The clock hasn’t struck 9am yet but a significant number of wine buffs have already gathered at the doors of the Casino in Madrid while Japanese tourists look through us as they snap pictures of the palace in the heart of the Spanish capital.
Inside the stately building, a team of 65 people led by Quim Vila, finalizes arrangements for the 8th Wine Tasting in Pairs Competition organized annually by Vila Viniteca in Madrid and Barcelona alternatively. This year is the turn of Madrid and the logistics are significant: two pallets with wine brought over from the headquarters in Barcelona, 1,950 Chianti glasses where competing wines are poured and 330 Bordeaux and Burgundy glasses for participants to interpret aroma nuances. That’s just only for the competition itself: there is also a showroom with 42 wineries serving their wines between the semifinal and the final, a cheese buffet for lunch and countless little details to arrange in order to ensure that the event, as in previous years, is a resounding success.
Organizers are not short of requests: the 120 double tickets were sold out in barely half an hour. At €100 per pair, it seems to be an affordable price for the little army of winelovers trying to gain access to the Vila Viniteca website at midnight on January 6th, when the sale starts. Some contestants argue that there should be a qualifying heat while others would rather see a larger number of participants, but for the time being, Quim Vila is not considering any of these options.
When doors open at quarter past nine, we contestants line up to register and get our badge. Spaces at the Casino are not big enough for the 240 competitors so we are divided into two alphabetically-ordered groups. My partner @dr_tannin and I are led to Salón Real, a Versailles-like hall with huge chandeliers and stucco ceilings where we will taste seven wines from anywhere in the world in the semifinal. At stake are €20,000 for the winners, €7,000 for the runner-up couple and €3,000 for the third classifieds as well as an immense degree of satisfaction for all of them.
While a notary shuffles along the tables to check the participants IDs, we chat with our neighbors. They are Eulogio Pomares, winemaker at Bodegas Zárate in Rias Baixas, and José Luis Aragunde, runner up in the 2014 Nariz de Oro (Golden Nose) competition for sommeliers and owner of Ribeira de Fefiñans, a wine store in Cambados.
Many couples know each other from the trade or from previous editions: there are wine enthusiasts armed with the Vila Viniteca catalogue, WSET Diploma students, aspiring Masters of Wine, importers, sommeliers like Mugaritz’s Guillermo Cruz, recently named Best Cava sommelier in Spain, winemakers such as Roberto Santana (Suertes del Marqués) or Dominique Roujou, journalists like Víctor de la Serna and even Coravin inventor Greg Lambrecht, who later tweeted that it was “the best organized, most creative, and fun blind tasting event I've attended”. Luis Gutiérrez, Robert Parker’s man in Spain, is also in the house but the scores are out of sight today. “I’m here to have a good time with my friends, that’s all”, he says. His friend Carlos Latre, a very popular comedian in Spain, agrees and says he might take part in 2016. Spanish is the main lingua franca, but French and English conversations are also heard in the hall.
The jury, formed by well-known wine personalities like Peter Sisseck (Pingus) or José Peñín, and presided by Fernando Gurucharri, president of Spain’s Wine Tasters Union, explains the scores —luckily for many of us, gaffes are not penalized— adds that tasting comments will only be taken into account in case of a draw and insists on the fact that contestants cannot leave the hall while the competition is underway. Mobile phones and catalogues are not allowed during the test; it’s all up to intuition, olfactory memory, the odds —it’s unusual to have two samples from the same region or country, except for Spanish wines— and agreeing an answer with your partner, something that is not always easy.
The one and a half hours to taste the seven wines flies by, although the urge to get to the toilet seems pressing for some. There seems to be more women competing this year —I count up to four women-only couples— but not enough, at least based on the length of the queues at the restroom. There is a sizable number of young people —I hope it is a sign that wine is becoming more popular among the under 35s.
The break takes longer than expected but it is welcome. My partner and I move to the showroom downstairs to taste and chat with other contestants and friends who are there as general public. At 2:30 pm we’re called back to the hall —the names of the 10 finalist couples will be revealed. There are nerves, screams and rounds of applause as Quim Vila unveils the seven wines: L’Origan Rosat Brut Nature (DO Cava) which many of us took by Champagne; Schloss Gobelsburg Riesling Alte Reben 2006 (Kamptal, Austria) which many of us placed in France or Germany; Pazo Señorans Selección de Añada 2007 (DO Rías Baixas) which left a few Galicians rather confused; Philippe Pacalet Pommard 2011(Bourgogne) which turned out to be the contestants’ favourite wine; Frank Cornelissen Munjebel 2013 (IGT Terre Siciliane Rosso) a natural wine that many competitors had never tried before; Contador 2012 (DOCa Rioja) which many placed in Ribera del Duero and Olivares Dulce Monastrell 2011(DO Jumilla), which some got it spot-on.
Neither the famous faces nor the winemakers, next door competitors or ourselves turned out to have the nose to get to the final. Among the 10 couples, there were 31-year-old sommelier Rafael Reyes (La Masía de Chencho, Elche) and his team mate Santiago Cadavid, who came in third last year. 21-year old Cadavid, who is studying for his WSET Diploma and was born blind, is barely over the drinking age but he says he wanted to be a wine professional since he was 12 and hopes to work “for a large wine importer” some day soon. Reyes says they got “two wines outright and some bits and bobs from the others”, which was also the case for sommelier Rafel Sabadí (El Roser 2, L’Escala) and David Martínez, teacher at a catering school. They are not new to this competition: they won the first ever Vila Viniteca competition and only a fortnight ago they came first at a rehearsal contest that is organized by journalist Ramón Francàs in Vilanova i la Geltrú (Barcelona).
The contest gets tougher. The 10 couples have an hour to identify the origin, grape variety, country, vintage, producer and brand of this round’s seven wines: Clos Naudin Vouvray Brut 2010, a sparkling wine from the Loire that catches everyone by surprise; Domaine Leroy Bourgogne Aligoté 2011; Menade Verdejo 2014 (Rueda); Southern Right Pinotage 2013 (Walker Bay, South Africa); Comando G Rumbo al Norte 2012, (Castilla y León); a 6-litre bottle of Pingus 2005 (Ribera del Duero), and Egon Müller Scharzhofberger Tonel 6 Auslese 2005 (Mosel-Saar-Ruwer).
The top prize goes to Philippe Cesco, a champagne importer from France but based in Santander and Jean Marcos Núñez, owner of La Ruta del Vino, a wine store in the same city. In second place come Delia Baeza, wine importer and co-owner of La Fisna wine store in Madrid —the only woman in the final— and David Villatón, sommellier at El Padre in Madrid, who win the €7,000 prize, while the €3,000 of the third prize go to José Luis Matos, wine distributor, and Adolfo Gómez, catering teacher, both from Barcelona.
This is their fifth edition, says Jean Marcos, but it the first time they reach the final. They often taste blind and are experienced but “today we let ourselves be guided by intuition”, he adds. They don’t know what they are going to do with the prize once they split it between themselves and the taxman, but they do know that celebrations will not be blind. “Tonight we will toast with friends and with Champagne”.