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Abrau Durso: Tale of a Wine Competition in Russia

Posted: Friday, 20 December 2013 14:16

Abrau Durso: Tale of a Wine Competition in Russia

Dec 20: The huge Sparkling Winery of Abrau Durso, in the small village of the same name, decided to organise a mini wine competition along the lines of the Paris tasting organised by Steven Spurrier, to compare Russian wines to those from Outside Russia. John Salvi MW who was one of the 4 non-Russian judges, reports on the event

I have done a few competitions in Russia recently, but they were classical competitions to choose medal winners and select the best wines in each category.  The huge Sparkling Winery of Abrau Durso, in the small village of the same name, in the Northern Caucasus, on the Black Sea, decided to have a competition in a mini-version along the lines of the Paris tasting organised by Steven Spurrier to compare Russian wines to those from Outside Russia.

The tasting was named “Cup of the Union of Winegrowers and Winemakers of Russia”

Arriving Abrau Durso

Abrau Durso was generous.  They chose 8 judges, 4 Russian and 4 non-Russian and flew us down business class. Nonetheless it was very long day: Bordeaux – Amsterdam - Moscow – Krasnodar and then a one hour helicopter flight to Abrau-Durso, arriving at 03.30 in the morning, having left home at 04.00 the previous morning to taste at 09.30 the following morning.  We were lodged in their own very comfortable hotel with a view over lake.

Tasting team and conditions

We tasted in their vast complex in a totally professional tasting room.  The Russian judges were Dr. Alexander Panasyuk, deputy director of Moscow’s wine and beer industry institute, Arthur Sarkissyan, famous sommelier activist, Denis Roudenko, leading wine blogger and Igor Serdyuk, influential wine writer. The non-Russian counterparts were Robert Joseph, the famous and incisive wine writer and critic, David Molyneux-Berry, MW, formerly Head of Sotheby’s wine Auction Department, Darrel Joseph, wine critic specialising on Eastern Europe and I.  

Tasting conditions were well-nigh perfect in the white and luminous tasting room.  Individual places each with their basin of running water, a spotlight, fine glasses, bread, spittoons and proficient service.  The tasting sheet was entirely their own and bore no relationship to any used in any other competitions. They wanted first and foremost our marks, and then, if possible our description and assessment.  They asked us to give the grape variety and whether the wine was Russian or from elsewhere.  They asked us, if possible, to give a brief comment and opinion. 

The Tasting- Day 1

We tasted the white wines in the morning and the reds in the afternoon. The tasting sheet carried the following parameters: Sample Number, Total Score, Known Values, Supposed Origin, Supposed varietal, known faults.  In the morning we judged 33 white wines. Wefound that some of the non-Russian wines in the competition were:

Pouilly Fumé La Doucette 2008
Comte Lafond, Sancerre 2011
Cervara della Sala 2010, Marchese Antinori
Torres Fransola 2011, Sauvignon Blanc
Chablis Fourchaumes Premier Cru, Louis Jadot 2011
 Chablis Grand Cru Les Clos 2011, J. Moreau
 Jean-Luc Colombo Condrieu 2011
Montes Alpha Chardonnay 2011 Valle de Casablanca and
Le Grand Noir, Chardonnay  Pays d’Oc 2011 
The afternoon tasting of the red wines followed the same pattern.  This time there were 32 in all.  Among the non-Russian wines mixed with the Russian wines were:
 Château Marquis de Terme 2011;
Château Gruaud Larose2011;
Château D’Armailhac 2011;
Château Camensac 2011;
Château Carbonnieux 2011;
Château Pavie 2007;
Two Hands Never Tear Us Apart, Saperavi, Barossa 2012,
 Prunotto Barolo 2009;
Flor de Pingus, Ribera de Duero 2011 and
Château Fleur Cardinale 2011. 
A rather heavy accent on the 2011 vintage!
The first day’s tasting took so long that all we could do was dine together that evening with our hosts in their hotel dining room

Mixed Bag of Russian wines

We had no idea what foreign wines had been mixed with the Russian ones until we were shown the list afterwards. Neither could we see any rhyme or reason for the wines that had been chosen.  Some were good, some were good vintages, some were lesser vintages, but in no way could we see why they should have been expected to compare with the non-Russian wines.  They seemed a motley and random selection.

We had a total of 65 wines with a motley selection of non –Russian wines competing against the domestic wines.

The Tasting- Day 2

The second part of the tasting on the second day was somewhat special.  The organisers took the 8 top-scoring Russian wines and we had a tasting to put them in order of preference, 1-8.  Again we had to give them marks and on these marks, not yesterday’s original ones, they were scored and judged.  I feel that it would have been better if they had retained the marks that we gave them originally the previous day. 

These second marks were then integrated with the marks that we had given to all the other wines the first day and the marks compared.  In each case, both for the red and the white wines, the results were unequivocal. 6 out of the 8 judges chose the same wine. 

For the white wine Donskaya Chasha Rkatsiteli got 87.63 points and Baron de la Doucette, Pouilly Fumé 2008 got 86.38 points.  For the red, the Lefkadia got 89.63 and the Marquis de Terme got 86.88.  In all honesty I am not sure that anything was proved either way, except perhaps that some multi-millionaire Russians who have planted new, state of the art vineyards, with new state of the art equipment, and are employing great wine makers such as Patrick Léon, who used to be the winemaker for Mouton Rothschild and Opus One, are without any great surprise making fine wines that can compete with better wines from the rest of the world. 

I was rather distressed when Lefkadia received all their medals, trophies, interviews and accolades without ever once mentioning Patrick Léon, the French winemaker who had made all this possible.  

The event was made to coincide with the « Festival of Russian Wines for professionals » and here there were many winegrowers' stands where one could taste and discuss freely and where the producers were, quite reasonably, looking for customers. 

We had a little free time in the afternoon to shop and I was able to buy some of the best Komchatskaya Ikra, the wonderful red caviar eggs.  That evening the Gala dinner started composedly and continued serenely through the announcements of the winners, the presentation of the diplomas and multiple speeches, but by the time these were over and the dinner consumed a band was belting out rock and roll at a million decibels and the oldest and gammiest of us were dancing like dervishes. It has to be said that the hospitality of Abrau Durso was quite remarkable!  I should be happy to be asked again any time.

However, what was achieved in the final analysis?  I have said that the selection of non-Russian wines seemed random, motley and without any clear pattern.  There were a lot of 2007s and this was not a particularly good vintage. Presumably they had chosen the best Russian wines to compete against the non-Russian. Indeed a Russian wine won by a fraction of a point.

What I think was proved conclusively and magnificently was that a French oenologist and winemaker, Patrick Léon, previously at Château Lascombes and Château Mouton Rothschild, who was the winemaker of the winning Lefkadia wine, could come to Russia and in a very short space of time make a wine that was of world class and that could compete with the great wines of the world. 

Heartfelt congratulations to Patrick Léon, who has surmounted a long battle with cancer and made a great wine in a foreign country.

Jon Salvi MW


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