The Rioja Masters 2017: Results

With nine Masters and 25 Gold medals awarded, last year’s Rioja Masters was our most successful tasting in the Global Masters series to date.

Proving that wines don’t need to break the bank to deliver serious drinking pleasure, our 2017 Rioja Masters competition was the most successful of the entire Masters series in proportion to the number of wines entered, with 25 Gold and nine Master medals awarded.

Sometimes criticised as a safe bet, Rioja’s reliability makes it a popular choice with consumers, who know that when they buy a bottle it will reward them with luscious red fruit and velvet-soft tannins.

While the region is going through an interesting transitional phase, as it shifts from a classification system based around barrel ageing to one that also takes terroir into account via its new Viñedos Singulares (single vineyard) classification, the tasting proved that Rioja is a great allrounder, with only its more renegade ‘vinos de autor’ wines failing to charm our judges.

There were treasures to be found among the whites and rosés that entered, with a third of the whites winning a Gold medal, including an intriguing Tempranillo Blanco from Rioja Vega, while Bodegas Muriel’s Viña Eguia Rosado 2016 scooped a Silver.

With Rioja boasting such a broad range of flavours and styles, from leathery, autumnal gran reservas to opulent and powerful ‘vinos de autor’, our judges weren’t looking for one specific thing from the wines, but were broadly hoping for freshness, drinkability and Rioja’s signature softness without the overt presence of oak.

Expectations were not only met, they were surpassed, with Jonathan Pedley MW, who is not usually one for waxing lyrical, believing the tasting offered “the strongest and most consistent line-up of wines” in any Masters tasting since the competition’s inception.

“I don’t think we had to reject a single wine, so hats off to Rioja,” he said. “I usually have a whinge about reductive wines but there was no reduction this time. At the opposite end of the scale, there was no deleterious oxidation either and generally the handling of oak was well judged.”

Fellow judge Michelle Cherutti-Kowal MW agreed with Pedley on the topic of oak. “The use of oak was better than it has been in the past in Rioja, with less overt vanilla and some lovely oak integration,” she said.

For Master of Wine Alistair Cooper, the tasting “provided an interesting snapshot of Rioja, reflecting a region in a state of flux with new styles and a new approach”. While he applauded the desire on the part of certain winemakers in the region to “experiment, push the boundaries and challenge the status quo”, he also enjoyed the more traditional styles of Rioja, which “showed really well” in the line-up. “I had high hopes coming into the tasting and I wasn’t disappointed because the standard of wines was excellent,” he said.

Alex Canneti of Berkmann Wine Cellars was equally impressed by the wines, which were “of a higher standard” than he was expecting. “Wines from Rioja are more consumer-friendly than ever, with a much better balance of fruit and more subtle use of oak,” he said.

In the crianza category, over a third of the wines that entered scooped a Gold medal, including the 2014 vintage of R&G Rolland Galarreta, a wine made in collaboration with Javier Galarreta of Araex and renowned wine consultant Michel Rolland.

Moving up to the reserva category, of the 26 wines that entered, seven won a Gold medal and three were awarded the highest accolade of Master. Among those taking home Gold were Codorníu’s Viña Pomal Reserva 2013, and Marqués de Cáceres Don Sebastian Reserva 2014. Cherutti-Kowal believes that reserva is the “sweet spot” for Rioja, and a category capable of producing “fantastic” wines.

Waxing lyrical again, Pedley was taken with Bodegas Amaren Tempranillo Reserva 2009, which his table awarded a Master. “Tempranillo isn’t particularly showy when it comes to aromatics, but this wine had some beautiful floral notes overlaying the usual berry fruit. The oak was entirely integrated into the wine, while the palate was rich and concentrated but nicely balanced,” he said.

The greatest surprise was the quality and consistency to be found in the gran reserva category, which has disappointed in previous tastings for its variability and lack of value for money compared with the reliable reservas. This time around, however, the region’s longest aged Riojas proved that they more than merit their place at the top with enchanting, ethereal wines. Of the gran reserva wines that entered, half were awarded a Gold medal, and two – Rioja Vega Gran Reserva 2009 and Faustino Gran Reserva 1994 – scooped a Master, the latter in the ‘Rioja over 15 years’ category.

“In previous Rioja Masters tastings, the gran reserva flight has been a bit of an anticlimax after all the flashy, modern-style jovens and reservas,” said Pedley, who believes the wines offer excellent value for money compared with the pricier ‘vinos de autor’. He added: “I’ve had the impression that for many of the trendy Young Turks in Rioja, the gran reserva category is despised as it represents the bad old days of dried-out, excessively aged wines.

However, the gran reservas in this tasting showed why the category should be treasured: there were some beautiful, mellow, harmonious wines with deep and complex bouquets. Gran reserva Rioja is one of the last categories of red wine where the consumer can buy a bottle in a shop or restaurant knowing that the wine will be ready to drink at that moment.”

Cooper was also ebullient about the category. “The most pleasant surprise of the day was the excellent performance of the gran reserva wines. This can often be a disappointing category full of old wine with little character, fruit or vibrancy.

