Riesling Masters 2016: the results

Quality across the board was encouragingly high in our latest Global Riesling Masters competition, with producers from the Old and New Worlds impressing with their sweet and dry expressions, finds Rupert Millar.

The Global Riesling Masters has established itself as one of the most popular tastings in the Masters series, not only because of the lingering affection for the variety held by most of the trade, but also because this faith is rewarded by an impressive level of quality and consistency.

“Riesling is always strong, and this was borne out again,” said Jonathan Pedley MW, while Hugo Rose MW agreed it was a “high-quality tasting overall – with few wines rejected or not being awarded a medal. I think the results will show strength at every level; there was a strong showing from countries such as Canada, the US, Australia and Austria.”

The judges were especially positive about the diversity of styles in the dry and sweet categories, the ripe character of the German and Austrian wines from the 2015 vintage, the ‘personality’ of many of the New World wines and the value of wines made at all levels with this variety. Yet, there were also concerns about the perennial problem of levels of sweetness and sulphur in certain wines.

About The Competition

In a crowded wine-competition arena, the drinks business Global Riesling 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 sweetness of the style, the blind-tasting format allowed wines to be assessed without prejudice about their country of origin. The best wines were awarded medals that ranged from Bronze through to Gold, as well as Master, the ultimate accolade, given only to exceptional wines in the tasting. The wines were judged by a cherrypicked group of Masters of Wine and one Master Sommelier on 24 November at The Dead Doll’s House in London. For more detail on the top-scoring wines, including tasting notes

Overall, two Masters were awarded; fittingly one went to a dry wine and one to a sweet. In the dry camp was an Austrian wine from Kremstal, a 2011 ‘Riesling Privat Senftenberger Pellingen 1 ÖTW’ from Weingut Nigl, and in the sweet corner a 2007 vendanges tardives from Domaine Charles Sparr in Alsace. Both were in their respective £20- £30 brackets.

Austria led the pack in the Gold medal leagues with five; Germany and Australia garnered four apiece, France two and there was one apiece for South Africa and New Zealand. There was a good haul of Silver medals across the board, even if it remained the highest medal colour for entries from the US, Chile and Canada.

RANGE OF STYLES
Perhaps Riesling’s greatest strength is the diverse range of styles it’s capable of producing. Naturally, therefore, it was a key talking point at the tasting, particularly as a lot of the wines didn’t always conform to classical stereotype. Rose mentioned the “old school” and “new wave” but, crucially, pointed out that, “new wave doesn’t always mean New World; there were some from Germany”.

The richer wines from Germany and Austria are a clear consequence of the warm 2015 vintage. Alcohol levels were quite high and the fruit profile was often more tropical and peachy than the citrus and lime one might expect. “Stylistically, there was a trend away from fresh green apple to tropical,” said Roberto Della Pietra.

The judges: (from l-r) Patrick Schmitt MW, Matthew Forster MW, Roberto Della Pietra, Jonathan Pedley MW, Rupert Millar, Hugo Rose MW and Clement Robert MS

“Germany and Austria have certainly benefitted from 2015,” said Pedley, “and because it was such a star vintage a lot of the top wines are gorgeous for drinking now – will they age though?” he pondered. Australia also performed very strongly, and there were a number of lean, rather racy wines – “with bottle age too”, noted a pleased Pedley – that stood in contrast to their riper, often younger, European cousins.

Matthew Forster MW praised the New World wines in particular for their diversity, saying it was clear that producers were “really exploiting” the potential of Riesling. He added: “The tasting showed there’s space for both styles, and I felt some of the Austrian wines were the apogée of that dry, full-on style – and the Australians were very good too.”

Austria and Australia in particular seemed to be the two countries where the judges had favourites, with the New World perhaps having the edge. Rose stated that, generally speaking, he was: “More impressed with the New World than the majority of wines I would call ‘classic’. They had more definition and personality.

“The classics had beautiful balance but perhaps not those other qualities.” Pedley noted he would have liked to have seen a few more Alsatian wines (despite one winning a Master) and Della Pietra commented on the scarcity of Chilean wines.

SWEETNESS AND SULPHUR
Clement Robert MS said he was “more impressed by the sweet wines rather than the dry and Pedley agreed that there were some “very good sweets”, but added there seemed to be something of a qualitative gap in the “medium” category – indeed, there was only one Gold in the category and the number of Bronze medals exceeded the Golds.

What made some of the ‘medium’ wines so hard to judge was the sugar levels were more uneven. Admittedly, the range of category, from 12-45 grams per litre, is broader than most, but nonetheless some seemed closer to dry wines while others might almost have deserved to be in a sweeter category.

