Few grapes are better at highlighting brilliance than Chardonnay. With a relatively neutral character, the variety is able to transmit the essence of place, as well as cellar techniques, and thus, the skill of the winemaker.
It may not be a grape with a strong character, but it’s one that punishes poor site selection and winemaking with unbalanced, bland results, while rewarding, magnificently, those who understand where it thrives and how it likes to be handled.
With that in mind, the Chardonnay Masters is always a particularly revealing tasting, showing more clearly than any other where is best for this grape and, within that, which producer is on top. And with Chardonnay’s truly global scope, there are always some surprises – new corners of the wine world where this grape can bring about exciting results.
In a crowded wine competition arena, The Drinks Business Global Chardonnay Masters stands out for its assessment of wines purely by grape variety rather than by region.
Divided only by price bracket and, for ease of judging, whether the style was oaked or unoaked, the blind tasting format allowed wines to be assessed without prejudice about their country of origin.
Wines were scored out of 100, with those gaining over 95 points being awarded the top title of Master. Those earning over 90 points were given a Gold, those over 85 points a Silver and those over 80 points a Bronze.
The wines were judged by a cherrypicked group of Masters of Wine on 2 December at Aveqia on 2 St Bride Street, London. This report features only the medal winners.
Among these this year was Austria’s Thermenregion, source of Leo Aumann’s first-rate Chardonnay from Traiskirchen, which gained a Gold alongside some famous names in the £20-30 price band, from Margaret River’s Larry Cherubino to America’s Saint Michelle and Jackson Family Wines.
On the other hand, this year’s tasting confirmed the superiority of certain places. So, initially, when it comes to sparkling Chardonnay, Champagne still rules, with beautiful blanc de blancs coming from Drappier, Gosset, Philipponnat and Nicolas Feuillatte, all of which achieved Gold medals or above.
Nevertheless, England is not far behind, as shown with the Mayfield Essence Pure Chardonnay Brut – a Sussex-sourced Silver medallist – alongside two Champagne brands from quality-minded co-operatives: Chassenay d’Arce and de Castelnau. But overall, one country, if not region, stood apart for the consistent quality of its Chardonnay – and that was Australia.
WIZARDS OF OZ
Taking home all four of this year’s highest awards, that of Master, the nation proved that it is rightly famous for Chardonnay, above all from Western Australia and the Yarra and Adelaide Hills regions in the south.
Importantly, this wasn’t just at the very highest price points. For example, Jacob’s Creek Reserve Adelaide Hills Chardonnay was deemed the best of the £10-15 flight, while Hardy’s HRB Chardonnay from the Yarra Valley gainedone of just two Golds in the £15-20 band.
Moving over £20, the Tapanappa Tiers Vineyard Chardonnay wowed tasters with its complexity, generosity and balance – and, with a price tag around £30, relative to great Burgundy, it was deemed excellent value too. The Tiers vineyard may be well known to Australian wine aficionados as one of the great places for Chardonnay down under, but it was pleasing to see that confirmed when the wine from it was pitched against the global competition.
Other greats from Australia included Chardonnays from Larry Cherubino and the Burch Family in Western Australia’s Margaret River and Porongurup regions, respectively.
However, we shouldn’t allow Australia’s success this year to overshadow the great results from elsewhere. In the unoaked category particularly, France, or rather Chablis, showed its superiority, with the premier cru Vau de Vey from Romain Bouchard the only example to achieve a Gold medal for over £20, while the tasters were impressed by the quality of the fruit from Italy’s Giusti, best known for its upmarket Proseccos.
This latter wine highlighted the Italian aptitude for harnessing flavour and freshness from relatively neutral white grapes.
As one would expect, the majority of wines had been exposed to oak, and among the less expensive examples, alongside the aforementioned Adelaide Hills Chardonnay from Jacob’s Creek, New Zealand’s Sileni Estates showed the impressive price-quality ratio possible with Hawke’s Bay whites. Moving up the price ladder a touch, as well as the Hardy’s HRB – discussed above – Chile’s Viña Undurraga stood out, adding weight to a widely-held belief that Limarí is this South American nation’s best place for Chardonnay. It was also good to see Burgundy compete in this price bracket. Achieving a Gold too was Château de Santenay’s Hautes Côtes de Beaune from a monopole called Clos de la Chaise Dieu – an exciting find for Burgundy lovers on a budget.
Over £20 and particularly beyond £30, we found ourselves enjoying some extremely impressive white wines, among which were the previously mentioned examples from Australia, but also brilliant Chardonnays from the US, in particular Cambria in Santa Barbara, Saint Michelle in Horse Heaven Hills and Cakebread in Carneros. Outside the US, New Zealand’s Marlborough showed that its terroir is suitable for grapes other than Sauvignon Blanc, with Giesen’s The Fuder Chardonnay, which is sourced from the Clayvin Vineyard, gaining a Gold.
ANNETTE SCARFE MW
The tasting left a positive view on Chardonnay; it was encouraging to see wines displaying purity of fruit without too much make-up. I did not find myself discussing oak on every wine as most were well-balanced and not overworked. Generally, while the entry-level wines were good value for money, there was noticeably more complexity and structure to be seen by trading up.
EMMA SYMINGTON MW
I was pleasantly surprised by the overall quality of sub-£10 unoaked Chardonnays – in terms of their fruit character, balance and even finesse. In contrast, I was expecting more quality from the mid-range oaked Chardonnay, although we had some great wines in the £10-15 and £15-20 brackets. It was only once we got above £20, and particularly above £30, that we found some truly great Chardonnays – and here we had some exceptional wines.
MILES CORISH MW
The tasting confirmed that the best Chardonnays are coming from Burgundy and, in our session, from top-quality Australian producers. This was my predominant view before the tasting and it still remains. The better wines showed a balance between winemaking technique and a purity of fruit. Perhaps this was best displayed in the top-notch examples from Australia, where I found ripe stone fruits tastefully intertwined with hints of toast, reduction (but in a good way) and roasted nuts.
Left to right: David Round MW, Stephen Skelton MW, Annette Scarfe MW, Sally Easton MW, Emma Symington MW, Sarah Knowles MW, Jonathan Pedley MW, Miles Corish MW and Patrick Schmitt MW
And finally, a special mention must go to South Africa, where Uva Mira Mountain Vineyards from Stellenbosch gained a Gold and a Master in the final flight of the day – a excellent performance, particularly when one considers the competitive set.
So, those were the highlights, and overall, as Annette Scarfe MW commented: “The tasting left a positive view on Chardonnay; it was encouraging to see wines displaying purity of fruit without too much make-up.”
Furthermore, although the entry-level Chardonnays were good value for money, there was noticeably more depth, complexity and structure as one moved up through the price bands. In short, to quote Miles Corish MW: “The tasting confirmed that, at its best, Chardonnay is the most beguiling of all white varieties.” It also, as expected, provided a clear view of the grape’s greatest global terroirs.
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