Champagne Masters 2019: the results in full

An extensive report on this year’s Champagne Masters, including all the medallists, a look at the top-performing categories, the best wines of the competition, and the styles of fizz we liked – and those we weren’t so enamoured with too…

Tell anyone outside the wine trade that you’ve spent a day tasting Champagne, and one can hardly expect sympathy – jealousy is the most common reaction. However, assessing this fine French fizz is hard work. If I consider all the Global Wine Masters competitions the drinks business runs, the Champagne Masters is the most challenging. It requires intense concentration to fairly and accurately judge a delicate drink, with many components to consider, from the quality of the bubbles, to the acid-structure of the wine, character of the fruit, along with lees-aged flavours – and, where relevant, quality of the reserve wine – along with integration of the dosage, where present.

Stylistic preferences
There’s a further element that makes this competition demanding for the taster, and especially the chair. This concerns stylistic preference. I know my own leanings from more than a decade’s worth of regular Champagne sampling, and that is for a relatively rich style of fizz with clearly identifiable aromas/flavours from extended ageing on the lees and protection from oxygen, such as grilled nuts or toasted bread. This type of sparkling is termed ‘reductive’ by the trade, referring to fact that these roasted characters tend to emerge in the absence of exposure to air during the process, and in the headspace too (which explains the increased prominence of smoky/toasty aromas in larger formats, where the ratio of oxygen to fizz is altered).

However, I am aware that not all tasters share my preference for these traits. I find some judges much more forgiving of the opposing, oxidative style of fizz. While I enjoy the honeyed flavours found in older bottles, and the softer sparkling sensation too, I am less keen on the more aldehydic characteristics that can emerge from the less protective handling of Champagne making, such as the taste of bruised apples. But for others, this can be seen to add an extra layer of flavour.

Dryness in Champagne can be another source of debate, while rosé style is always a subject of extended discussion. But the results of a competition such as the Champagne Masters does not reflect one person’s preferences but the collective views of a professional jury. And the word ‘professional’ is key, because these are tasters that may have different stylistic predilections, but have the experience to know that it’s necessary to put aside personal tastes in the desire to fairly assess the fizz in front of them. In other words, whether you favour more oxidative or reductive flavours in fine Champagne, it is the overall quality of the fizz that’s being rated.

Having said that, before leaving the question of style, it was certainly the case that extremes of either Champagne type performed less well. As long-standing Global Masters judge and fellow chair, Jonathan Pedley said after the tasting: “It was interesting to see that the debate over the degree of reduction/oxidation in premium wines is alive and well, in this case in the context of Champagne. Every taster has their own preference or tolerance, but that the consensus we edged towards is that a reductive or oxidative component in a wine can add complexity and interest, but if sulphidic aromas on one side or aldehydic on the other come to dominate the nose then complexity is lost.”

The tasting also revealed marked differences in the character of older Champagnes. There are too many factors to list that could be the cause of this, but this year’s competition showed (again), how some more mature Champagnes, be they in the vintage or prestige cuvée category, had delicious flavours of honey, dried fruit, coffee and lightly toasted brioche, while others seemed to have characters that were probably more kindly described as a touch tired. Pedley said: “I remain fascinated by the way Champagne ages: the right sort of development brings glorious nutty, honeyed complexity, whereas the wrong sort of age results in grim cabbagey staleness.“

On the subject of pure quality, however, there was agreement: the general standard of Champagne was high. I have written about the reasons for this in previous reports from former tastings, but it is clear that improved vineyard management, coupled with a good run of vintages and a better understanding of when to pick the grapes is yielding base wines that are clean, fresh, and have a fruity depth. In contrast, Pedley said that 25 years ago, “many wines were green and unripe, often with clumsy dosage masking raw acidity”.

Complexity and richness
It has also been noted before following a Champagne Masters tasting, that the non-vintage category contains wines of greater class, complexity, richness, and softness, something ascribed not only to better management of the fruit in the vineyard and cellar, but also the increased use of reserve wine – now commonly up to one third of the blend, and taking in a broader span of harvests than historically.

Having said that, the lesser-scoring Champagnes of this category were those where this reserve wine component seems to sit uncomfortably with the younger ‘base’ wine – something one imagines would be solved by a longer time spent maturing post-disgorgement. In keeping with our results last year, we witnessed a very good base standard of relatively affordable Brut NV Champagne from the grower-cooperative brands of the region: with Collet, Castelnau and Nicolas Feuillatte all gaining Silvers in the sub-£30 price brand, and Palmer, along with Pannier, taking a Gold in the £30-£50 flight.

In this latter price category, the quantity of Golds awarded was notable. Beyond the co-operative brands, the top maisons performed admirably, be they the region’s biggest names, Moët and Veuve Clicquot, along with slightly smaller houses, Piper and Pommery. We were also impressed by the NVs from more boutique operations, as well as relative newcomers to the negociant Champagne model: Comtes de Dampierre (founded in 1986) and Brimoncourt (launched in 2009).

The latter also gained a Gold for its extra brut in the £50-plus category of NV Champagne, and, with a dosage of just 2g/l, showed how the selection of ripe wines can yield a rounded and pleasurable fizz, even when the sugar level is extremely low. The same was true of the Henri Giraud Esprit Nature, which, despite its dryness, had the creaminess of a white Burgundy, no doubt due to this producer’s use of oak casks to age its reserve wines.

The sole Master among the NVs was Pommery’s Brut Apenage, which showed some youthful zesty chalky characters, a touch of white peach, and some honeyed, biscuity notes from extended ageing, making it both refreshing, but also ripe and layered in style.

