Organic Masters 2018: the results in full

We reveal all the medallists from the UK’s only blind tasting for certified organic wines, with some surprising results, including top scores for fizz from Surrey and Champagne aged in the sea, as well as a Sauvignon Blanc blend from Mallorca, plus a stunner from the Minervois.

The Organic Masters 2018 was judged by a panel comprising MWs and one MS at Opera Tavern in London. The judges were (left to right): Sam Caporn MW; Patricia Stefanowicz MW; Susan McCraith MW; Alistair Cooper MW; Beverly Tabbron MW; Patrick Schmitt MW, Clement Robert MS

It’s safe to say that every wine region in the world has at least one producer who employs certified organic viticultural practices – a statement that this year’s Organic Masters certainly lends weight to. With medal-winning samples from a vast array of places, from Surrey in south-east England to the Spanish island of Mallorca, we found greatness in areas little-known for top-end wines, let alone organic vineyard management. Such results also proved that even challenging climates, such as those in the UK and Champagne, can produce class-leading wines using this restrictive approach.

Not only that, but organics spans all price bands, with plenty of entries this year sub-£10, and a handful over £50 too, highlighting that this form of viticulture can be employed to produce wines at the commercial end of the pricing scale, as well as in the territory of fine wine.

Importantly, the tasting proved that being organic, or more accurately, using organically-grown grapes, is a decision that need not be detrimental to quality. Although the choice to eschew synthetic herbicides, pesticides and fungicides does generally leave one more vulnerable to yield losses, it should not negatively affect the style of the resulting wine. In fact, particularly where organic practices are combined with life-enhancing soil management, such an approach should heighten the wine quality, and, as some producers will insist, bring a more accurate reflection of site specifics, or terroir.

Although it is certainly possible to find drawbacks in the organic approach, any ambitious, quality-minded producer should be doing everything possible to augment soil health – after all, it is this substrate that is a great domaine’s most valuable asset.

So with that in mind, who were the star producers that managed to be both certified organic and a source of greatness? In the sparkling category, it was notable how many organic Proseccos we saw in this year’s tasting, and their consistent level of quality, with no fewer than eight Silver medals awarded across a range of price points. We also had a lovely good-value Cava from J. Garcia Carrión, along with a pleasant organic Lambrusco from Cantine Riunite, and, like last year, a brilliant fizz from Oxney, in England’s East Sussex.

But for the very top of the pile, just two Golds were awarded in the sparkling wine sector. One, as one might expect, went to a Champagne – and the biodynamic Leclerc Briant brand, resurrected in 2012 by American investors, and curated by respected sparkling winemaker Hervé Jestin. Although their range of Champagnes are excellent, it was the new cuvée Abyss that gain a top score, a blend that has been aged at the bottom of the sea. The other Gold was more of a shock, awarded to a pink fizz from England. This refreshing, pretty, strawberry-scented sparkling hailed from the organic and biodynamic Albury Vineyard of the Surrey Hills, and the judges felt it was a real find.

As for the still wines, it was exciting to see some good quality and great value organic wines from countries such as Romania and Bulgaria, along with some well-known brands, such as Marqués de Cáceres and Quinta de Maipo, as well as longstanding Australian organic-only wine producer, Angove.

It wasn’t until the wines moved beyond the £10 mark that our first Golds were awarded, with, in whites, a wonderful and original sample from Mallorca, comprising Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc and Prensal Blanc, made by Oliver Moragues. Within the £10-15 category in reds, we saw Golds awarded to wines from areas well-suited to organic viticulture, such as the Languedoc, Sicily, Jumilla and South Africa’s Tulbagh region – the latter from Waverley Hills.

Moving beyond £15, but staying below £20, it was thrilling to unearth a wonderful organic dry Riesling from the Nahe, and, among the reds, a magnificent balanced, gently peppery Syrah from the Minervois, made without the addition of sulphites by biodynamic specialist of southern France, Château Maris. Despite its relative affordability, the judges awarded this latter sample the ultimate accolade, a Master.

