Bagatelle international contest: discovering the roses of tomorrow

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The Bagatelle international new roses contest has been highlighting and honouring outstandingly beautiful and fragrant roses since 1907. Nez was one of the judges for the 116th edition alongside, among other jury members, Jeanne Bichet, an evaluator at Luzi. Let’s plunge our noses into the petals of tomorrow’s roses.

“This one doesn’t have many flowers, but they have an unusual, luminous hue.” “It has beautiful foliage, a well-branched shape, and a fairly strong, slightly spicy fragrance… So, what score shall we give?” On Thursday the 15th of June 2023, the rose garden in the grounds of the Château de Bagatelle is buzzing with small groups of people armed with pens and notebooks. Every year since 1907, the famous garden in Paris Bois de Boulogne has hosted the Bagatelle international new roses contest. A pioneer of the genre when it was first held, it has since been joined by numerous competitions around the world, as far afield as Japan and New Zealand. Since roses only bloom for a few months in Europe, a series of competitions take place one week after the other, from Barcelona to Belfast and Rome to Warsaw. “In May and June, rose lovers are completely overwhelmed,” laughs Jeanne Bichet. A member of the Bagatelle competition jury for sixteen years, she is also on the committee that awards the perfumers’ prize, along with Norbert Bijaoui and Pierre Nuyens from the Société Française des Parfumeurs and Ursula Wandel from Givaudan. Jeanne is familiar with the place because she pays regular visits there in the company of perfumers or the brands Luzi works with, creating fragrances for them: “With its colours, lights and scents, this rose garden is an incredible source of inspiration for future projects. This is where the idea for Isparta was born, an ode to the rose that our perfumer Sidonie Grandperret created for the niche brand Les Destinations,” she points out. “Each competition is also a moment out of time when you get to meet and exchange ideas with an international jury of professionals who are passionate about roses. It’s an extraordinary opportunity to reconnect with nature and rediscover the beauty and unique fragrance of each flower. Some of them really are rare gems!”

The competition rewards new roses, i.e. those not yet on the market. This year, 28 growers from 11 countries are presenting 101 varieties created by crossbreeding two flowers. The prize-winning varieties will be the stars of garden centers and parks the world over in a few seasons’ time: with the rose at the top of the sales charts for both cut flowers and shrubs, the stakes are high. “A prize in a competition like Bagatelle is a real selling point,” says Jeanne. “Growers highlight the awards won by their roses in their catalogues, just as you see in the wine world. Some of the varieties that have won awards here have become very popular and well-known: the Piaget rose obtained by Meilland Richardier or the Jardin de Granville rose created by Roses André Eve for Dior, for example.”

To select the winners, an ingenious scoring system is put in place. The permanent committee, made up of around twenty rose growers, gardeners, perfumers and rose specialists, has already assessed them four times in the space of a year, in particular to gauge their resistance and remontancy, which refers to their ability to flower repeatedly throughout the season. On the day of the competition, everyone’s score is added to by the novelty committee, made up of French and foreign rose creators who judge the originality of the varieties, and finally by the grand jury, composed of around a hundred personalities from the world of roses, elected representatives, artists and journalists. The day is flawlessly organised, and after a souvenir photo the jury members gather in groups of six. It’s time to sift through the entries. Similarly to the Academy Awards, they are divided into categories, such as bushes with grouped flowers (for shrubs whose stems bear several flowers), ground cover roses (used to cover banks) and climbing roses.

Scores are based on very detailed criteria and a precise scale. “First of all, we judge flowering using 30 points,” explains rose gardener Jean-Marc Pilté, head of group 14. “Duration, the number of flowers, their colour, their shape, and then what happens at the end of flowering, which is almost as important: do the petals fall off by themselves or do they remain attached and rot? Then, using 30 points each time, the plant as a whole, its bearing, the quality and brilliance of its foliage, its vigour and its resistance to disease. As competition rose gardens no longer use pesticides, this has become an essential criterion. Finally, the fragrance – its strength, originality and harmony – counts for 10 points.” As well as taking account of objective characteristics, the jurors are invited to give free rein to their emotions and sensibilities. “It’s possible that you fall in love! You should ask yourself if you’d like to have the rose in your garden or on your balcony,” is the opening advice we get from Jean-Pierre Lelièvre, who is in charge of the competition. 

With its slightly sparse silhouette topped by three flowers, no. 207 doesn’t inspire any irresistible desire to adopt it. But its flowers, although far from abundant, give off a delicate fruity-sour aroma, somewhere between lemon and lychee, worthy of a 7/10. Unfortunately, it doesn’t get the overall score of 50/100 that would have allowed it to compete for the perfume prize. “It’s often difficult to reconcile the beauty of the plant with the olfactory dimension,” says Sakurako Florentin-Nagira, a rose enthusiast and business liaison for Franco-Japanese relations. “Fragrant roses came back into fashion in the 1980s under the influence of André Eve and David Austin, for example,” adds Jeanne. “These days, you have to try to balance everything: the fragrance, flowering, a natural look that’s not too rigid, low water needs, and so on.” The weather conditions in mid-June are not helping the roses to flatter the jury: after heavy rain that affected some of the plants over the last few days, the soaring temperatures that began early this morning are disrupting diffusion of their fragrant molecules. Some lively debates break out within the groups, and a second visit to the roses with the highest scores is often needed to refine them. Then it’s time for the votes to be counted – and for lunch in the shade, a soothing moment for the judges. 
Finally, the winners are announced in the orangery. First prize in all categories goes to no. 56 Spotlight (created by Roses Kordes), a beautiful rose with full, yellow flowers, while second prize is won by no. 86 Yukiko (Viva international), with its dense clusters of miniature flowers in a subtle pinkish white. Although the perfumers decided not to award any prizes this year, due to the difficult weather conditions, one rose was nonetheless singled out for its olfactory profile by the entire grand jury: no. 47 (Nirp international), “with its green, watery facets and hints of geranium, lychee and pepper,” in the words of Pierre Nuyens. As for the children from the Paris leisure centres who are part of the event, they decide to award their prize to no. 79 Château de Canon (Roses André Eve), whose apricot-coloured flowers give off “a very beautiful note of rose with a peach and pear effect,” as described by Jeanne, who presents the trophy to its creator. These roses will no doubt inspire more than one perfumer, while visitors to the Bagatelle grounds will be able to enjoy them until fall.

Main visual: ©Frederic Combeau


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