Some wine lovers like to learn as much as they can about a single wine or group of wines. Others try to taste as many wines as possible from many different sources.
It either case, it's easier said than done. They usually have to rely on their local wine merchant. Some try to get in a few weekends or an occasional vacation visiting vineyards. Wine clubs are another possibility but limited choice and preselection take the fun out of the hunt.
In France, wine competitions offer the amateur a chance to broaden his scope. Because they are competitions, they offer a reasonable guarantee of quality plus the excitement of personal discovery. Best of all, they offer an up-to-date guide for buying direct from vineyards. (Even if you don't attend you can use the lists of winners as a buying guide.)
The better-known of the two national fairs is the Concours Général des Vins of the Paris Salon International de l'Agriculture, held every year at the beginning of March. But the Concours des Grands Vins de France at the Foire Nationale de Mâcon, held during the second half of May, may be even more reliable as a guide to good wine.
For one thing, the judging is better organized and the wines submitted are not as well known. This means that there is less temptation on the grower to stretch out his winning wines with inferior vats of the same wine.
The Mâcon fair began on a modest scale 22 years ago. In 1971, the wine judging became a major event in the wine world, with invitations going out to producers all over France.
This year 4,410 sample bottles were judged by some 800 tasters, grouped into three to five-man juries, each with about a score of bottles in front of them. Part of their work had already been done for them in a preselection that had eliminated a large number of samples sent in several weeks earlier.
The tasters were mostly French – growers, shippers, wine brokers and merchants, restaurateurs (among them, Jean Troisgros) – with a scattering of Americans, British, Swiss and Germans. Most were men.
At 9 in the morning of the judging, the jurors gather in the auditorium of the Lycée Agricole of Davayé, a small village in the hills west of Mâcon. The president of the concours, Jean Barbet, explained the ground rules: This was not an occasion to pass out prizes to your friends and relations but a serious, individual judgement of the wines set before you. Smoking was, of course, out of the question. Silence was to be the rule, for each taster was to make his own personal judgment, uninfluenced by his neighbor's favorable or disobliging remarks.
The temptation to exchange opinions and to group judgments at each table was overwhelming. The same sort of thing takes place at Paris but there the jurors have no prior briefing.
In Paris you are asked to give a numerical rating of each wine for appearance, aroma, taste and overall impression. This is not a very good system because some people regularly mark high and some low, which confuses the issue. For instance, one taster's 18 out of 20 will be another's 15 out of 20, which might well be a low mark for a high grader.
At Mâcon the tasters are asked to rate wine as: Excellent, Very Good, Good, All Right and Mediocre/Eliminated, for the "eye," "nose," "mouth," and overall harmony of each wine, and to give their observations on each sample. The organizers fill in and totalize on a uniform scale the numerical equivalents with their coefficients (the color of a wine is obviously far less important that its taste).
The prize-winning wines may wear a special collar label stating what medal they won in which year. Only the precise wine (the quantity of it is noted) is authorized to wear the collar label.
No doubt some producers may stretch things a bit, saying "my wines have won a medal" when they should be saying "this vatful of one of my wines" won the distinction. But the rules are such that they encourage growers, whose personal production and personal reputation are at stake, to be more scrupulous in their claims.