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.

Asian Chardonnay Masters 2017: Results

Chardonnay, a grape variety that has mushroomed out from its spiritual home in Burgundy to practically every wine-producing country in the world, proved that with the right terroir and skills of its winemakers, it can produce thrilling, savoury and age-worthy expressions as found in our Asian Chardonnay Masters competition.

The judges (from left to right): Jeremy Stockman, general manager of Watson’s Wine, Hong Kong, Yvonne Cheung, director of Wine for Swire Hotels and Restaurants, James Rowell, corporate and VIP sales manager of Altaya Wines, Francesca Martin, founder & director of BEE Drinks Global, Ying-Hsien Tan MW, founder & owner of Singapore-based Taberna Wine Academy, Ivy Ng, publisher of the Drinks Business Hong Kong, Eddie McDougall, trained winemaker and founder of The Flying Winemaker and Yang Lu, corporate/group wine director of Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts

A relatively neutral grape, Chardonnay is an ideal translator of local terroir and winemaking craft, thanks to its malleability through malolactic fermentation, lees contact and barrel ageing. The grape’s versatility has made it a favourite among wine producers. Despite soil types and climate, it’s one of the most widely planted white grape varieties in the world with more than 400,000 acres worldwide; as seen in our competition entries that encompassed Chardonnays from obscure regions such as China’s northwestern Xinjiang, Israel’s Judean Hills and South Africa’s Western Cape to more established sites in Champagne and Burgundy, Chile’s Casablanca Valley, northern and central Italy, and all the way to Australia’s Adelaide Hills and New Zealand’s Hawke’s Bay.

Close to 80 samples were submitted by wineries and importers for our Asian Chardonnay Masters held on 26 April at Hong Kong’s swanky HIP Cellar. The competition is the second instalment following our successful Asian Cabernet Sauvignon Masters in March. The samples were tasted blind and assessed over the course of one day by price bracket and stylistic difference (still or sparkling and within the still category, oaked or unoaked) to identify the best of Chardonnay in their own price range in the local market.

The results are encouraging as a cherry-picked panel of eight judges including a master of wine, top wine buyers/directors and trained winemaker gave out seven Masters, 15 Gold medals, 27 Silvers and 19 Bronzes. The wines are scored out of 100 points with the ones gaining 95 points or above being awarded the top accolade of Master. Wines scored higher than 90 points were given a Gold medal, those over 85 points a Silver medal and those over 80 points a Bronze.

“I think the overall quality is very good. When I say overall quality, we try to judge them in the context of price bracket. Some of the wines may be simpler or more obvious, and perhaps not designed for long ageing but they are well made in that context, and are good quality,” commented Ying-Hsien Tan MW, founder of Singapore-based Taberna Wine Academy, who was one of the Panel Chairs.

Eddie McDougall, wine critic and ‘The Flying Winemaker’, agreed addeing: “The class of all the wines showed a good spread of stylistic expressions of Chardonnay. There were some very good examples of wines at approachable price points, which goes to show that quality Chardonnay doesn’t need a hefty price tag.”

In addition, Yang Lu, corporate/group wine director of Shangri-la Hotels and Resorts, noted a good representation of entries from almost all major wine regions. “I think different winemaking styles and philosophies are well represented in the competition as it covers all styles and wine regions as well different levels of quality,” he ssaid.

For James Rowell, corporate and VIP sales manager of one of Hong Kong’s leading wine importers, Altaya Wines, tasting a diverse range of Chardonnays is a revelation. “For someone who doesn’t have the opportunity to taste or drink a lot of New World wines, it’s very interesting to see what’s currently out in the market at different price points because some styles have changed and evolved,” he explained.

The Judges

Ying-Hsien Tan MW, Founder & Owner, Taberna Wine Academy, Singapore
Yvonne Cheung, Director of Wine, Swire Hotels and Restaurants
Yang Lu, Corporate/Group Wine Director, Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts
Francesca Martin, Founder & Director, BEE Drinks Global
Eddie McDougall, Founder, The Flying Winemaker
James Rowell, Corporate and VIP Sales Manager, Altaya Wines
Jeremy Stockman, General Manager, Watson’s Wines, Hong Kong
Ivy Ng, Publisher, the drinks business Hong Kong 

Burgundian in style  

Different from aromatic grapes such as Riesling or Gewürztraminer, Chardonnay is easier to cultivate and responds well to a wider range of winemaking techniques. Given its chameleon-like nature, it takes on a wide spectrum of aromas from green apple and tomato leaf to tropical fruits, peaches, cream and vanilla. The grape variety has undergone some stylistic changes from rich, buttery, full bodied wines, favoured in the 1990s to today’s trendier, crisp and less-oak dominated expressions. Burgundy is still held in high regard as the reference point for Chardonnay, but fine examples from the New World can rival if not surpass top Burgundy wines in quality and style.

