After cathartically dumping on the joys of international travel earlier in the week, today it’s a much less anger-inducing topic – what it’s like to judge at an international sparkling wine show.
My main mission here in Portugal was to judge at the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles Sparkling Session, with 65 judges from all over the globe tasting circa 1,000 different sparkling wines from 23 countries. I was the only Australian for this show though, and with my luggage missing for the entire event, I was basically the Aussie random who wore the same clothes every day.
I was That Guy.
This was my third Concours Mondial show in the past five years and it’s always entertaining. Typically set in a wine region (excepting Beijing in 2018), the format consists of a judging session in the morning and winery/sightseeing visits in the afternoon. With no more than 70 wines tasted in a day, it’s a pretty relaxed schedule (especially compared to the 150 wine-a-day Australian shows) with plenty of time to hang out with a huge melting pot of diverse judges.
With just fizz to assess, it’s a smaller 3-day affair compared to the big 5,000 entrant red and white wine sessions, though it also makes it more focused too. After a few days of pure bubbles, autolysis and dosage become your life.
This year I was panel chair (or more correctly Jury Chairman), which means I get two flags instead of one. I also get to guide the discussions and quality control the judging – but with limitations.
That’s because the Concours format is a little different to the collegial Australian shows, with judges locking in scores without consultation. It’s a system that has some benefits – no chance of some egotistical dickhead panel chair telling you to score higher, or fights breaking out among judges about what is ‘good brett’. But I find it frustrating too – in some wines there might be four judges on 85 points (a silver medal) and then one on 75, which drags what is clearly a silver medal wine into ‘no medal’ when we could just discuss and retaste together. It also means you miss some of the banter, the agreement, the conversation on style etc that define wine shows. I’d prefer a discussion before scores are locked in tbh.
What I really love about judging at Concours, especially as an Australian judge, is the diversity of wines. In one bracket it’s not unusual to have fizz from Russia, Georgia, China, Brazil, Portugal and Mexico. That simply doesn’t happen in Australia. There are also vast brackets of classics – Champagne Blanc de Blancs, Franciacorta, Cava, Prosecco etc – just to keep your eye in on traditional styles. It’s a super benchmarking opportunity on a grand scale.
Then, in the afternoons you visit wineries/venues and it becomes an adventure. In China we went to the Huawei factory to look at giant wall sized tvs. In Switzerland, it was a boat cruise (and shedloads of cheese). This time around, it was a pair of fascinating old wineries. Finally, over dinner, you drink assorted local wines and, for me at least, make drunken conversations with people who have English as a second language and can’t understand my Australian accent (it’s not that broad? I do speak fast though). Hilarity ensues.
Beyond the judging, I’ve tacked on a few days in Porto to end my trip here, and typically it has become an entertaining experience.
Thankfully, I also took a bunch of average pictures that tell some of the stories of this trip too. Let’s have a squizz:
2 flags for the Chairman! This year we gave written tasting notes on each wine too, which gave meant I wrote the word ‘dosage’ many times.
The grand total of my belongings after the trip from hell to get here. 6 days of washing clothes in the sink almost broke me.
The Hotel Termas Da Curia was our home for the judging this week, and it’s a beautiful, ramshackle property with its own, rundown indoor baths and amazing gardens. It feels like stepping back in time, though the forgotten nature of the place feels sad too. It desperately needs some mining magnate to drop a few mill and turn this back into something spectacular.
Panel 9, and a typical smorgasbord of judges. Clockwise from the left is Pietro, the Italian somm from Florence. Then some guy from Australia, next it’s Jean from Ireland, who has had a hand in promoting all sorts of country’s attempts at the Irish market. Next, it’s Lisse from the UK, who helps run Jamie Goode’s Wine Anorak site amongst a bunch of things, and finally, Francisco, who is a local Portuguese winemaker.
The view from my room. The hotel was full of kids with bikes as the European U23 & junior MTB championships were held just around the corner. Quite a contrast too – functional alcoholic wine judges, alongside super-fit Spanish 17-year-olds.
The local vineyards are variable too. I saw lots of white rock and sand soils like this one, alongside limestone-rich clay. In true Portuguese style, interplanting of other crops (brassicas, olives, wheat) was very common too. Lots of small plots in this area, and there is true randomness – a car dealership, next to a vineyard, next to a wheat field, next to a half-finished housing estate.
It’s so surreal, as an Australian, to come around a corner and start smelling eucalyptus. First planted in Portugal in the 1800s and now ubiquitous in plantations across the nation and quite controversial locally. The paper industry loves them, apparently.