“Yet we saw excellent fruit as well as concentration in the examples tasted,” he said. For Canneti, the gran reservas were “better made” than ever, “with interesting autumn leaves and mushroom flavours and a more fruit-focused style”.

When it came to the ‘vinos de autor’, our judges were less impressed and awarded more Silvers than Gold and Master medals. Pedley described the offering as “a real mish-mash”, with prices spanning from under £10 to over £50.

“When the Rioja renaissance kicked off the Young Turks wanted to break free from the consejo rules and make iconoclastic statement wines. However, as with many avant-garde movements like Impressionism, Cubism and Abstractionism, once everyone gets involved you end up with a lot of mediocrity and a loss of purpose. Lord only knows what the consumer is meant to expect when they buy one of these wines,” Pedley lamented.

In a hugely positive tasting, the only other more general gripes were Pedley’s observation that a few of the wines were over-extracted and “a bit on the warm side” alcohol wise, while Cooper’s only criticism was that some of the wines were too dependent on oak. All of our judges agreed that Rioja remains one of the best value for money categories in the wine world.

“Rioja wines have a terrific quality to- price ratio,” said Cherutti-Kowal. Cooper agreed: “For consumers, Rioja still offers excellent value for money and generally excellent consistency,” he said. Pedley believes the northern Spanish region’s enduring popularity lies in the wines being not too high in acid, oak, tannin, or alcohol.

Like the tale of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, for consumers seeking reliability, affordability, balance and sheer deliciousness, Rioja hits the spot with wines that are ‘just right’, as Alex Canneti sums up: “Rioja continues to improve and is an obvious success story. It will be exciting to see what the more terroir-driven wines bring to the table.”

The judges (l-r)

Michelle Cherutti-Kowal MW, wine lecturer and presenter Jonathan Pedley MW, wine consultant, Crown Cellars Lucy Shaw, managing editor, the drinks business Patrick Schmitt MW, editor-in-chief, the drinks business Alex Canneti, director, off-trade, Berkmann Wine Cellars Alvaro García, London area sales manager, Alliance Wine Alistair Cooper MW, wine consultant

Syrah Masters 2015: the results

 A move away from high-alcohol blockbusters towards wines of greater restraint was the keynote of this year’s Global Syrah Masters, writes Lucy Shaw.

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WHILE THE meaning behind the name Syrah is much disputed, DNA profiling at UC Davis in 1998 found the variety to be the offspring of two obscure grapes from south-east France: Dureza from Ardèche and Mondeuse Blanche from Savoie.

Jancis Robinson MW states in Wine Grapes that this crossing first took place in the RhôneAlpes region, most likely in Isère. Syrah’s style and flavour profile vary dramatically depending on where it’s grown.

In cooler climates the wines are medium to full-bodied with notes of blueberry, blackberry, mint and black pepper. In hotter regions like the Barossa Valley, Syrah (or Shiraz as it’s known there) has a jammier character, softer tannins and notes of liquorice, spice, prune and leather. Syrah is a vigorous, mid-ripening variety with small berries and a short window for optimum harvesting. Its tannins are much more gentle than Cabernet Sauvignon and it generally has more weight on the midpalate.

The variety thrives all over the world, from Chile and South Africa to Hawkes Bay in New Zealand. While the grape reaches its apogee in Hermitage and the Côte-Rôtie in the northern Rhône, Syrah has also found a happy home in Australia – with fine examples hailing from the Barossa Valley, Hunter Valley, Margaret River and the McLaren Vale – having been introduced to the country by James Busby in 1832.

In our inaugural Syrah Masters competition, 150 wines from 14 different countries, including Israel, Turkey, Thailand and Switzerland, were submitted.

Judging took place on 9 September at Broadway House in Fulham. Served blind and assessed without prejudice about their country of origin, the wines were arranged according to their price band as well as style, from low-priced to high, and unoaked to oaked, in order to make the competition as fair as possible. Furthermore, the varietal Syrahs were assessed separately from the blends.

At the entry level, judges were looking for deep colour, juicy fruit and full-bodied softness.

At the top end, they were seeking the aromatic, perfumed Côte-Rôtie style. Of the 150 wines that entered, 131 received a medal, making it our most successful Masters competition to date. Among them, 25 wines were awarded Gold meals while a quintet scooped the top accolade of Master, three of which hailed from Australia, one from the Rhône and one from the lesser-known Syrah hub of Switzerland.

The majority of wines to enter were from the New World, though there were a decent number of entries from France. Two-thirds of the wines were made from 100% Syrah, the other third being Syrah-dominant blends.

A positive trend to emerge from the tasting was an evolution in the style of New World Syrah towards elegance and restraint and away from the high-alcohol monsters of the past. “If I could use one word to sum up the wines today it would be ‘restraint’, which is a surprise. I was expecting more blockbusters from the New World,” noted Alun Griffiths MW, international director for Beijing’s Vats Liquor, who admitted to being a sucker for the “peppery, floral character” of the Syrahs from the northern Rhône, but also found the Swiss Syrahs to be a “pleasant surprise”.

