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.

Results: Chardonnay Masters – Asia 2019

Chardonnay has remained a staple favourite in Asia, enjoyed by the glass and bottle in bars and restaurants and its popularity shows no sign of abating despite New World Sauvignon Blancs gaining traction and with sommeliers increasingly selecting lesser-known varieties to spice up their lists.

The eight judges for the drinks business Hong Kong’s Chardonnay Masters – Asia 2019 were split into two panels. One was led by Master Sommelier Darius Allyn, co-chair of the event, the other, by myself.

In the Unoaked Under HK$200 category Allyn thought South African De Wetshof Estate’s Bronze Medal-winning Limestone Hill 2018 was a fresh entry-level wine “with citrus and creaminess, with some intenseness and a soft and round pleasing style”. Of the Bon Vallon 2018, a Silver medallist from the same producer, Allyn said it had, “more aromatics, higher acidity, and clarity of fruit – I wish it had a little more on the finish”. On the same panel, Ken Man, buyer and fine wine specialist at Ginsberg+Chan said Bon Vallon had, “a decent amount of fruit, a decent wine for that pricing.”

Cavit’s Italian Mastri Vernacoli Chardonnay Trentino DOC 2018 (Silver medal) struck a chord with David Jones, senior account manager at Berry Bros & Rudd: “It built on the palate, with nice balance,” he said. Of Helan Mountain Premium Collection Fruity Chardonnay Wine 2017 (Bronze medal) from Pernod Ricard (Ningxia) Winemakers, Anty Fung, wine pecialist and manager of Hip Cellar, said: “Red apples and green apples and its soil character adds to an interesting balance.”

In the ‘Oaked Under HK$100’ flight, wine columnist Sarah Wong said of Marisco Vineyards’ Leefield Station Chardonnay 2017 (Bronze medal) from New Zealand: “I found citrus on the nose, it was a light and elegant in style, with good balance and finish.”

‘The Ned Chardonnay 2017’, also from Marisco Vineyards was favoured by Jeremy Stockman, general manager at Watsons Wine, who said, “it was a lighter style – crisp, vibrant, with grapefruit and I liked the touch of matchstick from the wood”.

Also taken with this wine was Terry Wong, retail manager and sommelier at Ginsberg+Chan: “There were melon and apple notes and minerality – it seemed good value at this price,” he noted. It bagged a Silver medal.

In the ‘Oaked HK$100-150’ category, of the De Bortoli Wines’ Villages Chardonnay 2017 from Australia, Jones noted its intensity, and said it was in balance.

Again from De Bortoli Wines, The Estate Vineyard Chardonnay 2017 Allyn found more aromatic and intense. Fung said it was more extracted as well as lightly spicy. Both wines took Bronze medals.

In my panel, Bronze-winner Australian Vintage’s McGuigan Cellar Select Chardonnay 2017 drew praise from Sarah Wong, who said: “It slowly opened up, it was creamy with a buttery fairly long finish and was elegant.” Stockman most liked the Distell Fleur du Cap Series Privee Chardonnay from South Africa, which also picked up a Bronze; “its notes are on the bigger side with peach and melon rind in there, and a long finish with texture, which in this bracket worked very well,” he said. Terry Wong and myself were quite taken with Australian Vintage’s Silver-Medal Tempus Two Copper Wilde Chardonnay 2015: we both noted its citric and tropical fruit, with good length.

Onto the ‘Oaked HK$150-200’ category, where jones remarked on the “energy” and “lift” of Treasury Wine Estates’ Penfolds Max’s Chardonnay 2017. Allyn liked the “lifted aromatics” of this wine. Alynn’s panel all liked the McGuigan Shortlist Chardonnay 2017 from Australian Vintage – “it shows a lot of purity, structure and balance,” he said. Both wines took Silver medals, as did Distell’s Plaisir De Merle Chardonnay 2018.

Greywacke Chardonnay 2010 from New Zealand picked up a Gold Medal in the ‘Oaked HK$200-300’ flight. Sarah Wong commented: “It had structure, it was powerful and balanced, with struck matchstick and good intensity of fruit on the palate and a very long finish.” Stockman was keen on Vasse Felix Felius 2017 and Voyager Estate Chardonnay 2016 as well, both from Australia, and both of which won Silver medals. “They both had quite subtle complexity, with length on the finish. And I agree with Sarah on the [Greywacke Chardonnay], which I gave 91 points to; big in all aspects, so it remains very balanced.”