The entries were judged on 04 October at Ametsa restaurant in the COMO Hotel, Belgravia, London

Beautiful fizz
Moving into the vintage Champagnes, it was houses Piper and Charles Heidsieck that shone, both of which share a parent company in EPI. Piper, however, achieved the only Master in this category – which it picked up for its latest expression from the first-rate 2012 harvest. This beautiful fizz combined characters of beeswax, bitter lemon and toasted hazlenuts, and was layered and textured, but still taut and mouth-cleansing. Alfred Gratien, Castelnau, Lanson and Pannier were further high performers in the vintage category, and at less than £50 at retail – showing the relative value of this Champagne type, especially when compared with Prestige Cuvées. “Given the psychotic pricing of the Prestige Cuvées, the traditional Vintage bracket can offer high quality at an almost sensible price,” said Pedley.

Nevertheless, it was within this peak of the Champagne pyramid that we unearthed the greatest expressions, with four Masters awarded, almost two thirds of the total. And the producer mix of these great Champagnes was varied, with Heidsieck houses Charles and Piper wowing with their Blanc de Millenaires and Rare cuvées respectively, along with a cooperative-grower brand, Collet (for its Esprit Couture 2007), and aforementioned comparatively young négociant name Comtes de Dampierre, with the Prestige 2004.

Commenting on this aspect of the tasting, Pedley said: “There were some splendid wines here, but the predatory pricing can leave you gasping for air. It is also worth saying that within this category there is a marked diversity of style. A couple of the wines seemed to be relatively youthful and fruity, whereas others followed the more familiar mature and complex pattern. I guess that Prestige Cuvée wines will always be more subject to the whims of the winemaker or marketer than, say, a traditional vintage wine.”

Pristine wines
As for the rest of the categories, it was perhaps notable that none of the Blanc de Noirs picked up a Gold. Although the sample set was small, it does support a long-held belief that Champagne benefits from Chardonnay. Meanwhile, the pure Chardonnay Champagnes did reach some high points, with pristine wines from Delamotte and Vollereaux particular. Finally, with the pink fizz, we saw a delicious NV sample from Charles Heidsieck, along with its wonderful vintage rosé, and an outstanding one from sister house Piper.

Indeed, the latter’s Rare Rosé 2008 wowed, with its creamy coffee aromas and zesty, fresh mouthfeel with a touch of exotic fruit flavours. But it should be added that this category, relative to the price of the Champagnes judged in the tasting, performed the least well, with some of the entries marked down because of a lack of autolytic character, or barely perceptible red berry fruit, as well as, on occasion, a phenolic note. Drawing attention to the inflated prices of pink Champagne relative to other styles, Pedley said: “I do enjoy a good rosé Champagne but to my dying day I will resent having to pay a premium to have a dollop of Pinot Noir added to the blend (or direct pressed for that matter).”

Over the following pages you can see all the medallists from this year’s competition, as well as comments from the judges (who are pictured below), and more information about the Global Sparkling Masters, including how to enter.

The judges, left to right: Patrick Schmitt MW, Anthony Foster MW, Patricia Stefanowicz MW, Antony Moss MW, Jonathan Pedley MW

The best Champagnes of 2018

Patrick Schmitt MW brings  you a full report from this year’s Champagne Masters, including all the medal-winning wines; an extensive analysis of the stylistic trends, and highlights from the competition – which comprised little-known labels and the most delicious fizz on the market today.

Jonathan Pedley MW of Crown Cellars.

The aim of blind tasting wines, whatever the category, is to remove all temptation to pre-judge, because, however disciplined one is, there is always an urge to question your perception if you know the cuvée.

This of course can work both ways, encouraging one to downgrade something with a lesser reputation, and upgrade something previously celebrated. And if there is one single lesson from this year’s Champagne Masters, where each sample was tasted without any knowledge of its identity, it was that one should be open minded in the search for quality in this region.

Or, to put it more bluntly, those who give in to label snobbery could be missing out on some of the best value sparkling wines in the world.

I can say this having blind-tasted the likes of Aldi own-label Champagne alongside Lanson, or cooperative-sourced Palmer against Piper-Heidsieck, and seen that the quality, measured in points, and rewarded with medals, is similar in each case with such respected grandes marques.

Indeed, this year’s results, more than ever before, show that some of the least illustrious sources of Champagne gained some of the highest scores. In particular, the 2018 Champagne Masters conclusively showed that a good grower-cooperative (those producers who are owned and run jointly by its members, who are growers), can be the go-to for the best quality-price ratio in this sparkling appellation. Although Champagnes made by cooperatives are often believed to be of lesser quality, our tasting in August proved that such producers can achieve outstanding results, and even make superior cuvées than the famous Grandes Marques, despite the lower prices generally charged for cooperative brands.

For those who know the Champagne region well, however, such an outcome may not surprise, with cooperatives being major suppliers of grapes and wine to many well-known names in the region, who own few vineyards themselves.

Not only that, but, unlike grower-Champagnes, who make fizz from just their own holdings, the cooperatives can source from a large area, and tend to select the best grapes and wines for producing their own branded Champagnes. This gives them the chance to blend wines from across vast swathes of Champagne, vital in the strive to create something consistent in style, and complex in character.

Jonathan Pedley MW and Andrea Briccarello.

But this isn’t the only reason why cooperative fizz is good at present. It also follows extensive investment by big grower-groups in winemaking facilities – as we’ve reported before, the major spending in Champagne over the past decade has been on wineries, as producers realise the importance of state-of-the-art equipment in the constant battle to remain a quality leader in the increasingly competitive world of sparkling wine.

