Asian Chardonnay Masters 2018: Results and Analysis

Chardonnay, arguably one of the most versatile white grape variety that has been popularised in virtually all vine-growing regions, is also among the most maligned on earth: first too oaky then too lean. The ‘Anything But Chardonnay’ movement of the 1990s was a vocal market rejection of an oaky, overripe and buttery style that was like sticking your nose into a bucket of popcorn. What followed later was a withdrawal from the heavy-handed use of oak to create austere, lean and racy expressions with acidity sometimes so pronounced that it was like biting into a lemon. Regardless of stylistic differences, though, the Hong Kong market seems to have a shelf space to accommodate both, as the results from Asian Chardonnay Masters this year have shown.

From left to right: (first row: JC Viens, wine educator, Joao Pires MS, Jennie Mack, managing director of AWSEC, Ivy Ng, former publisher of the drinks business Hong Kong, Sarah Wong, wine judge and columnist; second row: David Wainright, director of Andromeda Wine, Eric Desgouttes, general manager of Kerry Wines, Derek Li, group sommelier at JIA Group, and Allie Braithwaite, former employee at drinks business Hong Kong.

Nowadays, while both styles still exist, winemakers are generally refraining from excessive oak use to achieve a balance between acidity, oak and structure, a key point for the judges when reviewing all the samples.

Describing her perfect example of a Chardonnay, Sarah Wong, wine judge and columnist, said: “It is one that has fresh fruit. It should be balanced with crisp acidity levels, and good fruit intensity. Oak should be discreet and well-integrated into the wine”.

With balance in mind, the judging results showed that heavy oak use that overwhelmed Chardonnay’s own pleasant fruit profile was penalised, so were samples that were cloying, flabby and ripe, without an acidic backbone, or samples that were too green and racy, lacking fruit intensity and texture.

Chardonnay, a blank canvas for winemakers

About the competition

The Asian Chardonnay Masters is a competition created and run by the drinks business Hong Kong, and is an extension of its successful Asian Masters series. The competition is exclusively for single varietal Chardonnay wines and the entries were judged by a selection of experienced tasters including Hong Kong and Macau’s top sommeliers, wine buyers and wine educators. The top Chardonnay wines were awarded Gold (93 points or above), Silver (89 points or above) or Bronze (85 points or above) medals according to their result, and those samples that stood out as being outstanding received the ultimate accolade – the title of Master (97 points or above). The wines were tasted over the course of a single day on 20 May at Hip Cellar. This report features only the medal winners.

Different from Pinot Noir or Sauvignon Blanc, regardless of its growing region, Chardonnay, can be deftly shaped by a winemaker’s skills, cellar techniques and barrel ageing, giving it a chameleon-like nature.

This means a clever winemaker can create a plethora of styles with a repertoire of techniques including malolactic fermentation, lees stirring and time spent in barrel. In a market like Hong Kong, consumers seem to be more receptive to different styles of Chardonnay from this wide spectrum.

Derek Li, group sommelier of JIA Group, said even heavily oaked Chardonnay has a spot on a restaurant’s wine list. “Chinese people would like to pick a Chardonnay with quite heavy influence of barrel ageing and Western diners prefer a mineral-driven style,” he said.

Jennie Mack, founder of Asia Wine Service & Education Centre (AWSEC), said: “Casual drinkers like fruity and sometimes oaky styles but more experienced wine drinkers prefer Chardonnays from Beaune, particularly Chassagne-Montrachet and Meursault.”

When it comes to high-value Chardonnays, Burgundy rules among Hong Kong’s deep-pocketed wine enthusiasts and collectors, added David Wainwright, independent wine consult and judge, who previously worked for auctions houses such as Christie’s and Zachys. “Burgundy still dominates, maybe a bit of California here and there,” Wainwright said, but stressed that at the same time, Burgundy, the spiritual home for Chardonnay, and in many cases still considered the pinnacle of a winemaking, is “aspirational” to many young wine drinkers.

Ivy Ng, former publisher of the drinks business Hong Kong

Chardonnay from down under 

Joao Pires MS and Eric Desgouttes, general manager of Kerry Wines

The Master-winning Greywacke Chardonnay 2011 from New Zealand’s Marlborough region, made by Kevin Judd, the former winemaker at Cloudy Bay, is a prime example of what a balanced Chardonnay can taste like. With a creamy and silky texture, supplemented with abundant citrus zestiness, and spice nuance from barrel ageing, the wine was a surprise for judge Li.