Terry Wong and myself were also fond of this robust balance – with him commenting it was made in a Burgundy style, with lots of minerality showing through. Terry Wong was also keen on Australian Vintage’s McGuigan Personal Reserve HR Chardonnay 2018 (Silver Medal), saying it had good length and acidity, with grapefruit and peach notes.

In the penultimate flight, Jones was drawn to Wakefield/ Taylors Wines’ ‘One Giant Leap 2017’, from Australia, which won a Silver. “Good intensity and good richness but balanced,” he opined, “but with some freshness to it.”

Man’s top wine from this grouping was La Motte Wine Estate’s ‘La Motte Chardonnay 2017’ – it took a Silver; “lovely citrus fruits, very good acidity, and very nice balance and finish,” he said. This was also Allyn’s flight-favourite – which he said was quite delicate, and he found One Giant Leap the most complex aromatically. Fang most preferred Wakefield/ Taylors Wines’ Jaraman Chardonnay 2019, a Bronze medallist. “It shows clarity, and fine citric fruit character with oak that’s not overpowering the fruit,” she said.

The judging concluded with wines above HK$500. The star of this group was Gold Medal-winning Vasse Felix Heytesbury Chardonnay 2017. My panel was unanimous on its notable high points. “It was elegant, tight, had good acidity, very restrained good fruit and a very long finish,” said Sarah Wong, who could have been speaking for us all.

“I thought the oak was extremely well handled,” added Stockman, “there was a nice cashew note to it and it was very well balanced with serious layers to it. It’s also still very tight and will improve with age.” Besides this wine, Terry Wong also praised Wakefield/ Taylors Wines’ St Andrews Chardonnay 2017, on its hints of “guava, lime and jasmine, with good acidity.”

Overall, with two Gold Medals awarded, 18 Silvers and 36 Bronzes at the end of the day, many at the long tasting table were looking forward to seeing more of these wines in the market.

Full results can be found on the following page.

Chardonnay Masters 2014: The results

Proving that few grapes can beat the malleability and creative potential of Chardonnay was last month’s Masters tasting, where top-price pours and cheaper oaked styles fared well.

Chardonnay-Masters-JudgingIF THE chef’s universal test is an omelette, then a winemaker’s should be a Chardonnay. With its relatively delicate flavours the grape is able to transmit winemaking tweaks more clearly than any other variety, making it the ultimate tool to judge cellar technique. And like that egg- based dish, the wine from Chardonnay may seem uncomplicated to make, but it’s also easy to get wrong. If it’s good, however, the wine trade will undoubtedly sit up and salivate.

It’s for these reasons that our annual Chardonnay Masters is such a popular and revealing judging session. Not only does it give us a chance to see the trends at work in winemaking, but also discover some of the hottest talent in the global vinous scene. Furthermore, as the grape can only be grown in few places with great success – despite its appearance almost everywhere there are vineyards – the tasting highlights places of brilliance.

ENGLAND SPARKLES

And, as this year’s tasting showed, one of these places is England. Our first flight of the day considered sparkling Chardonnay, taking in a mixture of blanc de blancs from Champagne and a range of English counties, including Sussex and Hampshire. Just two golds and three silvers were awarded, split almost equally between English sparkling Chardonnays and those from Champagne, proving that the Brits can create traditional method fizz that is comparable in quality with Champagne, if different in style. With Wiston Estate the sole gold from England, the tasting also reinforced the belief that its creator, Dermot Sugrue, is one of this small industry’s greatest winemakers.

Moving onto still wines, it was notable that the unoaked Chardonnay category yielded no golds in 2014. “At the cheaper end the oaked Chardonnay seemed to do better, so if you are going to do a sub £10 Chardonnay then having some carefully judged oak seems to add something,” commented judge Martin Gamman MW. Nevertheless, a few names stood out in this category, with the Co-op supermarket’s Chablis, made by Jean-Marc Brocard, one of just two silvers in the under-£10 unoaked Chardonnay category, proof that this region is one of the very few areas that delivers real character from the grape without a heavy wood influence.

That said, it requires the economies of scale and low margins of a multiple retailer to hit a sub-£10 price point for Chablis today.

Another star was a new Chardonnay from Giusti, a producer in Asolo and one of only two wineries to achieve the top title of Master in our 2014 Prosecco Masters. Italy was the source of another silver in the unoaked category, although this time in the £10-20 price band, with Zonin’s IGT Toscana Chardonnay impressing the judges, along with Valdivieso Reserva Chardonnay from Chile.

