Judging the Concours International de Lyon

Last weekend, after a whirlwind, crash course, sink or swim, trial by fire trip (I’m sure a few more idioms could be tossed in there…) through Burgundy with a quick pass through Côte Rôtie and Condrieu, I spent a couple of days in Lyon that were beyond excellent and culminated in being a judge at the Concours International de Lyon – Concours des vins. This is essentially a yearly contest of wines that takes place in Lyon. I wanted to attend last year, but just didn’t make it given the schedule of things. This year, the schedule was much more favorable although it then made for a bit over two weeks on the road which gets old, but I digress.

For those wondering about this Concours, it is quite obviously, very, very French as it should be. By that I mean that the wines appear to be largely French, despite the “international” bit in the title. This makes sense given that Lyon sits smack dab between the exalted Burgundy and Rhône regions. Also, it’s a pretty apparent fact that the majority of those judging are also French, although a couple of my fellow wine folk from Catalonia made the trip up and there may have been a couple of Belgians and Swiss slinking around in disguise.

While there is indeed a selection process, there are a rather huge number of judges, which was somewhere around 500 by my estimates. This may seem ludicrous but if you have a few thousand wines to get through, it’s really the only way to do it. On a good day, I can do a quick judgment of maybe 50 but it’s usually more like 30 so thus, an amalgamated mass of warm, wine-knowledgeable bodies is needed.

They break you down to four people per table to rate a group of wines in two tranches which in the end total about 35 or so. In their literature they state that “the judges have been paired in an intelligent system” which I just took to be some yadda yadda but it turned out to be true. There was myself, a wine journalist and certified sommelier, along with a trained enologist. Then there were two people who referred to themselves as “amateurs”. It should be noted that an “amateur” in France is no doofus and these folks knew from which end of the bottle the wine came out, so to speak.

I think my big mistake was that when signing up, you can select they type of wines you’re willing to taste. I clicked most of them as I have a general curiosity to all wine, even ones that I’ve thoroughly disliked in the past. Unfortunately, this meant that the first batch I tasted was a big group of Crémant wines (France’s ‘other’ Champagne’) and specifically rosé Crémant. These were really dreadful to work though and while everything was tasted blind (albeit with the region stated on the tasting grid), it was easy to see that most were not top wines by a long shot. The second batch were all Pinot Gris which again, is not a wine I care for and very, very few of them held any interest.

But, this is how it goes. You buckle down and approach them as objectively as you can and eventually get done with it. The marks of my fellow judges showed how tricky this was as while it’s quite easy to rate good wine, how do you rate bad wine? That’s harder than it may sound and showed in how our marks were all over the place. Thankfully, unlike some competitions where you choose a “gold” out of just the batch you’re tasting, they take in account all the final scores to arrive at a winner in each category as it should be done.

And that was that. Everyone said their goodbyes to each other and went to the buffet lunch. Some people sampled wines that were the “picks” of each batch of wines at the tables although I skipped it as I had to drive from Lyon down to Valence immediately afterwards. Side note: the Première Classe motel in northeast Valence is awesome; the Quick near it, not so much.

The big question, to anyone reading this is probably, would I recommend attending? The simple answer is, if you’re in or around Lyon at the time of it and they accept you, sure why not? For anyone getting in to the world of wine and trying to build up a career, you need to have been a judge a couple of times and it’s always an interesting exercise to taste wines blind. This event seems well-run and ran quite fluidly despite all the machinations that must have gone on to make it happen.

My big recommendation is to really only choose wines in the sign up form that you’re really interested to taste or you could get stuck with some skunky sparkling wines like I did. Was still interesting to taste them though as in Spain, you don’t find skunky French bubbly, given that Spain already has enough of its own.