At the higher end, over £20, the judges were wowed by a rosé from Domaine la Goujonne in Provence, and a Shiraz from Gemtree Wines in the McLaren Vale.

But our only other Master of the day’s tasting went to a further Syrah and another wine from Château Maris – this time the producer’s top drop, called Dynamic. Such a sample proved not only the quality of this brand, but also the potential of biodynamically-farmed vines in the cru of Minervois La Livinière – the Languedoc’s most celebrated place for Syrah.

In short, the day’s tasting drew attention to the wide range of places where organic viticulture is practised to glorious effect, whatever the wine style. Being organic may not be a guarantee of quality, but it certainly shouldn’t be seen as a farming decision to the detriment of vinous excellence. And this year’s Organic Masters proved that decisively.

Over the following pages are the results in full, followed by details about the competition and comments from the judges. 

Sparkling Masters 2016: the results

No longer just a tipple for ladies who lunch, sparkling has become a ‘lifestyle’ wine for consumers around the world, and as our Masters competition showed, the quality is rising from Champagne to English sparkling and beyond.

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THE SPARKLING wine category is on fire at the moment, not only in the UK but around the world. It’s so hot, in fact, that a trade show dedicated to fizz launched in Paris in June, with organisers hoping to make the City of Light the global capital of the sparkling wine trade.

Held at the Parc Floral, Bulles Expo drew 130 sparkling wine producers from across the globe and over 5,000 members of the wine trade with the aim of boosting the already buoyant international sparkling wine market.

In February, Vinexpo CEO Guillaume Deglise described sparkling wine as “the hottest category in the world” due to its consistent growth since 2010.

According to the IWSR, fizz is expected to drive a 1.8% increase in UK wine consumption from 2015 to 2019, with Prosecco leading the charge due to its status as an everyday luxury that consumers can indulge in guilt-free.

UK consumption of sparkling wine by volume is expected to rise by 13% between now and 2019, compared with modest still wine growth of just 0.6%. Meanwhile, global sparkling wine consumption is expected to grow by 7.4% over the same period, with Asia, North and South America and Europe all expected to increase their volumes by more than a million 9-litre cases each.

ABOUT THE COMPETITION

The Drinks Business Global Sparkling Wine Masters is a competition for sparkling wines from around the world. This year’s inaugural event saw 280 entries judged blind by a panel of highly experienced tasters.

Wines were scored out of 100, with those gaining more than 95 points being awarded the top title of Master. Those earning over 90 points were given a Gold, those over 85 points a Silver and those over 80 points a Bronze. The sparkling wines were tasted over the course of one day at Cambridge Street Kitchen in London’s Pimlico on 10 June. This report features only the medal winners.

BILLION-POUND BUBBLY

This year sparkling wine sales in the UK soared past the £1 billion mark for the first time according to the WSTA, with retail sales during the first three months of the year enough to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

While off-trade volume sales are up 20% year on year (more than two-thirds of sparkling wine sales by value go through Britain’s retailers and almost 90% by volume), the on-trade is electric, with sparkling wine volume sales up 50%.

The average price of a bottle of sparkling wine in the UK off-trade is £9.10, which rises to £34.96 in the on-trade, with Prosecco now accounting for over half the sparkling retail market.

The WSTA estimates that by the end of the year around 106.7m bottles of fizz will have been sold through UK retailers; double the amount shifted in 2012. Given the strength of the sparkling wine category, we decided to launch the Global Sparkling Masters this year, with judging taking place in London on 10 June.

Gathering a cherry-picked panel of Masters of Wine and Master Sommeliers, our judges slurped their way through over 200 sparklers, awarding 45 of them Silver medals, 13 Gold and just one – Taittinger Comtes de Champagne 2006 – the top accolade of Master.

Taking in wines from Champagne, Franciacorta, Cava, Prosecco, England, Wales, South Africa, Australia and beyond, the competition saw six of the 13 Gold medal winners hailing from Champagne, including Cattier Blanc de Blancs NV and Perrier-Jouët Belle Epoque 2007.