Pedley added that it was a neat example of one of the reasons consumers remain so wary of Riesling as they have, “no idea if it will be sweet” – or, at least, how sweet it will be. Even though wines put into the Riesling Masters are categorised by sweetness levels (as well as price), with bands for wines under 4g/l, from 4- 12g/l and more than 45g/l, it is clear that even for the trade it’s not a simple thing to pin down exactly.

What chance then for the consumer? As Pedley summed up, sweet Rieslings are one of the variety’s greatest strengths but also, “its curse”. “Sweetness, but also the ‘egginess’ from sulphur, is what holds Riesling back from consumers,” countered Robert, for whom the issue of the (over-) use of sulphur and filtration is clearly a sore point.

Although he professed to be “impressed by cleaner, more fruit-driven wines”, he still felt quite a few showed the signs of reduction or stripped-out flavours. As he admitted: “You will always find very good Riesling with a lot of sulphur – Egon Müller for example.” Nonetheless, he continued: “It’s still difficult to appreciate sulphured wines.

A lot of winemakers still use too much sulphur and you end up with reductive wines.” There were definitely wines that were “refined and austere”, Pedley noted, but “in a good way”, and he added it was good to see producers from all countries “aiming for that leaner style”.

Patrick Schmitt MW and Jonathan Pedley MW

VALUE FOR MONEY
One aspect of the tasting that was particularly pleasing was the value for money Riesling represents – yet another reason to lament that sweetness levels mean many drinkers still steer clear of it. Forster said that while the, “quality was very high at all levels, wines under £10 show real value for the consumer”. Rose agreed: “We were pleased with many of the lower-priced wines.

They were clean and well made, giving a lot to the consumer. They are not banal wines.” With experience at several Masters tastings now, Pedley declared that the general standard was higher than for other varieties.

Like Forster, he particularly praised wines below £10. “You’ll find Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay at £10 and below that can be dilute and disappointing,” he said. Meanwhile, he added: “The price of top-quality Riesling remains very reasonable. It’s one of the great-value wines.”

Cabernet Sauvignon Masters 2018: Results and analysis

This year’s Cabernet Sauvignon Masters showed that producers from all over the globe have what it takes to make beautiful expressions from this popular grape, writes Rupert Millar.

HEADING INTO the room at the Bluebird restaurant in Chelsea, where this year’s Cabernet Masters were held, those who happened to glance to their right would have seen a rather striking model of one of Sir Malcolm Campbell’s Rolls- Royce Blue Birds.

It was one of those fantastic, Thunderbird-esque machines that to this day, even from pictures or scaled-down models, positively radiates power, sleek elegance and the thrilling feel of barely controlled speed with complete effortlessness. This is rather what one would hope for from Cabernet Sauvignon, especially New World examples, when all pistons are pumping.

About the competition

In a crowded wine competition arena, the Drinks Business Global Cabernet Sauvignon 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. The best wines were awarded medals which ranged from Bronze through to Gold, as well as Master, the ultimate accolade, given only to exceptional wines in the tasting. The wines were judged by a cherrypicked group of Masters of Wine and senior buyers on 8 June at Bluebird restaurant in west London. This report only features the medalwinners.

It was a very New World-heavy line-up this year – no great surprise given the medal hunger that exists among producers in the southern hemisphere – but there was a streak of French and Italian Cabernets to add a little Old World competition and a few surprises lay in wait from Israel, Lebanon and Turkey, hoping to catch out the unwary.

Cabernet is the most widely planted grape variety in the world. From Bordeaux to Napa to Coonawarra, for many producers Cabernet and Cabernet blends are the yardstick against which some of the world’s greatest wines are measured. Producers in places as far flung as Ningxia in China often turn to Cabernet to try to establish their nascent reputations.

Cabernet can be a cruel mistress, however. Capable of great and delicious diversity from cooler red fruit and pleasant green pepper to lush cassis, tobacco and vanilla when well handled, in the wrong hands or climate it can equally be made into the extremes of a thin and stalky disappointment or a jammy, stewed, over-extracted and oaked mess with an ’ambitious’ price tag to boot.

Fortunately, the overall standard was really very good (six Masters were awarded), a point picked up on by Patricia Stefanowicz MW, who noted: “In the 2018 Masters, the quality of the wines, from inexpensive to stratospherically expensive, was generally high. The wines were, for the most part, medal-worthy, juicy, well-balanced and delivering a good glass.” For Victoria Burt MW, the wines that failed to rise higher than Bronze showed: “A lack of freshness and vibrancy.