OAKEY-DOKEY

However, the majority of entries in the competition had seen some oak in their production, and looking at the cheapest category, it was pleasing to see the brand leaders performing well. Indeed, the top three best scoring Chardonnays in the oaked under-£10 flight were from three of the biggest names in the business: Hardys, Jacob’s Creek and Torres, representing Australia and Chile. “With inexpensive New World Chardonnay I look for something with some oak and balanced, bright acidity,” commented another judge, Clement Robert, head sommelier at London’s Medlar Restaurant and 2013 Moët UK Sommelier of the Year. Considering further this category, he also described the general standard of the wines as “good to very good”, and was pleased to see no obvious signs of added acidity.

CHILEAN CHALLENGERS

Notable in the next price band, £10-20, was the strong performance of Chardonnays from Chile. Leading the nation in this category was the Viñas Errázuriz Group, which took one of only two Masters in the entire competition for its £15 Arboleda Aconcagua Costa Chardonnay. Exciting the judges was its combination of ripe fruit, toasty oak and a refreshing grapefruit tang, all for a sub-£20 wine. The group’s slightly cheaper Errázuriz Max Reserva also did well in the same category, gaining one of the 16 silvers. Using Chardonnay from the same region of Aconcagua Costa, it seems this area of Chile is a region to watch for high-quality Chardonnay, although Leyda- sourced Chilean Chardonnays from a number of producers, including Santa Rita, did well too.

Proving that New World Chardonnays from as broad a set of sources as Lake Ontario Canada and Hawke’s Bay New Zealand are able to compete with Burgundy in the same price range, among the silvers awarded in the £10-20 band were two Côte-d’Or whites from Domaine Pierre Labet, including its Beaune Clos du Dessus Des Marconnets. In other words, those New World Chardonnays in this price band that gained silvers are making wines of equivalent quality to good village- level Burgundy.

Moving up to the higher price points however, it was notable how good the Chardonnays were from Australia, California and South Africa – the latter perhaps a somewhat underestimated source of high quality Chardonnay. In Australia specifically, the judges were pleasantly surprised by the quality of the Taylors Wakefield St Andrews Chardonnay from the Clare Valley, which had plenty of ripe fruit, but also an appealing smoky and subtle sulphidic character, palate-cleansing citrus and well-judged toasty oak. This wine was awarded a gold in the £20-£30 band, along with the Katherine’s Vineyard Chardonnay from Cambria Estate Winery in California’s Santa Maria Valley, heralding from the Jackson Family’s impressive stable of wines. The latter wine was a wonderful example of a more classic Californian Chardonnay, with richness, warmth, but also complexity and just enough acidity to offset the generosity. Sommelier Clement Robert, having tasted the wine blind and scored it highly, was particularly pleased, as he later revealed he had previously chosen this Chardonnay to serve by the glass at his restaurant.

TOP-END TRIUMPHS

At even higher prices, once more, Australia’s Bird in Hand Chardonnay, made by highly respected winemaker Kym Milne MW, was given a gold for its Nest Egg label, highlighting the quality of fruit from the Adelaide Hills. But it was a Chardonnay from the Yarra Valley that scored even more highly, with the region’s Oakridge winery achieving a Master for its 864 Chardonnay. Made in a slightly leaner manner, but with a fashionable struck- match character, touch of toast, and lovely grapefruit flavours, not everyone liked the style, but at least it attracted plenty of discussion, and all agreed it was an excellent wine.
Over £50, without the presence of grand cru Burgundy in the tasting, we had few wines, but those that were commanding such high prices thankfully performed as well as one would expect for the expense. At the very top were Penfolds Yattarna, the wonderful white equivalent of Australia’s flagship red, Grange, and the boutique South African producer, Uva Mira, which produces intense Chardonnay from its high-altitude vineyards on the slopes of the Helderberg Mountains in Stellenbosch.

So what made the best examples great? For the judges it was the intense flavours from a broad set of complementary components, coupled with freshness. Summing up, David Bird MW commented, “You can mould Chardonnay into a simple wine or a lovely oaked example, but it is very easy to overdo it, and too many still think that you can produce a superb Chardonnay by sticking lots of wood in it.” Continuing, he concluded, “It is hard to produce a great wine from Chardonnay, but when you do, it is the greatest wine in the world.”

The wines were judged blind using Schott Zwiesel Cru Classic glasses at Broadway House in London. Wines were awarded Gold, Silver and Bronze medals, with only the very highest scoring entries being given the accolade of a Master.

