17 April 2023 / Vera Szűcs-Balás
La Revue du vin de France, one of France’s best-known wine magazines, has organised the Championnnat du Monde du dégustation competition, the world blind-tasting championship, every year since 2013. Participating teams blind-taste 12 different wines and then compete on points to determine which country’s team has performed best. The five-person team representing Hungary made history in Avignon in 2021, emerging as the winners from 27 nations. However, it is just as significant that they have finished in the top five every year, finishing fifth in 2020 and fourth in 2022. Representing the Hungarian team are team captain Attila Aranyos, Dr Levente Molnár, Laura Rabcsánszki, Krisztina Palágyi and Didier Sánchez – who was replaced by Miguel Sennoun in 2022.
The winning Hungarian team in 2021 - Source: Laura Rabcsánszki’s Facebook page
First of all, congratulations on this series of successes, which is reflected in the excellent rankings of recent years! What is the reason for the team’s success year after year?
We’ve been competing in this line-up since 2017, and everyone knows each other well enough to be able to tell when they’re wrong. If you can see that they are uncertain, and one member contradicts the opinion of another, there will be no hard feelings. We don’t make a prestige issue out of anything. It’s not about individual performance, it’s about making decisions by consensus. As I see it, this is what distinguishes us most from teams where the members change each year and are selected in individual competitions. Each team is made up of four people, the fifth is the coach, who cannot taste, but coordinates, advises and helps with his or her expertise. When a national team is made up of individual competitors, it is by no means certain that you can create the right team dynamics. In some teams, all the members give their opinion and then the leader decides, but we have a more democratic way of making decisions. What I see is that teams that work together work the best in the long run.
Which nations besides Hungary could also be considered successful?
Last year’s first-placed Luxembourg is a strong team, but so are the Belgians, who have won several times, and, traditionally, the French, as this is a French-run competition. In France, there are singles and doubles championships, and the top two of these doubles championships make up the national team. The Chinese tend to do surprisingly well, but there is always one team or another that does very well one year and not so well the next.
The 2022 World Championship teams - Source: Championnat du monde de dégustation la RVF (Facebook)
For each wine, you need to know a number of factors: the grape variety or the composition of the blend, the region of origin, the producer and the vintage. Which of these is easiest to recognise and how do you imagine working as a team in a competition?
The first and most important is the identification of the grape variety, which is worth the most points. This is followed by the country, then the region, vintage and winery name. If it’s a blend, we need to identify the main grape variety, i.e. the one that comprises the greatest proportion of the wine. If you don’t find this, but another that is also in the blend, albeit a smaller proportion, you’ll also get points, but fewer. In the case of a region, if you say a neighbouring region, you’ll also get partial points for that.
At the tasting, we are given 50 ml each, and all the bottles of each wine are mixed together so that no bottle variation can affect the competition. You have exactly ten minutes to identify the wine, and then you have to hand in your answer. This has changed over the years, in that we used to taste the wines one after the other and hand in our answers all together, but now the sheets are collected after each wine, and the results are shown immediately after each wine. This puts more pressure on you, as it can be frustrating to see what you’ve done wrong or how far you are behind the others in terms of points. If you get into your stride and everything is going well, then you’re in a good position. But when things don’t go quite so well, then it’s immediately reflected in your ranking.
Which of these factors are easier to identify in a wine?
This competition is basically about recognising the variety. This is not the easiest thing to do, but you concentrate on this and practise it the most, that’s why you get the most points. Then comes the recognition of the country. Obviously, it’s very difficult to recognise a producer. But this is the very essence of wine recognition: each region, each grape variety and, in some cases, each producer has its own distinctive flavours, which leave their own imprint on the wine. It is these subtle aroma and flavour notes that you need to register in order to recognise a particular wine.
The Hungarian team (from left): Attila Aranyos, Krisztina Palágyi, Didier Sanchez, Laura Rabcsánszki and Dr Levente Molnár - Source: Laura Rabcsánszki’s Facebook page
Has there ever been a Hungarian wine in the competition?
