A relatively neutral grape, Chardonnay is an ideal translator of local terroir and winemaking craft, thanks to its malleability through malolactic fermentation, lees contact and barrel ageing. The grape’s versatility has made it a favourite among wine producers. Despite soil types and climate, it’s one of the most widely planted white grape varieties in the world with more than 400,000 acres worldwide; as seen in our competition entries that encompassed Chardonnays from obscure regions such as China’s northwestern Xinjiang, Israel’s Judean Hills and South Africa’s Western Cape to more established sites in Champagne and Burgundy, Chile’s Casablanca Valley, northern and central Italy, and all the way to Australia’s Adelaide Hills and New Zealand’s Hawke’s Bay.
Close to 80 samples were submitted by wineries and importers for our Asian Chardonnay Masters held on 26 April at Hong Kong’s swanky HIP Cellar. The competition is the second instalment following our successful Asian Cabernet Sauvignon Masters in March. The samples were tasted blind and assessed over the course of one day by price bracket and stylistic difference (still or sparkling and within the still category, oaked or unoaked) to identify the best of Chardonnay in their own price range in the local market.
The results are encouraging as a cherry-picked panel of eight judges including a master of wine, top wine buyers/directors and trained winemaker gave out seven Masters, 15 Gold medals, 27 Silvers and 19 Bronzes. The wines are scored out of 100 points with the ones gaining 95 points or above being awarded the top accolade of Master. Wines scored higher than 90 points were given a Gold medal, those over 85 points a Silver medal and those over 80 points a Bronze.
“I think the overall quality is very good. When I say overall quality, we try to judge them in the context of price bracket. Some of the wines may be simpler or more obvious, and perhaps not designed for long ageing but they are well made in that context, and are good quality,” commented Ying-Hsien Tan MW, founder of Singapore-based Taberna Wine Academy, who was one of the Panel Chairs.
Eddie McDougall, wine critic and ‘The Flying Winemaker’, agreed addeing: “The class of all the wines showed a good spread of stylistic expressions of Chardonnay. There were some very good examples of wines at approachable price points, which goes to show that quality Chardonnay doesn’t need a hefty price tag.”
In addition, Yang Lu, corporate/group wine director of Shangri-la Hotels and Resorts, noted a good representation of entries from almost all major wine regions. “I think different winemaking styles and philosophies are well represented in the competition as it covers all styles and wine regions as well different levels of quality,” he ssaid.
For James Rowell, corporate and VIP sales manager of one of Hong Kong’s leading wine importers, Altaya Wines, tasting a diverse range of Chardonnays is a revelation. “For someone who doesn’t have the opportunity to taste or drink a lot of New World wines, it’s very interesting to see what’s currently out in the market at different price points because some styles have changed and evolved,” he explained.
Burgundian in style
Different from aromatic grapes such as Riesling or Gewürztraminer, Chardonnay is easier to cultivate and responds well to a wider range of winemaking techniques. Given its chameleon-like nature, it takes on a wide spectrum of aromas from green apple and tomato leaf to tropical fruits, peaches, cream and vanilla. The grape variety has undergone some stylistic changes from rich, buttery, full bodied wines, favoured in the 1990s to today’s trendier, crisp and less-oak dominated expressions. Burgundy is still held in high regard as the reference point for Chardonnay, but fine examples from the New World can rival if not surpass top Burgundy wines in quality and style.
“I think the biggest surprise for me was the fact that a couple of the wines that seemed to be particularly Burgundian in style that is very restrained yet with finesse and complexity, but to my surprise they were not. So that was an interesting discovery for me,” commented Tan.
This is a sentiment echoed by Francesca Martin, founder of Bee Drinks and a Master of Wine candidate, as well. “There were certainly more New World wines in our line-up than Burgundy, however, many of these were of very high quality and a couple I would have put money on being from top villages in the Côte d’Or,” commented the Hong Kong-based wine consultant.