Chardonnay-Masters-Judges

Judges left to right: Keith Isaac MW, Justin Knock MW, Clement Robert, Sarah Knowles, Neil Sommerfelt MW, Catriona Felstead MW, Patrick Schmitt, David Bird MW, Matthew Hemming MW, Beverley Blanning MW, John Atkinson MW, Michael Palij MW, Martin Gamman MW (not pictured)

Chardonnay Masters 2016: results

From being the butt of jokes 20 years ago, Chardonnay is now having the best brought out of it by winemakers worldwide. In the drinks business Global Chardonnay Masters, there was plenty to enthuse about, writes Lucy Shaw.

1Conjuring visions of a despondent Bridget Jones glugging it from a giant glass, Chardonnay has had a bad rap since the mid-1990s, when the term ‘Anything But Chardonnay’ was coined and people went to great lengths to avoid the grape. Twenty years on, the picture looks different – Chardonnay’s fortunes have been revived and the muchmaligned variety has made a magnificent comeback. While Burgundy remains its spiritual home, today Chardonnay is grown all over the world, from chalky soils in Sussex and Champagne to sandy loam in Australia’s Margaret River via New Zealand, South Africa, California and Chile.

Thanks to its relatively neutral character, Chardonnay is both a transmitter of terroir and a blank canvas for winemakers, who can put their stamp on the wines through malolactic fermentation, time on the lees and barrel ageing. Given its chameleon-like nature, Chardonnay’s flavour spectrum takes in everything from green apple and citrus to peaches and cream, and tropical aromas such as banana and pineapple, with those that have undergone malolactic fermentation often rich in texture.

One of the most widely planted grape varieties in the world, Chardonnay adapts well in many climates and soil types, and can be grown with relative ease, which was reflected in the wide range of countries we received entries from in our fourth annual Global Chardonnay Masters competition. Just under 200 wines were tasted over the course of a day at Trinity restaurant in Clapham by a cherry-picked team of judges made up of Masters of Wine and Master Sommeliers. The wines were tasted blind and scored out of 100, with those gaining over 95 points being awarded the top accolade of Master.

2Wines that received more than 90 points were given a Gold medal, those over 85 points earned a Silver and those over 80 points a Bronze.

The tasting turned out to be one of the most enjoyable, illuminating and successful of the Masters series so far, with six Masters and 45 Gold medals awarded. Stealing the show was Marlborough’s Giesen, which walked away with two Masters medals for its 2014 The Brothers Chardonnay and 2012 The Fuder Clayvin Chardonnay, priced at £22 and £42 respectively.

Proving that stellar Chardonnay needn’t make your wallet weep was the modestly priced and consistently excellent Eileen Hardy Chardonnay, the 2014 vintage of which won a Master, with the majority of fruit sourced from Tasmania and the remainder hailing from the Yarra Valley.

While further highlighting that Australia is still a major player when it comes to fine Chardonnay, Bird in Hand gained a Master for its Nest Egg from Adelaide.

At the top end of the price scale, South Africa’s Capensis from the Western Cape scooped a Master in the £50+ category, proving that the country is now capable of producing world-class Chardonnays.

With renowned viticulturist Rosa Kruger consulting on the project, the wine undergoes partial malolactic fermentation, with around half fermented in new French oak and aged on its lees in barrel for a year. “It proved that it merits its high price tag – I would have never have guessed it came from South Africa,” said Jonathan Pedley MW. Also winning big in the £50+ bracket this year was Alpha Omega estate from the Napa Valley, whose wax-sealed Reserve Chardonnay 2013 took our final Master of the day.At the top end of the price scale, South Africa’s Capensis from the Western Cape scooped a Master in the £50+ category, proving that the country is now capable of producing world-class Chardonnays.

Highlighting the fact that standout Chardonnay is being made globally, our Gold medals went to countries including Israel, with Barkan Winery in Upper Galilee picking up a Gold for its 2015 Special Reserve Chardonnay. Elsewhere, Australia put in a strong performance with Golds being won across the country, from the Hunter Valley, Yarra Valley and Adelaide Hills to Margaret River and the Clare Valley, where producer Wakefield/Taylors scooped a hat-trick of Golds. South Africa showed itself to be a country to watch for Chardonnay, with Bouchard Finlayson, De Wetshof, Boschendal and Boekenhoutskloof all taking home Gold medals. California also shone in the tasting with Cakebread, Copain and Stag’s Leap scooping a Gold apiece and Jackson Family Wines winning two for its Santa Maria Valley and Anderson Valley expressions. In Chile, two of the country’s historic estates, Concha y Toro and Errazuriz, won Golds, while closer to home, Montevero in Tuscany and Planeta in Sicily also took home Gold medals, showing that Chardonnay can shine in hotter climes.

