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Discovery at Concours Mondial

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The Concours Mondial de Bruxelles is unique among the wine competitions I regularly attend as a judge. For one thing, it skips from country to country each year. The 2012 Concours was staged in Portugal, while this year, for the first time, it took place in an Eastern European nation, Slovakia. Next year, for its 20th anniversary, the tastings will take place in Belgium.

Then, there is the format. Wines are presented to each juror one at a time, rather than in "flights" of six, eight or 10, which is customary at wine competitions conducted in the United States. Each wine is accompanied by a score sheet that permits jurors to assign points in four broad categories: sight, smell, taste and overall harmony. The perfect wine would amass a total of 100 points.

Wines are grouped by region, but the tasters are not privy to any wine's origin or grape variety. In one grouping, I discovered later that pinot noir from Northern Italy was evaluated in the same grouping as Barolo from Italy's Piedmont region. The challenge for a taster is to be able to shift gears and fairly evaluate wines that are stylistically polar opposites.

Each jury is comprised of five jurors from around the globe, all very able professionals but clearly with distinct points of view. Somehow it all works, for the Concours Mondial is the world's largest wine competition, with more than 8,000 entries.

The majority of those, approximately 6,000, come from four countries: France, Spain, Italy and Portugal. Representation from the United States this year was a meager 52 entries, but I don't accept the invitation to judge at Concours for the opportunity to taste wines I already know. The benefit is the discovery that comes with tasting wines from across a broad international spectrum.

This year, I evaluated wines from France, Spain, Italy, Portugal, Chile and Greece. The best wine I tasted by far was a Champagne, the 1995 Charles Heidsieck Blanc des Millenaires. This is the same wine that has been crowned Wine of the Year three times in wine competitions I direct in the U.S. On my score sheet, the Blanc des Millenaires totaled a robust 97 points.

The rest of my committee had a similar opinion, for it ended up winning a gold medal.

The wines that intrigued me most, however, were from two groupings of Bordeaux, one with eight wines from the 2011 vintage produced in the Right Bank regions of Fronsac and Canon Fronsac, and 11 wines from the 2011 vintage that carried the simple Bordeaux Rouge designation.

This was a vintage I rated higher than most when I evaluated it at the en primeurs tastings in early 2012.

I rated two of these inexpensive Bordeaux in the low 90s — Chateaux la Croix Canon, Fronsac at 90 and Chateau Vieux Manoir Cuvee Prestige, Bordeaux Rouge, at 91 — and fully a dozen in the high 80s.

The agony for even well-heeled Bordeaux enthusiasts is that prices today are so out of whack that buying into the hot new vintages is no longer an option. What the Concours results demonstrate is that winemaking has improved to such an extent in the lesser appellations of Bordeaux that good wines are now being produced at affordable prices.

All of the Bordeaux I tasted should retail for $20 or less in the United States, where available.

I was equally impressed with a grouping of 14 red wines from Spain's Castilla-la-Mancha region in the center of the country. This area has only recently been developed and is rapidly earning kudos for exceptional quality wine that hits the U.S. market in the $20-and-under category.

They were fairly delicious across the board, with 10 of the 14 earning gold medal scores in my personal tally. I had four of them in the low 90s, with Castillo de la Cruz Gran Reserva 2004 the highest at 94 points, and six wines in the high 80s. This sun-kissed region delivers uber-ripe wines with sleek, smooth tannins. They are rich and full-bodied on the palate.

Finally, the other region worth noting for its excellent quality was the grouping of wines I tasted from the Alentejo region of Portugal. There were 11 wines, six from the 2011 vintage. The grape variety was touriga nacional, which is the backbone red-grape variety of the great fortified Port wines from Portugal's Douro Valley.

Touriga also makes for sturdy red table wine, and the 2011 vintage was obviously outstanding in the Alentejo region. Of the six, I rated four either 89 or 91 points. None were from producers that were familiar to me, but that's not unusual for Portuguese table wine, which is a specialty product in the United States and not well known even by so-called wine connoisseurs.

I wouldn't hesitate, however, to take a stab on any 2011 touriga from Alentejo that might cross my path, for the vintage seems to be stellar.

This is the essence of Concours Mondial. It's all about the discovery.

Follow Robert on Twitter at @wineguru. To find out more about Robert Whitley and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators at www.creators.com.

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