Tastevinage aims to provide consumers around the world with a guarantee of quality for Burgundian wines. For publication in the week starting 25 June 2018.
Burgundy is one of the most beautiful but complicated wine regions in the world, the result of history and a range of other factors. The region’s most prestigious wines attract some of the highest prices in the world but it can take years to understand the wines.
The Tastevinage process, introduced in 1950, consists of a test of wines from every part of Burgundy designed to select those that match the high standards associated with their appellation and vintage. Selected wines are awarded the recognition and seal of the Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin, which translates as the Brotherhood of the Knights of Tastevin. Despite the name, women are permitted and the current chair of judges is Jeannie Cho Lee MW.
The award allows consumers to identify wines that because of their “integrity, personality and quality” are worthy of distinction, Tastevinage’s web site says.
Tastevinage offers many benefits. It is a way to help consumers understand a complicated region, a chance to recognise quality, and also more recently a way to guarantee provenance or authenticity.
The Confrérie organises two Tastevinage tastings each year, in spring and autumn, in the huge Cistercian cellar at the Château du Clos de Vougeot. September last year marked the 100th time the tastings have been held.
About 250 judges are chosen each time from connoisseurs and others with recognised palates. They are winegrowers, wine merchants, leaders of viticultural associations, brokers, winemakers, restaurateurs, government officials and knowledgeable wine lovers. Confrérie officials and journalists are also present as “disinterested observers”.
At each table a score of wines, presented with no details of the grower or négociant, are subjected to rigorous examination for two hours. The questions judges ask are precise: “Does the wine conform to its appellation and vintage? Is it typical and will it improve with age? Is it a wine I would be happy to have in my cellar and proud to serve to my friends?”
During the first Tastevinage on 28 June 1950, 133 wines were offered for judging. In recent years close to 2,000 wines are tasted, an indication of the recognition of the importance of the award.
Judges give each wine a score out of 20. The final selection is determined by the average grade of each wine. Only those that receive 13 or more can be declared Tastevinage.
In tandem with the wine-tasting, wines are sent for analysis to a laboratory. Analysis is based on eight criteria that provide data for an “identity card” for each wine.
Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin staff regularly select Burgundy from wine shops and the wine departments of large supermarkets to subject them to the same kind of analysis that Tastevinage wines endure. This double guarantee of authenticity means consumers can be confident when choosing a Tastevinage wine.
How do we recognise a wine given a Tastevinage award? A sticker is placed on the bottle (see left for an example of the image involved). The sticker includes a bottle serial number and wine reference, plus details of appellation and vintage and a unique reference number. More than 200 million bottles have been recognised by the Tastevinage sticker since the project’s creation. Producers are also allowed to use a special label. Images of the sticker and label can be seen here.
In recent years an ultra-violet mark has been added to labels to safeguard against counterfeit. Ultra-violet ink is invisible to the naked eye but turns blue under ultraviolet light. It can be used to detect, identify and return stolen property.
On average about two in five bottles are given a Tastevinage label or sticker each year. Of the 557 wines (315 white or sparkling and 242 red) judged at the most recent tasting, in March this year, only 181 received the Tastevinage seal of approval — about a third of all wines presented.
Judges now also convey the title of “major” to wines they believe to be outstanding. This award started with the 100th event last September. At the March tasting only 17 wines received the award.
Perhaps a reason for the ultra-violet markings is the fact that China has embraced Burgundy as well as Bordeaux in recent years. Given the high prices paid for wines from both regions, the temptation to make fakes must be high. The wine world desires authenticity and producers are looking at a range of ways to provide it.
Jeannie Cho Lee MW believes Asia’s love affair with Burgundy began in Japan from the 1990s when wine lovers and restaurants embraced Burgundy. “In Singapore, a small group of fine wine collectors have always been Burgundy fans. But in Hong Kong and many cities in China like Shanghai and Beijing, the shift to Burgundy is recent,” she wrote in Forbes magazine last year.
It should be noted that Burgundy will never displace Bordeaux because in volume terms production in the former is small relative to Bordeaux. Burgundy has about 28,500 hectares of vines versus 120,000 hectares for Bordeaux. The best Burgundy remains the most sought-after French wine in the world and this fact – combined with small production volumes in the past few years – has driven prices up.
Recent vintages in Burgundy have been poor. The harvests from 2012 to 2014 were less than perfect. Some great wines were made, but yields were down. Thank goodness 2015 was a superb vintage.
Guy Seddon is a Burgundy specialist with the fine wines team at Corney & Barrow in London. This company, founded in 1780, is one of the oldest independent wine merchants in the UK. Seddon was generally positive about the 2015 vintage but noted that the 2016 vintage would be more expensive because of the low yields compared with the previous two years.
Judges at recent Tastevinage events have used a special glass specially adapted for tasting Burgundy. It was designed by the Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin and has an oblique rim said to be inspired by Burgundy’s slopes. The lower side means aromas are more able to be appreciated, while the higher side displays the wine’s colours more elegantly.
The author was privileged to attend a press tasting of the 17 “majors” from the March event in Verona, Italy, earlier this year. The wines were superb.