“I think the biggest surprise for me was the fact that a couple of  the wines that seemed to be particularly Burgundian in style that is very restrained yet with finesse and complexity, but to my surprise they were not. So that was an interesting discovery for me,” commented Tan.

This is a sentiment echoed by Francesca Martin, founder of Bee Drinks and a Master of Wine candidate, as well. “There were certainly more New World wines in our line-up than Burgundy, however, many of these were of very high quality and a couple I would have put money on being from top villages in the Côte d’Or,” commented the Hong Kong-based wine consultant.

The Elephant Hill Chardonnay from New Zealand’s Hawke’s Bay, which was awarded a Master title, stumped a few judges and led them to believe it was a Chassagne-Montrachet before its identity was revealed after the competition.

Meanwhile, a Tapanappa Tiers Vineyard Chardonnay 2015, another Master winning wine, was believed to have measured up to many Côte d’Or classic examples, Martin added noting that, “it was a lovely wine combining wonderful ripeness of fruit with a taut, linear structure” without sacrificing its own style to emulate Burgundy.

Elaborating on the ever-blurring line between Burgundians and top New World Chardonnays, Tan explained: “Chardonnay is a very competitive grape variety that producers around the world are now really getting the hang of understanding how the grape variety works in that particular region or environment and producing very good quality wines.

“Now it’s getting harder and harder to tell Burgundian wines apart from a premium New World wine. So that was a nice surprise for me, not actually a surprise but more a pleasant growing realisation that how well these non-European regions can compete not just in quality but in style with some top Burgundian wines.”

Chardonnay from Australia’s cooler climate in Adelaide Hills or even a South African Chardonnay Capensis by Jackson Family Wines impressed judges with their winemaking precision, proving South Africa’s massive potential. The latter was awarded a Gold medal.

Nonetheless, Burgundy’s Domaine Servin Chablis Premier Cru Butteaux 2015 proudly showcased unoaked pristine Burgundian quality and nabbed a Gold. And a few old guards from Europe including: a Laroche Mas La Chevalière Vignoble Peyroli 2014 from the Languedoc, Champagne Nicolas Feuillatte’s Brut Blanc de Blancs 208 and Italy’s Mezzacorona Chardonnay Vigneti delle Dolomiti 2016 from Trentino-Alto Aldige and Monteverro Chardonnay 2013 from Tuscany all stunned and took home Gold medals.

Australia Setting the New World Benchmark

Among all the New World competitors, Australia by far stood out for the consistency of its Chardonnay quality and its value for money, bagging six out of the seven much coveted Master titles and seven Gold medals.

The country’s Chardonnay mania is such that today it’s hard to think of Australian wines without Chardonnay. The grape is now responsible for half of the country’s white wine production with 406,000 tonnes crushed in 2016 out of a total of around 808,000 tonnes, according to Wine Australia.

From Hunter Valley to cooler region such as Adelaide Hills, Yarra Valley and Tasmania to warmer regions in Margaret River, the country provides a contrast of styles between the leaner, crisp style found in Adelaide Hills and riper, richer style in Margaret River.

Moving to price brackets, as most judges noted in the competition medium priced Chardonnays under HK$400 (US$51) outperformed many heftily priced bottles. The finding is especially uplifting as most of them, fine examples of New World Chardonnay as we discovered in the competition, can give Burgundy a run for its money especially when prices for top Burgundy wines seem to be going nowhere but up.

Within the price band of under HK$400 (US$51), five Masters were given out to high performers from Australia. They were: Bird in Hand Nest Egg Chardonnay 2015 from Adelaide Hills, Alkoomi Black Label Chardonnay 2016 from Frankland River, Voyager Estate Chardonnay 2013 from Margaret River, and McGuigan The Shortlist Chardonnay 2015 from Adelaide Hills and Cape Mentelle Chardonnay 2015 from Margaret River, with the latter two from an even more modest sub-price bracket of HK$150 (US$20) to HK$300 (US$39).

