It’s 10 A.M. and I’m ready to do cartwheels. I’m at the Thessaloniki International Wine Competition and our panel has just been handed a flight of 15 wines made from Malagousia and Assyrtiko, two of Greece’s best white wine grapes, instead of a slew of less interesting Greek Chardonnay. I’ve encountered these grapes before: The luscious peach tones and silken texture of Malagousia; the lean, elegant flavors of Assyrtiko, as dry and saline as Santorini, the island where it originated. Judging these will be cake.
Or will it? I’m used to tasting blind, without knowing precisely what wine is in the glass, but when assigning a score I always know the grape or the place it came from—and here they don’t tell us which wine is which or if it’s a blend of the two. As a wine critic, the question isn’t whether I like a wine (that’s for later, off the job) but whether it’s a good example of its type. Without knowing what that type is—e.g. an Assyrtiko from Santorini or one from the mainland, or a blend with Malagousia, all of which deserve to be judged on their own merits—that’s difficult. And it’s even more difficult for the Italian sommelier two rows behind me, who has almost no experience with Greek wines.
The problem isn’t unique to this competition. Even when the wines are presented in a more orderly fashion, some judges might not be familiar enough with the wines being judged to be able to rate them well. (At a competition in Germany I once ended up on the panel judging semi-sweet reds. The only time these wines ever really made sense to me was in a Georgian restaurant in Moscow alongside some super-spicy shashlik—yet that wasn’t enough to prepare me to taste 14 of them, let alone judge them. Still, I was one experience more qualified than some other tasters.) And there’s the whole problem of judging a wine from a single snapshot, a series of sips taken in a five-minute period, in a sterile room under a critical eye. It’s a little like speed dating: If you don’t make a connection in that five minutes, you’re out, no chance for slowly blossoming understandings.
This morning in Thessaloniki, I break out in a sweat. I love Greek wines, and I want to see vintners who are doing good work get recognition for it. I stare at glass number 4325 and wonder whether the faintly peachy, light white in it is a poor example of Malagousia or an Assyrtiko from the mainland, where the grape tends to take on a plumper, fruitier character than its island identity. Or is it some unusual blend of the two?
This is how it goes for all three days of the contest. Thrilling moments of absolute certainty are countered by confusion, which feels worse than a mouthful of wine that tastes like fish food. By the end, I’m pretty much sure that about the only thing this contest will do is distribute a slew of silver medals, the safest score range, the refuge of the unsure.
But I’m only half right. The main point of the vast majority of these events is, to be blunt, to hand out medals, which bring more recognition to the wines, and in this case, to an entire country’s largely unsung production. The stickers the winners can put on their bottles will bring them consumers’ attention, and the competition itself is a crash course in Greek wine for a number of judges who buy, sell, and write about wine.
But most strikingly, we judges don’t entirely blow it. Some golds are handed out after all, and they go to some of the best wines in Greece. There’s the elegant, restrained Santorini by Paris Sigalas right up at the top of the list, as well as a satiny Sauvignon Blanc from Evangelos Gerovassiliou, one of the country’s most talented vintners. Boutari’s Skalani, a red that redefines Cretan wines, took a gold, as did the Xinomavro from Kir Yianni.
I’m sure we missed some great wines—the judges didn’t get them, the bottle was off, the flight was bizarrely ordered, the barometric pressure shot up—who knows. But it’s reassuring to know that, in some cases, you can’t keep a good wine down. It has something to say, and says it so well and so clearly that a quorum of people hear it, no matter the noise.
And that Italian guy two rows behind me, who’d never been to Greece? He likes Greek wines now.