Pinot Gris Masters 2019: the medallists

We reveal all the medallists from this year’s Pinot Gris Masters, which drew attention to the brilliant peach- and pear-scented whites from northern Italy, but also parts of the US, Canada, New Zealand and eastern Europe.

Italy’s Alto Adige was home to some of this year’s top-scoring Pinot Grigios

What do western Romania, northern Italy, Marlborough and Napa have in common? Aside from the obvious fact that they are all vine-growing regions, each one of these areas was home to a top-scoring entry in this year’s Pinot Gris Masters. If one adds Alsace to this list, then you have a handful of the great places for this grape, although it should be stressed that the stylistic range is broad, even within this select number of sources.

Indeed, Pinot Gris is a grape that requires much knowledge from the consumer, or, at least, guidance from the seller, be they a sommelier, shop manager, or tasting-note author. For a start, it’s a variety with two names – Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio, which of course mean the same thing. Although we have chosen to use its French moniker, Pinot Gris, to reflect it’s historical home – Burgundy (where it started life as a colour mutation of Pinot Noir) – it is best-known as Pinot Grigio, due to Italy’s dominance when it comes to volume production of the grape, followed by California (and Germany, where it goes by yet another name, Grauburgunder).

Whether the bottle carries its French or Italian name, however, is not simply a question of source – it also has stylistic implications. Those who choose Pinot Grigio from Northern Italy, but also parts of the New World, may not realise this, but they are buying into a specific type of wine: a fresh, bright, generally light style of white, often dominated by citrus flavours. Should they opt for Pinot Gris, however, it is usually because they are seeking something with more weight, generally with yellow fruit characters, and sometimes a honeyed note, even some residual sugar – and in certain cases, oak influence too. Consequently, the fine wine expression of this grape is almost invariably sold as Pinot Gris. They are, of course, many graduations along this scale, with weighty, barrel-matured Pinot Grigio, and fresh, linear, bone dry Pinot Gris available on the market today.

Now, while the judges in this year’s Pinot Gris Masters, like those in former tasting competitions for this grape, tend to give the highest scores to the richer styles, this is not always the case. Pinot Gris can be picked early, or grown in cooler climates, to make something expressive without resorting to very ripe, sweeter and sometimes botrytised flavours associated with, in particular, the wines from the grands crus of Alsace.

As a result, you will see that this year we even awarded a Master – our ultimate accolade – to a Pinot Grigio from northern Italy, with a price tag of £9, called Antica Vigna. Hailing from the newly-formed Pinot Grigio delle Venezie DOC, this represents a white wine of outstanding value, with masses of peach, pear, lime and greengage fruit, and, while it does have a touch of oiliness to the mouthfeel, it finishes with a linear, crisp, dry sensation expected of Italian wines crafted from this grape.

Such a wine, along with the others at the opposite end of the stylistic spectrum, proved that this grape deserves a better reputation. And, especially when it comes to examples from Northern Italy, which is so closely associated with the cheaper end of the offer: inert, thin whites that offer refreshment, but little flavour. Indeed, the competition’s only other Master was also from the delle Venezie DOC of northern Italy, but a Pinot Grigio with a different character. Coming from La Ronciai winery, this had a delicious pineapple and cream flavour combination, due to the use of barrels for the fermentation of fully ripe fruit.

Also notable among the greats of this year’s tasting were wines from Cremele Recas in the Banat region of western Romania, along with those from Marisco and Te Pa in Marlborough, and Joel Gott in Napa, along with a lovely entry from Mission Hill in the Okanagan, not forgetting a range of fantastic samples from Alto Adige (Cantine Valle Isarco and Peter Zemmer) and the Veneto (along with the aforementioned Masters was a Gold for Tenute Salvaterra) as well as Fruili (Pradio) and Trentino (Cavit).

Although not a Gold-medallist, we also enjoyed an appealing creamy, pear and lime scented fizz from Ponte, which has taken Northern Italy’s Prosecco-making expertise to the grape, and to great effect too.