“It was great to taste such a range and in our group we found that wines in the medium to premium range that wines are consistently showing technical precision and also a level of expression,” stated Yvonne Cheung, director of wine for Swire Hotels and Restaurants.

Moving up to higher price bracket between HK$400 (US$51) and HK$799 (US$102), Tapanappa Tiers Vineyard Chardonnay from Piccadilly Valley and Elephant Hill from New Zealand received the top honour of Master. A Japanese Chardonnay from Suntory winery’s Tomi No Oka in Yamanashi near Mount Fuji set high standards for its Asian peers and nabbed a Gold medal for its “very restrained, savoury, elegant and balanced” style as the judges noted. The wine, however, bears the most hefty price tag, selling more than HK$800 in retail.

Chardonnay, a winemaker’s wine

Ying-Hsien Tan MW, founder & owner of Singapore-based Taberna Wine Academy

It’s worth noting that nearly all wines in the competition went home with a medal, which speaks loudly for the quality of Chardonnay found in the tasting. “I thought generally oak was very well integrated on the majority of the wines, adding subtle notes of toasty spice, rather than lots of overt vanilla. Lactic notes from malolactic fermentation, if apparent, were likewise well integrated and didn’t dominate on many of the wines. I feel that lees ageing and stirring are now having more of an impact on style and seemingly something producers are playing around with and paying more attention to. What I love about Chardonnay is the fact that it’s such a winemaker’s wine that the stylistic possibilities are seemingly endless. I very much felt during the tasting that there really is a style of Chardonnay for everyone,” commented Martin when asked about winemaking in Chardonnay.

Indeed, McDougall, a trained winemaker, believed that compared with other white grape varieties, winemakers are given more latitude to put their own stamp on the wine. “I believe that winemakers are far smarter when it comes to the selection of oak treatment in the wines. Across the board there was a lot more balance shown than my initial expectation. The stand-out examples really came about when the wines showed honesty in its fruit profile and a complex under-layering of either lees contact, barrel fermentation or the positive traits of sulfide development from wild yeast fermentation,” he added.

Likewise, the ones that disappointed, though small in number, were the ones that lacked balance between oak and fruit or had an overly elevated level of dimethyl sulfide, which according to him, showed traits of creamed corn.

Reduction, a winemaking technique that contrasts with oxidation, was mentioned by a few judges during tasting. When applied correctly, it adds to a wine’s complexity and flavour, otherwise, it can upset a wine’s balance and flavour profile.

“Reduction was certainly a dimension for a number of the wines with a few having a bit too much to be pleasant. This was only overdone on a couple of the wines however, many others displaying just a subtle touch of struck match character that I personally really enjoy. As with any of these things it’s all a question of balance. Reduction can certainly add an element of complexity, I believe, but in excess it becomes a fault and deters from the overall attractiveness of the wine, masking fruit and making the wine rather hard and harsh. Overall with this particular lineup I felt winemakers clearly had a good handle on where the balance lay,” Martin explained in detail.

Adding to the discussion, Jeremy Stockman, general manager of Hong Kong’s top wine retailer Watson’s Wine, delved deeper into the fine distinction between reduction and the otherwise struck-match character. “The subjective (but enjoyable!) discussion was between reduction and struck match/flinty notes. I thought in general they were factors that added complexity although a few were out of balance,” he said.

Value for money

Yang Lu, corporate/group wine director of Shangri-la Hotels and Resorts

Another finding perhaps most welcoming to consumers is that a few samples that were awarded Gold medals sell for less than HK$150 (US$20) retail. A Nepenthe Chardonnay 2016 won over the judges for its pure, focused, consistent and balanced style with good intensity. The Mas La Chevalière Vignoble Peryroli, albeit an Old World style Chardonnay, still gripped the judges with its “pithy and integrated” nature, while a “technically sound” Chardonnay from New Zealand’s The King’s Bastard equally garnered the judges’ praise.

Moving up to the HK$150 (US$20) – HK$299 (US$39) range, Taylor’s Wines Jaraman Chardonnay 2015 stood out for its layers of flavours, bright acidity and its oily texture. In addition, its ‘St Andrews Single Vineyard Release’ of the same vintage knocked judges off their feet with its complexity, persistent finish and elegance. Another Chardonnay from Nepenthe’s ‘Ithaca’ 2015 also got a nod for its minerality and intensity.