Not yet, but it is not an impossibility. At the last competition, some people said the last wine was Hungarian, thinking it was an Aszú, but we were sure it wasn’t. It turned out to be a Sauternes.
Are there any specific roles other than coach? Do you sometimes rely on one team member who has more experience in one area or another?
Yes, Attila and Didier know more about French wines, it’s more or less their specialisation. Living in France, they have better access to these wines. We have a deeper knowledge of Italian, Austrian and German wines. Where we differ greatly is how we approach evaluation. My husband and I (Dr Molnár, also a member of the team – editor) approach the wine more from the technical side, analysing whether it has been aged in tank or oak and if so, what kind of barrel. We also try to analyse the acidity, to see whether the wine comes from a region with greater minerality, or whether the grapes were less ripe and therefore very acidic. Whereas Attila and Didier rather try to identify the flavours. Since we know each other well, we know what each other means, because the acidity can be very different, but we also taste bitter flavours differently. To give you an example, what is a bitter almond sensation for me could be the bitter taste of medicine for someone else. I am very sensitive to certain things, such as red wines from chalky soil, while the guys find it easier to define oiliness. That’s basically how it all comes together, with a compromise at the end.
Should the role of the team captain be conceived in such a way that if there is a disagreement about a wine or an attribute, he or she has the last say?
Actually, no. That’s the good thing, we’re not a hierarchical team. If one of us can’t connect a wine to anything, we can say, “I don’t know, decide without me”. This is very important, because by saying this, it means that you are not misleading the other team members. If you start guessing “maybe it could be… yes, it could be similar to that”, but you can’t actually pin it down properly, you’ll slip up on the wine. This is especially difficult with atypical wines. Nowadays, hot summers are a complicating factor, burning out the acidity and changing the character of the wine. Much fruitier, more floral wines are being made because grapes are riper, even in places where this was not actually typical. Last year’s competition also had several atypical wines, so the scores were quite low on average.
The 2022 world championship – Source: Championnat du monde de dégustation la RVF (Facebook)
As an amateur, how do you think the art of tasting and wine appreciation can be developed? In our circle of friends, we have long held BYOB (bring your own bottle) blind-tasting competitions, and the mixed knowledge of the group (from first year Master of Wine students to total laymen) only adds to the experience. What we all have in common, however, is that we all try to identify the wines as best we can, to score them and to improve each year. What advice would you give to wine lovers who come to you wanting to develop this skill?
You have to practise blind tasting, trying to recognise the wine, while assessing where you are in your development. Visiting a wine region and tasting in situ is also a great way to develop. Tasting the wines of one wine region for a week is an experience you can return to later when you encounter the variety again in a completely different place. I think that deeper, longer tasting experiences are the best way to improve. You can also improve by, for example, creating a flight of ten Sauvignon Blancs from different parts of the world or by tasting wines from one country.
Do you think that the urban legend that ladies have a greater affinity for tasting is true?
I can neither refute nor confirm the legend. It would be difficult because this competition was also dominated by men. There are a lot of men, but over the years, there have been more and more women, and the American team was very proud to announce that it was sending an all-woman team. I don’t think it has anything to do with gender, but rather with experience, practice and the state of the moment.
You and your husband, Dr Levente Molnár, have your own winery too (RWZ, Revolution WineZ). Do you think that competing and seeing what wine trends are currently in fashion helps develop the flavour profile of your wines?
I think it works the other way around, and winemaking helps us to be good at wine appreciation, to be able to practise it and prepare for it. As far as international trends are concerned, I think we are moving more towards standardisation, while the difference between wine regions is becoming blurred. Yet, I would naively like to believe that the region a wine comes from plays a greater role in domestic consumption. International trends also depend on what category of wine we are talking about, as Aszú can also place a nice role in high-end trends, while lighter wines dominate mass consumption. Ours is a very small winery, we don’t really aim to follow international trends. It has always been more important to show the best of the region and the best of the terroir.