En­joy­ment is the de­cider when top wines are all good

Business Day - - Life -

The fa­mous “Judg­ment of Paris” tast­ing in 1976, in which a lineup of Cal­i­for­nian wines sub­stan­tially dented the French claim to vi­nous supremacy, vin­di­cated the US belief that its wines stacked up com­fort­ably against the top French ex­am­ples.

For the wine world, how­ever, the re­sult was hardly un­con­tro­ver­sial. How com­pe­tent were the judges? (Pretty good: they in­cluded the owner of the Do­maine de la Ro­manée-Conti and the som­me­lier of the leg­endary Tour d’Ar­gent restau­rant.) How cred­i­ble was the French se­lec­tion? (Two First Growths and two Sec­onds in the caber­net line-up.)

What no-one seems to have con­sid­ered was the ap­ple­sand-pears na­ture of what had ap­peared to be a com­par­i­son of like prod­ucts.

The Cal­i­for­nian and Bordeaux reds were caber­net­based, the whites chardon­nays. It seemed fair to as­sume that what was be­ing judged was like for like.

At one level, this is en­tirely true: ev­ery blind tast­ing com­pares like (a class of red wines, a class of pinot noirs, a class of wines from a par­tic­u­lar vin­tage) but at the same time there is an “un­like” com­po­nent: Stel­len­bosch wines are dif­fer­ent from Swart­land wines, high el­e­va­tion chardon­nays are dif­fer­ent from mar­itime ones.

When you are judg­ing a com­pe­ti­tion, you can award gold medals to a num­ber of dif­fer­ent styles, a chardon­nay from El­gin and a chardon­nay from Paarl. When you are be­ing driven to a pref­er­ence be­tween two wines, how­ever, you are be­ing asked to de­cide whether a par­tic­u­lar El­gin chardon­nay is bet­ter in ab­so­lute terms than a par­tic­u­lar chardon­nay from Paarl. Some­times the very in­trin­sics are what will tilt a de­ci­sion — hence the ap­ple­sand-pears fac­tor.

In Novem­ber I con­ducted my an­nual tast­ing in Hong Kong for Christie’s most im­por­tant wine clients.

In 2018 there were 13 Cape wines across a num­ber of cat­e­gories, all paired blind against com­pa­ra­ble global bench­marks. For ex­am­ple, Jor­dan’s Nine Yards was set against Eti­enne Sauzet’s Batard Mon­tra­chet, Kanonkop’s Paul Sauer against Chateau Lynch Bages and Vi­la­fonte Se­ries “M” against Chateau Trotanoy.

The guests were in­vited sim­ply to choose their pre­ferred wines from each of the flights. The idea was to fo­cus on en­joy­ment rather than the dis­trac­tion of try­ing to iden­tify ori­gin. In 2018 I sat next to one of the auc­tion house’s bestheeled and most knowl­edge­able pun­ters (these two at­tributes don’t al­ways come to­gether, sadly). It was his com­ments that alerted me to the ap­ples-and-pears na­ture of choos­ing a sin­gle “win­ner” from a short line-up.

At the top end of the mar­ket, it’s no longer an easy ex­er­cise to sep­a­rate one coun­try’s wines from an­other’s on a qual­i­ta­tive ba­sis. The best are equally good. My com­pan­ion in Hong Kong recog­nised this, so de­cided once he had made his choice, he could still take a stab at ori­gin. He was never wrong, and on sev­eral oc­ca­sions his pre­ferred wine was South African.

Ev­ery time he mo­ti­vated his de­ci­sion by high­light­ing fea­tures that re­late more to ori­gin than to wine­mak­ing: for ex­am­ple, the na­ture of tan­nins in Cape caber­nets; the acid-fruit bal­ance in our chardon­nays. Con­fi­dent of his taste, as well as of his judg­ment, he saw no rea­son to pre­tend that the French wines were al­ways bet­ter, which is of­ten what hap­pens when peo­ple are asked to choose be­tween in­ter­na­tional bench­marks and rel­a­tively un­known con­tenders.

At the Judg­ment of Paris tast­ing, the French judges as­sumed that the qual­ity of their top wines would shine through and were lost the mo­ment these dif­fer­ences weren’t ob­vi­ous. After that they were left to choose on the ba­sis of plea­sure.

In the pre-cli­mate change 1970s, many of the French clas­sics were lean and aus­tere while the Cal­i­for­nian wines had a warmth and gen­eros­ity about them. Prove­nance tri­umphed over per­cep­tions of brand iden­tity; they liked the taste of the Cal­i­for­nian wines more than they liked the taste of home.

It’s no sur­prise that Odette Kahn, then edi­tor of the Re­vue du Vin de France, tried un­suc­cess­fully to get her bal­lot form back be­fore she stomped from the room.

MICHAEL FRIDJHON

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