Anthony Moss MW of the Wine and Spirits Education Trust was also full of praise for the wines on show. “There was a clear progression through the price points and a greater concentration and depth of fruit. Good judgments were made with the winemaking – there was very little overoaking going on. Brett and Syrah often go together, but it was only detectable in a couple of the wines at a low level and contributed to the complexity,” he said. “Some of the wines approached the softness and silkiness of Pinot,” Moss added.

About the competition

In a crowded wine competition arena, The Drinks Business Global Syrah 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 9 September at Broadway House in Fulham. This report features only the medal-winners

“There were a lot of well-balanced wines in the pack – you don’t need a slab of wildebeest to drink them.” Miles Corish MW of Milestone Wines was also pleasantly surprised by the approachability and balance of the wines. “The Australian Shirazes showed more restraint and were far less extracted than I was expecting,” he said.

“The aromatic profile was uplifting and more balanced than I thought – they weren’t blockbusters. People should think again about Syrah. It’s a misunderstood variety. It’s easy to drink on its own and should be on more people’s radars.

“The wines are surprisingly approachable, versatile, have a lot of flavour and are never too tannic. Syrah doesn’t have to be a blend to be a great wine; it’s more of a textural wine, savoury and earthy.” For wine consultant Jonathan Pedley MW, the overall quality of the wines on offer was higher than he experienced at The Drinks Business Cabernet Sauvignon Masters earlier this year. “I gave more medals at this tasting than ever as the standard was pretty high,” he said. “There were a lot of Silver and Gold medals.

Syrah is a friendly and more of a forgiving style of wine than Cabernet. When great, Cabernet is magnificent, but the overall quality was higher at this tasting. There weren’t many astringent examples. “Syrah is capable of such extremes – it can have perfumed Pinot elegance or the same structure, density, tannin and acidity levels as Cabernet. For everyday drinking wines, Syrah is like Malbec – a quaffer.

“Most of the reds made today, even at the premium level, are designed to be drunk young and Syrah, with its intense fruit, deep colour, compatibility with oak and rounded, supple tannins, is friendly and approachable young,” he said, admitting like Griffiths, to favouring the style of Syrah from the northern Rhône.

AROMATIC APPEAL

“The thing I love about young Syrah is the pure aromatics. When wines from the Côte-Rôtie really shine they are floral, elegant, graceful and refined,” he said. As for which countries impressed the most, the judges were all pleasantly surprised by the Syrahs from Switzerland, while most were delighted to discover more elegance and restraint from Australia than they were anticipating.

“I was expecting to taste Barossa Shirazes that you could stand a spoon in but there has been a positive stylistic shift towards more elegant wines with a focus on perfume and less use of American oak. There weren’t many wines with that old-school, coconut-style of oak.

“There were a few wines where the alcohol was on the high side but generally they were under control,” noted Pedley. “There’s a great diversity now of Shiraz styles from Australia – the ones from Western Australia tend to be more refined.” The South African Syrahs were another surprise, with Pedley finding “no burnt notes in the wines” as can be the case with reds from the country.

There seemed to be a lack of consistency in the Chilean Syrahs, with the most refined examples coming from the Leyda Valley and the worst falling into the “stewed and jammy” bracket. One of the day’s disappointments was the failure of New Zealand Syrah to wow the judges, with many finding the wines from Hawkes Bay a bit green and short on the finish.

But while the results were overwhelmingly positive, the truth remains that Syrah is a hard sell at the top end as it continues to be blighted by associations with cheap Australian Shiraz, particularly in the US. “There is Syrah planted in California’s Santa Rita Hills that is better quality than the Pinot Noir there but it doesn’t sell for some reason, which is sad,” said Moss. “It’s hard to get people to pay more for premium Syrah but as a variety it is capable of the very highest quality.”

Left to right: Hugo Rose MW of the Wine Investment Association; Miles Corish MW of Milestone Wines; Michael Palij MW of Winetraders; wine consultant Patricia Stefanowicz MW; Patrick Schmitt MW, editor of the drinks business; Lucy Shaw, managing editor of the drinks business; Alun Griffiths MW, international director for Beijing’s Vats Liquor; Adrian Garforth MW of Blackrock Wines; Anthony Moss MW of the Wine and Spirits Education Trust; Robert MacCulloch MW of Domaine Direct; and wine consultant Jonathan Pedley MW

The judges (left to right): Hugo Rose MW of the Wine Investment Association; Miles Corish MW of Milestone Wines; Michael Palij MW of Winetraders; wine consultant Patricia Stefanowicz MW; Patrick Schmitt MW, editor of the drinks business; Lucy Shaw, managing editor of the drinks business; Alun Griffiths MW, international director for Beijing’s Vats Liquor; Adrian Garforth MW of Blackrock Wines; Anthony Moss MW of the Wine and Spirits Education Trust; Robert MacCulloch MW of Domaine Direct; and wine consultant Jonathan Pedley MW

Please click through for the results; page one for unoaked Syrah and Syrah blends, pages two and three for oaked Syrah and pages four and five for oaked Syrah blends.

The Prosecco Masters 2015: The medalists

Prosecco that stayed true to its roots, providing freshness and charm with value for money, shone brightest in our second annual Prosecco Masters.