“The wine is showing brilliant minerality, like crushed stone, and intense freshly picked white peaches. The palate is well integrated, with a balance of fresh acidity with good use of oak. The wine also has a long-lasting finish,” the sommelier said.

As well as Greywacke, a few other New Zealand Chardonnays also came in for high praise from the judges, proving that the country has more to offer than Sauvignon Blanc. Spy Valley Chardonnay 2015 is a lighter style with lively acidity, hints of floral notes on top of its citrus-dominated nose and costing less than HK$150 a bottle.

Aside from Marlborough, Hawke’s Bay is another region that has championed Chardonnay, accounting for 32% of New Zealand’s total plantings in 2016. Babich Irongate Chardonnay 2016, from the region’s now renowned Gimblett Gravels subzone, rich with gravelly soils, is a steely version of Chardonnay that impressed Wainwright. The quality of the Chardonnays from New World countries like the Greywacke and Babich wines is their value, both in the HK$200-HK$300 price band.

The judges

Eric Desgouttes, General Manger at Kerry Wines
Derek Li, Group Sommelier at JIA Group Holding Ltd
Jennie Mack, Managing Director of Asia Wine Service & Education Centre (AWSEC)
Joao Pires MS, Director of Wine at Melco Resorts & Entertainment, Macau

David Wainwright, Director of Andromeda Wine
Sarah Wong, Independent Wine Judge, Freelance Columnist at South China Morning Post
JC Viens, Managing Director of Grande Passione
Ivy Ng, former publisher, the drinks business Hong Kong

In Australia, another country where Chardonnay has come of age, unburdened by oak and high-octane personality, the trend is to craft wines of more polished, nuanced flavours and smooth textures. It’s hard to make generalisations about a style for Chardonnay in Australia, and there are classics coming from regions such as Margaret River, as in the iconic Leeuwin Estate Art Series Chardonnay that commands strong market interest, or the richer and more generous style of Allegiance Wines Unity Chardonnay 2017 that equally impressed the judges, earning a Gold medal.

David Wainwright, Director of Andromeda Wine

There was also a more restrained ‘Burgundian’ version from the region’s Voyager Estate. The white is smooth, textured and has seamless tension that was lauded by Eric Desgouttes, general manager of Kerry Wines, who called it “an excellent example of what Chardonnay should taste like”, one that suited the general trends in the market.

In Clare Valley, it was one Chardonnay by the region’s pioneering winery Wakefield Taylors Family Wines that bowled over the judges, not just for its craftsmanship but also for its price point, selling for less than HK$150.

Another value-for-money wine is McGuigan’s The Shortlist Chardonnay 2016 from Adelaide Hills, in the HK$100-HK$150 price band, with a thrilling smoky and lemony nose. As well as the well-established wine regions in the country, a relatively newer one, Pemberton, in western Australia also bagged a Gold medal with its Castelli Estate Chardonnay 2016.

US and South Africa 

Derek Li, group sommelier at GIA Group

Another top-medal winning wine from the blind tasting is Jackson Family Wines’ Cambria Benchbreak Chardonnay 2015 from California’s cooler-climate Santa Maria Valley. This smoky and leesy Chardonnay is laced with citrus notes, lemon peel, toastiness and a pleasant struck-match whiff, a result of hydrogen sulphide during fermentation. The wine, harking back to a more classic Chardonnay style, impressed the judges enough to take home a Master.

Another Jackson Family Wines’ Chardonnay made with parcels picked from high-elevation vineyards in its Stonestreet winery in Alexander Valley also stood out, and earned a Gold medal.

This was a plusher example but had plenty lively acidity and structure. This year, another top-performing wine country from the competition was South Africa. With a record number of entries from the country, three won Gold medals.

Columnist Sarah Wong

Distell Wines, the South African wine giant, netted two Golds, with its Durbanville Hills Collectors Reserve The Cableway Chardonnay in Cape Town and its Fleur du Cap Series Privée Chardonnay made with grapes selected from two vineyards in Stellenbosch.

The Durbanville Chardonnay is a lighter version with a slight touch of wood, while the Fleur du Cap Chardonnay is a more bodied and dense wine with ripe fruits. Contrasting with larger-scale Distell, the Kershaw Elgin Clonal Selection Chardonnay is a small artisanal production by Richard Kershaw MW.

A restrained and site-specific white, the wine from the country’s Elgin Valley impressed the judges with its mineral style and white-fruit characters.

Aside from the regions mentioned above, this year the majority of the samples we received were from the New World, including entries from lesser-known regions such as China’s Ningxia region, Japan’s Yamanashi, and many more from Chile, Argentina, Israel, Italy, and France. Except for a few number of wines that had notes of unbalanced reduction and oxidation notes, most of the samples were well made and technically correct.