Meanwhile, three came from Italy, one from Chile – Valdivieso Brut Nature 2014 – and one from England – Wiston Estate Blanc de Blancs 2010, made by sparkling wine maestro Dermot Sugrue.

Layout 1Shaking things up in the category, Gold medals were also awarded to a sparkler from Nova Scotia in Canada – Benjamin Bridge Brut 2008 – and, even more surprisingly, to a 2011 Blanc de Blancs made by Italian vigneron Edoardo Miroglio in the Thracian village of Elenovo in southeastern Bulgaria.

FEEL THE ENERGY

In terms of what our judges were looking for, Champagne expert Michael Edwards best summed it up: “In sparkling wine I look for tension, energy, creaminess, spiciness and refreshment, which is what the category is all about,” he said.

For Clément Robert MS, the man in charge of wines across the 28°-50° group, bubble size was the key to quality. “One of the key things I look for in quality sparkling wine is fine bubbles – I don’t like soda water bubbles. The wines have to be well balanced and the acidity has to be in harmony with the texture,” he said.

Taking it back to the beginning of the production process, Jonathan Pedley MW believes that the key to a standout sparkling wine lies in the quality of the base wines.

“It’s an old truism that sparkling wines need impeccable purity in the base wine as the sparkling process brings any faults in the wines to light, which the tasting illustrated.

All sparkling wines need precision, purity and balance in the base wines,” he said. “The poorer wines had underlying faults like excessive acidity, astringency and bitterness in the base wines and the bubbles amplified it.

There was huge variability in the Proseccos – we found some beautiful aromatic ones and some wretched ones. It was a mixed bag and had nothing to do with price.”

According to Pedley, the best sparklers in show offered “pure expressions of what they were meant to be, with yeast character, nutty complexity, maturity and beautiful balance on the palate, where the acidity, fruit and alcohol are in harmony”.

For Pierpaolo Petrassi MW, head of beers, wines and spirits for Waitrose, the English and Welsh sparkling wines in the line-up performed as well as he thought they would.

Layout 1‘GREAT STRIDES’

“They were really interesting and impressive, and reaffirmed what I thought about them. English and Welsh sparkling wines have made great strides and are now rubbing shoulders with the world’s best sparklers – they showed well and are holding their own,” he said.

“They used to be very taught and acidic, but the winemaking has come on leaps and bounds, and there’s a good balance between the current vintage and reserve wines in the blend now, while the high acidity is balanced out with more richness.”

Robert echoed Petrassi’s thoughts but was “disappointed” not to see more English fizz in the tasting, given that it’s currently enjoying a long awaited moment in the sun. Patricia Stefanowicz MW put the lack of homegrown entries down to the fact that producers have no problem selling out of their stock, giving them less incentive to enter competitions.

With this being his first Drinks Business Global Masters tasting, Petrassi was impressed overall by the quality of the wines on show.

“There were lots of good quality examples – I was surprised by how many good South American wines there were, which were well made, refreshing and clean with a good balance of fruit,” he said. Given his role at Waitrose, Petrassi is passionate about getting the message across to consumers that sparkling wine should viewed as an everyday luxury rather than a special occasion treat.

A WEEKDAY TREAT

“Sparkling wine isn’t just for celebrations but rainy Tuesdays too. If you’ve had a bad day, sparkling wine can perk you up – fizz really has its place,” he insisted.

Both Edwards and Robert were pleasantly surprised by the quality to be found in the £10 and under category in the tasting. “The quality of the wines in the £10 and under bracket really struck me,” said Edwards.

“I was impressed with the basic wines and how good the sparklers outside Champagne were.” Robert, however, believed the “real quality” started to show in the £20-30 bracket, which, in his opinion, offered the best value for money of the wines in the line-up.

Layout 1“In the £20-30 price point Champagne has strong competition – it’s not the undisputed king of fizz any more – but at the top end it’s still untouchable and has the monopoly,” he said, adding, “the grower Champagnes performed well – I liked them as much as the grandes marques.”

Stefanowicz MW agreed: “The top-level Champagnes were amazing, even those that were too youthful to show their true colours,” she said.