Prosecco-Masters_HEL2601-JudgesProsecco, as we know, is flying in the UK. Last year sales were up 75% and overtook Champagne for the first time as Brits splashed out an estimated £1 billion on the stuff in the on- and off-trade. Sales of the fizz are up by around 40% in supermarkets, with Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Waitrose and M&S all reporting strong growth. It’s a similarly rosy picture in the on-trade, where sales are surging due to Prosecco’s image as an affordable luxury that suits all occasions. Light, fresh, slightly sweet, and with an appealing price point, Prosecco ticks all the boxes, meaning guilt-free cork popping from living room to bar. The recession brought about a change of mindset, meaning a certain kudos is now attached to bargain hunting, thus wallet-friendly Prosecco has emerged as the ultimate crowd-pleaser. The strength of “brand Prosecco” has solidified to the point where it now seems bulletproof, having carved a niche as a stylish sparkling wine rather than simply a cheap alternative to Champagne.

As consumers become better acquainted with the category, they are more likely to trade up from DOC to DOCG Prosecco, and in some cases, to the top drops from Cartizze. But is the difference in quality perceptible enough to warrant the extra cash? And can you really taste the terroir in the top examples from the region? We attempted to answer these questions at our second annual Prosecco Masters competition held in March at the über-swish Punch Room housed within Ian Schrager’s London Edition hotel in Fitzrovia. Having received just under 100 entries, we gathered a panel of seasoned sparkling wine experts, including wine writer Michael Edwards, Italian wine expert Tom Bruce-Gardyne and Alex Canetti, off-trade director at Berkmann Wine Cellars, to taste through the line-up.

A short leap upwards

Prosecco-Masters_HEL2615-MainOverall, the judges were impressed by the quality of the wines on show, though all agreed that there was less of a perceptible leap in quality from DOC to DOCG than they anticipated. All sought freshness, bright fruit, purity and prettiness in the wines, with those that were evidently trying to ape Champagne being marked down. “Prosecco is meant to be fruity and fresh; it isn’t Champagne and therein lies its charm,” believed Tom Bruce-Gardyne. “I think the brut styles are trying too hard to be Champagne-like.” Canetti of Berkmann concurred: “I’m looking for softness, roundness and prettiness, that’s what you want from a Prosecco. The best were delicate, ethereal, spicy and soft. There were no bad wines in the line-up but a lot of boring wines. I’m looking for commercial wines in that there’s something in them that consumers will love,” he said.

Michael Edwards, meanwhile, was impressed with the lower end of the spectrum. “The standard of the wines on show was much higher than last year. I was particularly impressed with the DOC wines,” he said. In 2009, the Conegliano-Valdobbiadene region north of Treviso – where grapes are hand-harvested from steep, south-facing hillside slopes – was elevated to DOCG status, while the DOC name was extended to the wider Veneto and Friuli Venezia Giulia regions, supposedly marking a crossroads for quality.

At the same time, Glera became the official name for the grape variety used in Prosecco production and the practice of selling Prosecco on tap was banned. The tasting threw up an interesting debate about the quality differences between DOC and DOCG Prosecco with all agreeing that the two were closer in character than they were expecting. “When we got to the DOCG wines I thought there would be a step up in quality but there wasn’t really, which was disappointing. I expected more from the category,” lamented Canetti.

The other judges agreed: “Surprisingly, there didn’t seem to be much of a difference in quality between the DOC and DOCG wines,” said Edwards, while Bruce-Gardyne observed: “The first round of DOCGs wasn’t very good but thankfully there were no shockers.”

Delicacy and freshness

Prosecco-Masters_HEL2652-27The DOC category put in a strong performance, scooping five silver medals in the £10-and-under price bracket and four gold medals in the £10-20 bracket. Moving up to £20-30, a single DOC Prosecco – Bottega Gold – won a medal, but made it count by scooping a Master. In the DOCG category, only one of the wines in the £10-20 bracket won a Master: Val d’Oca Le Rive Di Colbertaldo Extra Dry, while six of the £10-20 DOCG wines were awarded gold medals.

Canetti was disappointed not to be able to taste the terroir in the DOCG wines: “I expected them to be richer and more flavoursome, and for the terroir to come through, but it didn’t really happen,” he said. “Glera is quite a neutral grape – it’s neither Chardonnay nor Pinot Noir, nor is it trying to be. The key is in the delicacy and freshness.” Moving up to the top of the tree, just one Prosecco from Cartizze scooped a gold medal: Bisol Jeio. The 106-hectare “grand cru” is viewed as the jewel in Prosecco’s crown, producing low yielding, surprisingly sweet Prosecco due to the extended hang time the grapes undergo. Canetti was full of praise for the three that entered: “When we got to the Cartizzes it was a real step up – you could taste the terroir in the wines. They are better than ever,” he enthused.

Sugar sweet

Sugar levels were also a sticking point during the tasting. Produced as either a fully sparkling (spumante) or lightly sparkling (frizzante) wine, Prosecco is increasingly being made in a brut style, which may contain up to 12g/l of residual sugar. “Dry” Proseccos confusingly contain 17-32g/l of sugar, “extra dry” between 12-17g/l and demi-sec 32-50g/l. Both Michael Edwards and Tom Bruce-Gardyne believe that Prosecco benefits from the presence of sugar. “The best Proseccos are on the cusp of brut and extra dry,” said Edwards.

