Tastevintage "77," as the name suggests, wasn't wine tasting. However, it wasn't any old testing. It was the 27th repetition of an annual event, arranged at the ancient Chateau in Clos de Vougeot by those masters of organization and panache - the Burgundian Confrerie of the Chevaliers du Tastevin.
Contrating with most other events on this scale, no winners of gold, silver and bronz distinctions are declared at a Tastevinage. All wines judged to be both good and representative of appellation become entitled to carry a special Confrerie label which includess its armorial bearings. Moreover - and this too is too is excellent - for all those tha don't make the grade, a report, giving the reasons, must be prepared for the benefit of producers.
No serious wine taster should be put off by surroundings. Nevertheless, it's hard no to be turned on by this splendid chateau and its Cisterican cellar where the actual tasting took place.
Only one of many beautifully restored parts of the chateau, this ground-level cellar with its thick stone walls, and overall pattern of wooden pillars supporting the beamed ceiling, subtle illumination and a lightly gravelled floor is usually set for 550 guests at gala dinners of the Confrerie. For the Tastevinage howere, the same area is arranged with about 36 round tables, each one comfortably accomodating a jury of six people, and the 15 to 17 wines they will judge.
Names of those assembled to serve as jury members read like a Who's Who in the wine world of France. Thus each of the six-man juries is assured at least a producer, a negotiant, a courtier and perhaps a restaurant - a good hard core to carry enthusiastic non-professionals like myself.
All wines submitted for the Tastevinage must have at least six months bottle time. In practice, a majority are 2 to 5 years old, while ther is significant representation in the 6-to 10-year range and a good sprinking even older. With such maturity when judge, there should be less chance of unhappy surprises with award-winning wines after purchase.
Mechanics of the tasting go smoothly. Salutations and chit-chat end about 10:15. An excellent briefing by the Grandmaster of the Confrerie provides ground rules, then individual juries take over until mid-day. Bottles are identified only by appellation and vintage, with 100 per cent anoymity assured by through wrapping. With the aid of one sommelier per jury, the operation of pouring, tasting, retasting, note-taking and final ajudication is completed with ease in available time.
This year for the first time, no jury presidents were designated. Instead, it was suggested that the youngest member should collect individual assessments, then compile judgments of the jury. Stated reason for this switch (and which seems very sound, based on osme of my president, and thus any bias he might unwittingly (or wittingly) lend to an individual's assissments.
With only 15 to 17 wines to assiss in two hours (in contrast with the 30 to 40 I've had to taste elsewhere), there is no problem with one's palate tiring, and getting confused. And no problem noting whether a wine is faulty. Judging typicity, howere, can't be easy for anyone who doesn't taste burgundies regularly.
At the very first Tastevinage in 1950, 133 wines of various vintages were assessed by 30 jurors. By 1968 the number of wines had increased to 298, while this year it was 576, with representation form all regions of Burgundy.
In recent years, the highest rejection rate seems to have been 42 per cent in 1975. Somewhere between 32 and 33 per cnet is probably nrmal. These percentages suggest that judgments at the Tastevinage are tough - which is as the Confrerie likes it. Even more significant in this regard is variation (and each to his own opinion) in the overall 38 per cent rejection for 1977.
For 118 wines with small village appellations in the Cote de Nuits and Cote de Beaune (Fixin, Santary, Monthelie, etc.), the rejection rate was highest of all - 50 per cent. Next was the 40 per cent for 117 white wines (including all the great names from Chablis in the north down to the lower extremity of Burgundy at Lyon). And a surprising 37 per cent (but corresponding to the 38 per cent with mu jury in 1968) of the grand crus (les Chambertin, les Musigny, etc.) were rejected.
Fifty-one simple Burgendy appellations did well with only 23 per cent rejections, while 193 of the more important regional towns and villages (Beaune, Chambertin, Nuits-Saint-Georges, Pommard, etc.) fared even better with 22 per cent. And finally, the Beaujolais region was lowest of all - 20 per cent. But that was only 44 candidates.
WIth repeated wmphasis on the fact tha the Tastevinage is not a competition in any sense, an exercise seems clearly to get as may producers as possible in the acts as members of Burgundy team, and for them to concentrate on the production of quality wines. And this aim, I might add, is consistent with the origin of the Confrerie, and most of its activity ever since.
True, probable value of the Confrerie's accolade in the marketplace may not go unnoticed by all those involved. Howere, strangeness of the accolade outside France probably precludes most North American merchants profiting from its significance - a significance which, after all, regular consumers have probably long since taken for granted with any bottle of Burgundy.