If there is a wine tasting competition that is very popular with winemakers from all over the world and with tasters who are jostling to be part of it, it is the CMB, the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles. Established 30 years ago and now a competition that travels the globe for 20 years, this competition is primarily the pride of the Belgian Havaux family, which had a little help in Montreal long ago. Let’s take a look at an organization that is constantly reinventing itself.
By Frederic Arnould
On this cloudy Thursday, they are more than 300 tasters from around the world who rush to enter the sports palace in Poreč, a Croatian town bordering the Adriatic Sea and teeming with vineyards of malvasia and teran, the two flagship grape varieties of the region.
At 9 o’clock in the morning, the event kicks off with dozens of feverish Croatian sommeliers roaming the floor where 320 tasters are already seated, eager to test their taste buds with nearly fifty wines, which they will test completely blind, without any indication of origin, grape variety or winemaking style. The whole thing is done under a cheerful and no less solemn music.
Thomas Costenoble, an oenologist by training, has overseen the process for 29 years now and every time it’s the same emotion. “It’s when the sommeliers come into the room for the first time to this music, it still makes for a vibrant moment where you see the magnitude of the event and the mass of people who are involved in it.”
Managing this flow of tastings, with about 50 wines per morning for three days, is quite a challenge. Especially since the tasters, who use a tablet to indicate their notes on the wines, must also write comments on each wine tasted with their keyboards, valuable comments that will then be compiled with the help of artificial intelligence to produce precise tasting notes that are very useful for the winemakers.
“We need all the tasters to be able to validate the first wine without any problem,” explains Thomas Costenoble. It’s always a moment when we’re really dependent on it, but we have a professional team that’s used to the exercise and so it doesn’t pose any problems. There’s a little bit of stress but it’s positive stress.”
Louis Havaux, the pioneer
This thirtieth edition of the CMB is also being held under the amused, mischievous and passionate gaze of Louis Havaux, who launched this competition in 1994. Although the almost 88 year old from Nivelles had taken a step back in recent years, he was keen to attend this very special edition.
The man who took over the family printing business in Walloon Brabant, Belgium, a long time ago, threw himself body and soul into this wine adventure, of which he is very proud, and of which his son Baudoin and, for a few years now, his grandson Quentin, have taken over the reins.
It all started with this passion for wine that the family patriarch nurtured when he took over the Revue des Sommeliers Belges a few decades ago. He then embarked on the Belgian Journal of Wines and Spirits, became president of the International Federation of Wine Journalists and Writers (FIJEV) and secretary of the Belgian Sommeliers. He found himself in Montreal in the 1990s while participating in a tasting competition of the Société des Alcools du Québec (SAQ).
“There I met Ezio Rivella, from the Tuscan house Banfi, who was president of the SAQ tasting and who knew me from Belgium, and there in this competition I found myself with luminaries, including the director of the OIV (International Organization of Vine and Wine) who took me in friendship and told me “you should do a competition.”
A competition circling the globe
After this helping hand from Montreal, Louis Havaux set up the first Brussels competition which was held in… Bruges! This was the beginning of a great adventure that Constantin Stergides, the dean of the competition, still remembers. “It was really beautiful, in a small girls’ hotel school in Bruges.” Among about fifty tasters at the time, he thus participated in a competition that has continued to grow and diversify.
It was during its tenth edition that the Brussels competition became itinerant, under the leadership of Baudouin Havaux who began to find that the competition would be more exciting elsewhere, both for the tasters and for the wine producers themselves.
The idea came to him in a bar in Brussels at three o’clock in the morning when he was with Carlos de Jesus, marketing director of the Amorim cork company. “During the competition that took place in Brussels, he made a presentation on corks every year. One year, two years, three years, well at the end I said to myself, if I want to understand the cork, I have to go and see the oaks, I have to touch them. And then he said to me, you have to come to Portugal. “Well, we’re going to organize the contest in Portugal, I tell him, and that’s how it started!”
An idea on a whim in a bar that has since allowed hundreds of tasters to travel to the four corners of the planet. “We are able to organize a tasting and serve wines at the right temperature, choose glasses that are not too ugly, wash them properly, have good air conditioning and provide good tasting conditions,” adds Baudouin Havaux. And this is what attracts the human capital of this competition, that is, the best tasters in the world who make the competition reliable.”
And in order to reinforce the quality of the tasting of the wines presented, since 2004, the organizers have been collaborating with a team of researchers from the Institute of Statistics of the Catholic University of Leuven for the processing of the results and the follow-up of the profile of each taster.
A very proactive dynasty
In recent years, the Havaux dynasty has grown with the third generation, in the person of Quentin, who was initially destined for the world of economics and finance.
But it is difficult to resist the sirens of the wine world when you have been immersed in it since your early youth. Today, Quentin Havaux takes up the ideas of his father and grandfather but wants to structure the group around the CMB. “We have developed a lot of products and now we are trying to gather and capitalize on what we do best, the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles, which is really our strong brand.