Even a few technical wines under HK$100 (US$13) garnered judges’ praise for offering decent quality and great value, winning a trove of Silvers. “The technical wines were generally the less expensive ones and I think that is normal from large producers making wines for sale under HK$100. They were technically correct with sunshine fruit and balance – I think a customer is getting value for that price range,” Stockman pointed out.

Chardonnay Masters 2017: the results in full

Where once the choice for Chardonnay drinkers was either a big, buttery, oaky expression or, in response, an austere, lighter version, now producers have found an appealing middle ground, as Patrick Schmitt MW and fellow judges discover.

The wines, which were all 100% Chardonnay, were judged by a cherry-picked group of Masters of Wine and sommeliers on 12 October at Villandry in Piccadilly in London

No single variety of wine has suffered more abuse than Chardonnay. As those of you in the trade know well, the most overt sign of this came with the ‘Anything But Chardonnay’ movement of the last decade – shortened to ABC – which emerged as a response to buttery, oaky, rather sickly styles of wine that had appeared on the market from the late 1990s onwards, when heavy-handed cellar techniques were used on lightweight grapes. Unfortunately, it wrongly tarred all Chardonnays with the same brush. But the ABC sentiment was to some extent justified; it was a reaction to something real.

As a result, combatting such an image issue took drastic, tangible measures. It required the emergence of ‘skinny’ Chardonnay: a style of wine created so lean that the trade and consumers couldn’t help but notice. It was proof that Chardonnay’s stylistic pendulum had well and truly swung to another extreme. And, for this reason, initially, it was welcome. But it wasn’t the long-term solution for a grape that had created a mass following for its richness. Should one crave a fresh, lightweight drink, one wouldn’t ask for a Chardonnay. So, while the lean Chardonnay showed that winemakers could produce something delicate from this grape, it was, at the same time, disappointing those who loved Chardonnay for its generosity; that crowd-pleasing combination of ripe yellow fruit and notes of buttered toast.

About the competition

In a crowded wine competition arena, The Drinks Business Global Chardonnay 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, which were all 100% Chardonnay, were judged by a cherry-picked group of Masters of Wine and sommeliers on 12 October at Villandry in Piccadilly in London. This report only features the medal-winners.

Moving forward to today, and following another extremely comprehensive Chardonnay sampling through our Global Masters programme, it is apparent that an appealing, balanced middleground has now been struck. One can still find the rich, oaky, Chardonnay caricatures, and the more feathery, austere examples too, but the extremes are less extreme. The variation now comes with price point – so, as one moves up the quality ladder, you can literally buy more fruit, oak, and layers of flavour, for the most part, in harmony. What’s important is that, in general terms, the Chardonnay on the market at the moment is better to drink than it has ever been before. And, with so many sources, there’s a lot to excite the adventurous drinker.

All this means that, at present, any wine lover who is tired of Chardonnay, to paraphrase Samuel Johnson, is tired of life. With all that said, before looking closely at the high points from this year’s tasting, there is still controversy in the handling of Chardonnay by winemakers. In the vineyard, lower yields, and attempts to pick neither under- nor over-ripe may be producing musts with the potential for greatness, but management during and after fermentation is bringing a particular and divisive character to the resulting wines – and this results from differing levels of hydrogen sulphide (H2S). At low levels, this compound can add a complexing whiff of smoke, reminiscent of a freshly struck match.

At higher concentrations, it can be stinky, like rotten eggs. Skilled winemakers can control the influence, mainly through lees management, and will allow the almost rampant production of the compound in some barrels, before blending these into the wine to a bring about a desired level of sulphide-sourced characters. Where they have been apparent, but not unpleasant, sulphidic aromas have been a shortcut to success in wine competitions. However, our judges are more sceptical of heaping high scores on such artefact.

As a result, while the top medallists in the Chardonnay Masters may display an attractive sulphidic note, it is in combination with other flavours, primarily the character of the grapes, enhanced by the addition of aromas created by malolactic fermentation and barrel-ageing. In other words, our judges aren’t swayed by the instant aromatic smoky hit from sulphides, but are happy to reward this trait in well-made Chardonnay, as long as it is in harmony with other elements in the wine. On that note, it is important to stress that texture too is vital for great Chardonnay, and the judges were looking for a wine not just with flavour complexity, but a certain weight in the mouth from ripe fruit (not sugar or elevated alcohol). Not only that, but the oleaginous had to be balanced by a brightness on the finish – all wines must deliver refreshment, however weighty.

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