So let’s look at the evidence in support of cooperatives as a supply of high-quality Champagne. Among the seven Champagnes that gained a Gold medal or higher in the Brut Non-Vintage category of 2018’s Champagne Masters were two bottles that hailed from cooperatives. Rubbing shoulders with the likes of Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label and Charles Heidsieck in this year’s Champagne Masters were Champagnes Palmer and Pannier, two first-rate brands owned and run by groups of growers. Such Champagnes were placed ahead of more illustrious labels, such as Champagnes Pommery and Laurent-Perrier, which come with higher prices too.

Meanwhile, taking home the ultimate accolade in the vintage Champagne category was another cooperative label, with Champagne Castelnau achieving a near-perfect score for its release from the 2006 harvest. Within the same category was a further stand-out wine from a cooperative, with the 2008 vintage from Champagne Chassenay d’Arce – a growers’ co-operative based in the Aube – picking up a Gold.

Then, among the blanc de blancs, we had another master from such a growers’ organisation, which was awarded to the sample from Champagne Collet – the brand of a co-operative Cogevi (Coopérative Générale des Vignerons). This was deemed of similar brilliance to Pommery’s blanc de blancs, while coming close to both these pure Chardonnay Champagnes was Castelnau’s 2005 vintage blanc de blancs, which gained a gold, along with just one other house, Canard-Duchêne, for its Charles VII La Grand Cuvée.

Finally, one of the highest-scoring Champagnes of the day’s tasting – which saw almost 200 bottles sampled blind by highly-experienced judges – was also from a cooperative.

Gaining 97 points out of a possible 100 was the Egérie de Pannier 2006, the top cuvée from Pannier, which was praised for its wonderful combination of complementary flavours, from lemon and honey, to toast and grilled nuts, along with an uplifting, lasting and very fresh, dry finish.

Costing £75, the Pannier prestige cuvée is far from cheap, but good value relative to other special blends in this top-end Champagne category, from Dom Pérignon to Cristal, which can retail for almost double the price of the Egérie.

Another cooperative Champagne that performed well in the 2018 Champagne Masters was a prestige cuvée from Union Champagne – with its Orpale 2004 gaining a Gold. Then there was Nicolas Feuillatte, Montandon and Jacquart, which each of these cooperative producers picking up Silver medals for a range of cuvees – an impressive feat considering the strict, if fair, nature of the judging in the Champagne Masters.

But, while the cooperatives showed extremely well, that’s not to say other houses performed poorly, and we had several stand-out Champagnes among négociant brands, big and small. Like last year, Charles Heidsieck wowed, retaining its position as the most outstanding Brut NV in our tasting, and, considering almost every major marque was included in the competition, one can also say that this house is making the class-leading Brut on the market today.

Great brands and smaller names were both present among the golds, and, aside from the cooperative brands mentioned earlier, Palmer and Pannier, the great Brut NVs also hailed from the mighty Veuve Clicquot, and Piper-Heidsieck (interestingly for its first-rate demi-sec), along with more modest houses Henriot and Cattier.

Concerning drier styles, the Extra Brut category, which can be the source of slightly hard-tasting cuvees, was this year home to a couple of excellent Champagnes, a sign that when the blending and maturation is carefully done with a low dosage in mind, the results can be highly successful. Taking home a Gold was Piper-Heidsieck’s Essential with 5g/l dosage, but, compared to its Brut, an extra 18 months spent ageing on its lees to bring a compensatory roundness to the cuvée. It has more precision than the Brut, and plenty of toasty richness from lees ageing, making it a great example of a very dry Champagne.

Galvin restaurants wine buyer Andrea Briccarello

A surprise newcomer in this category was the négociant house Brimoncourt, a historic Champagne brand ressurected in 2009 by an entrepreneur from the region. Its Extra Brut, despite just 2g/l dosage, had a wonderful creamy mouthfeel from carefully sourced ripe Chardonnay from the southern end of the grand cru slopes of the Cotes des Blancs. If you want almost bone dry NV Champagne, then few are better than this.

Within the vintage category, aside from the excellent samples mentioned above from cooperative brands Castelnau and Chassenay d’Arce, one of the best-value and most complete cuvees came from Moet & Chandon, specifically its brilliant achievement with the generous 2009 vintage, where ripe yellow fruit complements this house’s more ‘reductive’ style, complete with notes of grilled nuts and roasted coffee.

Star performer, but at a higher price, in the vintage category was Charles Heidsieck, proving that this house is no one-trick pony, and can achieve Master-quality in a range of categories. Not far behind were delicious and ready-to-drink single-harvest Champagnes from Pommery, Piper and Delamotte, along with a wonderful rosé vintage, hailing, again, from Charles Heidsieck. As for years that performed best, a broad range of vintages gained Gold medals, but both the ripe 2006s and more structured 2008s did notably well, with a slight preference among the judges for the former harvest, which is showing more seductive results now, depending of course on the handling.

In terms of further styles, having already mentioned blanc de blancs, it is important to stress the quality seen this year in the rosé category. At the top end price-wise the judges were delighted by the pretty, fruity, and refreshing results from Perrier-Jouët in particular, although Henriot and Henri Giraud both impressed. At slightly lower prices, Veuve Clicquot is making full use of its Pinot Noir winemaking expertise by making a consistently first-rate rosé, although so too is Charles Heidsieck, along with Moet, albeit in a slightly lighter style.