This was often combined with a hollowness (lack of mid-palate weight) along with high, grippy tannins, which Cabernet Sauvignon can be known for, but does not make for an enjoyable drinking experience.” On the other hand, the higher scorers, “were those with a core of fresh fruit, often with subtle herbaceous bell pepper, menthol character, well-integrated oak, and well balanced fruit concentration, acid and tannic structure.”

MASSIVE IMPROVEMENT Heading one of the judging tables, Jonathan Pedley MW added: “Only a few wines showed excessive greenness (traditionally a curse of Cabernet Sauvignon).

Oak was generally well handled. A couple of wines were overextracted.” He was also impressed by a “massive improvement” in the number of wines not blighted by reduction. “Perhaps winemakers are getting better at handling screwcaps and preserving fruit without going too far and getting reduced aromas?” he suggested.

For a grape variety renowned for making some of the most expensive wines in the world, however, if there was one category that all of the judges commented on particularly favourably for its quality and consistency it was the sub-£10 bracket. “They were consistent in how good they were,” Michelle Cherutti-Kowal MW noted approvingly. “Good value for money.” “There seemed to be some really good efforts at the lower price points, sub £10 – where the focus was on drinkability and freshness,” agreed Alistair Cooper MW, while Robin Kinahan MW liked their “attractive varietal characteristics and not too much oak or alcohol”. It was in the middle sections, £10-£15 and even £15-£20, where Cabernet should really be getting into its stride, that there were some frustrating wines of the sort that exhibited all of the worst traits of Cabernet, when winemakers are trying too hard.

Cherutti-Kowal said the wines she tasted in the £10-£15 category had been a “weird” mix, with some admittedly “good”, but a few that were outclassed by the some of those under £10. However, she was more impressed by the £15-£20 category, which she thought had yielded some “very good wines in a difficult price range”. Just how good is clear by the fact that one of the five Masters awarded was to Château Ste Michelle’s 2015 Columbia Valley Cabernet in that very bracket; the tasting note from db editor-in-chief Patrick Schmitt MW highlighted its “sweet black fruit” and almost a “Syrah pepper note” on the nose, as well as “lovely olive-y and cassis characters” on the palate, which was multi-layered and balanced.

It was generally felt that over £20, and especially when prices rose beyond £30, that quality hit a very consistent level that justified their higher cost. Hotter alcohol stood out on occasion, thought Kinahan, “but also lots of eucalyptus, which I like”. Otherwise, considered Stefanowicz, “we were straying into gold dust regularly. Above £30 the wines performed as they should: delectable, beautiful, concentrated and lingering, with gorgeous expression of Cabernet Sauvignon flavours and well-integrated oak.”

THE LION’S SHARE When it came to medal-winners, Australia and the US took the lion’s share of the top medals, with the US making off with two Masters to boot. Pedley said there were some “disappointments from regions that should have done better”, and he singled out Australia’s Coonawarra in this. Cooper, on the other hand, thought “there were a couple of wines from the Clare Valley that were impressive”. “I have long been a fan of Clare Valley Cabernet, and would love to see more of it,” he says. “They have the ability to have real coolness of fruit but with a classic Cabernet structure and aromatics behind them.”

It was a rather mixed bag from South America, with some very strong wines, especially in the sub-£10 category, where there were some punchy, over-achieving wines, but they seemed to falter a little further up the scale, with at times just a touch too much of a herbaceous character among the Chileans. Rather pleasingly, a country that put on a better showing than usual was South Africa.

Although one or two were still “a little too robust”, according to Stefanowicz, there was much less of the ‘charred/burnt’ and ‘rubbery’ characteristics that are still lingering marks of some Southern African reds and there was a good haul of Gold and Silver medals for the wines. Old World regions weren’t entirely left out of the upper echelons of the medals either, and a French and an Italian wine were given Masters medals, the former going to Château La Coste from Provence, and the latter to Conti di San Bonifacio from Tuscany – another example of Cabernet’s ability to turn out top-class wines in this rather unlikely corner of Europe.

Among some of the more ‘esoteric’ regions there was something of a split too, with some of the wines showing very well, such as Turkish winery Chamlija, which picked up two Golds, but a few others, again often at quite high levels, “did not show well”, said Pedley. Nonetheless, despite a few bumps in the road, the tasting showed that ‘King Cab’ continues not only to survive but thrive throughout the wine world, and at all price points it remains a pretty consistent bet.

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