Dry December: The First Wine Competition
It’s just over a year now since I spent an evening in Manchester tasting 40 or so wines as a judge in the annual People’s Choice Wine Awards. It’s a different type of wine assessment in which wines from supermarkets are tasted and judged for their quality and suitability for pairing with different “situations” …….. a barbecue, a spicy food banquet, a celebration, a girls night out ……. with judges being a mixture of amateur and professional but all selected on the basis of their depth and breadth of experience. The tasting is conducted in the traditional “blind format” in which the bottles are wrapped in black plastic bags and numbered so we have no idea of the wine, the grape or the vendor. We judges were seated in tables of 8, with each table having 4 situation-groups of wine to assess, usually 10 wines in each group. I’ve actually forgotten the 4 groups allocated to our table, but I do remember that one of them was the spicy food group. My prior knowledge told me that amongst these wines there should be, at least, several from Alsace and particularly the perfumed Gewurtztraminer grape which is renowned as the perfect match for spicy food. I swirled, sniffed and slurped my way through the first 7 wines ……. three Sauvignon Blanc and four Chardonnay, definitely NOT what I was expecting, before a Gewurtztraminer arrived.
It was at this point I began to realise the weakness of what we were doing; my prior knowledge told me which wine and grape usually matches spicy food and this had been reinforced over the years by only choosing Gewurtztraminer (fruity, off dry, aromatic) in Chinese restaurants for example. How the heck did I know whether a Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand or a Chardonnay from Australia or Chile would compliment a plate of Chow Mein or Stir Fried Chicken unless somebody gave me a plate at the same time as the wine was served? Or how about a Merlot with an Indian Curry …… mild Korma or hotter Madras? It was a cathartic moment for me, one which swept away a lot of what professional wine tasters write in their articles, books or on their websites about pairing wine with foods. Their tastes are not my tastes, and mine are not yours either. I don’t even like Merlot based wines so why or how could a wine critic or sommelier recommend I drink it with my curry!
So, onwards to the subject of this post now I’ve got that off my chest … The First EVER Wine Competition!
Wine competitions are commonplace nowadays, from the local to the national and on to the global, bottles are lined up for luminaries such as Jancis Robinson, Robert Parker, Hugh Johnson and many others to pass judgement on wines of all colours, vintages, grapes, locations and winemakers. These judgements are published and we all dutifully make our way to the nearest wine merchant or supermarket to see if we can afford them. Cynically put, it’s a massive marketing exercise that benefits growers and wholesale buyers; Wines scoring 90+ command higher prices than those with lower scores.
According to legend however, the first ever competitive wine tasting was run for the benefit of a single individual, King Philip Augustus of France in the year 1224, or thereabouts. We know this because of a poem written by a cleric, Henri d’Andeli, entitled Bataille Des Vins (Battle of the Wines). Philip Augustus chose 70 wines for the competition from France, Spain, Mosel (Germany) and Cyprus. From the list the vast majority are white wines, with possibly only a small few being red. In those days red wines were viewed as being inferior suitable only for the peasants!
Apart from the King there was only ONE judge, according to the poem, and this was ……… an English priest!
“This English priest drinks so much that he falls asleep, he falls dead drunk. The English were characterized by the French at that time as people who can’t drink or wouldn’t know how to drink, largely because they can’t grow wine.”
Some of the wines tasted would be recognisable today, from Sancerre, St Emilion, Chablis, but the English priest was a harsh judge and held no favour for geography or past reputation. Each wine was categorised as being Celebrated or Excommunicated as the priest blessed one bottle or beat another with his stick. Eventually he fell down drunk and slept! At this point King Philip Augustus surveyed the wines and chose the winner …… what could it be?
We have to remember that in those days it was really only the aristocracy who could afford wine and that their tastes were more in favour of white sweeter wines. Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay or Chenin Blanc based wines would have been too light or acidic for them and so the king chose such a wine from ……. Cyprus, which was given the accolade of Pope.
It is widely believed that this wine was Commanderia, a sweet wine made to this day on the island of Cyprus. Commanderia is made in the same way as it has been for millennia, from the red grape variety Mavro and a white one called Xinisteri. The berries are dried on mats in the sun until they are partially raisined, then fermented, and finally the wine may be fortified with extra alcohol before bottling.
I’ve never tasted Commanderia, and probably never will, whether I’m eating a curry, a stir fry, roast beef, lobster or oysters! I’d probably excommunicate it if it entered my home!