At for the very pinnacle of Champagne, the prestige cuvee category, this year’s tasting prove that such a descriptor is worthy for pretty much all the most expensive expressions from a broad range of producers. We have already mentioned the brilliance of the Egérie de Pannier 2006, but also proving outstanding this year was the Amour de Deutz Rosé from 2008 – a beautifully pale pink Champagne with a lovely balance of brightness and creaminess. But, although there were a selection of absolutely brilliant cuvees at this top end, there was one highlight fizz, and, in my view, the best Champagne on the market today.

This is the 1998 vintage of Piper-Heidsieck’s prestige cuvée called Rare, which is available today in magnums only, with a retail price of £375 – making it pricy, but by Champagne prestige cuvée standards, far from outrageously expensive.

Achieving an average 98-point score when myself and three other judges sampled it blind, I wasn’t alone in declaring it an exceptional fizz – and even asked the competition organiser, Chloé Beral, to stopper the cuvée immediately, so I could try it later on that same day (and was subsequently delighted to discover it came in a large format, and tasted even better a touch warmer).

Why is it so good? I believe the fact it comes in magnums plays a part, giving the wine a more youthful taste and sensation than one might expect for a Champagne that’s now 20 years old.

But it is also the skill of the Rare cellar masters Régis Camus and late Daniel Thibaut, as well as the quality of grape sourcing, and the nature of the 1998 vintage, which has undergone a revision upwards in reputation, unlike the more famous 1996 harvest of that decade.

So what does it taste like? It offers an intriguing sensation of a Champagne that’s evolving, but still zesty and youthful; a fizz that’s broad and creamy, as well as tight and cleansing. And while it has the golden appearance of a developed Champagne, it doesn’t exhibit oxidative bruised apple characters that often plague fizz of such an age.

Rather, the Rare 1998 has more ‘reductive’ characters of smoke, coffee and toast, no doubt from the extended period this wine has spent ageing in contact with its lees. In combination, drinkers can expect aromas of almond, cappuccino and vanilla, along with fruit flavours on the palate from dried apricot to orange and lemon zest, complemented a persistent toasty finish. Still tangy, with plenty of forceful but fine-textured fizz, this is a Champagne that’s perfect now, but still lively enough to mature further.

Patrick Schmitt MW, Andrea Briccarello, M&S winemaker Sue Daniels and Jonathan Pedley MW.

Nevertheless, to finish with the topic at the start of this article, the value for money on offer among grower-cooperative brands, even at the priciest end of the scale the coops impress. Indeed, with Pannier’s Egérie 2006 costing £75, one could have five bottles of this prestige cuvée for the same price as a single magnum of Rare 1998 – a thought that makes the former all the more tempting, especially when one considers that its final score in the blind tasting was just a single point lower than the top Piper cuvée.

But, really the lesson here, as noted at the outset, is not to worry whether the Champagne comes from a famous brand, large-scale cooperative, or petite maison. While image and appearance are of course important, particularly for gifting with Champagne, when it comes to finding the best quality for the price, one shouldn’t give way to prejudice. Nevertheless, you need a guide, and that’s the role of blind tastings using experts in their field. So, dare I say it myself, when topping up on Champagne over the next 6 months, use these results as your guide.

About the Champagne Masters

The Champagne Masters is a competition created and run by the drinks business and is an extension of its successful Masters series for grape varieties such as Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, as well as regions such as Rioja and Chianti.

The competition is exclusively for Champagne and the entries were judged by a selection of highly experienced tasters using Schott Zwiesel Cru Classic glasses supplied by Wine Sorted.

The top Champagnes were awarded Gold, Silver or Bronze medals according to their result, and those Champagnes that stood out as being outstanding received the ultimate accolade – the title of Champagne Master.

The Champagnes were tasted over the course of a single day on 23 August in the Mayfair Suite at The Langham Hotel in London.

The judges were:

Andrea Briccarello
Clement Robert MS
Jonathan Pedley MW
Michael Edwards
Patrick Schmitt MW
Roberto della Pietra
Simon Field MW
Sue Daniels

About the tasting process

All the entries are tasted blind, ensuring that the judges have no knowledge of the identity of each wine beyond its price band and basic style.

Once a score for each wine from every judge has been revealed, and the reasons for the result given, the chair of each judging group will compile an average score, and award medals accordingly.

Each wine is scored on the 100-point scale, with pre-set scoring bands corresponding to the medals awarded, which range from Bronze to Gold, and Master – the ultimate accolade, awarded only to outstanding samples. The judges are told to consider the resulting medal when assigning their score.

The bands are as follows: 85-88 – Bronze; 89-92 – Silver; 93-96 – Gold; 97-100 – Master.

Although the judges are tough, they are accurate and consistent, and the open judging process allows for debate and the revision of initial assessments.

Within the style and price category, the judges are looking for appropriate flavours – be they attributable to the vineyard or the winemaking processes. They are also in search of complexity, intensity and persistence at levels expected of the style and price band. In particular, the judges will reward wines highly if they have both balance and personality.

Thanks to the quality of the judges and the sampling process, the Global Masters provides an unrivalled chance to draw attention to hidden gems, as well as confirm the excellence of the renowned.

Top L-R: Sue Daniels, Simon Field MW, Bottom: Andrea Briccarello, Jonathan Pedley MW, Patrick Schmitt MW, Clement Robert MS, Michael Edwards, Roberto della Pietra.

The medal winners

Champagne Masters 2014: The medalists

This year’s competition showed that efforts to create the upmost in luxurious sparkling wine stretched beyond the top-end offerings and into categories that previously didn’t fare well.