No wonder that the CMB has taken under its aegis, the direction of digital with the introduction of artificial intelligence in the compilation of results and comments of hundreds of tasters of the competition with the young Bordeaux company Wine Space (read the article here).
Today, the Competition has been split into four different groups, red and white wines, rosés, sweet and fortified wines and sparkling wines. “It was a desire that was born with the rosé because there was a real demand, both from the production and distributors for the month of March and which allowed to have the medals very quickly to be operational during the consumption period. Afterwards, the producers of sparkling and sweet wines also asked for a session so that we could have specialists who could taste these wines with knowledge.”
Four competitions in four different regions, enough to multiply the headache of logistics. But this logistics has never frightened the organizers who succeeded in the tour de force a few years ago to take the competition to Beijing! “We could see kilometers of boulevards and avenues with the logo of our contest”, Louis Havaux remembers, with a little spark of pride in his eye.
Giant steps in the world of wine
In thirty years, the competition has been at the forefront of changes in the world of vineyards and wine. Constantin Stergides has noticed this. “Before, we had a lot of defective wines, now it’s almost never. Today in tastings, we haven’t had a single wine that was defective.” The same goes for corked wines, which are increasingly rare. “At one point, we had put a kind of green container and we put all the corks of the corked wines in it, at the end of the competition, today it’s over.”
Over time, the competition has also become more refined, always looking for ways to improve. That’s why Jeffrey Jenssen, an American judge who writes for Wine Enthusiast magazine and who is in his ninth year at the competition, says that the CMB remains the benchmark.
“It is very professional because it is an international jury. A lot of times, California competitions, for example, are run by a bunch of California judges, and I call it navel gazing because they are just looking out their stomach, you know, to see if anything’s going to change. And it never changes. So it’s a bunch of people just awarding their friends gold medals and silver medals and whatever.
“But here at the Concours, I find we have a real international palate. We have there’s no American palate or no French palate or no Italian palate. Everyone has to have a little bit more of an international palate. So I think that’s what makes the conquer a much more valuable competition for people who submit wine to be rated.” – Jeffrey Jenssen
Pascale Guillier, a renowned wine merchant and CMB judge for many years, agrees. “It’s also a security for buyers, when there is a CMB medal on a bottle, they know very well that there is a panel of experienced tasters behind it. We’re not marketed in the sense that you didn’t get a medal because you took a page of advertising in a magazine, it’s because really, your wine is worth it.”
Always aiming higher
After the 30th edition held in Croatia, the next one will take place for the first time in America, more precisely in Leon, 300 kilometers north of Mexico City. The region boasts a rich viticultural heritage that dates back to colonial times when the Spanish “conquistadors” and missionaries introduced the first European vines.
Baudoin Havaux is very proud of this achievement. “When we made the announcement in front of the 320 jurors in Porec, they all stood up, so enthusiastic about this news. We worked hard to convince the Mexicans, but it was a pleasure. And when we organized this meal with the Mexican cook and she came to say two words, everyone stood up and applauded. And it wasn’t just out of politeness,” he adds with a big, emotional smile.
Even if the competition in China remains in the memories of the Havaux family, there seems to be no limit for the organization of future competitions. And why not another continent? “Unfortunately these are too small vineyards, but there are vineyards in Africa that are developing and where there are new wine projects, that’s where I would love to bring people.”
In the meantime, the CMB continues its development, after the bar of the competition that opened in 2019 at the airport of Mexico City where you can taste medal-winning wines, the Havaux family intends to soon conquer the lounges of the United airline at the airport of Tokyo and London.
As the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles came to an end in Croatia, and with the announcement of the next edition in Mexico, Louis Havaux admits that he is back on the CMB travel bug. “As long as I have my health, it tempts me more and more, and if I can go,” he says with that mischievous, knowing wink, “I promise you I will do everything so I can attend.”
The guilty pleasure of the CMB organizers
Even though they no longer participate as official tasters in the competition, they admit to having a fondness for these wines.
Louis Havaux: Without hesitation, the wines of Saint-Émilion remain his favorites, “Since 1986, I am chancellor of the Jurade de St-Émilion for Belgium”, he confides.
Baudouin Havaux: The wine he couldn’t live without on a desert island: a fino version of jerez. “I’m going to be honest and I think this is the only one I would be able to drink every day.”
Quentin Havaux: “I’m a sherry enthusiast, I love the salty, fresh side of a fino and I like to drink it as an aperitif.” An answer that surprised his father Baudouin. “Proof that he was well raised,” he says with a smile. Quentin adds that he is also currently fond of the powerful Northern Rhone wines made from Syrah, with their typical spiciness.
Thomas Costenoble: “I discovered Chasselas, which I didn’t know very well, at the CMB in Aigle, Switzerland in 2019. I thought it was for drunken skiers at the end of the session with fondue. But it’s much more than that, it’s both a pleasure and a wine that can be very complex and can age.” For the trained oenologist, wine remains his passion. “It’s like our children, it’s hard to choose. I love them all and find much more pleasure in discovering them. And it’s never over, that’s what’s fantastic.”