Petrassi thought it was brave of the grandes marques to enter their wines in the first place, given they have more to lose by doing badly than to gain by doing well. “It was brave of the grandes marques to pop their wines in and they universally did well in the tasting,” he said.

With regards to Prosecco, Robert’s opinion remains unchanged following the tasting. “Prosecco performed as I thought it would – it never reaches complex heights no matter what lengths the winemakers go to.

It’s an enjoyable, easy-drinking, everyday wine but is hard to judge in competitions,” he said. Petrassi was a bit less harsh on the UK’s favourite fizz, and believed its runaway global success has led Cava producers to change their approach in a bid to piggyback off its success.

“Prosecco has created its own style and we’ve seen Cava try to mimic it with residual sugar and a different fruit structure. Cava makers are being more careful in allowing the fruit to sing in a more overt way,” he revealed.

THE SWEET SPOT

A low point of the tasting was overuse of sugar, particularly in a few rogue examples in the brut category that were clearly over the dosage limit. Another complaint was a lack of vivacity in some of the sparklers.

“There were a number of wines across the price spectrum that had lost their freshness and become soggy,” insisted Pedley. “Sparkling wines are incredibly delicate and get tired sooner than still wines. Producers need to make sure fresh stock is reaching the market.”

But despite a few dodgy sugar levels and a cluster of tired wines, our tasters were largely enthusiastic about the wines on show. While Champagne remains the king of fizz at the top level, and untouchable in terms of elegance, complexity and finesse, with growing competition from Franciacorta, Trentodoc and English sparkling wine it can no longer rest on its laurels at grande marque level.

We’re living in exciting times for sparkling wine, as Petrassi pointed out: “Sparkling wine should take its place at the high table of wine – it’s no longer just for cocktail parties,” he said. Though it’s Michael Edwards who had the last word: “The category is doing really well worldwide as a lifestyle wine – it’s not just for ladies who lunch.”

The judges (l-r)

> Michael Edwards, journalist, author and Champagne expert
> Pierpaolo Petrassi MW, head of beers, wines and spirits, Waitrose
> Lucy Shaw, managing editor, the drinks business
> Clément Robert MS, group head sommelier and wine buyer, 28°-50°
> Roberto Della Pietra, sommelier and brand ambassador, French Bubbles
Matthieu Longuère, wine development manager, Le Cordon Bleu
> Jonathan Pedley MW, wine lecturer and consultant
> Patrick Schmitt MW, editor-in-chief, the drinks business
> Patricia Stefanowicz MW, wine writer and consultant
> Alex Hunt MW, purchasing director, Berkmann Wine Cellars

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Organic Masters 2017: results and analysis

Our annual Organic Masters competition shines a light on the best wines – of all types – that are produced with certified-organic grapes. This year’s event shows that there is quality and depth in this fast-expanding sector, writes Patrick Schmitt MW

While our Masters programme has always sought to recognise the best wines within long-established areas of the trade, whether that’s through tastings organised by grape variety or region, it has also been designed to draw attention to new market trends.

Hence the addition of a Prosecco Masters to the competition calendar four years ago, at a time when this Italian sparkling was in the ascendancy but suffering from the incorrect perception that it all tasted similar. Over the years of blind analysis of Prosecco, we have highlighted the stylistic diversity and quality available, as well as the leading producers, and top terroirs of this popular category.

The story is similar with rosé, another part of the industry that has expanded significantly this decade, and, again, contains surprising stylistic diversity, along with a broad range of quality levels.

Consequently, our Rosé Masters, launched in 2015, has witnessed the rise of barrel-fermented pink wines, the march towards ever-lighter colours – inspired by the market success of Provençal rosés – and the expanding variety generally: be it the increasing extremes in appearance, sweetness levels, and palate weight.

About the competition

The Organic 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, and wine styles such as rosé and sparkling. The competition is exclusively for wines made from certified organically-grown grapes. Divided only by price bracket and, for ease of judging, style too, the blindtasting format allowed wines to be assessed without prejudice about their country of origin. The best wines were awarded medals that ranged from Bronze through to Gold, as well as Master, the ultimate accolade, given only to exceptional wines in the tasting. The wines were judged by a cherrypicked group of Masters of Wine, Master Sommeliers and organic wine specialists on 5 May at The Pig & Butcher in London. This report features only the winners of medals.