Champagne-Masters-Judges

Judges, left to right: Simon Field MW, buyer, Berry Bros. & Rudd; Jamie Hutchinson, owner, The Sampler; Sue Daniels, wine buyer, Marks & Spencer; Rebecca Palmer, associate director & buyer, Corney & Barrow; Michael Edwards, journalist, author, Champagne expert; Anthony Foster MW, director/buyer, Bonhote Foster; Marcel Orford-Williams, buyer, The Wine Society; Patrick Schmitt, editor-in-chief, the drinks business

Bearing in mind the high price of Champagne, particularly grandes marques, one should expect a large collection of medal-winners in any competition devoted to this sparkling wine region. But having awarded silvers to almost half the entries in this year’s Champagne Masters cheapest category – Brut NV under £30 – we realised that the sector’s base level was now home to very high quality fizz, and undoubtedly fewer disappointing examples compared to 2011, when we first held the competition. Furthermore, former weak points in the tasting – the extra brut and rosé categories – both contained first-rate wines in 2014, proving that Champagne with very low levels of sugar can be attractive, while pink Champagne is a serious fizz too. In essence, the results attest to the fact that viticultural and winemaking improvements across the region are really becoming evident now in the wines, whatever the style.

FAMOUS FACES

Anthony-Foster-MW

Initially, the non-vintage category at all prices yielded some impressive results, and in particular, proved the quality available among Champagne’s most famous names. Commenting after the tasting’s results were revealed, chair of the judges and Berry Bros buyer Simon Field MW said, “The grandes marques are really on form at the moment,” before adding, “Showing well across the piece were, not to my great surprise, Charles Heidsieck and Deutz.” He then mentioned his particular respect for Louis Roederer, which, like Heidsieck, achieved the top award of the tasting: a Master for its Brut NV. “Hats off to Roederer’s Brut, demonstrating [chef de caves] Monsieur Lecaillon is primus inter pares when we are discussing Champagne masters!”

Findings from the tasting

• Champagne’s grandes marques performed well in this year’s competition, particularly Charles Heidsieck, Louis Roederer and Deutz.
• Brut NV Champagnes proved high quality and good value, while rosé and extra brut styles did better than in previous competitions, suggesting a quality improvement among wines in these fashionable categories.
• Blanc de Blancs Champagnes gained good scores, particularly more expensive examples.
• Charles Heidsieck was the outstanding house in this year’s competition, a testament to the skill of its late chef de caves, Thierry Roset, who died suddenly aged 55 in October this year.
• Some lesser-known houses also performed well, such as Chassenay d’Arce and Ployez Jacquemart.
• The overall quality standard was extremely high.

Nevertheless, it was Charles Heidsieck that performed the best overall in this year’s competition. Not only did this house achieve a Master for its Brut Réserve, but also its Brut Millésime 2000, while it gained a gold for its Blanc des Millenaires 1995 and a silver for its Rosé Reserve. Indeed, while we are paying tribute to winemakers, such a successful outcome for Charles Heidsieck Champagnes is testament to the skill of the late Thierry Roset, chef de caves at the house, who sadly died suddenly in early October aged 55.

Also impressive were the scores of Charles Heidsieck sister house Piper- Heidsieck, which achieved the only gold in the NV category for Champagnes priced £30-40 for its Brut Essential, while it gained a silver for its Brut NV in the under £30 category. Another notable success was Jacquart, which gained a silver for its Brut Mosaïque – a Champagne that has undergone a quality improvement since former Veuve Clicquot winemaker Floriane Eznack joined the brand in January 2011. It also earned silvers for its new prestige cuvée Alpha, with the 2005 vintage, as well as its blanc de blancs 2006 and its extra brut NV.

Meanwhile, the little-known brand of Chassenay d’Arce picked up silvers for its Cuvée Première Brut NV, Pinot Blanc Extra Brut, and a gold for its blanc de blancs 2005 as well as its prestige cuvée, named Confidences.

Meanwhile, Field mentioned further houses which impressed him in the tasting, which was conducted, like last year, at The Dorchester hotel. “I was pleased that some of the less lauded houses such as Lanson and Piper were able to rise to the challenge too.” He added, “This indicates to me a confidence across the region and an overall qualitative consistency.”

Finally he said that he was pleased to see Cattier, Palmer and Henriot “all showing their worth”, describing them as “three houses I admire”. In particular, he commented that he was “encouraged” to see large co-op Palmer making “such good wines”.
Rebecca-Palmer

Champagne Masters 2016: the results

This year’s Champagne Masters showed that the quality in the sector is very high. Patrick Schmitt MW takes a look at who took away the top awards at the blind tasting.

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CHAMPAGNE IS, of course, an extremely powerful brand. And while that brand strength stems from the region’s history and high-profile supporters, not forgetting the fierce protection of the Champagne name, it also comes from the product itself – which is widely revered for its style and quality.

Indeed, it is the benchmark for sparkling wine. But how good is Champagne today? If one is to judge it by the region’s flag-bearers, then, looking at the results of this year’s Champagne Masters, one can see that the region really is on song. As we have reported in the past, the major houses, or Grandes Marques as they are commonly called, have been on a mission to improve their bread and butter output, the Brut NV Champagnes – a style that makes up more than 80% of production across the entire appellation – and the results of such efforts are really starting to show.

ABOUT THE COMPETITION

The Champagne Masters is a competition created and run by the drinks business and is an extension of its successful Masters series for grape varieties such as Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, as well as regions such as Rioja and Chianti.

The competition is exclusively for Champagne and the entries were judged by a selection of highly experienced tasters using Schott Zwiesel Cru Classic glasses supplied by Wine Sorted.

The top Champagnes were awarded Gold, Silver or Bronze medals according to their result, and those Champagnes that stood out as being outstanding received the ultimate accolade – the title of Champagne Master. The Champagnes were tasted over the course of a single day at the Dorchester Hotel in London. This report features only the winners of medals.

