What happened when Provence wine came up against the best of British?
In 1976 English wine merchant Steven Spurrier organised a blind tasting of the best French and American wines. To the lasting shock of the wine industry the American wines won and the tasting was christened the Judgement of Paris. In a light-hearted tribute to this event Provence Guru hosted its own tasting. This time the wine was rosé and the competition for the French came from the booming English wine industry.
Bruno Pecqueux, the director of Lourmarin cave co-operative was a worried man. It was 11.50am on a cold April day and all morning shoppers in the market had been gathering to taste two wines. Both were shrouded in tissue paper. When poured one had the colour of ripe cherries, the other vibrant pink coral.
In front of Bruno was a sheet of paper filled with ticks where tasters had indicated which wine they preferred, and with just 40 minutes left – less if the dark clouds overhead closed in – the English wine from A Beckett’s vineyard in Wiltshire was a clear winner. Could the local Hav Couloubre – Côte du Luberon pull back the margin and salvage French pride?
Two hours earlier the Provence Guru team had arrived in the market.
“Allez, allez, goutez le vin rosé anglais.”
The traders had only just finished setting up their stalls, and the few passing shoppers were in a hurry to buy their vegetables before the queues developed. Most people simply shook their heads, or rubbed their stomach in horror at the thought of drinking at such an early hour. They then scurried off without even registering what they were being asked to try.
The closest trader – the oyster merchant, was vigorously quartering lemons and sewing them like seeds among rows of yawning shells.
“Un degustation de vin rosé d’angleterre,” cried out the Provence Guru team as the clocked chimed ten.
A shopper turned to face the degustation, a slivering oyster dripping from his gaping mouth.
“Vin anglais – ca existe?” he dropped the shell of the oyster in horror. Life was uncertain enough without the English starting to make rosé.
“It’s down to global warming,” explained Bruno.
A belt of chalk runs from Chablis, through Champagne under the Channel to England, and with higher temperatures and the same soil the English are making good wines.
Chasing another oyster on its way with a glass of sharp Picpoul from Sète, the shopper showed no interest in tasting England‘s finest. “Soon they’ll have cicadas,” he muttered, as he shuffled away.
The judgement of Lourmarin had initially been scheduled for a week earlier, but with the English wine had come the English weather. A night long deluge had washed away the enthusiasm of most of the traders and those that had showed up had huddled beneath their parasols as a vicious electrical storm raged over the Luberon. The Gods, the traders joked, were not in favour of our enterprise. A week later with the weather closing in once again it seemed that they were right.
The two contending wines were notably different in style. A Beckett’s estate rosé from Devizes in Wiltshire, was light and fruity and relatively low in alcohol at 10%. Made from a mixture of Pinot Noir, and Reichensteiner, it closest comparator in France is a Marsannay rosé, which many in Burgundy regard as the country’s finest. The Côte du Luberon by contrast, a Syrah and Grenache mix, was a much more robust wine, more aggressive on the palate and a better accompaniment to food. Before the tasting Bruno commented “put both wines side by side in the shop and they would sell equally well. They appeal to a different market.”
Like a child offered cough medicine the first taster grimaced as he put the glass to his lips. How bad could English wine be?
The Guru’s first customer sipped and nodded knowingly. “An excellent nose, soft and subtle to drink.” The second wine was poured “Too aggressive, and too sugary. The first was much better, and definitely French.”
Bruno shook his head and disconsolately marked one point for the English. The tasting continued with the English wine accumulating points quicker than the Côte du Luberon, even if it did so in a slightly unusual fashion. Without the benefit of a label and knowing nothing about the wine several tasters chose the English wine commenting erroneously that it was stronger and with a greater depth of flavour.
Bruno shrugged: “they must have just been sucking cough sweets.”
As the morning continued more experienced drinkers easily distinguished the French wine: “c’est plus riche, plus sensual, plus capital.” “The English wine is drinkable – just!“ By midday the scores were nearly level and the first rain drops had begun to fall.
“Wine has no accent,” shrugged one philosophical taster on being told that he’d selected the English wine, once again edging it ahead in the contest. 35 people had now tasted and in an echo of the judgement of Paris, the French wine was about to be beaten into second place. In 1976 uproar had followed the result. Several of the tasters, including some of the most experienced sommeliers in France claimed that they had been duped. A recount was ordered and when the results were confirmed some of the most illustrious names in the French wine industry temporarily ostracised the organiser Steven Spurrier.
A bulbous drop of rain landed on the tasting table, quickly followed in a staccato burst by a further fistful of watery bullets. The final taster’s nose planted itself deep into the fluted wine glass. With an expert swish the contents were transformed into a vigorous pink whirlpool. As a heavy drizzle set in there was a sigh of contentment, and a scarcely audible murmur of appreciation for the first wine. The process was repeated for the second rosé. A swish and a swirl, a plant of the nose, a sip and suck as the taster churned the wine through his teeth.
Meanwhile the nearby traders hurriedly stacked their produce in the back of their vans. Olives were decanted from wicker baskets into plastic vats, brightly coloured scarves wrapped in plastic and stacked in cardboard boxes, bunches of dried lavender bundled under a tarpaulin cover. The multicoloured umbrellas snapped shut, and the last goods were crammed away to a symphony of slamming door and churning engines. The sickly smell of diesel drifted under the quivering nose of our final taster.
“And?” asked Bruno anxiously.
“Je prefer le dieuxieme vin.”
“Egalite” declared Bruno, “Dix huite, Dix Huite. Vivre le entente cordiale.”
<Box> The wines
A Beckett’s Vineyard, Estate Rosé, Price £7,00
Available from A Beckett’s Vineyard – High Street, Littleton Panel, Devizes, Wiltshire Tel: 01380 816669 www.abecketts.co.uk
Hav Couloubre – Côte du Luberon, Price 5 euros
La Cave a Lourmarin, Place Henri Barthélémey, 84160 Lourmarin. Tel: 04 90 68 02 18 firstname.lastname@example.org
Provence Guru – The Insiders’ Guide to Provence, top tips:
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