Finally, although this report has focused on the greatest expressions, it is important to note that general high standard seen among the wines made from Pinot Gris, which doubtless explains why this grape rose to such a crowd-pleasing status in the first place. Today, helped by tastings such as this, Pinot Gris deserves to reclaim a position as the base for characterful, refreshing, good-value offerings – not just basic, short-lived whites – while retaining its reputation for great, textural wines too.

The wines in the Pinot Gris Masters were judged over the course of one day at Balls Brothers wine bar and restaurant in Adams Court, London on 10 July by (left to right): Patrick Schmitt MW, Ennio Pucciarelli, Beverley Blanning MW, Susan Hulme MW, Patricia Stefanowicz MW, Andrea Briccarello, and Jonathan Pedley MW

The results in full from the Syrah Masters 2018

We reveal the results in full from this year’s Global Syrah Masters, which saw great names and regions rewarded, as well as some less-familiar areas that are turning out remarkable wines from this wonderful, if somewhat unfashionable grape.

Sampling Syrah: Keith Isaac MW and Jonathan Pedley MW (right)

If one were to draw up a list of the most sought-after, saleable grape varieties in the world right now, I’m saddened to say that Syrah probably wouldn’t feature. Other so-called Mediterranean varieties such as Grenache and Tempranillo seem to elicit more excitement among wine lovers, although all of the above lag Pinot Noir for the ultimate in premium image and general popularity, with Cabernet not far behind.

So why isn’t Syrah more sexy? Based on another major tasting within our Global Masters series for noble grapes, the quality of wine made from Syrah today is not the problem. In fact, of all the red grapes we consider in a raft of annual wine competitions, Syrah consistently yields the most number of Gold medals, and above: we had no fewer than 8 Masters from this year’s tasting. This is remarkable considering the calibre of our judges and the high scores necessary across the board to achieve such a result.

So, if Syrah is the source of delicious wines, surely this grape should be in vogue? Of course, but there are issues around its image, not helped by the fact wines made from the variety are generally labelled Syrah if they are from Europe, and most commonly Shiraz when they are from outside, especially from Australia. This may be yielding some confusion for consumers, and, while there are broad stylistic implications associated with each name, they don’t always hold true. Generally, Shiraz denotes a richer riper style of red from the grape, with Syrah used for something lighter and more floral. But, as our extensive tastings have shown, there are plenty of concentrated wines labelled Syrah, and some of the new styles of Shiraz from Australia, particularly where whole bunches go into the fermenters, can be surprisingly delicate, even Pinot-esque.

Then there’s the grape’s lack of lustre as a producer of fine wine. This is, of course, misplaced: for some, the greatest red wine in the world is made from Syrah: La Chapelle in Hermitage. However, this historic home of the grape, the northern Rhône, produces wines sold according to appellation, eschewing varietal labelling, meaning that some of the world’s best expressions of Syrah don’t actually overtly promote the grape.

Meanwhile, the upmarket image for the grape in the US especially has been damaged by the success of inexpensive Australian Shiraz, particularly sold under the brand Yellow Tail. Or so I’m told. And in this market particularly, where fashion is so important to sales – and wine is almost entirely merchandised by variety – one major player in the market commented that if the wine says Syrah on the label, it doesn’t move, but if you take it off, it can become a best-seller. The implication being that people actually love the taste of Syrah, just not the image.

But while commerciality is key in the wine industry, our Global Masters tastings seek to identify the sources of quality – by place and producer. Now, while the base level may be unusually high for Syrah, there are of course areas where the results are much better than others, and, as this year’s results show, some of these come as no surprise (Barossa, Hermitage), others are a revelation (Turkey, Greece, Switzerland…). So, whatever the source, let’s consider the standouts.