The Elephant Hill Chardonnay from New Zealand’s Hawke’s Bay, which was awarded a Master title, stumped a few judges and led them to believe it was a Chassagne-Montrachet before its identity was revealed after the competition.
Meanwhile, a Tapanappa Tiers Vineyard Chardonnay 2015, another Master winning wine, was believed to have measured up to many Côte d’Or classic examples, Martin added noting that, “it was a lovely wine combining wonderful ripeness of fruit with a taut, linear structure” without sacrificing its own style to emulate Burgundy.
Elaborating on the ever-blurring line between Burgundians and top New World Chardonnays, Tan explained: “Chardonnay is a very competitive grape variety that producers around the world are now really getting the hang of understanding how the grape variety works in that particular region or environment and producing very good quality wines.
“Now it’s getting harder and harder to tell Burgundian wines apart from a premium New World wine. So that was a nice surprise for me, not actually a surprise but more a pleasant growing realisation that how well these non-European regions can compete not just in quality but in style with some top Burgundian wines.”
Chardonnay from Australia’s cooler climate in Adelaide Hills or even a South African Chardonnay Capensis by Jackson Family Wines impressed judges with their winemaking precision, proving South Africa’s massive potential. The latter was awarded a Gold medal.
Nonetheless, Burgundy’s Domaine Servin Chablis Premier Cru Butteaux 2015 proudly showcased unoaked pristine Burgundian quality and nabbed a Gold. And a few old guards from Europe including: a Laroche Mas La Chevalière Vignoble Peyroli 2014 from the Languedoc, Champagne Nicolas Feuillatte’s Brut Blanc de Blancs 208 and Italy’s Mezzacorona Chardonnay Vigneti delle Dolomiti 2016 from Trentino-Alto Aldige and Monteverro Chardonnay 2013 from Tuscany all stunned and took home Gold medals.
Australia Setting the New World Benchmark
Among all the New World competitors, Australia by far stood out for the consistency of its Chardonnay quality and its value for money, bagging six out of the seven much coveted Master titles and seven Gold medals.
The country’s Chardonnay mania is such that today it’s hard to think of Australian wines without Chardonnay. The grape is now responsible for half of the country’s white wine production with 406,000 tonnes crushed in 2016 out of a total of around 808,000 tonnes, according to Wine Australia.
From Hunter Valley to cooler region such as Adelaide Hills, Yarra Valley and Tasmania to warmer regions in Margaret River, the country provides a contrast of styles between the leaner, crisp style found in Adelaide Hills and riper, richer style in Margaret River.
Moving to price brackets, as most judges noted in the competition medium priced Chardonnays under HK$400 (US$51) outperformed many heftily priced bottles. The finding is especially uplifting as most of them, fine examples of New World Chardonnay as we discovered in the competition, can give Burgundy a run for its money especially when prices for top Burgundy wines seem to be going nowhere but up.
Within the price band of under HK$400 (US$51), five Masters were given out to high performers from Australia. They were: Bird in Hand Nest Egg Chardonnay 2015 from Adelaide Hills, Alkoomi Black Label Chardonnay 2016 from Frankland River, Voyager Estate Chardonnay 2013 from Margaret River, and McGuigan The Shortlist Chardonnay 2015 from Adelaide Hills and Cape Mentelle Chardonnay 2015 from Margaret River, with the latter two from an even more modest sub-price bracket of HK$150 (US$20) to HK$300 (US$39).
“It was great to taste such a range and in our group we found that wines in the medium to premium range that wines are consistently showing technical precision and also a level of expression,” stated Yvonne Cheung, director of wine for Swire Hotels and Restaurants.
Moving up to higher price bracket between HK$400 (US$51) and HK$799 (US$102), Tapanappa Tiers Vineyard Chardonnay from Piccadilly Valley and Elephant Hill from New Zealand received the top honour of Master. A Japanese Chardonnay from Suntory winery’s Tomi No Oka in Yamanashi near Mount Fuji set high standards for its Asian peers and nabbed a Gold medal for its “very restrained, savoury, elegant and balanced” style as the judges noted. The wine, however, bears the most hefty price tag, selling more than HK$800 in retail.