SOUGHT-AFTER
This year, we decided to continue in our search to blind taste test the fashionable, which explains the addition of another category to our competition series with the Organic Masters. While organic wines aren’t new, they are becoming increasingly sought-after, and, like rosé and Prosecco, suffer from a number of perceptions that require testing.

Confirming the increasing demand for organic wines, both major international trade shows for wines and spirits this year have installed dedicated sections for the category.

ProWein, held in March, hosted its first ever Organic World, a showcase of 30 international organic wine producers in a designated area, while Vinexpo Bordeaux will this month contain its inaugural WOW!, standing for World of Organic Wines, which promises the participation of 200 growers.

In 2016, market-research agency Wine Intelligence noted that organic wines might be one of the most important trends for the wine industry, saying the number of organic exhibitors at ProWein had grown from 17 producers in 2005 to roughly 600 last year, a rise of more than 3,000% in 10 years. But what is organic wine? For the sake of our Organic Masters, it is a product made from organically-grown grapes.

Furthermore, they must be certified, and we accepted a range of certifying bodies, as these tend to be country-specific.

Importantly, they all exclude the use of artificial chemicals in the vineyard. Although the judges were fully aware of the criteria for the competition, they were asked to assess the wines as they would any other – according to quality first. The wines were served blind, grouped into price bands, and loosely arranged according to style within their colour categories.

It was, of course, only a snapshot of the organic category, but was revealing, nonetheless. One positive conclusion drawn for the tasting was the realisation that England can produce first-rate sparkling wine with organic grapes.

A climate famous for its challenging growing conditions, above all because of damp, was the source of two Golds in the competition, and only five were awarded, although there were three Masters – the highest accolade reserved for exceptional wines only. The pair of sparkling Golds came from Oxney in East Sussex and Albury in Surrey, for those are looking to tap into two trends: the rise of English fizz and organic produce. Other top-scoring wines came from less surprising sources.

We had a lovely Chardonnay from Angove in Australia, for example, a producer based in the hot dry climate of McLaren Vale, and an experienced hand at organic grape growing. Another Chardonnay that impressed was also from the New World, but from a producer that has had plenty of practice with organics, but doesn’t exclusively produce organic wine.

This was New Zealand’s Babich, which earned a Master for its Headwaters Organic Chardonnay from Marlborough, and a Gold for a Pinot Noir under the same label, proving that this region can produce first-rate results with organically grown grapes, and, great wines with varieties other than Sauvignon Blanc, which is, of course, the bread and butter for this New Zealand wine region.

A further top performer was Domaine Bousquet. A family-owned operation in Argentina’s Mendoza, this organic specialist hails from Carcassonne in southern France, but has been growing grapes in the Gualtallary valley in Tupungato for 20 years. Wowing the judges was its single-vineyard expression Ameri, a Malbec-dominant blend that also contains Cabernet, Syrah and Merlot, from a plot at 1,250m altitude.

LONG-TIME FOCUS
Our final stars of the day were from Australia and France.

The former nation gained a Master for the Ernest Allen Shiraz from Gemtree Wines in the McLaren Vale, a part of Australia that appears home to a high proportion of organic and biodynamic producers. The latter country also produced a Master, this time from the Languedoc, home to Château Maris – a property famous in this region for its long-time focus on organic and biodynamic practices.

The success in the competition of its Dynamic label also confirmed the belief that the relatively new ‘cru’ of La Livinière in the Minervois really does produce a superior level of Syrah – and, as one judge said, a “real terroir-driven wine”.

The judges: Left to right (top row): Sarah Knowles MW, David Round MW, Clive Barlow MW, Jonathan Pedley MW, Dee Blackstock MW (bottom row): Sam Olive, Patricia Stefanowich MW, Patrick Schmitt MW, Clement Robert MS

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