Making these Brut NVs better has been, in part, an amelioration in the quality of the grapes, which is connected to superior viticulture, as well as, in particular, a more sophisticated understanding of when is the ideal moment to harvest.

But for the Grandes Marques especially, who buy in the majority of the grapes they vinify, quality improvements are really a question of superior cellar practices – such as the decision by these famous Champagne makers to use more reserve wine for greater consistency, roundness and complexity, as well as to allow the wine to rest for longer periods in the cellar both on its lees and off them, bringing a desirable bready character, and a more integrated dosage.

Other minor adjustments for improved precision include a reduction in the amount of sugar used in the Brut cuvées, with on average a drop of 20% in dosages over the past 15 years. In combination, this means that any tart, green fizz with a slightly sugary finish is not in evidence today, at least among the famous names that do so much to further the awareness of Champagne worldwide.

So, as the performance of Champagne’s top 10 biggest brands by volume shows, the mightiest names are making some seriously good sparklings, and that’s despite the fact that the majority of the samples assessed this year used base wine from the weak 2011 vintage.

Nevertheless, it should be added that the Grandes Marques do need to be crafting first-rate fizz – not only are the retail and restaurant prices for these cuvées increasingly high, but also the quality and extent of the competition from outside Champagne is rising all the time.

As our Sparkling Masters competition has shown, the output from England, Italy (Franciacorta and Trentodoc) and New Zealand in particular, is increasingly similar in style and quality to Champagne, and more often than not, a touch cheaper than the famous French fizz (though the difference is not as much as one might imagine). But this competition was focused on just Champagne, pitching the biggest brands against each other, and the famous names against lesser-known producers.

Among the sub £30 Non-Vintage Champagnes, no label gained a Gold, but there were plenty of Silver medals, particularly for the cooperative brands, such as Palmer, Jacquart, Montaudon and De Castelnau – all names that are carving out a reputation as good quality entry points to Champagne.

The only Grande Marque Champagne in this price category was Canard-Duchêne, which, with its Cuvée Léonie Brut – a Non-Vintage that benefits from three years ageing in the producer’s cellars – showed why this house is considered a good-value alternative to more famous brands.

Layout 1Moving into the £30-40 price band, but staying within the Non-Vintage category, the judges were impressed by the quality of Champagne’s largest label: Moët & Chandon, which this year gained a Gold in the blind tasting, up from Silver in 2015. Known among Champagne aficionados for its reductive style of winemaking, Moët’s Impérial Brut NV had an appealing gently sulphurous note, similar to a freshly struck match, combined with a core of ripe yellow fruit and a slightly honeyed character, doubtless from the use of well-stored reserve wine. In essence, it represented a particularly attractive balance.

But it was equalled in quality by a delicious example from De Saint Gall, another cooperative brand, which offered a core of ripe yellow fruits, along with a prominent toasted brioche character and a refreshing, almost bone dry, finish – it was an Extra Brut. However, attracting yet more praise in this category was the sample from Piper-Heidsieck, which, as our first Master of the tasting, became the top example of accessibly-priced NonVintage, benefitting from plenty of fruit and freshness and a lovely toasted bready character along with that classic Champagne chalky taste on the finish.

The quality in this price category was strong across the board, with almost all the entries gaining a Silver or above, and those that didn’t only just missing out – often due to a bruised apple character, suggestive of more oxidative handling, which, while not always unpleasant, can give a bitter finish to the Champagne. Over £40, and we witnessed another star of the day’s tasting, although when the wine was revealed – Charles Heidsieck Brut NV – we weren’t surprised: the house has a long history of producing ‘best-in-class’ Champagnes.

But also in this category was something we weren’t expecting, which was the very high scores for Montaudon, whose Class M rangetopping non-vintage is an impressive fullbodied Champagne with class. Moving beyond £50, it was Taittinger and Lanson that gained the Golds, with the former producer’s Prélude showing the quality of fizz attainable when grapes are sourced from the best grands crus vineyards in Champagne, while the Lanson displayed the complexity possible from extended ageing on the lees for wines that haven’t been through the malolactic fermentation.

Layout 1In the blanc de blancs category, it was cooperative brands Palmer and De Saint Gall that performed better than the rest, with the latter picking up a Master for its Cuvée Orpale Grand Cru from the brilliant 2002 vintage – giving consumers a fresh chance to sample the delights of this harvest long after most others have sold through not just their 2002s, but 2004s, 05s and 06s.

However, Chardonnay specialist Henriot ran this Champagne close with its Non-Vintage Blanc de Blancs. Meanwhile, while we sampled some very good Blanc de Noirs, none of the entries quite reached the heights of the Brut NVs or Blanc de Blancs, suggesting that Champagne needs Chardonnay to hit the highest notes.

The Vintage and Prestige Cuvée categories showed that a range of recent vintages are producing high-class Champagnes, although when the 2002s featured, they tended to perform better than other years – and recommended in particular is the De Castelnau 2002 for its price-quality-ratio and the Rare 2002 from Piper-Heidsieck, which may be expensive, but is an outstanding fizz.

As usual, the Vintage category delivered the most bang for your buck, with plenty of Golds and Silvers for Champagnes beneath £100. These wines may not have all the accoutrements of the rangetopping Prestige Cuvées, but in terms of what’s in the bottle, a Vintage Champagne from an excellent harvest made by a good producer is hard to beat.