“Glera is a delicate grape; it’s hard to achieve the depth of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay with it, so it needs the sweetness to work. I prefer the extra dry styles to the bruts. Prosecco with a touch of sweetness is a great proposition for Asian food.” Bruce-Gardyne, meanwhile, described the extra dry examples as “crowd pleasers” that “slipped down easily”.

Bang for your buck

Prosecco-Masters_HEL2637-36When rounding off the tasting, talk turned to value for money, with all agreeing that there is fantastic value to be had at the £10 mark, with Bruce-Gardyne questioning whether the £20 DOCG Proseccos were worth the money given the quality available for half the price at DOC level: “An £11 Prosecco compared to a £19 should be a very different proposition – they need to offer something more if consumers are having to splash out on them,” he said.

Overall, it was the DOC category that surprised and delighted the judges most in terms of the quality on offer for its price point. “Prosecco DOC was the stronger of the two categories – there were a lot of winners in there, particularly for their price,” said Canetti. Bruce-Gardyne agreed, highlighting that it was the wines that weren’t trying too hard that impressed him most. “Prosecco isn’t a wine to be taken too seriously. The best examples offer notes of apple and pear, fresh acidity, balance on the palate and complexity without losing their elegance,” he said. Prosecco’s charm lies in its lightness of touch. When on point, it offers such balletic poise and delicacy that it dances across the palate. The wines that stayed true to Prosecco’s signature style shone, proving that the category should carry on doing what it does best.

Scroll through for this year’s medal-winning wines…

About the competition

The Prosecco Masters is a competition created and run by the drinks business and an extension of its successful Masters series for Champagne, Rioja and fortified wine, as well as its Global Masters series for major international grape varieties such as Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The competition is exclusively for Prosecco and the entries were judged blind by a selection of highly experienced tasters using Schott Zwiesel Cru Classic White Burgundy glasses supplied by Wine Sorted. The top Proseccos were awarded Gold, Silver or Bronze medals according to their score, and those that stood out as being outstanding received the ultimate accolade – the title of Prosecco Master. The Proseccos were tasted over the course of one day at the Punch Room within Ian Schrager’s London Edition hotel in Fitzrovia.

Sparkling Masters 2016: the results

No longer just a tipple for ladies who lunch, sparkling has become a ‘lifestyle’ wine for consumers around the world, and as our Masters competition showed, the quality is rising from Champagne to English sparkling and beyond.

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THE SPARKLING wine category is on fire at the moment, not only in the UK but around the world. It’s so hot, in fact, that a trade show dedicated to fizz launched in Paris in June, with organisers hoping to make the City of Light the global capital of the sparkling wine trade.

Held at the Parc Floral, Bulles Expo drew 130 sparkling wine producers from across the globe and over 5,000 members of the wine trade with the aim of boosting the already buoyant international sparkling wine market.

In February, Vinexpo CEO Guillaume Deglise described sparkling wine as “the hottest category in the world” due to its consistent growth since 2010.

According to the IWSR, fizz is expected to drive a 1.8% increase in UK wine consumption from 2015 to 2019, with Prosecco leading the charge due to its status as an everyday luxury that consumers can indulge in guilt-free.

UK consumption of sparkling wine by volume is expected to rise by 13% between now and 2019, compared with modest still wine growth of just 0.6%. Meanwhile, global sparkling wine consumption is expected to grow by 7.4% over the same period, with Asia, North and South America and Europe all expected to increase their volumes by more than a million 9-litre cases each.

ABOUT THE COMPETITION

The Drinks Business Global Sparkling Wine Masters is a competition for sparkling wines from around the world. This year’s inaugural event saw 280 entries judged blind by a panel of highly experienced tasters.

Wines were scored out of 100, with those gaining more than 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 sparkling wines were tasted over the course of one day at Cambridge Street Kitchen in London’s Pimlico on 10 June. This report features only the medal winners.

BILLION-POUND BUBBLY

This year sparkling wine sales in the UK soared past the £1 billion mark for the first time according to the WSTA, with retail sales during the first three months of the year enough to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

While off-trade volume sales are up 20% year on year (more than two-thirds of sparkling wine sales by value go through Britain’s retailers and almost 90% by volume), the on-trade is electric, with sparkling wine volume sales up 50%.

The average price of a bottle of sparkling wine in the UK off-trade is £9.10, which rises to £34.96 in the on-trade, with Prosecco now accounting for over half the sparkling retail market.

The WSTA estimates that by the end of the year around 106.7m bottles of fizz will have been sold through UK retailers; double the amount shifted in 2012. Given the strength of the sparkling wine category, we decided to launch the Global Sparkling Masters this year, with judging taking place in London on 10 June.

Gathering a cherry-picked panel of Masters of Wine and Master Sommeliers, our judges slurped their way through over 200 sparklers, awarding 45 of them Silver medals, 13 Gold and just one – Taittinger Comtes de Champagne 2006 – the top accolade of Master.

Taking in wines from Champagne, Franciacorta, Cava, Prosecco, England, Wales, South Africa, Australia and beyond, the competition saw six of the 13 Gold medal winners hailing from Champagne, including Cattier Blanc de Blancs NV and Perrier-Jouët Belle Epoque 2007.

