Cabernet Sauvignon Masters 2014: The results

An impressive lineup of judges convened for the Global Cabernet Sauvignon Masters to put 200 wines through their paces in June.

Untitled3 Having recently cemented its title as king of the grapes with the news that it has overtaken Spanish white variety Airén as the world’s most widely planted grape, no serious wine competition would be complete that didn’t put Cabernet Sauvignon under the microscope. According to a recent study form the University of Adelaide, since 1990, Cabernet Sauvignon has more than doubled its share of hectares under vine, though many may argue its heartland remains on Bordeaux’s Left Bank, where some of the world’s most highly prized wines are crafted from the grape, which is used to form the backbone of Bordeaux blends. However, this thick-skinned variety can thrive in an array of terroirs around the world, and can be found flourishing everywhere from Coonawarra and Margaret River in Australia to the Napa Valley in California and Chile’s Maipo Valley.

The 17th century lovechild of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon is appreciated by grape growers for its naturally low-yielding, late-ripening nature and ability to add structure, colour and power to blends. In addition, the grape’s naturally high acidity and tannic structure mean wines made from Cabernet can be built to last. Given that it is planted in a plethora of pockets around the world, there is no cookie-cutter signature style for Cabernet, though many boast notes of blackcurrant, mint, eucalyptus, bell pepper and cedar, with cherry and olive notes present in cooler-climate Cabernets, and warmer Cabs often veering towards the jammier end of the flavour spectrum.

Building on from the success of both the Chardonnay Masters and the Pinot Noir Masters, around 200 wines from nine countries were submitted to our inaugural Cabernet Sauvignon Masters, with judging taking place on 8 May at Elysée restaurant in central London. 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 price to high, and unoaked to oaked, in order to make the competition as fair as possible. Judged by a stellar panel of Masters of Wine, including Sebastian Payne MW of The Wine Society, Demetri Walters MW of Berry Bros & Rudd and Justin Knock MW of Encirc, the wines were scored out of 100, with those gaining more than 95 points being awarded the top title of Master. Those earning more than 90 points were given a gold, those more than 85 points a silver, and those more than 80 points a bronze.

New order

The majority of entries for our Cabernet Sauvignon Masters came from the New World, with just one wine from Bordeaux taking part in the competition. While two-thirds of the wines were single-varietal Cabernet, the remainder were blends crafted from at least 75% Cabernet Sauvignon. During the tasting, the judges looked for balance, fine tannic structure, a bright fruit profile and a complex character, as well as a long finish.

So how did the wines fare? Of the 200 wines that entered, 141 were medal-winners, with 83 walking away with a bronze, 41 awarded silver, 14 impressing enough for a gold and just three scooping the top accolade of a Master medal. “Cabernet is one of the great grapes of the world and you can see why it’s planted everywhere as it delivers on many different levels. We haven’t had too many howlers, thankfully,” quipped Payne. “Caberent Sauvignon proved that it is able to deliver value for money. Producers across the world are stepping up their game and the hit rate in the competition was very good,” added Hugo Rose MW of the Wine Investment Association.

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(L-R): Patrick Schmitt, editor of the drinks business, Hugo Rose MW of the Wine Investment Association, Vanessa Cinti of Cut at 45 Park Lane, Sebastian Payne MW of The Wine Society, Rebecca Palmer of Corney & Barrow, Mark Savage MW of Savage Selection, Lucy Shaw, deputy editor of the drinks business, Justin Knock MW of Encirc and Demetri Walters MW of Berry Bros & Rudd.

In terms of individual countries, judges praised Chile for its ability to deliver reliable and consistently high-quality Cabernet at an affordable price point. “You can find fantastic value in Chile, which has a lot to recommend it,” said Payne. “The consistency of the Chilean Cabs was a big surprise for me – the wines offered dark fruit and a creamy texture,” commented Vanessa Cinti, head sommelier of Wolfgang Puck’s debut London restaurant Cut at 45 Park Lane.

While the US put in a consistent performance, it was Australia, and most notably Coonawarra, that got our judges’ pulses racing, with the inherent elegance of the wines from the Southern Australian region setting them apart. Australia also led the way in the gold medal tally, scooping five golds and a Master for Katnook Founder’s Block Cabernet Sauvignon 2010. “Both Australia and Argentina are doing a very good job with Cabernet Sauvignon and are offering decent-quality examples for under £10. You can see the evolution the countries have undergone in recent years. The Australian wines were lovely and fresh with herbal and menthol notes,” said Cinti.

Hot on Australia’s heels was Chile, which won four golds, followed by Argentina, which scooped two golds and a Master for Pascual Toso Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, with Spain picking up the third and final Master for Torres’ Mas La Plana 2010, which has been made from a 29-hectare vineyard in the northern Spanish region of Penedès since 1970. South Africa delivered a solid performance, earning two gold and three silver medals, while, somewhat surprisingly given its strong links to Cabernet, the US picked up only one gold medal for Jackson Family Wines Stonestreet Monument Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon 2010.

Question of style

A debate arose around oak, with a number of judges lamenting the inability on the part of many producers to handle it properly. “While Cabernet has a natural affinity for oak, a lot of the wines were smothered and it wasn’t used judiciously, meaning the oak owned the wine rather than the other way around,” commented Berry Bros & Rudd’s Walters. Payne of The Wine Society concurred. “At the end of the day, you want to be able to drink the whole bottle, not just one glass, and some of the wines messed around with the oak a little too much and the alcohol levels were too high, but there is a market for those styles of wine,” he said.

