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The First Wine Competition?

At the 13th century “Battle of the Wines,” wine tasting and trash talking went hand in hand

Ben O'Donnell
Posted: May 31, 2011

If you’ve ever been to a wine competition, you know that words can be had and contentions contended. It is unlikely, however, that you would see every red wine automatically dumped as inferior, or a wine be praised for having the power to put your eye out, or a judge who hated a wine enough to threaten the winemaker with murder, or that anyone in attendance—much less a member of the tasting panel—would drink enough to pass out for three straight days.

But then, it’s not the 13th century, and you’re not caught in the crossfire of the “Bataille des Vins”—the Battle of the Wines. The poem of that name, written by cleric and poet Henri d’Andeli in 1224, describes what could be called a wine competition, but “battle” really is the more apt term. Organized by French king Philip Augustus—as His Highness was the only wine critic who mattered—the battle pits some 70 wines against each other, mostly from grapegrowing enclaves around France, but also from the Mosel, Spain and Cyprus.

The poem is a prism through which we can glimpse what our wine-loving ancestors loved—and hated—in their wine, though there’s no evidence to indicate that it’s an accurate representation of real judging contests as they may have taken place in the Middle Ages, says City University of New York professor Francesca Sautman, a specialist in medieval French folklore who contributed to the journal Mediaevalia’s recent wine issue.

The action begins with the appearance of the two judges, Philip himself and a fictional English priest, tellingly, a sozzled buffoon who mangles all his lines. Though the Hundred Years’ War is still more than a century off, the relationship between the French and English dominions is a chilly one, and the cultural and political overtones are unmistakable in the poem.

“This English priest drinks so much that he falls asleep, he falls dead drunk,” says Sautman. “The English were characterized by the French at that time as people who can’t drink or wouldn’t know how to drink, largely because they can’t grow wine.”

Next, in march the wines. We see some familiar faces, including: Bordeaux and St.-Emilion; Sancerre from the Loire; Beaune and Chablis representing Burgundy, an Alsatian wine and “[his] lady,” a Mosel wine. The priest immediately sets to, ridiculing the bottle from Châlons (in the Champagne region) as “Sir Fart,” as the wine causes bloating. “Red-boy” from Etampes (near Paris), the only red wine on the table, is also blown off on medicinal grounds, as a flagon full of cramps and gout.

Sautman explains, “It seems that from this period into the 15th century, the wines that are given the highest praise are whites, and that reds are viewed either with contempt or suspicion.” (By the aristocracy, that is; the peasantry drank it up.) The priest chases out the offending wines with a stick.

All hell breaks loose when the wines themselves jump into the fray. “Clear as the tear from an eye,” the wine of Argenteuil, a once-prestigious region eventually overrun by suburban Paris, clamors to proclaim himself best. He is cut down: “Oh shut up, you son of a whore. You are playing to lose!”

The wines quickly pick sides based on geography. The Bordeaux/Saintes/Atlantic area wines (British territory at the time) tout their vigor and strength—the eye-gouging thing, an odd quality to brag of in a wine—as well as how they “bring all the cash.” The wines from more easterly France appeal to the king on their finesse and agreeableness.

It’s time to pick a winner. The priest is off saying Mass to himself before dropping his candle and taking a hard snooze. The French king surveys all the fine wines of his kingdom … and crowns the Cypriot wine “Pope,” the highest honor.

Rich, sweet, exotic and rare, Mediterranean dessert wines like this one were famed across Europe in the Middle Ages but are relegated to obscurity today.

Some have speculated that Commandaria, a style called “the wine of kings and the king of wines” by Richard the Lionheart, would have been the Cypriot wine to win Philip’s favor. Christos Limnatitis, owner of Commandaria Revecca, says that references to the wine go back as far as Homer. The Knights Templar drank it, and it has even been reported, somewhat fancifully, that Ottoman Sultan Selim II (“Selim the Drunk”) conquered Cyprus just to get the stuff on tap.

Commandaria is made on the island today as it has been for millennia, from the red grape variety Mavro and a white one called Xinisteri. The berries are dried on mats in the sun until they are partially raisined, then fermented, and the wine may be fortified.

The wine is hard to find, mostly retailing in communities with a large Greek or Cypriot population, but it could be worth tracking down: “In medieval culture,” Sautman notes, “some of these strong, sweet wines were thought of as having a kind of aphrodisiac quality.”

Bataille des Vins, which has never been formally translated into English, can be read here in French.

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