Each spring in France 900 or more wine professionals (wine producers, sommeliers, oenologues, wine merchants, wine negociants/traders and wine journalists) meet at 140 different locations to judge more than 40,000 wines. The result of all of this tasting (and spitting) is the “Bible” of French wine—The Guide Hachette. This 1,000-plus-page guide was first published in 1985 when it contained information about 5,000 wines (the 2013 edition lists 10,000).
Wines are listed by region, appellation, the name of the wine, and the name of the producer (individual, co-op or wine negociant). Besides the wine notes and producer addresses, the guide also contains detailed maps of each AOC and IGP (Indication Géographique Protégée—the Vin de France designation) wine region in France. The notes list the millésime tasted, the quality of the wine, the type of wine, the price, whether or not it was barrel-aged, the number of bottles produced, and whether or not the producer offers on-site wine tastings and sales. Reflecting the consumer target audience, which ranges from wine neophytes to experts, the guide also contains a practical section on everything from reading a wine label to pairing wine with food.
The publisher, the Hachette group in Paris, did an English version in 2000, but sales must not have justified further editions. However, they have recently added an online (French) version that is available at www.hachette-vins.com.
Including the 2013 tastings that are now underway, I’ve participated in three series of Guide Hachette dégustations for the southwestern France appellations around Toulouse. They are held at ENSAT (the Ecole Nationale Supérieure Agronomique de Toulouse), which is for agricultural engineering studies as well as for the two-year French national oenology diploma, which I completed last year. As part of their wine-making studies, students are responsible for preparing the tastings. So like the other students, I helped prepare the salle de dégustation, which can seat up to 45 tasters, with the official INAO tasting glasses and (because this is France) bread. The guide is totally independent—it doesn’t accept any advertising and the tasters are not compensated–and The Guide Hachette receives the wine samples free of charge. Producers supply two bottles without labels or foil capsules. These bottles are then marked with a number so that the wines are tasted “blind,” i.e. the tasters only know the millésime and the appellation.
Each “jury” is made up of five or so tasters, who taste (depending on the number of wines submitted) between eight and fifteen wines of the same millésime and appellation, and of the same sort (red or white, dry or sweet, oaked or unoaked, etc.). Groups are organized to ensure that a producer does not taste a wine that he or she may have submitted. This avoids the possibility that the producer might recognize his or her wine and give it a high mark.
Tasters describe, using the official Guide Hachette fiche de dégustation (“tasting sheet”), the wine’s color, the quality of its aroma (nose and mouth), general remarks about its “personality” and what foods it might best accompany, and when it should be drunk. Each wine is then given a mark from zero to five (“zero” indicating that it is to be “eliminated”; “one” indicating a “mediocre” wine that should also be eliminated from the guide, “two” indicating that it is “nothing special”; “three” indicating that it is a “well-made” wine; “four” indicating that it is an “outstanding” wine; and “five” indicating an “exceptional” wine.
Based on these notes, the producers are given from one to three stars (but the vast majority of the producers do not receive any stars at all). The jury also has the possibility (for wines noted either a “four” or a “five”) to give certain wines a “Coup de Coeur” (figuratively “love at first sip”), which is noted in the guide with a large, red heart next to the producer’s name. Wines designated to receive a “Coup de Coeur” by the jury are retasted by a second jury.
Only about 25% of the 40,000 wines tasted by the 900 or more professional tasters are good enough to be mentioned in the guide. I can attest to the rigorousness of these tastings, the seriousness of the tasters, and the effort to ensure that these are “blind” tastings, with every effort made to ensure the impartiality of the tasters and the anonymity of the wine producers.
The stakes are certainly high. One of the local appellation directors who was in attendance at a tasting I attended this spring told me that having a wine selected for a “Coup de Coeur” can increase wine sales by 10-25%. In addition to the notation in the guidebook, special “Guide Hachette Coup de Coeur” labels may also be placed on the bottles of winning wines.
The positive aspects of the Guide Hachette, in my experience, include having a handy reference guide, when visiting an appellation or region, of a majority of the wine producers. Particularly for amateurs, who may know little or nothing about wine, it’s good to have such unbiased information, based on professional “blind” tastings, of wine from a particular millésime. Certainly, this is of key importance when a year has been a difficult one, and only the better producers, or those on the best terroir, have succeeded in making decent wine.
So it’s certainly a way to weed out the bad wines (and I can attest that I have never been disappointed with any of the “Coup de Coeur” wines that I have tried). But, the downside is that it doesn’t really identify those “hidden gems,” the wines that are truly “exceptional.” The reason is that the majority of the really outstanding producers don’t submit their wines to Guide Hachette tastings. It’s probably for the same reason that they don’t submit their wines to the many “Concours du vins” that are held in France, from the most prestigious—the Concours Général Agricole that is part of the annual International Agriculture Salon that is held annually in Paris, down to the many appellation-level concours that are held at the local level. Tasting, as rigorous at it might be, is still a subjective thing, and there’s no guarantee that the judges are going to like your wine. If you win, fine, but if it’s your lesser-known neighboring producer who comes away with a “Coup de Coeur” instead of you, the reputation of your domaine is going to suffer. And because the better known producers sell their wine already without any problem, either because their reputations were established long ago or through wine journal stories, word-of-mouth, or—increasingly, through Internet social media, they don’t feel that the potential benefit justifies the risk.
And there’s also the fact that the AOC regulations, which govern how wines are made in an appellation, move more slowly than consumer tastes. There is a lot of “committee think” that goes into setting these regulations. The producer associations and wine negociants/merchants in the appellation that set these regulations tend to be very conservative. The Guide Hachette juries are expected to reflect the wine profiles established by the appellation regulations. I’ve been in numerous discussions within Guide Hachette juries where I’ve argued to recognize wines that were excellent, but atypical of the appellation’s criteria. A good example is a tasting this spring of unoaked Cahors Malbec wine. Malbec grapes have high tannin levels, and Cahors wines traditionally need years of aging for the tannins to soften. But many of today’s wine consumers don’t want to wait five or six years before they can drink their wine. Many Cahors wine producers, in reaction to this trend, are using wine production techniques such as reducing maceration times, limiting pigeage (punching down the cap in the fermentation vessel) and pump-overs (pumping the wine from the bottom of the vessel to moisten the cap) to a minimum to lower the extraction of the color and flavor elements (including the tannins) contained in the grape skins. The resulting wines are ready to be consumed soon after they are bottled.
This bothers some members of the jury. Unless the wine stains their teeth black and pulls their lips together until they resemble a grouper puckering up to kiss another grouper, they don’t believe that it’s a real Cahors wine. It’s the same thing with oak. There are still those who judge a red wine by the number of splinters that they need to pull from their lips. I’m not fond of kissing groupers or getting smacked in the face by a floorboard, so I’ve developed a technique to win most “wine-style” arguments in my juries. I now tell the others that my tasting notes represent the “international market” view. Despite some ruffled Gallic feathers, this usually wins them over by virtue of the fact that just about every French wine appellation needs international sales to make up for decreasing national consumption. To those who enjoy over-extracted, over-oaked wines, I apologize, but I’m going to continue my one-man crusade to limit their production—at least in southwestern France.
With that diatribe out of the way, I can heartedly recommend The Guide Hachette as a guide to maybe not-the-best French wines, but certainly a decent selection of them.