Now, while there were plenty of pleasing reds sub £10, the first Gold medal winners were seen once we had surpassed that key price point. As is so often the case with wine, the price-quality sweet spot comes above £12, and, if I was to choose a price band where you can maximise the amount of wine you can get for your buck, it would probably be beyond £12 and below £19 for Syrah. But even at £15 or lower, we saw some brilliant wines, notably from Washington State’s Ste Michelle, as well as the Barossa (Graham Norton, Andrew Peace, Wakefield/Taylors), Colchagua (MontGras) and Florina in Greece, where it seems that Syrah reaches delicious completion when blended with a touch of this nation’s native Xinomavro at the country’s Alpha Estate.

Over £15 but still below £20, and the number of Golds increased dramatically, with Argentina (Trivento, MP Wines) this time featuring, as well as Turkey (Kavaklidere), and New Zealand (Church Road). Among the blends, we also had our first Master, which was impressive at this still relatively low price, with Kalleske’s Moppa Shiraz benefitting from a touch of Petit Verdot and Viognier, giving some added structure and aromatics respectively to this intense, juicy and soft Barossa Shiraz.

Between £20 and £30, we had no fewer than 14 Golds and one Master, showing the potential for Syrah to perform at the entry-point price-wise of the fine wine market. Noteworthy in this band was the excellence of a Syrah from California, hailing from the Yorkville Highlands AVA, based in the southern Mendocino County, and produced by Copain – a winery within the Jackson family portfolio. Coming close in quality, however, were some more rarified Syrahs from names already mentioned (such as Wakefield/Taylors, Alpha Estate) as well as new ones to the Gold standard (representing Australia’s Barossa were: Jacob’s Creek, St Hugo, Langmeil, Tempus Two; Argentina’s Uco Valley: Trapiche, Salentein; South Africa’s Tulbagh: Saronsberg, and New Zealand’s Hawke’s Bay: Craggy Range).

And, coincidentally, between £30 and £50, we had the same tally at the top-end, with 14 Golds and one Master. Regarding the latter, the judges were seriously impressed by the Ebenezer Shiraz from Barossa, and produced in tiny quantities by Hayes Family Wines. The tables show the other lovely wines in this category, but we were pleased to see after the tasting was concluded that great wines from Barossa; the Valais (Switzerland’s Domaines Chevaliers) and Marlborough (New Zealand’s Giesen) had been rubbing shoulders quality-wise with Hermitage (Romain Duvernay).

Once we were over £50, however, we couldn’t help but award a clutch of Masters, with the Barossa’s Savitas and Levantine Hill wowing the judges, as did the Hermitage Monier de la Sizeranne from Chapoutier, and the Hickinbotham Brooks Road Shiraz from McLaren Vale – all celebrated wines attracting glorious scores. But there was another region among the Masters, and that was a wine from a relatively new area for top-end Syrah (if becoming famous for great reds from Sangiovese and Merlot) – the Maremma in Toscana. Hailing from Conti di San Bonifacio Sustinet, this turned out to be just on the entry-point of this price band, retailing for £50, making it all the more appealing among these illustrious labels.

Although that was the only Master for Italian Syrah, there were also two Golds in this price category awarded to this country – a delicious sample from Lazio, produced by the Famiglia Cotarella, as well as one from Cortona, made by Fabrizio Dionisio in Toscana.

We were also thrilled to see strong performances from famous names in Syrah such as Mission Estate (New Zealand) and Château Tanunda, Bird in Hand, Langmeil, Henschke, Gatt and Schild Estate (Australia).

In all, the tasting had rewarded the renowned along with the less familiar, as it was talent, not repute, that the Syrah Masters sought to reward through its blind-tasting format.

Please see below for the list of medallists from the Global Syrah Masters 2018.

For more information on this competition, or any of the Global Masters, please contact Sophie Raichura on:
+44 (0)20 7803 2454 / +852 3488 1008, or sophie@thedrinksbusiness.com

The judges (left to right): Roberto della Pietra, Tobias Gorn, Jonathan Pedley MW, Keith Isaac MW, Patrick Schmitt MW, Jonny Gibson

Asian Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling Masters 2017: the results

The consistency of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and the diversity of Riesling impressed a panel of expert judges at our latest Asian Masters, underlining the two white grape varieties’ immense market potential in Hong Kong.