Pinot Noir Masters 2018: the results in full

The results for 2018’s Pinot Noir Masters are out, with top performers hailing from Oregon, California, Marlborough and… the Languedoc.

Continuing a theme seen over past Pinot Noir Masters, this year’s competition highlighted the quality on offer from the US and New Zealand in particular, although, in keeping with previous judging sessions, the results, whatever the source nation, were hugely variable – more so than in any other competition we run.

Indeed, the judges this year were to some extent flummoxed as to how a particular place can produce a star wine in one flight, and a disappointment in another.

Nevertheless, such an outcome did lend weight to the notion that Pinot is a difficult grape to get right, even when the climate is perfect.

While we had some wonderful examples with ripe fruit, fine tannin, floral overtones and a touch of sweet oak, we also had some wines that swung towards two extremes – either too light and green, or too rich and alcoholic, although the latter was rarer, suggesting that producers are trying to capture the delicate side of this variety.

The greatest wines were from a fairly wide sweep of sites, proving the commercial significance of this grape: everyone wants to crack Pinot, both because it’s a sign of winemaking and viticultural prowess, but also because there is such a strong market for the variety.

Jonathan Pedley MW

Highlights this year, like 2017, included blanc de noirs from Champagne, in particular those from De Venoge and Gosset, confirming Pinot’s suitability for the creation of truly great sparkling wines.

Among the still wines, it was notable that only Pinots over £10 achieved really high scores, with the best-value Golds coming from Chile’s Limarí Valley, California, the Yarra and Marlborough (Marques de Casa, Three Thieves and De Bortoli).

Moving into the £15-20 price band, a notable top performer was the Montes ‘Outer Limits’ Pinot Noir from Zapallar in Chile, showing that this producer is adept at finding new terroirs for crafting great wines.

But we were also impressed by the quality-to-price ratio from Copain in California, and there were lots of very good wines achieving Silver medals in this price band from a range of sources, from southern France to the Adelaide Hills, Central Otago and Baden.

Once the wines surpassed the £20 mark, as one would expect, the number of Gold medal-scoring samples increased significantly, with great Pinots from Napa, Yarra, Marlborough, Oregon and Aukland, as well as perennial high performer, Tapanappa, the only Pinot from Australia’s Fleurieu Peninsula.

Above £30 and the judges tasted their first Master-winner – an award only handed out for the truly outstanding – and this went to Penner-Ash in Willamette Valley, proving that Oregon really is a great place for perfumed New World Pinot.

In fact, two further Golds in this price category were awarded to Oregon (Domaine Serene), along with delicious Pinots from Wairarapa (Matahiwi) and California (Hahn).

Keith Isaac MW

The day’s tasting then finished with the very top end in terms of price, and also the greatest wines of the competition. Again, Oregon featured, with a further wine from Domaine Serene wowing the judges with a Master-earning score – this really is a producer with a great talent for crafting fine Pinot – while Oregon’s new Gran Moraine brand, founded by Jackson Family Wines in 2013, gained a Gold, proving that this label is already a wonderful addition to the world of great Pinot.

However, along with Domaine Serene, this year’s other Master in the over £50 flight turned out to be somewhat surprising. Hailing from France, but not Burgundy, it was made by Languedoc star producer Gérard Bertrand, and come from a particular site in the northernmost part of the Haute Vallée de l’Aude winemaking region, where a vineyard 500 metres above sea level combines cool nights from high altitude conditions with Pinot’s favoured soil type: clay and limestone.

Finally, seriously impressing the judges too were the wines of New Zealand’s Marisco Vineyards. Founded by famous Marlborough winemaker Brent Maris (formerly of Wither Hills), these great, layered, medium-weight and pricy Pinots from the land of Sauvignon Blanc were a real find for the judges, and proved that the deeper clay soils of inland Marlborough – the Southern Valleys sub-regoin – can now claim to be a source of New Zealand’s best Pinots, along with Otago and Martinborough.

So, once again, our tasting format that sees wines assessed without knowledge of the source region drew attention to the hot spots for Pinot in the world. Some of these we knew, some of these required confirmation, and some of these were complete surprises. But, importantly, every result was significant.

The judges (left to right): Alistair Nicoll MW, Patrick Schmitt MW, Tobias Gorn, Nicola Thomson, Keith Isaac MW, Patricia Stefanowicz, David Round MW, Emma Symington MW, Roberto della Pietra, Jonathan Pedley MW