The Canadian Taste-Off
Steven Spurrier has a lot to answer for. In 1976 the English wine merchant, who lived in Paris at the time, set up the first international wine taste-off between the champion France and the challenger California. This event has gone down in history as “The Judgment of Paris” and even spawned a movie called Bottle Shock. You may recall that a California Chardonnay 1973 from Château Montelena and a Cabernet Sauvignon 1973 from Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars were placed above white Burgundy and red Bordeaux by French tasters in a blind tasting. It was this event that put California on the wine map.
That format of pitting region or national wines against each other has been replicated many times since, and the seminal Paris tasting subsequently was reprised by Spurrier 30 years later with similar results. The concept is, of course, for emerging wine regions to flex their muscles on an international stage against the proven lions of the global wine industry. But the home team always has the advantage because the organizers can engineer the desired results, even when they are trying to be scrupulously fair. You may recall that a Clos Jordanne Claystone Terrace Chardonnay 2005 bested 14 wines from France and California at a blind tasting by Quebec wine professionals in Montreal in 2006.
In March I was invited, along with seven other international judges — including Steven Spurrier — to participate in such a blind tasting at VinCE, the consumer wine fair in Budapest. The format was simple enough: there were 11 Hungarian wines pitted against 11 international wines of the same varietal or wines of similar style. To give you a sense of the fight card: Kertész Chardonnay 2009 from the Hungarian region of Etyek versus Montes Alpha Chardonnay 2010 from Chile (Montes won on points). Vylyan Gambás Pinot Noir 2008 from Villány vs Pierre André Gevrey-Chambertin 2006 from Burgundy (Hungary by a TKO); and Puklus Tokaji Aszúeszencia 2003 vs Peter Lehman Botrytis Semillon 2008 from Australia (the Aszu by a knockout). When the dust settled the Hungarians had won eight of the 11 bouts, much to the delight of the local press.
Two days later I conducted a Master Class on Icewine for 70 people at the wine fair. Had I chosen the wines I would have made sure that there would be at least one German Eiswein in the lineup, since one has to pay homage to the country that invented the category. The organizers managed to put together the following seven wines, which were served in this order:
Casa Peiso Blaufränkisch Eiswein 2009 (Austria)
Pillitteri Cabernet Franc Icewine (Niagara Peninsula, Ontario)
Weingut Alfred Fischer Grüner Veltliner Eiswein 2005 (Neusiedlersee, Austria)
Ice Wine Myskhako 2009 (Black Sea Coast, Russia)
Borbély Family Wine Cellar Badacsonyi Olasz Riesling Icewine 2009 (Hungary)
Esterhazy Cuvée Eiswein 2009 (Austria)
Pillitteri Vidal Icewine 2006 (Ontario)
The two surprises for me were the Russian Ice Wine (the winemaker was in the audience) and the Austrian Grüner Veltliner Eiswein. The Russian because of its finesse and lightness on the palate; the Grüner Veltliner because it retained its varietal character (of peach and white pepper) that usually get lost in Icewine.
At the end of the tasting I asked the participants for a show of hands as to which of the Icewines they liked best. A few hands shot up as I read out the names in the serving order. When I got to Pillitteri Vidal Icewine 2006, there was a forest of hands in the air. This was not a competition, but in a very understated, Canadian way, Canada owned the podium. Charlie Pillitteri should be proud.