Judges from left to right: Amanda So, department manager at Ponti Trading Ltd; Tersina Shieh, independent wine consultant and wine judge; Sarah Wong, freelance wine writer and judge; Ivy Ng, publisher of the drinks business Hong Kong; Peter Nicholas, winemaker and general manager of Boutique Wines Hong Kong; Nellie Ming Lee, wine consultant; William Chan, sommelier and manager of Cuisine Cuisine; and Jeremy Stockman, general manager of Waton’s Wine and Natalie Wang, online editor of the drinks business Hong Kong

Riding the wave of the growing popularity of white wines in Hong Kong, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling, two aromatic white varieties, are tempting discerning drinkers who are looking beyond all-rounded Chardonnay for varietal diversity, although the latter still remains the most popular white wine variety in the local market, accounting for more than 60% of total white wine sales.

Capable of adapting to different terroir, Sauvignon Blanc can produce wines of vibrancy, freshness and zippy acidity when grown in the cool to moderate climates of the Loire Valley, Northern Italy, Australia, New Zealand, Chile and South Africa. Its flavour profile ranges from herbaceous notes of gooseberry, green bell pepper and fresh cut grass to riper tropical aromas of passion fruit and pineapple, in addition to toasty notes for those fermented in barrel.

Riesling, on the other hand, is a white variety that has a broader style spectrum making everything from sparkling wine to still wine on a wide scale of sweetness, from off-dry to some of the most luscious in the world. Among all the 46 samples submitted for our Riesling competition, none were oaked, but they represented all of the major Riesling producing countries, with Australia, Germany and Austria leading the pack.

“I found that the best wines to be those that showed regional characteristics rather than those that appeared to be copying a more international style,” winemaker and wine educator Peter Nicholas commented.

“In today’s market place homogeneity is something to be avoided and authenticity to be lauded.”

More encouragingly for the consumers, both in the Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling categories, well-priced wines bagged the most medals; with several of the Gold medal winners costing under HK$400 a bottle.

“I think the wines are really good, especially for the Sauvignon Blanc flight and great value for money for these lower priced wines. Both are quite good, well presented, maybe one or two wines are not so typical, but in general, the wines showed great typicity,” said Tersina Shieh, an independent wine consultant – a comment William Chan, manager of Cuisine Cuisine, heartily agreed with.

Held on 26 June at the award-winning Cuisine Cuisine restaurant inside the Mira Hotel, the wines were served blind and assessed by eight experienced judges, including Hong Kong’s top wine buyers, educators and consultants. The wines were arranged not according to country but by their price band as well as style – oaked or unoaked, their sweetness (in the case of Riesling) and whether they were a blend or pure varietal expression – to make the competition as fair as possible.

New Zealand Benchmark  

Jeremy Stockman, general manager of Watson’s Wine, the biggest wine retailer in Hong Kong

Although the Loire is the birthplace of Sauvignon Blanc, New Zealand is where the grape has found a spiritual home, and the country’s wine industry and international reputation was built on the white grape variety.

Different from the Loire’s greener, more savoury style, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is known for being more on the fruity, aromatic side that packs more pungent aromas of grapefruit, gooseberry, passion fruit and other tropical fruits.

Style wise, it would be erroneous to dismiss New Zealand Sauvignon as a one-trick-pony producing only fruity and aromatic dry whites. In fact, in addition to some regional diversity the grape is very versatile, capable of making lusciously sweet wines, more substantial dry whites when blended with Semillon and even sparkling wines made usually using the traditional method.

Among the two Masters and seven Gold medal winners, out of a flight of 33 Sauvignon Blanc samples judged, six – one Master and five Gold medals – unsurprisingly came from New Zealand, primarily Marlborough.

“The very good Sauvignon Blanc that I saw was what I expected of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, which is consistency,” commented Jeremy Stockman, general manager of Watson’s Wine, the biggest wine retailer in Hong Kong.