As for the pink Champagnes, this is an area that has dramatically improved over recent years, yielding wines with brightness and, at the top end, persistence, power and many layers of flavour. And few are making greater rosés than Charles Heidsieck and Henriot – even if these are houses better known for their blanc Champagnes. Sparkling wine is a growing category with a wide range of new players, but judging by this year’s competition, Champagne, whatever the style, is still at the peak of the quality pyramid.

Judges comments:

SIMON FIELD MW, BUYER FOR CHAMPAGNE, BERRY BROS & RUDD

capture2“Interestingly, it was often the relatively humble NV cuvées that out-performed their elders, and allegedly betters, and the so-called Prestige Cuvées, on occasion, not quite justifying their immodest price tags.

Honourable exceptions were Henriot and, slightly surprising to me, Piper and not in the least surprising to me,
the great wines of Charles Heidsieck. The fact that the Blanc de Millénaires 95 only notched up a Gold raised an eyebrow just because of the weight of expectation on its now beautifully mature shoulders.

All the more reason to pay respects to the great and much missed Thierry Roset. Dosage seems less overplayed than in previous years and there were fewer examples that were oxidised, egregiously tart or clearly ‘made’.

Autolytic notes were pleasingly present, demonstrating that the requirement for the Champenois to raise their game in the face of ever-widening competition has not been overlooked.

It was interesting to see some good notices for some of the major brands (Lanson and Moët among them) some of the volume négoces (eg G.H. Martel) performing creditably; ditto some of the co-ops (Palmer being, as usual, a very reliable example). Indeed, the corollary to this is that some of the more prestigious names did not uniformly shine.Or at least they did not stand out conspicuously in their respective groups.

In terms of the rosé, the results were far more consistent, with the more prestigious and expensive wines generally performing far better. The stylistic variations in this category were revealing, although once again, the wines were dominated by fresher wines with gentle red fruit personalities. Long may it continue.”

CLEMENT ROBERT MS, GROUP HEAD SOMMELIER AND WINE BUYER, 28-50 WINE WORKSHOP & KITCHEN

Layout 1“Generally I found the quality of the wines tasted very high. In my opinion it shows that the quality on every level in Champagne is better than ever. I expected that almost all Champagne entries would gain a medal and most wines did, confirming that on the whole, producers’ standards are high.

I think many people assume that all the large houses would gain high scores but that was not always the case. There were some wines from less well-known produces that did very well, demonstrating that there is more to the region than a brand. “The Vintage and Prestige Cuvée offerings stood out as expected and deserved their Gold/Masters.

The Rosé and Blanc de Noirs entries were polarising with some top wines only scoring Bronze and others Gold. There were some ‘skinny’ and astringent NVs that were covered up by high dosage. I would like to think it’s a result of some poor vintages, but blending should take of care of that.

I suspect it’s a result of high yields and trying to squeeze as much juice as possible from the grapes. Finally, there was a really interesting alternative grape entered – a vintage 2008 Pinot Blanc, which was great.”

MICHELLE CHERUTTIKOWAL MW, TUTOR, WSET

“The biggest issue of Champagne is its price tag, it is an expensive product, however, with the quality rising in the entry level range we can now consume a very good product for a reasonable price.

Champagne is an ultra competitive market and is becoming increasingly competitive which is beneficial for the consumer. I loved the prestige cuvée flight and some of the entry level Champagnes over-delivered in my opinion.

There were very few disappointments, although some of the rosés tasted over-extracted or tired, and I don’t really like those overripe and oxidative white Champagnes either. Overall the wines were of a very high quality; 90% were a real pleasure to taste.”

The judges (l-r)

> Anthony Foster MW, director/buyer, Bonhote Foster
> Rebecca Palmer, associate director & buyer, Corney & Barrow
> Michelle Cherutti-Kowal MW, WSET tutor
> Michael Edwards, journalist, author and Champagne specialist
> Roberto Della Pietra, sommelier and brand ambassador, French Bubbles
> Simon Field MW, Champagne buyer, Berry Bros & Rudd
> Patrick Schmitt MW, editor-in-chief, the drinks business
> Clément Robert MS, group head sommelier and wine buyer, 28°-50°

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Champagne Masters 2017: the results in full

We bring you the all the medal-winning wines from this year’s Champagne Masters, including the biggest names in the business, and some relative newcomers to the category that are offering great fizz at competitive prices.

The Champagnes were tasted over the course of a single day on 17 August at Les 110 de Taillevent in London. Among the judges were Antony Moss MW (left) and Anthony Foster MW

While the Champagne Masters are focused entirely on Champagne, one can’t help but consider the quality and style of sparkling wine from elsewhere when tasting this fine French fizz. And had we been conducting this tasting more than a decade ago, Champagne’s competition would have been fewer in number and weaker in threat.

But today that competition is many and strong, with, notably, new quality entrants from places such as coastal Chile, Central Otago, Franciacorta, Trento, and England. Good fizz from Spain, California and Australia was already on the international stage 10 years ago.

With that in mind, today Champagne must be not only good, but clearly the best to remain the benchmark, particularly as its prices creep upwards, most notably among the famous Brut non-vintage brands.

With the Champagne Masters including the main producers, and, significantly, the 10 best-selling grandes marques, this blind-tasting competition acts as a health check on the region. It identifies the base level of quality and the stylistic trends, as well as the strengths and the weaknesses.

Importantly, the people doing this are experts in their field (see above), and are attuned to the developments in the wider sparkling wine business.

Although the Champenois should resist any temptation to give way to complacency, the standard of fizz in this year’s competition was high. Indeed, it would be hard to think of another sparkling-wine region where the base level was as consistently impressive.

Those wines in Champagne’s non-vintage category may not be cheap, but almost all of this year’s entries gained a Silver medal or above, which is no easy task – not only are the judges exacting, but the entries are being judged relative to other Champagnes, and good ones at that.

