Chardonnay Masters 2019: the results in full

We bring you a full report on the Chardonnay Masters 2019, including all the medallists, the names to watch, and the go-to regions for great barrel-fermented whites – Burgundy included, but Australia-dominated. Co-chair of the judges, Patrick Schmitt MW, reports

There are several benefits to the blind tasting format employed by our Global Wine Masters, which sees us sample entries by style and grape variety, rather than origin. One of these is to assess the overall quality and character of a category, be that a noble grape such as Chardonnay, or trending sector, from sparkling to rosé. Another is to isolate the great names and domains in the sector, including the best value producers along with those star, if sometimes pricy, performers. A further highly important element to our approach is to find out the hot spots for the type of wine being tasted. And, over the years, the Global Masters has drawn attention to a number of such areas, such as the excellence of pink wines from the Tuscan coast, the brilliance of Sauvignon from Styria, or Pinot Gris from Slovenia, while highlighting the rising quality of sparkling wines from Kent and Sussex, as well as the outstanding value of traditional method fizz from the Loire. There are many more that could be mentioned, such as the reliability of Clare Valley as the source of deliciously intense bone dry Riesling that doesn’t break the bank, or the brilliance of Cabernet Sauvignons from Sonoma, which tend to be a touch fresher, and a whole lot cheaper than the equivalents from neighbouring Napa.

Some of the greatest revelations have come from our Chardonnay tastings, which we’ve held annually since 2013. While such a competition has yielded so much discussion around winemaking techniques, such as the direct influence on style of picking dates, lees management, barrel regimes etc, we have devoted fewer words to the connection between place and quality, and so it’s this aspect to our results that I’m choosing to focus on this year, with a nod to past medallists from this major tasting.

And… if I am to pick out one overwhelming positive origin-based conclusion from these tastings, it is the excellence of Chardonnay from Australia, particularly Hunter and Yarra Valleys, along with Clare/Barossa, and Margaret River in the west of the country. The standout, however, has been the Adelaide Hills. I note this with a pang of sadness, aware that as much as one third of this area’s vineyards have been destroyed by the savage bushfires that swept through this beautiful area just before Christmas.

Over the years, we’ve seen Adelaide Hills deliver not just Australia’s top Chardonnays, but, relative to the global competition in the same price category, the best examples on the planet. As proof of the area’s excellence, in this year’s tasting, three of our six ‘Chardonnay Masters’ were from the Adelaide Hills (with a fourth also hailing from Australia). Examples from Penfolds using Adelaide Hills fruit have wowed in the past, but the most consistent wonders have hailed from Australian Vintage with Nepenthe, Tapanappa, with its Tiers vineyard in particular, and Bird in Hand with its Chardonnays at all levels. Indeed, after years of blind-tasting Chardonnay from around the world, I can say with confidence that a go-to place for fine, barrel-influenced Chardonnay is the Adelaide Hills, and bearing in mind the recent devastation of the region, I urge you to secure some stock from the great names mentioned above, both to benefit the region, but also yourself – prices are likely to go up.

I should also mention the other Australian Master in the 2019 tasting, which went to Clare Valley’s Taylor/Wakefield Wines. This producer, named after the Taylor family in Australia, but called Wakefield Wines abroad (due to trademark laws on the ‘Taylor’s’ brand from the Port producer by the same name), has been a big hitter with its Chardonnays in many of our tastings, but also with its Rieslings, Shirazes and Cabernets in our competitions for each one of these varieties. In short, I have been repeatedly impressed by the quality of their output.

The best Sauvignon Blancs from the 2017 Global Masters

While consumers love Sauvignon Blanc, many in the trade treat it with disdain. But as our annual competition shows, in the right hands, this grape can create genuinely exciting expressions – at all price points, writes Patrick Schmitt MW.

The wines were judged by a cherry-picked group of Masters of Wine and sommeliers on 23 November at Baltic Restaurant in Southwark in London

Towards the end of 2017 we held two of our biggest Global Masters tastings – the Sauvignon Blanc Masters and the Chardonnay Masters. You can read about the latter here. It is worth comparing the two grapes because they appear to show such contrasting image issues.

While Chardonnay is loved by the trade but derided by consumers, Sauvignon Blanc seems to have the opposite problem: it’s mocked by professionals, and widely adored by the public. Why? Chardonnay’s issues are discussed in our report on this year’s competition for that grape, but when it comes to Sauvignon, the reasons are many and varied. For a start, there is a misconception that this variety can’t produce great dry white wine; that it is limited in terms of style, and capped when it comes to the complexity of flavours it can produce. Furthermore, there’s a belief that Sauvignon is ill-suited to ageing in oak barrels – the traditional finishing touch for fine whites.

Add the fact that it is hugely popular – making it a staple of supermarket shelves and by-the-glass offerings in pubs and bars – and there’s a snobbery regarding the grape. In short, there’s a sense that it lacks gravitas. As with all grapes, some entry-level offerings disappoint. With Sauvignon in particular, the weakest examples can be thin, herbaceous and acidic, sometimes mixed with a touch of residual sugar – a combination that would give any grape a bad name.

But mostly, it is Sauvignon’s refreshing, and instantly recognisable pungency, even at low prices, that makes it distinctive, memorable and crowd pleasing. It has made greener characters in wine fashionable, a major development in the past decade, considering the most popular style of white at the start of this century was the creamy, buttery flavours associated with Chardonnay, particularly from the New World. And Sauvignon Blanc doesn’t just yield bright gooseberry and grapefruit flavoured youthful whites.

Michelle Cherutti-Kowal MW

It can deliver a broad array of characteristics, depending on where it is grown and when it’s picked. As this year’s Masters showed, it can create an extremely appealing style of white in cooler climates, when crunchy bell pepper notes can emerge from the glass, which may not be to everyone’s taste, but certainly bring instant refreshment and bags of character to the wine.

At the other end of the spectrum, Sauvignon, particularly in warmer climates of Napa or Graves, can produce something pleasingly exotic, with notes of melon, pineapple and passion fruit, even an oily texture, which is balanced by this grape’s naturally high acidity.

Then there’s the potential for creating something finer. Here too, where old vines in great Sauvignon terroirs are coupled with skilled winemakers, the results can be astounding. Sometimes the complexity comes mainly from the site, with chalky characters mingling with citrus and lemongrass notes in the great whites of the Loire. At other times it seems to emanate from the cellar techniques, particularly the use of oak in the great Sauvignons of California or Bordeaux, where ripe fruit complements barrel-sourced vanilla flavours beautifully.

Finally, there are the blends, which highlight the potential greatness of this grape as a partner to others, particularly Semillon, but other varieties too – in this year’s tasting we sampled a wonderful wine combining Sauvignon and the native Greek grape Assyrtiko.

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