Compared with Riesling, Sauvignon is more predicable in a sense in terms of style and quality, Stockman added. “A Muscato can be horribly sweet and dry, whereas a Sauvignon Blanc in particular, you know what you are going to get. It’s just about the style you like and quality. And I think people like about that,” he added speaking of the variety’s potential in Hong Kong.

The Judges

Jeremy Stockman, general manager of Watson’s Wine
Peter Nicolas, winemaker and wine educator at AWSEC Hong Kong
Sarah Wong, freelance wine writer and wine judge
Tersina Shieh, independent wine consultant and wine judge
Amanda So, department manager of Ponti Trading
William Chan, general manager and sommelier of Cuisine Cuisine
Nellie Ming Lee, wine consultant
Ivy Ng, publisher, the drinks business Hong Kong 

In terms of pricing, he believes it’s easier to find better quality Sauvignon Blanc in the market than Chardonnay of the same price band. “Chardonnay tends to be excellent on more expensive level. And with cheap Chardonnay, you see a lot of poor examples,” he explained.

Indeed, five of the seven Gold medal winners are priced under HK$200 (US$25.6) a bottle, with one – The Crossing Awatere Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2016 – below HK$100 (US$12.8).

Among the high performing Kiwi samples, Framingham Sauvignon Blanc 2016, a classic Marlborough Sauvignon from Wairau Valley at the top of New Zealand’s South Island, was awarded the highest honour of a Master. The Crossings Awatere Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2016 and Mud House Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2016 impressed judges with their perfumed and refined aromas that landed them Gold medals. Equally impressive were Peter Yealands Sauvignon Blanc 2016 and Yealands Estate Land Made Sauvignon Blanc 2016. Both are stellar examples of classic New Zealand Sauvignon and each was rewarded with a Gold medal as well.

Clos Henri Sauvignon Blanc 2015, a more ambitious barrel fermented Sauvignon, stunned the judging panel with its complexity and layers of flavours, a style more reminiscent of Sancerre.

Speaking of the grape’s current market in Hong Kong, Amanda So, department manager of wine merchant Ponti, noted that discerning consumers are looking beyond the obvious Sauvignon style.

“Customers nowadays are starting to look for more complex Sauvignon Blanc with high skill treatment, not just the easy going, food friendly Sauvignon Blanc,” she stated.

Other regions:

All the wines were tasted blind by the judges and assessed by their variety and price at Cantonese restaurant Cuisine Cuisine in Mira Hotel in Tsim Sha Tsui.

Outside of New Zealand, the Kiwi-coined fresh, intensely perfumed style with zesty acidity was also found in cool climate regions in Chile, Australia and the US.

Chile’s San Antonio in Casablanca, particularly the Leyda Valley, stood out among its peers, while in Australia, Tasmania, Yarra Valley and Adelaide Hills also left clear marks on the variety. Bird in Hand Sauvignon Blanc 2017 from Adelaide Hills, for instance, despite its youthful age, already showed a lot of potential with its intense aromas and mineral edges, for which it won a Gold medal.

From California, where Sauvignon Blanc is occasionally known as ‘Fumé Blanc’, it was the toasty flavours and fuller body that took precedent and had the judges talking. Stonestreet Estate Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc from Alexander Valley in Sonoma County won the judges over for its complexity and weight, and its price also reflected the extra efforts in the cellar, moving up to the HK$300 (US$38.4) to HK$399 (US$51) price bracket.

“American Fumé Blancs, a Sauvignon Blanc that is usually barrel fermented, so is less acidic, more creamy and sometimes smokey, are most enjoyable with their voluptuous lemon curd-like flavours,” commented Nellie Ming Lee, a Hong Kong-based wine consultant.

Outside of Loire, across the Alps, Sauvignon Blanc has found success in northern Italy’s Alto Adige, Friuli and Collio with the best examples showing pungency and purity of fruit. A few Italian producers have also opted for oak to give more texture and body as seen in Attems’ ‘Cicinis DOC Sauvignon Collio 2015’.