Chardonnay, a winemaker’s wine
It’s worth noting that nearly all wines in the competition went home with a medal, which speaks loudly for the quality of Chardonnay found in the tasting. “I thought generally oak was very well integrated on the majority of the wines, adding subtle notes of toasty spice, rather than lots of overt vanilla. Lactic notes from malolactic fermentation, if apparent, were likewise well integrated and didn’t dominate on many of the wines. I feel that lees ageing and stirring are now having more of an impact on style and seemingly something producers are playing around with and paying more attention to. What I love about Chardonnay is the fact that it’s such a winemaker’s wine that the stylistic possibilities are seemingly endless. I very much felt during the tasting that there really is a style of Chardonnay for everyone,” commented Martin when asked about winemaking in Chardonnay.
Indeed, McDougall, a trained winemaker, believed that compared with other white grape varieties, winemakers are given more latitude to put their own stamp on the wine. “I believe that winemakers are far smarter when it comes to the selection of oak treatment in the wines. Across the board there was a lot more balance shown than my initial expectation. The stand-out examples really came about when the wines showed honesty in its fruit profile and a complex under-layering of either lees contact, barrel fermentation or the positive traits of sulfide development from wild yeast fermentation,” he added.
Likewise, the ones that disappointed, though small in number, were the ones that lacked balance between oak and fruit or had an overly elevated level of dimethyl sulfide, which according to him, showed traits of creamed corn.
Reduction, a winemaking technique that contrasts with oxidation, was mentioned by a few judges during tasting. When applied correctly, it adds to a wine’s complexity and flavour, otherwise, it can upset a wine’s balance and flavour profile.
“Reduction was certainly a dimension for a number of the wines with a few having a bit too much to be pleasant. This was only overdone on a couple of the wines however, many others displaying just a subtle touch of struck match character that I personally really enjoy. As with any of these things it’s all a question of balance. Reduction can certainly add an element of complexity, I believe, but in excess it becomes a fault and deters from the overall attractiveness of the wine, masking fruit and making the wine rather hard and harsh. Overall with this particular lineup I felt winemakers clearly had a good handle on where the balance lay,” Martin explained in detail.
Adding to the discussion, Jeremy Stockman, general manager of Hong Kong’s top wine retailer Watson’s Wine, delved deeper into the fine distinction between reduction and the otherwise struck-match character. “The subjective (but enjoyable!) discussion was between reduction and struck match/flinty notes. I thought in general they were factors that added complexity although a few were out of balance,” he said.
Value for money
Another finding perhaps most welcoming to consumers is that a few samples that were awarded Gold medals sell for less than HK$150 (US$20) retail. A Nepenthe Chardonnay 2016 won over the judges for its pure, focused, consistent and balanced style with good intensity. The Mas La Chevalière Vignoble Peryroli, albeit an Old World style Chardonnay, still gripped the judges with its “pithy and integrated” nature, while a “technically sound” Chardonnay from New Zealand’s The King’s Bastard equally garnered the judges’ praise.
Moving up to the HK$150 (US$20) – HK$299 (US$39) range, Taylor’s Wines Jaraman Chardonnay 2015 stood out for its layers of flavours, bright acidity and its oily texture. In addition, its ‘St Andrews Single Vineyard Release’ of the same vintage knocked judges off their feet with its complexity, persistent finish and elegance. Another Chardonnay from Nepenthe’s ‘Ithaca’ 2015 also got a nod for its minerality and intensity.
Even a few technical wines under HK$100 (US$13) garnered judges’ praise for offering decent quality and great value, winning a trove of Silvers. “The technical wines were generally the less expensive ones and I think that is normal from large producers making wines for sale under HK$100. They were technically correct with sunshine fruit and balance – I think a customer is getting value for that price range,” Stockman pointed out.