by Martin Walker
The annual Concours for the best Monbazillac wine is always a festive occasion, unlikely as that may seem on a grey Monday morning with some welcome rain at last replacing the long weeks of heat and drought.
This is not your usual wine-tasting, although each bottle was wrapped in the traditional black cloth and we were each equipped with a tasting notebook and a pen at the hospitable new Maison des Vins on the Bergerac quayside. It’s really worth a visit, with dozens of different wines on display.
After the rebuilding that ended this summer, it now boasts its own wine bar that offers a wide selection of the local elixir, and plates of cheese and charcuterie to be enjoyed on the outside terrace or in the cloisters. On the ground floor is the Bergerac tourism centre and the wine is just upstairs, with a delightful view of the river and quayside from the terrace.
But the 35 of us of doing the judging had serious matters in mind. The winner of the Concours wins a trophy and the free help of a professional film team to help the winner make a promotional video. Above all, the winner gets to say he or she is the top Monbazillac maker, which pays off in sales and in getting onto restaurant wine lists.
The contest is, however, somewhat unusual. We start off in groups of five and each of us had two glasses. One has a blue ribbon around the stem and the other has a white ribbon. The first two wines are poured out, identified only by a number. But each of the seven tables (5 judges each) gets two different wines. After we have sniffed and sipped and slurped and some of us have spat, we are asked if we are ready to make our judgment and then we each hold up the glass we preferred.
This is sudden death. If the blue glass gets three votes and the white two then the white glass is eliminated. And so it goes.
After three or four rounds, the tables are pushed together so that we change partners and we are nine, and then seventeen until the final round when all of the tasters are together and the blue or white glasses are raised and the final count is made.
By this time, we have all tasted ten Monbazillacs. Since they are dessert wines, so sweet that they can be almost syrupy, one has the distinct sense that one’s taste buds are being steadily eroded. We were nibbling bread and sipping water but even so it was hard to make sense of the various signals coming from the back of the mouth, the sides of the tongue.
One note of warning: every one of us was aware that the most celebrated of the Monbazillac wines, the Cuvée Madame of Château Tirecul La Gravière that is made by Bruno Bilancini, was not in the competition. His small bottle goes for 90 euros and since it has several times in blind tastings defeated the renowned Château d’Yquem from the Sauternes – which costs many times much – we knew that were taking part in a performance of Hamlet but without the participation of the Prince of Denmark.
Nonetheless, there was widespread satisfaction that Benoit Gerardin of Château Le Fagé was the worthy winner with his Cuvée Pierre-Louis, named for his son. Indeed, another of Benoit’s Cuvées, known as Tradition, was also in the final four. Benoit had been three times runner-up in this Concours in previous years so we were all pleased to see him win this time. David Fourtout of Les Verdots came in second and Château Poulvère was equal third.
In the first few rounds, I was part of a group with two real experts: Guillaume, who is the sommelier at Le Vieux Logis, and Bruno of L’Atelier in Issigeac, and each one was thinking not just of the wine but of how it would go with which food. The two men agreed that they did not like the age-old Périgord tradition of serving chilled Monbazillac with foie gras. They felt it made for too much fat in the mouth which could be a problem for the enjoyment of subsequent courses. They liked serving Monbazillac with spicy foods, with curries and sushi, as well as with desserts.
Many sommeliers and restaurant people agree, and so we are seeing a slow shift in the concept of what a Monbazillac should be and what it could do. I’m accustomed to a heavy, golden Monbazillac that is close to a liquid honey, particularly when I pair it with a good Roquefort cheese. They prefer a paler, lighter, more subtle wine.
So it was interesting that the final winner was closer to my side of this debate, while David Fourtout’s runner-up was more to the taste of the real experts. Which goes to show that even though Monbazillac has been made for a thousand years, since the monks first began making this classic wine of the Bergerac, it remains a living entity, developing and changing and adapting to new times and new tastes.
Call me an old reactionary, if you will, but I respect the traditional ways because the whole point of a wine as old as Monbazillac is that you are drinking liquid history.
Martin Walker, author of the best-selling ‘Bruno, chief of police’ novels, is a Grand Consul de la Vinée de Bergerac. Formerly a journalist, he spent 25 years as foreign correspondent for The Guardian and then became editor-in-chief of United Press International. He and his wife Julia have had a home in the Périgord since 1999 and one of his great hobbies is visiting the vineyards of Bergerac.