The best wine tasting ever

Every year during the San Fermín festival a group of us participates in a wine tasting. The rules are simple: each person brings a bottle of red wine costing ten euros or less. Each bottle is poured into a decanter and given a number. After each wine is poured, one participant after another says out loud a numerical score from zero to five. The person bringing the wine with the highest score wins.

Then we drink the rest of the wine from the decanters and go on our merry way back to the party in the streets of Pamplona.  What can be better than that?

This year we decided to eliminate the highest and lowest score given to each wine, but in my analysis of the results, this wasn’t taken into account to allow me to see not only the rank of the wines but also how easy or hard each participant marked the wines. This had a slight impact on the results, but didn’t affect the winner’s status. Every year a surprise wine costing well over ten euros is entered, just for the fun of it. This year it did very badly.

All of those tasting were from the USA except for one New Zealander. Ages ranged from the mid-twenties to two guys in their seventies There were three people with a professional involvement in the wine business: a wine importer from Florida, a guy who regularly participates as a judge in wine competitions and me.

We always have a lot of fun at the tasting. It’s usually held about a week after the festival starts so everybody is in a great mood. Very few people spit, so after five or six glasses, the volume goes up and the jokes start, including taking pictures of someone pretending to drink the discarded wines in the spit bucket.

There were 18 tasters but three people gave a single score for them and their partner. Seventeen wines were tasted.

Here are the results.

1 Viña Alarde Rioja reserva 2006 (67 points)

2 Marqués de Arienzo Rioja crianza 2006 (63 points)

3 Albret reserva 2005 Navarra (61 points)

4 Cepa Gavilán 2009 Ribera del Duero (59 points)

5 Ochoa tempranillo crianza 2009 Navarra (53 points)

6 La Montesa Rioja 2008 (52 points)

7 Príncipe de Viana crianza Navarra 2008 – duplicate entry (49 points)

8 Enate Somontano 2008 (46 points)

9 Gómez de Segura crianza Rioja 2009 (43 points)

11 (tie) Viña Mayor crianza 2007 Ribera del Duero – duplicate entry (42 points)

11 (tie) Príncipe de Viana crianza Navarra 2008 – duplicate entry (42 points)

12 Prado Mayor Pago de San Gabriel 2007 (39 points)

14 (tie) Château Les Ormes de Pez 1995 St. Estèphe (35 points)

14 (tie) Viña Mayor crianza 2007 Ribera del Duero – duplicate entry (35 points)

15 Barón de Ley reserva Rioja 2005 (25 points)

16 Don García Murcia non DO, non-vintage (19 points)

17 Irache crianza 2006 Navarra (14 points)

Once the bottles were identified, I was happy to see that the Don García (a table wine packaged in a tetra-brick and entered as a joke) had received a justifiably low score. I was at first surprised to see how badly the Château Les Ormes de Pez had fared but realized that the subtle aromas and taste of a fine 17 year-old Bordeaux were probably construed as faulty when tasted blind by consumers with little experience with and ‘old’ vintage. I suspect that the same thing was true for the Barón de Ley.

I thought that the Navarra wines (with the exception of Irache) fared well. These wines deserve a better market share than they currently enjoy around the world.

It was interesting that the winning wine got ten scores of 5 (and a 1 too – from the Kiwi), while the second place wine got only four 5s.

My favorites were the Barón de Ley and the Viña Alarde, to which I gave five points.

The tasters’ average scores ranged from 3,65 (me) to 2,06 (the New Zealander, perhaps used to a more fruit-forward style).

The tasting was fun and once again showed me that:

a) people’s tastes vary widely

b) lots of surprises can happen when you can’t see the label or the brand name.

c) Pamplona is the best place to party in July!


Every year at the end of the first week in July, a group of my friends from the USA, Canada, Sweden, France, Norway, Holland, Germany, Israel, Russia, Finland and several other countries set out for Pamplona, a normally quiet town in northern Spain to join 200,000 locals and 500,000 visitors from all over the world for nine days of celebrating the festival of St. Fermin, the patron saint of Pamplona.

My first appearance here was in 1971, only a week after arriving in Spain with a copy of James Michener’s The Drifters and Ernest Hemingway’s Fiesta in my suitcase.  I never imagined that I would live in Spain, marry a Spaniard and raise two children, much less return to Pamplona every year to see my friends and relive the greatest party ever.

In the ensuing 39 years, we have solved the world’s problems, laughed, cried, eaten, gotten drunk, danced all night, gone to bullfights and run down slippery streets in front of, beside and behind 1,300 pound bulls.

Pamplona is a place you have to see to believe.  It’s bigger and better than Mardi Gras, Oktoberfest, the Bangkok Water Festival, the Tomatina, Super Bowl Sunday and the Kentucky Derby.  As a matter of fact, I think it’s better than all of them combined.

To me, however, the best thing about the St. Fermin festival is to see how the locals celebrate, for first and foremost, it’s a religious celebration, honoring a medieval man who was martyred and became a saint.  Everyone from babies in strollers to the elderly dresses in white, adding a red sash for a belt and a red scarf, and one of the highlights of the celebration is the procession through the old town on July 7, St. Fermin’s Day. A statue of the saint is carried through the city streets followed by several bands, the mayor and city council, religious groups, dancers, gigantic papier-mâché figures representing the kings and queens of Navarre, the cabezudos or ‘big heads’ and the kilikis, men wearing disguises who carry a cloth-filled bag attached with a rope to a stick who run through the streets hitting shrieking young children who try to escape but really want to be hit because it’s good luck.

For foreigners visiting the city for the first time between July 6 and14, Pamplona is nothing more than a week-long, alcohol-soaked street party.  But as they return year after year, they begin to enjoy the festivities like the locals, watching the processions, going to concerts, dancing to rock and roll, tango, and salsa in the many parks around the city, attending the bullfights, watching or participating in the running of the bulls, eating in bars, especially tapas and enjoying almuerzo.

If you live in Spain you can enjoy this atmosphere at any town festival throughout the summer, but for me San Fermín is special – a place where I can forget my age and act like a teenager with my best friends without a care in the world!  

Photo:  the statue of St. Fermin carried through the streets of Pamplona on July 7