Meanwhile, three came from Italy, one from Chile – Valdivieso Brut Nature 2014 – and one from England – Wiston Estate Blanc de Blancs 2010, made by sparkling wine maestro Dermot Sugrue.

Layout 1Shaking things up in the category, Gold medals were also awarded to a sparkler from Nova Scotia in Canada – Benjamin Bridge Brut 2008 – and, even more surprisingly, to a 2011 Blanc de Blancs made by Italian vigneron Edoardo Miroglio in the Thracian village of Elenovo in southeastern Bulgaria.

FEEL THE ENERGY

In terms of what our judges were looking for, Champagne expert Michael Edwards best summed it up: “In sparkling wine I look for tension, energy, creaminess, spiciness and refreshment, which is what the category is all about,” he said.

For Clément Robert MS, the man in charge of wines across the 28°-50° group, bubble size was the key to quality. “One of the key things I look for in quality sparkling wine is fine bubbles – I don’t like soda water bubbles. The wines have to be well balanced and the acidity has to be in harmony with the texture,” he said.

Taking it back to the beginning of the production process, Jonathan Pedley MW believes that the key to a standout sparkling wine lies in the quality of the base wines.

“It’s an old truism that sparkling wines need impeccable purity in the base wine as the sparkling process brings any faults in the wines to light, which the tasting illustrated.

All sparkling wines need precision, purity and balance in the base wines,” he said. “The poorer wines had underlying faults like excessive acidity, astringency and bitterness in the base wines and the bubbles amplified it.

There was huge variability in the Proseccos – we found some beautiful aromatic ones and some wretched ones. It was a mixed bag and had nothing to do with price.”

According to Pedley, the best sparklers in show offered “pure expressions of what they were meant to be, with yeast character, nutty complexity, maturity and beautiful balance on the palate, where the acidity, fruit and alcohol are in harmony”.

For Pierpaolo Petrassi MW, head of beers, wines and spirits for Waitrose, the English and Welsh sparkling wines in the line-up performed as well as he thought they would.

Layout 1‘GREAT STRIDES’

“They were really interesting and impressive, and reaffirmed what I thought about them. English and Welsh sparkling wines have made great strides and are now rubbing shoulders with the world’s best sparklers – they showed well and are holding their own,” he said.

“They used to be very taught and acidic, but the winemaking has come on leaps and bounds, and there’s a good balance between the current vintage and reserve wines in the blend now, while the high acidity is balanced out with more richness.”

Robert echoed Petrassi’s thoughts but was “disappointed” not to see more English fizz in the tasting, given that it’s currently enjoying a long awaited moment in the sun. Patricia Stefanowicz MW put the lack of homegrown entries down to the fact that producers have no problem selling out of their stock, giving them less incentive to enter competitions.

With this being his first Drinks Business Global Masters tasting, Petrassi was impressed overall by the quality of the wines on show.

“There were lots of good quality examples – I was surprised by how many good South American wines there were, which were well made, refreshing and clean with a good balance of fruit,” he said. Given his role at Waitrose, Petrassi is passionate about getting the message across to consumers that sparkling wine should viewed as an everyday luxury rather than a special occasion treat.

A WEEKDAY TREAT

“Sparkling wine isn’t just for celebrations but rainy Tuesdays too. If you’ve had a bad day, sparkling wine can perk you up – fizz really has its place,” he insisted.

Both Edwards and Robert were pleasantly surprised by the quality to be found in the £10 and under category in the tasting. “The quality of the wines in the £10 and under bracket really struck me,” said Edwards.

“I was impressed with the basic wines and how good the sparklers outside Champagne were.” Robert, however, believed the “real quality” started to show in the £20-30 bracket, which, in his opinion, offered the best value for money of the wines in the line-up.

Layout 1“In the £20-30 price point Champagne has strong competition – it’s not the undisputed king of fizz any more – but at the top end it’s still untouchable and has the monopoly,” he said, adding, “the grower Champagnes performed well – I liked them as much as the grandes marques.”

Stefanowicz MW agreed: “The top-level Champagnes were amazing, even those that were too youthful to show their true colours,” she said.

Petrassi thought it was brave of the grandes marques to enter their wines in the first place, given they have more to lose by doing badly than to gain by doing well. “It was brave of the grandes marques to pop their wines in and they universally did well in the tasting,” he said.

With regards to Prosecco, Robert’s opinion remains unchanged following the tasting. “Prosecco performed as I thought it would – it never reaches complex heights no matter what lengths the winemakers go to.

It’s an enjoyable, easy-drinking, everyday wine but is hard to judge in competitions,” he said. Petrassi was a bit less harsh on the UK’s favourite fizz, and believed its runaway global success has led Cava producers to change their approach in a bid to piggyback off its success.

“Prosecco has created its own style and we’ve seen Cava try to mimic it with residual sugar and a different fruit structure. Cava makers are being more careful in allowing the fruit to sing in a more overt way,” he revealed.

THE SWEET SPOT

A low point of the tasting was overuse of sugar, particularly in a few rogue examples in the brut category that were clearly over the dosage limit. Another complaint was a lack of vivacity in some of the sparklers.