As an ignorant Aussie who has mainly spent time in big Portuguese cities, I’d always assumed that pastel de nata – aka Portuguese tarts – were the national baked good of choice. But in Bairrada they’re nowhere. I loved these rich little pastries though and the locals also make these little shell things made of egg yolks (ovos moles) that I liked too.
It’s not all pastries – these local Portuguese oysters were super, especially hand-shucked and fresh as can be.
While this local lamb kidney and rice dish I just couldn’t get into. Do you like kidney?
Speaking of something traditional, many of the ancient (up to 100 year old) cellars of Bairrada are covered in this black mould. Adds character, but damn they can’t be good. Bairrada is wet though, so I’m not surprised these low cellars have a buildup.
While most of the Bairrada wineries are reasonably humble establishments, the Allianca winery/Underground museum is next level. I should have taken more photos, as the owner has hollowed out 1km of old winery cellar tunnels and turned it into a museum full of African artefacts, minerals, random art and an unrivalled collection of Portuguese tiles. It was surreal.
It doesn’t look like much, and the decor doesn’t appear to have changed in twenty years (at least), but the local Bairrada suckling pig we enjoyed at Nova Casa dos Leitões was something glorious. You order it by the kilo here and people fill their cars with take-home legs of pork for a reason. Such a fine balance between crunch and tenderness made this a whole other level of pork magic. That last photo showed the queue to get in – up over an hour on a Sunday lunchtime. Worth it too – for €25 including local sparkling Baga, it was super value too. Always a welcoming sign when a restaurant is full of locals too. 5 stars would go back.
After the judging had wrapped up, I went on to Porto to meet up with a crew united by the #winelover legend Luiz Alberto. While a smorgasbord of European obscurity came out it, everything was all trumped by our host Oscar Quevedo, who unveiled this glorious Quevedo Colheita Port from 1974. Magic, compelling wine, it carried the layers of golden toffeed richness that we celebrated in old rare Muscat, but with a unique stamp from its single-year release. I was surprised by the freshness – Oscar tells me this was because it had been kept in very large cask, thus giving a slightly lessened oxidative effect for its age. What a delight.
Porto is well worth your time as well. Unquestioned history, and a culture that celebrates food and wine. Great beaches too. I even found decent beers (at Colbraio, would recommend). Don’t be fooled by the empty-looking streets, it was choc-full of American tourists.
Theoretically I was meant to be flying out of Porto and home on Tuesday afternoon. But the wildness of this trip meant that wasn’t the case. I started the day in fog, and the day got foggier and foggier. I finally found my luggage – it was sitting in a pile of other forgotten, unloved bags in the Porto airport. Also enjoyed a few more tarts. But that was the high point of the day. Soon after, my Porto – Amsterdam flight was cancelled after a KLM crew member came down sick. My second major flight delay and a whole new itinerary home! Yes! I love spending more time in transit! With the next doable flight out not until the next morning (for a Porto-Lisbon special), I was shuffled off to a bus and a random hotel…
It turns out that the random hotel was an hour away in Vinho Verde country. I had no idea what I was stumbling into given the almost Soviet-era hotel our crew of mainly Dutch people were put up in. But it turns out that Guimarães is another beautiful, UNESCO celebrated medieval town with cool bars and restaurants. I ended up draining a few ales in town, then shuffling back to my (surprisingly good) hotel for a free buffet with multiple local wines. Life moves in mysterious ways.
Of course, the ridiculous curve balls of this trip weren’t over yet. Nup. Wednesday morning Portugal time kicked off with a 4:30am bus back to Porto airport. Already things were wobblin’ as our bus driver was doing laps of the local off ramps after construction put his Google maps in a spiral. At one point he offered to drive us to Lisbon, and it likely would have been quicker given that our flight to Lisbon was, of course, delayed. After a quick wander around old Lisboa yesterday, I landed back at the airport, keen to finally get home, now going Lisbon – Dubai – Sydney. Ye gods, again, had other plans. Somehow a whole Boeing 777 worth of passengers needed to be transported to the absolute ass end of Lisbon airport, which naturally took an age. So long, in fact, that my 1.5-hour transfer at the Dubai end in threat. Again. What have I done to deserve this? I raced off the plane when we finally landed in Dubai but it was too late. Missed connection. The option thrown up was to then spend a full day in Dubai and try again tomorrow. Yeah, nah. Thankfully, the kind people at the transfer window fixed me flights home via Melb, and now I sit here, having spent another 8 hours in another airport (and using my meal vouchers), with my Porto accommodation many days ago, just itching to go home.
What a ride!
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