The wines of 1968 are such that indiscriminate drinking could conceivably further the cause of temperance.
Fortunately, it is not necessary to go to this extreme while awaiting the 1969 vintage, for the Salon International de l'Agriculture (until March 9 at the Porte de Versailles) offers a sure way to discover the many exceptions to a rather dreary overall picture.
In an ambiance reminiscent of a state fair, experts judge the fall's wines, which are just beginning to show their real character at this time of year. It is a pleasure to be able to report that a number of them will make agreeable bistro sipping.
As one Frenchman put it, the wines judged at the fair are not the great château wines known as vins de diplomate, but the wine-lovers' wines, vins d'amateur – such as the Beaujolais, Sancerre and Muscadet – found in nearly every good wine bistro.
It is, in fact, largely for the benefit of the bistro and restaurant trade in France, and for foreign importers, that this annual competition is held.
For this reason, any wine accepted for judging must represent a certain minimum production, so that a gold medal does not go to a winegrower who can offer only a couple of hundred bottles for sale.
At the outset, some seven to eight thousand samples from every wine-producing area of France were submitted. These were subjected to rigorous chemical analysis of alcoholic content, amount of tannin, fixed and volatile acidity. Furthermore, each wine accepted had to correspond to its type in general.
The surviving 3,000 or so samples were sent up to Paris to vie for a gold, silver or bronze medal (actually only a certificate to that effect).
Saturday morning, 135 juries each sat down in front of ten to 25 bottles, identified only by region and number. Each jury was composed of three members, one grower and one shipper from the corresponding wine region, and one Parisian.
Among the latter were restaurant and bistro owners, wine waiters, wine merchants and wholesalers, oenologists and one American reporter pressed into service when a member of one of the juries for Beaujolais failed to show up.
Being a juryman in a wine competition seems delightful at the outset, but it's frustrating to have to spit out every sip of wine – into a handy sawdust-filled box – in order to keep a keen sense of judgment, based on taste, not on alcoholic intake.
This was no hardship with a mouthful of obviously non-medal material, but the temptation to swallow a candidate for the gold award was much harder to overcome, and was yielded to completely at the end of the judging.
Each juryman graded every bottle before him according to color, limpidity, aroma and taste, and added personal comments. Then all three exchanged impressions, retasted samples, eliminated those not in the running, and finally got down to a discussion of the merits of the good ones. Now the wines were tasted and tasted again with a bit of bread between each sip.
"I think the No. 5 ought to have the gold medal. It has good balance."
"Yes, but No. 4 has a better nose. Really fruity. And it has a longer aftertaste."
"And what about the No. 7?"
And so it went until all the awards has been decided, sometimes two golds, sometimes no medals at all, for every region and type – red, white and rosé.
By now, or within the next day or two, the official list of the fair's winners will be published. It is called the "Palmarès des Produits" (everything from to milk to honey is judged), and it offers a unique opportunity for a free tasting of good wines from the listed winners that have stands at the fair.
It is the equivalent of hundreds of wine-buying trips in France, and for those unsure of their palates, it is a reliable guide, with names and addresses expressly listed for direct ordering, to have in hand.