“There were a number of wines across the price spectrum that had lost their freshness and become soggy,” insisted Pedley. “Sparkling wines are incredibly delicate and get tired sooner than still wines. Producers need to make sure fresh stock is reaching the market.”

But despite a few dodgy sugar levels and a cluster of tired wines, our tasters were largely enthusiastic about the wines on show. While Champagne remains the king of fizz at the top level, and untouchable in terms of elegance, complexity and finesse, with growing competition from Franciacorta, Trentodoc and English sparkling wine it can no longer rest on its laurels at grande marque level.

We’re living in exciting times for sparkling wine, as Petrassi pointed out: “Sparkling wine should take its place at the high table of wine – it’s no longer just for cocktail parties,” he said. Though it’s Michael Edwards who had the last word: “The category is doing really well worldwide as a lifestyle wine – it’s not just for ladies who lunch.”

The judges (l-r)

> Michael Edwards, journalist, author and Champagne expert
> Pierpaolo Petrassi MW, head of beers, wines and spirits, Waitrose
> Lucy Shaw, managing editor, the drinks business
> Clément Robert MS, group head sommelier and wine buyer, 28°-50°
> Roberto Della Pietra, sommelier and brand ambassador, French Bubbles
Matthieu Longuère, wine development manager, Le Cordon Bleu
> Jonathan Pedley MW, wine lecturer and consultant
> Patrick Schmitt MW, editor-in-chief, the drinks business
> Patricia Stefanowicz MW, wine writer and consultant
> Alex Hunt MW, purchasing director, Berkmann Wine Cellars

2

Chardonnay Masters 2016: results

From being the butt of jokes 20 years ago, Chardonnay is now having the best brought out of it by winemakers worldwide. In the drinks business Global Chardonnay Masters, there was plenty to enthuse about, writes Lucy Shaw.

1Conjuring visions of a despondent Bridget Jones glugging it from a giant glass, Chardonnay has had a bad rap since the mid-1990s, when the term ‘Anything But Chardonnay’ was coined and people went to great lengths to avoid the grape. Twenty years on, the picture looks different – Chardonnay’s fortunes have been revived and the muchmaligned variety has made a magnificent comeback. While Burgundy remains its spiritual home, today Chardonnay is grown all over the world, from chalky soils in Sussex and Champagne to sandy loam in Australia’s Margaret River via New Zealand, South Africa, California and Chile.

Thanks to its relatively neutral character, Chardonnay is both a transmitter of terroir and a blank canvas for winemakers, who can put their stamp on the wines through malolactic fermentation, time on the lees and barrel ageing. Given its chameleon-like nature, Chardonnay’s flavour spectrum takes in everything from green apple and citrus to peaches and cream, and tropical aromas such as banana and pineapple, with those that have undergone malolactic fermentation often rich in texture.

One of the most widely planted grape varieties in the world, Chardonnay adapts well in many climates and soil types, and can be grown with relative ease, which was reflected in the wide range of countries we received entries from in our fourth annual Global Chardonnay Masters competition. Just under 200 wines were tasted over the course of a day at Trinity restaurant in Clapham by a cherry-picked team of judges made up of Masters of Wine and Master Sommeliers. The wines were tasted blind and scored out of 100, with those gaining over 95 points being awarded the top accolade of Master.

2Wines that received more than 90 points were given a Gold medal, those over 85 points earned a Silver and those over 80 points a Bronze.

The tasting turned out to be one of the most enjoyable, illuminating and successful of the Masters series so far, with six Masters and 45 Gold medals awarded. Stealing the show was Marlborough’s Giesen, which walked away with two Masters medals for its 2014 The Brothers Chardonnay and 2012 The Fuder Clayvin Chardonnay, priced at £22 and £42 respectively.

Proving that stellar Chardonnay needn’t make your wallet weep was the modestly priced and consistently excellent Eileen Hardy Chardonnay, the 2014 vintage of which won a Master, with the majority of fruit sourced from Tasmania and the remainder hailing from the Yarra Valley.

While further highlighting that Australia is still a major player when it comes to fine Chardonnay, Bird in Hand gained a Master for its Nest Egg from Adelaide.

At the top end of the price scale, South Africa’s Capensis from the Western Cape scooped a Master in the £50+ category, proving that the country is now capable of producing world-class Chardonnays.

With renowned viticulturist Rosa Kruger consulting on the project, the wine undergoes partial malolactic fermentation, with around half fermented in new French oak and aged on its lees in barrel for a year. “It proved that it merits its high price tag – I would have never have guessed it came from South Africa,” said Jonathan Pedley MW. Also winning big in the £50+ bracket this year was Alpha Omega estate from the Napa Valley, whose wax-sealed Reserve Chardonnay 2013 took our final Master of the day.At the top end of the price scale, South Africa’s Capensis from the Western Cape scooped a Master in the £50+ category, proving that the country is now capable of producing world-class Chardonnays.