3

GREAT CARE

Wines in all price brackets performed well and garnered praise from our judges. “I was surprised by how well-integrated the oak was at entry level. Producers are clearly taking great care to make better balanced wines. £15-£30 is the sweet spot for Chardonnay, where you’ll find the best value for money and wines that offer generosity of fruit, good structure and balance, and nice oak integration,” noted Miles Corish MW. Christine Parkinson of Hakkasan thinks ‘balance’ and ‘harmony’ are the new watchwords for Chardonnay.

“There were some encouraging, beautifully made Chardonnays in the £10- £15 bracket,” she said.

Hugo Rose MW was harder to please, favouring the wines in the £20-£30 bracket where he found “more bursts of quality and stylistic differences”. He was, however, encouraged by the quality of the wines on show in all price bands. “It was a very favourable tasting and the standard was much higher than I was expecting. There’s a trend for precision winemaking and a discrete use of oak across national boundaries, and my scores reflected that. For an old-school winetrade person this was a new paradigm for Chardonnay, with the wines showing purity, delicacy, balance and well judged oak and ripeness levels,” he revealed.

Jonathan Pedley MW was equally enthusiastic about Chardonnay’s upward trajectory. “The general standard was pretty strong across the board and there were very few weak wines as most were well balanced. If we’d have done this tasting a decade ago we would have found a lot of over-oaked, alcoholic wines, but these were well crafted, even at entry level,” he said.All of the judges seemed impressed by the quality leaps that have been made in the New World in recent years. “Nearly all of the wines got a medal and there were hardly any I wouldn’t happily drink. Chardonnay can be such a workhorse because everyone tries to make it, but it’s so much better than it used to be. If used, oak was appealing and in the powerful styles the balance, harmony and quality was still there. The big blockbusters can be just as elegant and exciting as the more subtle, delicate styles, illustrating Chardonnay’s ability to shine in different guises,” said Parkinson.
The topic of reduction divided our judges, with some, including Keith Isaac MW, liking the struck-match aroma the style provides and others believing winemakers had pushed the boundaries too far. “Reduction can be an attribute if employed alongside phenolic ripeness and decent balance, but people that played with reduction at the expense of other elements came unstuck,” said Corish MW. Pedley MW took a similar stance: “There was a battle at the middle to top end about how much reduction is a good thing and some winemakers have gone for the very reduced, leesy style, which had been pushed too far at the expense of fruit character in some wines.

Reduction is a winemaking fad and has become synonymous with quality in some people’s minds but I don’t buy into that,” he said.

As for terroir expression, it seemed lacking in a lot of the wines, but not at the expense of quality. “Sometimes it was difficult to tell the origin of the wines, so winemakers will need to look for regional identity moving forward,” admitted Rose.

4REGIONAL IDENTITY

Corish believes the better wines showed a sense of place, but he was hoping to find more layers of complexity in the higher priced wines. “The most disappointing wines in the line-up were a little skeletal and erring on the side of early picking, which made them one-dimensional,” he lamented.

All in all, there was very little to fault in this glittering line-up. “I was very impressed by the modest approach from the New World,” enthused Rose. “They weren’t trying to ape Burgundy – I saw something different from them. Oak use was so careful and precise it was almost invisible – there was a lot of thoughtful winemaking in evidence and very few failures. Chardonnays outside of Burgundy are forging their own path.”

Corish believes the category offers something for everyone. “Chardonnay remains one of the most versatile whites in the world. The tasting showed that the New World has come on in leaps and bounds from the days of heavy-handed oak treatment and over-ripeness. The grape offers consumers incredible value for money compared with other varieties,” he said.

His opinion was echoed by Parkinson: “It wasn’t obvious when the Old World wines came up alongside the New World examples. This is a new era for Chardonnay and the results are in the bottle. I can’t emphasise strongly enough how encouraging this tasting was – there was hardly a dud in there. We’ve turned a corner.”

The judges

  • Front row (l-r): Michelle Cherutti-Kowal MW, Hugo Rose MW, Jonathan Pedley MW,
  • Middle row (l-r): Patricia Stefanowicz MW, Lucy Shaw, Christine Parkinson, Patrick Schmitt MW,
  • Back row (l-r): Alberto Segade, Miles Corish MW, Keith Isaac MW, Thomas Chevalier

by eva-photography.com

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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