Untitled1As to whether Cabernet performs better in a blend or as a solo act, the judges were unanimous on the former. “I’m not certain that Cabernet Sauvignon delivers varietal character under £10. What you tend to get is a lot of structure without the fruit balance. A few of the under-£10 wines worked, but the tannin often smothered the fruit. The blends were more rounded and balanced with better palate weight and structure than the single varietals,” said Walters, to which Payne added: “As a single varietal, Cabernet Sauvignon rarely hits the high spots – it works better in blends. As a grape it does fantastically commercially and is hugely successful; the trick is to keep the freshness locked in.” Cinti, meanwhile, was more forgiving of the single varietals. “Some of them worked well – I think there is a space for them in the market. When made well, Cabernet can more than hold its own as a single-varietal wine,” she said.

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.

Pinot Gris Masters 2018: The results

Good quality was in evidence at our inaugural Pinot Gris Masters. Appropriately for a grape with global significance, our judges enjoyed exciting examples from all over the world, writes Patrick Schmitt MW.

If one were to list the most commercially significant white grapes of the world, Pinot Grigio – or to use its native name, Pinot Gris – should certainly be among the first to be noted, along with Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay.

Yet, while we run Global Masters competitions for the latter two grapes, when it came to the former variety, we weren’t assessing it in our unique format: that is, a blind tasting of wines without any prior knowledge of their origin. However, in 2018, this changed, and we held our inaugural Pinot Gris Masters in March, using, as always, highly experienced judges, all of whom are Masters of Wine, Master Sommeliers or senior buyers.

About the competition

In a crowded wine competition arena, our Drinks Business Global Pinot Gris 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 cherry-picked group of Masters of Wine and senior buyers on 8 March at Bird of Smithfield in east London.

It was an exciting prospect – this is a grape of great global significance – and the outcome was revealing, highlighting great places for the variety, while confirming the quality of established regions. But the first thing we discovered was a pleasing lack of faulty versions.

Indeed, the only issue we witnessed during the day’s tasting concerned some slightly tired samples at the cheaper end, which we later discovered were from the 2016 vintage or older.

As one judge, Jonathan Pedley MW, said: “Modern fermentation regimes (cultured yeast, refrigeration, inert gases) can give a young wine a superficial estery freshness, but after 18 months this façade is already wearing thin.”

However, it is worth noting that there were no wines with excessive S02 or TCA taint, suggesting there are good levels of quality control and winemaking in the category.

The other positive we picked up on was the good general quality of wines at entry level, with plenty of relatively inexpensive versions showing an appealing combination of orchard fruits and bright acidity. Where the wines performed less well, it was suspected that yields had been pushed too high, diluting flavours and acids.

Another general stylistic observation made by the judges after the day’s tasting was the grape’s affinity for fermentation and/or ageing in oak, as long as the vessel is relatively inert – very few samples show excessive vanilla flavours, but we tasted some wonderful wines with a touch of oak influence, be that in texture or flavour.

Although we saw few examples of the classic late-harvest style of Pinot Gris associated with Alsace, the top scoring wines in the tasting had a touch of oily richness and exotic fruit, the traits that make this variety, when it’s cropped low and picked fully ripe, so delicious.

So what of the origin of the best wines? One thing we noted was the quality of Pinot Gris/Grigio hailing from Italy, particularly Trentino.

Indeed, as many as one fifth of the medallists were from the Tre Venezia of the Veneto, Friuli and Trentino Alto Adige, newly united under one DOC called Pinot Grigio delle Venezie. Such a result is important to note because the new DOC has been implemented to guarantee quality and safeguard the image of Pinot Grigio from this part of Italy, which covers 24,000 hectares, representing an annual production of a little more than 200 million bottles (around two thirds of the global total).

But northeastern Italy wasn’t the only source of great Pinot Grigio. An immensely exciting find, and our top-scoring wine of the competition, hailed from just over the border in Slovenia, where Puklavec makes a Pinot Grigio called Seven Numbers – a title given to its top single-vineyard wines.

The judges, left to right: Alistair Cooper MW, Patrick Schmitt MW, Roberto della Pietra, Miles Corish MW, Tobias Gorn and Jonathan Pedley MW

Made in Slavonian oak, but using modern winemaking approaches, this is a clean, apple and pear-scented wine, with a touch of yellow fruit, and a lovely rounded texture, balanced by a bright and slightly stony finish.

Coming close in quality, however, was the similarly styled Marco Felluga Collio Pinot Grigio Mongris, proving that quality is rife in this part of Europe.

In our unoaked category, it was a wine from the southern hemisphere that picked up a Master. And that was the Te Pa Pinot Gris from Marlborough, New Zealand, which displayed layers of exotic fruit, a delicious viscous texture and a cleansing freshness. Impressing the judges, it showed that Marlborough can craft classleading Pinot Noir and Pinot Grigio, as well as Sauvignon Blanc.

While there were just a few wines that reached such high points, plenty of wines in the tasting were of an excellent standard, and hailed from a broad range of nations, including Australia, Hungary, France, Moldova, the US, New Zealand, Slovenia, the UK and Chile.

In short, this tasting highlighted the hot spots for Pinot Grigio, as well as this grape’s ability to produce good results in a range of places.

It is a variety of huge commercial importance, but also, impressive stylistic diversity, and great quality potential. Like other tastings in our Global Masters series, the competition for Pinot Grigio proved that this variety is no one-trick pony, but professional assessment is required to pick out the best examples at a range of price points.

Scroll through to view the results for the sparkling, unoaked, oaked and rosé categories. 

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