As we have reported in the past, the major maisons have been improving their big-selling blends – and this has in part been achieved by the use of better-quality grapes and a higher proportion of first pressings, but more obviously from extending the time the Champagne spends in contact with its lees after the second fermentation in bottle, as well as increasing the quantity and age of reserve wines, which provide added depth and complexity to the Champagnes.

Less sugar
A touch more precision has also been observed in this sub-category, which stems from the decision across the board to lower the amount of sugar added to the wines at disgorgement. Other tweaks are also contributing to quality enhancements, though less uniform, and these range from the use of state-of-the-art winery equipment, the addition of large oak vats for fermentation and ageing, along with (particularly important for consistency) the installation of the so-called ‘jetting’ system during disgorgement, which reduces the risk of excessive oxygen ingress when the cork is applied.

Summarising his thoughts on the Brut NV part of the Champagne business, which accounts for as much as 90% of the volume production, wine writer, sparkling wine-specialist and Champagne Masters judge Michael Edwards said: “I genuinely think that this was one of the most rewarding Masters that I have attended in recent years. What really impressed me was the very high standard of the bread-and-butter non-vintage sector: in a challenging, fairly quiet market, the Champenois have played to their forte, focusing most effort into raising their game in Brut sans année.”

He added: “This has been applied across the community – in maisons such as Taittinger and Henriot, co-ops like Palmer and Chassenay d’Arce, and bijou houses like Lallier.”

Judges Clive Barlow MW (left) and Clement Robert MS

Price and quality
While the quality across the board was high, some brands did stand taller than others, in particular the more expensive marques, proving that there is a strong relationship between price and quality in Champagne. Among these was perennial top performer Charles Heidsieck, which manages to deliver a brut NV with ripe fruit, a creamy texture, but also a smoky ‘reductive’ note, and plenty of freshness – a result of skilful blending from a vast palette of well-stored reserve wines.

Also, for those who are convinced that the lower the level of sugar in a Champagne, the better it must be, Charles Heidsieck has achieved its award-winning style with a more ‘traditional’ level of 11g/l for its brut NV – when the majority of brands are now at levels of around 9g/l. This relatively generous dosage adds to the richness of the Champagne, but no one could accuse Charles Heidsieck’s Brut NV of tasting sweet, or being unbalanced.

A mention in this category should also go to Taittinger, a house that is making wonderful non-vintage Champagnes both at the entry level and further up the price ladder with its Prelude Grand Cru. These are wines that benefit from a high proportion of first-rate Chardonnay, as well as the know-how of Loïc Dupont, who has worked at Taittinger for more than 30 years.

At slightly lower prices, it was also pleasing to see the big-volume producers on song, with Moët, Veuve Cliquot, Nicolas Feuillatte and Lanson all gaining Silvers, proving that high production levels need not be a barrier to quality in brut NV Champagne.

Beyond the brut NV Champagnes, this year’s Masters highlighted the positive impact of first-rate weather conditions as well as rigorous grape selection. The vintage and prestige cuvée categories attracted a raft of Master medals, which are awarded only to outstanding wines.

To deal with the impact of weather first, it was perhaps not surprising to see vintage and prestige cuvée Champagnes from the 2008 and 2002 harvests gaining Masters – both being brilliant vintages, and the two standout years of the noughties, thanks to wonderful climatic conditions throughout the growing season.

On the market
With the majority of the 2002s from the famous maisons released some time ago, and sold out, it was good to find some Master-winning examples still on the market – Piper with its Rare 2002, and Comtes de Dampierre with its top-of-the-range expression from this vintage. Piper also picked up a Master for its vintage 2008, as did Champagne Mumm – the latter offering a chance to sample this great year at a relatively affordable price.

As for grape selection, the high number of Gold medals awarded to vintage and vintage-dated prestige cuvée Champagnes across a range of years attests to the quality attainable when the best grapes are singled out for gentle pressing and extended ageing. With more than 33,000 hectares of vineyards in the Champagne region, it’s always possible to isolate sites where the bunches have the right balance of sugar, acid and flavour-giving compounds for making top-end fizz from a single year, and even in vintages where the weather is variable.

Indeed, one of the highest-scoring Champagnes from this year’s competition was from the controversial 2003 vintage – a year of climatic extremes and low yields. This sample, from Champagne Castelnau, was one of the many surprise discoveries from the competition, the sort of wines that our Masters blind-tasting format seeks to identify.

Other interesting finds included the brilliant Blanc de Blancs from Champagne Le Brun de Neuville, Palmer and Delamotte, as well as an outstanding example from Frerejean Frères – a relatively young house, and a name to watch.

Other producers that performed well this year across the categories include Nicolas Feuillatte, which offers great-value Champagne in the vintage category, as well as Henriot – a producer of wonderful pure Chardonnay Champagnes – and Deutz, which gained a Master for one of Champagne’s most underrated prestige cuvées, Amour de Deutz.

In short, the Champagne Masters 2017 showed that Champagne is still the benchmark for traditional-method sparkling, and that consumers of this great fizz will be rewarded by spending more.

Finally, while it confirmed the quality among maisons already renowned for quality, it also drew attention to less famous names from the region – allowing you to try something new safe in the knowledge that it won’t disappoint.

The judges (left to right): Patrick Schmitt MW, Clement Robert MS, Michael Edwards, Anthony Foster MW, Jonathan Pedley MW, Roberto Della Pietra, Antony Moss MW, Clive Barlow MW

Over the following pages are all the medal-winners in 2017’s Champagne Masters. 

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