Choosing the best wines in southwest France:
Why sense and sensibility only takes you so far

by Tom Fiorina on February 27, 2011

Sommelier Meluyne Payen (left) and Erwan Bordier from Gaillac's Coopérative Cave de Rabastens consider the merits of one of the wines being judged in the Concours des Vins du Sud Ouest.

Each year, the professional winemakers association for southwestern France (Les Vignerons du sud-ouest), along with the Conseil régional Midi-Pyrénées (the region’s development authority), organizes a competition among the area’s 24 wine appellations. This year’s Concours des Vins du Sud-Ouest, which was held on February 14, featured over 1,000 wines in categories ranging from dry white to sweet white wines, reds aged naturally and reds aged in oak barrels, and rosés and sparkling wines.

Tasting all of these wines is a huge undertaking that involves over 100 tasters. The dégustation takes place at the Lycée d’hôtelerie et de Tourisme de Toulouse, a high school where the students learn how to run, staff and manage a restaurant or hotel. In addition to their normal academic studies, the students wait tables and cook in the restaurant’s kitchen, and clean rooms and manage the on-site hotel.

During the wine tasting, which I was fortunate enough to participate in, the high school students brought out the wines, prepared the tasting glasses, and emptied spit buckets. Having such enthusiastic, cheerful, smiling young people around made the tasting that much more enjoyable.

Lycée d’hôtelerie et de Tourisme de Toulouse students under the watchful eye of one of their professors.

Being in the culinary/gastronomic equivalent of the hit show Glee must be a fascinating experience for them. Many of the students are only 14 or 15 years old, and some of them look much younger. You’re almost tempted to use that old joke—“I have things older in my freezer than you!,” but their earnestness and professionalism makes you want to compliment them rather than ridicule their efforts.

There were four of us at our table, tasting three different groups of wines: dry white wines from the Côtes de Gascogne appellation west of Toulouse, red wines aged in oak barrels from that same appellation, and red wines aged in oak barrels from the Tarn-et-Garonne department, which is just north-east of Toulouse. My fellow tasters included a winemaker from Cahors, an oenologue from a cave cooperative in Gaillac, and a sommelier from a Biarritz hotel.

I found the experience quite educational. We tasted in thoughtful silence, noting each wine for its color, aroma and flavor elements. Then, based on these notes, we would give a mark from zero to five for each criterion. Totaling these marks allowed us to determine the top three wines out of the eight to ten being judged in each category.

Then began the interesting process of comparing each of our marks and justifying why we had selected which particular wine. Mostly, the four of us agreed on the top wines, but not always in the same order. There was a good degree of retasting to arrive at a consensus. As their tasting experience greatly exceeded my own, this was a great way to learn from listening to how they judged the wines, and on how to communicate that judgment in words.

Besides selecting the top three wines in each category, we also selected wines for consideration as recipients of those gold, silver and bronze medal labels that you sometimes see affixed to bottles of French wine. The commercial value of these labels is considerable, and this is, in effect, the whole purpose of this and the many other wine competitions that are held annually in France. I say “consideration,” as, if I understood the process correctly, a committee of professional tasters, whose judgment was final, then retasted the wines that we had recommended for medals.

Lesson one, and this isn’t by any means an original observation, is that most winemakers would be better off transforming their wine barrels into flower or vegetable planters. The majority of the red, oaked wines that we tasted were floorboard-forward, with unripe, harsh tannins, and they lacked any balance between the acidity and the other essential taste elements. In fairness to the winemakers, apart from the wines that lacked the structure to benefit from oak aging, the young age of these red wines (2008 and 2009 principally) meant that the oak hadn’t yet had time to be integrated into the wine. It’s obviously a mistake to submit two-or-three-year-old, oak-aged reds to such a tasting.

A highly skilled, and cute, nose.

There was one standout among this group (and since this was a “blind” tasting, we didn’t know any of the producers’ names); a red wine from the Tarn-et-Garonne group that scored, in comparison to the other wines, almost twice the number of points on all of our score sheets. This wine had beautiful clarity and color, silky, delicious tannins, a peppery, mouth-filling aroma like you might find in a well-aged Cahors wine, and a “quaffability” that made you regret having to spit it out.

We only recommended this one wine from our group for a medal, and I noted that a 2008 red (the cuvée Germain) from Domaine d’En Ségur in the IGP (Indication Géographique Protégée) Côtes du Tarn had come away with a gold medal. From their website, I learned that it is a low-yield (30 Hl/ha) blend of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, and that it is aged for 12 months in oak barrels. A little Internet research showed that the estate is owned by Pierre Fabre, the founder of the third largest pharmaceutical company in France. This wine is available for €5-8 a bottle, a bargain considering its quality and two-star Guide Hachette rating.

Another lesson that I took away from this tasting involved the dry white Côtes de Gascogne wines. The white grape varieties in this appellation, Ugni Blanc and Colombard, are lively and acidic. They also tend to be thin, lacking in body and mouth feel, and, at their best, they make for a light-weight aperitif wine. At their worst, they remind you of a can of lemon-lime Sprite, Sierra Mist or 7 Up, or another such soft drink, that has lost most of its fizz while sitting open on a counter.

Of course there are exceptions. This has nothing to do with this tasting, but one of my favorite white wines of the moment is a 100% Colombard made by Domaine de Magnaut. Mostly, this domaine is known for its outstanding Armagnac, which is how I discovered it, but their Colombard is expressive and fresh, with persistent citrus fruit notes and hints of boxwood and lychees. It’s perfect with oysters and shellfish, or as an aperitif, and it’s easy to see why it too received two stars from the Guide Hachette and was selected as one of the 100 best IGP wines in France. And it’s a bargain at only €5 a bottle.

Now these acidic, low-alcohol (the Domaine de Magnaut Colombard is just 11.5% alcohol) white wines from the Côtes de Gascogne are perfect for making Armagnac. And the majority of the white Côtes de Gascogne wines that we tasted during our dégustation would have been better served by being distilled into brandy. There were two, however, in the blind tasting where the acidity was well balanced with the delicious, mouth-filling aromas that I’ve come to appreciate in the Colombard of Domaine de Magnaut. They had a roundness and persistence of flavor that put them out of the aperitif category and into the realm of let’s-open-up-a-bottle and sit down to eat something. These were excellent food wines.

The only problem, my fellow tasters explained to me, was that they weren’t “typical” of the dry, white wines from the Côtes de Gascogne.

“Huh, typical?,” I thought to myself; were we not supposed to be selecting the best wines from those being tasted? These two wines tasted better for a number of reasons. Since it was a blind tasting and we didn’t have any information from the producers about how they had been vinified (with extended lees contact or higher levels of glycerol, which would give them more roundness and mouth-feel), or maybe there was a slight amount of residual sugar (which would have the same effect), or maybe it was just the quality of the grapes, or the skill of the winemaker that made them more pleasing to drink.

At any rate, after some discussion, and viewed in the perspective of our score sheets, which had these two wines receiving the top marks for their category from all four of us, sense and sensibility won out. We decided to make them our consensual top two wines.

They didn’t win any medals, however, so it appears that tradition, in traditional-laden France, still trumps taste (and originality).

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Heide Steinkraus February 28, 2011 at 18:58

Thank you again for a very interesting, eye opening story of wine tasting, and how wines are judged and selected.

Tom Fiorina March 1, 2011 at 21:49

Thanks, Heide, for your comment. I’m glad that you enjoyed the story, but I’m not certain that this one wine tasting is indicative of what goes on at others.

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