't think people are looking for complexity from it. But I gave no medal-equivalent scores to these bubblies, and neither did my panel. I've never had a flight of Proseccos that got no medals.
You know where this is going: these were 12 grower Champagnes.
|"Don't buy them, Bulgarian Colossus. They're bad wines."|
There's a reason that big Champagne houses exist, and this competition showed it. If a producer is limited to a small patch of land, he doesn't have any other grapes to blend with for more complexity. He probably doesn't have the financial wherewithal to withhold some wines every year as reserve wines to use in blending multiple vintages together. Champagne from the big houses might not be as unique as grower Champagnes, but it's more consistent and reliable, and more likely to be delicious.
Tasting these grower Champagnes -- all of which would set you back $25 or more -- wasn't like tasting finished wines. It was like tasting components of a wine, all of which were lacking in some way. Of 14 different types of wine that my panel tasted over three days, the grower Champagnes were the worst. (The best: Rioja Gran Reservas.)
Now, before you get your culottes in a twist, let me add that I have had some very good grower Champagnes in restaurants, where they have been vetted first by an importer and then by a restaurant wine director. One reason that wineries submit their wines to competitions is in hope that winning a medal will get them attention from importers and consumers. We did not try the top of the line in grower Champagnes.
Just don't believe that the words "grower Champagne" by themselves mean quality. I cannot imagine tasting a dozen of any other wines that expensive and awarding no medals at all. Can you? If there's a more overrated category of wine, name it.