Highlighting the fact that standout Chardonnay is being made globally, our Gold medals went to countries including Israel, with Barkan Winery in Upper Galilee picking up a Gold for its 2015 Special Reserve Chardonnay. Elsewhere, Australia put in a strong performance with Golds being won across the country, from the Hunter Valley, Yarra Valley and Adelaide Hills to Margaret River and the Clare Valley, where producer Wakefield/Taylors scooped a hat-trick of Golds. South Africa showed itself to be a country to watch for Chardonnay, with Bouchard Finlayson, De Wetshof, Boschendal and Boekenhoutskloof all taking home Gold medals. California also shone in the tasting with Cakebread, Copain and Stag’s Leap scooping a Gold apiece and Jackson Family Wines winning two for its Santa Maria Valley and Anderson Valley expressions. In Chile, two of the country’s historic estates, Concha y Toro and Errazuriz, won Golds, while closer to home, Montevero in Tuscany and Planeta in Sicily also took home Gold medals, showing that Chardonnay can shine in hotter climes.

3

GREAT CARE

Wines in all price brackets performed well and garnered praise from our judges. “I was surprised by how well-integrated the oak was at entry level. Producers are clearly taking great care to make better balanced wines. £15-£30 is the sweet spot for Chardonnay, where you’ll find the best value for money and wines that offer generosity of fruit, good structure and balance, and nice oak integration,” noted Miles Corish MW. Christine Parkinson of Hakkasan thinks ‘balance’ and ‘harmony’ are the new watchwords for Chardonnay.

“There were some encouraging, beautifully made Chardonnays in the £10- £15 bracket,” she said.

Hugo Rose MW was harder to please, favouring the wines in the £20-£30 bracket where he found “more bursts of quality and stylistic differences”. He was, however, encouraged by the quality of the wines on show in all price bands. “It was a very favourable tasting and the standard was much higher than I was expecting. There’s a trend for precision winemaking and a discrete use of oak across national boundaries, and my scores reflected that. For an old-school winetrade person this was a new paradigm for Chardonnay, with the wines showing purity, delicacy, balance and well judged oak and ripeness levels,” he revealed.

Jonathan Pedley MW was equally enthusiastic about Chardonnay’s upward trajectory. “The general standard was pretty strong across the board and there were very few weak wines as most were well balanced. If we’d have done this tasting a decade ago we would have found a lot of over-oaked, alcoholic wines, but these were well crafted, even at entry level,” he said.All of the judges seemed impressed by the quality leaps that have been made in the New World in recent years. “Nearly all of the wines got a medal and there were hardly any I wouldn’t happily drink. Chardonnay can be such a workhorse because everyone tries to make it, but it’s so much better than it used to be. If used, oak was appealing and in the powerful styles the balance, harmony and quality was still there. The big blockbusters can be just as elegant and exciting as the more subtle, delicate styles, illustrating Chardonnay’s ability to shine in different guises,” said Parkinson.
The topic of reduction divided our judges, with some, including Keith Isaac MW, liking the struck-match aroma the style provides and others believing winemakers had pushed the boundaries too far. “Reduction can be an attribute if employed alongside phenolic ripeness and decent balance, but people that played with reduction at the expense of other elements came unstuck,” said Corish MW. Pedley MW took a similar stance: “There was a battle at the middle to top end about how much reduction is a good thing and some winemakers have gone for the very reduced, leesy style, which had been pushed too far at the expense of fruit character in some wines.

Reduction is a winemaking fad and has become synonymous with quality in some people’s minds but I don’t buy into that,” he said.

As for terroir expression, it seemed lacking in a lot of the wines, but not at the expense of quality. “Sometimes it was difficult to tell the origin of the wines, so winemakers will need to look for regional identity moving forward,” admitted Rose.

4REGIONAL IDENTITY

Corish believes the better wines showed a sense of place, but he was hoping to find more layers of complexity in the higher priced wines. “The most disappointing wines in the line-up were a little skeletal and erring on the side of early picking, which made them one-dimensional,” he lamented.

All in all, there was very little to fault in this glittering line-up. “I was very impressed by the modest approach from the New World,” enthused Rose. “They weren’t trying to ape Burgundy – I saw something different from them. Oak use was so careful and precise it was almost invisible – there was a lot of thoughtful winemaking in evidence and very few failures. Chardonnays outside of Burgundy are forging their own path.”

Corish believes the category offers something for everyone. “Chardonnay remains one of the most versatile whites in the world. The tasting showed that the New World has come on in leaps and bounds from the days of heavy-handed oak treatment and over-ripeness. The grape offers consumers incredible value for money compared with other varieties,” he said.

His opinion was echoed by Parkinson: “It wasn’t obvious when the Old World wines came up alongside the New World examples. This is a new era for Chardonnay and the results are in the bottle. I can’t emphasise strongly enough how encouraging this tasting was – there was hardly a dud in there. We’ve turned a corner.”

The judges

  • Front row (l-r): Michelle Cherutti-Kowal MW, Hugo Rose MW, Jonathan Pedley MW,
  • Middle row (l-r): Patricia Stefanowicz MW, Lucy Shaw, Christine Parkinson, Patrick Schmitt MW,
  • Back row (l-r): Alberto Segade, Miles Corish MW, Keith Isaac MW, Thomas Chevalier

by eva-photography.com

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