Encouragingly, Greece has been churning out top-winning examples of Sauvignon Blanc in recent years, led by Alpha Estate in northern Florina. The winery’s single vineyard ‘Kalyva’, an oaked 100% Sauvignon Blanc, won a Master, leaving a few of the judges stumped over its origin.

“I was surprised by the wines from Greece. It is positive that we have new wine regions to choose from in Hong Kong. The wines from the classic regions showed great typicity to their origin and variety,” stated Sarah Wong, a freelance wine writer in Hong Kong.

The best Sauvignon Blancs from the 2017 Global Masters

While consumers love Sauvignon Blanc, many in the trade treat it with disdain. But as our annual competition shows, in the right hands, this grape can create genuinely exciting expressions – at all price points, writes Patrick Schmitt MW.

The wines were judged by a cherry-picked group of Masters of Wine and sommeliers on 23 November at Baltic Restaurant in Southwark in London

Towards the end of 2017 we held two of our biggest Global Masters tastings – the Sauvignon Blanc Masters and the Chardonnay Masters. You can read about the latter here. It is worth comparing the two grapes because they appear to show such contrasting image issues.

While Chardonnay is loved by the trade but derided by consumers, Sauvignon Blanc seems to have the opposite problem: it’s mocked by professionals, and widely adored by the public. Why? Chardonnay’s issues are discussed in our report on this year’s competition for that grape, but when it comes to Sauvignon, the reasons are many and varied. For a start, there is a misconception that this variety can’t produce great dry white wine; that it is limited in terms of style, and capped when it comes to the complexity of flavours it can produce. Furthermore, there’s a belief that Sauvignon is ill-suited to ageing in oak barrels – the traditional finishing touch for fine whites.

Add the fact that it is hugely popular – making it a staple of supermarket shelves and by-the-glass offerings in pubs and bars – and there’s a snobbery regarding the grape. In short, there’s a sense that it lacks gravitas. As with all grapes, some entry-level offerings disappoint. With Sauvignon in particular, the weakest examples can be thin, herbaceous and acidic, sometimes mixed with a touch of residual sugar – a combination that would give any grape a bad name.

But mostly, it is Sauvignon’s refreshing, and instantly recognisable pungency, even at low prices, that makes it distinctive, memorable and crowd pleasing. It has made greener characters in wine fashionable, a major development in the past decade, considering the most popular style of white at the start of this century was the creamy, buttery flavours associated with Chardonnay, particularly from the New World. And Sauvignon Blanc doesn’t just yield bright gooseberry and grapefruit flavoured youthful whites.

Michelle Cherutti-Kowal MW

It can deliver a broad array of characteristics, depending on where it is grown and when it’s picked. As this year’s Masters showed, it can create an extremely appealing style of white in cooler climates, when crunchy bell pepper notes can emerge from the glass, which may not be to everyone’s taste, but certainly bring instant refreshment and bags of character to the wine.

At the other end of the spectrum, Sauvignon, particularly in warmer climates of Napa or Graves, can produce something pleasingly exotic, with notes of melon, pineapple and passion fruit, even an oily texture, which is balanced by this grape’s naturally high acidity.

Then there’s the potential for creating something finer. Here too, where old vines in great Sauvignon terroirs are coupled with skilled winemakers, the results can be astounding. Sometimes the complexity comes mainly from the site, with chalky characters mingling with citrus and lemongrass notes in the great whites of the Loire. At other times it seems to emanate from the cellar techniques, particularly the use of oak in the great Sauvignons of California or Bordeaux, where ripe fruit complements barrel-sourced vanilla flavours beautifully.

Finally, there are the blends, which highlight the potential greatness of this grape as a partner to others, particularly Semillon, but other varieties too – in this year’s tasting we sampled a wonderful wine combining Sauvignon and the native Greek grape Assyrtiko.

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