Tasting as a judge for the Guide Hachette

When the label is not enough, reach for a Wine Guide

On Tuesday 15th January at Chateau Dillon at Blanquefort near Bordeaux, I was one of the 100 or so wine professionals each there to taste fifteen wines blind for the most famous French wine guide. One of three tasters at my table, I was accompanied by the cellar master of a Cru Classee chateau in St Julien and another winemaker from Moulis, I was very much aware of the seriousness of the occasion. Judges are all bona-fide professionals – a mixture of oenologists, negociants, winemakers, sommeliers, cellar masters and courtiers.

The tasting was very well organised with 30 tables of fifteen wines totalling 450 or so wines all from the 2005 vintage from the communes of the Haut Medoc; Listrac, Moulis, Margaux, St Julien, Pauillac, St Estephe. This Guide is totally  independent and receives samples free of charge. Properties supply two bottles one with a label and another in a bottle without label or capsule. It is this bottle that is tasted blind by the judges and is known only by its number.

The tastings start at 10.30am and continue until midday. We have a ISO tasting glass each, a bottle of water to share and a basket of bread – of course, this is France after all. The editor of the Guide runs through the rules, but for most of the professionals there they do this every year at least once. They are ‘local’ – a group of professionals that are ‘experts’ of such wines.

Now it is up to the tasters to diligently taste the 15 wines filling in the tasting sheet ‘fiche de degustation’; marking down any particular characteristics of the appearance, its aromas, its palate, its harmony in general, when it should be enjoyed and any serving suggestions in terms of foods.

My table’s wines were from the commune of Listrac – deemed often to be one of the poorer cousins of the rest of the Haut Medoc.

They all seemed to be corkers; deep in colour, full of fruit and a firm structure – few were what we perceived typical Listrac to be, fullbodied and rustic.

Its score out of five detemined the stars given. 1 meant it was eliminated. We had none of these. 2 meant it was well made, but no ‘great shakes’. 3 was very well made wine and received one star, 4 was remarkable (this was our best grade – we awarded this to two of the wines out of 15) and received two stars and 5 was exceptional and received three stars. We gave no ‘Coup de Coeurs’ which can be given from 3 upwards for wines with particular expression.

Once all the sheets have been filled in by the jury, the judges at each table discusses the wines to make sure that there is consistency and wines are re-tasted if necessary. Any ‘Coup de Coeurs’ are passed to another two tables to triple check that it is warranted.

The season of tastings is held throughout France and run from January through to June. The notes are compiled and the next edition of the Guide is produced and published in the autumn.

Guide Hachette celebrated its 20th anniversary with the 2005 edition. It presented 10 000 wines. Only around 30 % of the wines tasted were good enough to be mentioned in the Guide from the 33,000 that were tasted. There are a total of 900 professional tasters at 140 separate tastings.

The wines we awarded the best marks were atypical in the traditional sense of Listrac – one could almost say elegant, balanced yet expressive with wonderful fruit and structure. We were tasting the 2005 vintage though. One could not help asking oneself if the Guide was more useful in lesser vintages when the advice from such experience and authority would be even more valuable enabling one to pick one’s way between the good and bad on the shelves, rather than the very good and better. We await record sales of the Guide in a couple of years time with the rankings for the 2007 vintage!

Nicolle Croft www.nicollecroft.com


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