The Chardonnay Masters – Asia 2020

The Chardonnay Masters – Asia 2020, which took place at Mr Wolf restaurant in Hong Kong’s Central district, saw a panel of five expert judges blind-taste more than 30 Chardonnays. The results showed that the wines on offer were diverse with attractive qualities.

One of the most widely planted grape varieties in the world, Chardonnay is enjoying a resurgence in popularity. Versatile in style, the wine can pair well with an array of cuisines.

“Generally, it is smooth and gentle, with an aromatic profile that varies according to the region and climate where it is grown. In terms of the use of oak, over oaked Chardonnay is no longer the mainstream; instead, winemakers are using it in moderation to give their wines a buttery mouthfeel and toasty vanilla aromas,” said Zachary Yu, sommelier and director of SommTech.

The competition celebrated Wakefield Taylors One Giant Leap Chardonnay 2018, whih achieved the top accolade of a Master medal in the competiion. Judged in the Oaked Under HK$100 category, the wine offered exceptional value for its price point.

“The expression is very fresh with a bouquet of beautiful floral and citrus notes; the profile is very well balanced, especially the oak. With this price tag, the wine is a great surprise,” said Tersina Shieh, an experienced wine judge and marketer.

The overall 2018 vintage in South Australia’s Clare Valley was warm and dry. The weather was relatively calm and winemakers were spared from major heatwaves, resulting in the highly aromatic wines with very pure and distinct characteristics.

Two of the estate’s other Chardonnays, namely Wakefield Taylors Jaraman Chardonnay 2018 and Wakefield Taylors St Andrews Chardonnay 2018, were also recognised with Silver medals in the competition.

Margaret River estate Vasse Felix is another Australian winery the judges raved about in the competition, as it scooped two Gold medals. In the Oaked HK$151-200 category, Vasse Felix ‘Filius’ Chardonnay 2018 caught the panel’s attention due to its “elegant, juicy, generous, lingering and highly drinkable” profile, according to Yu.

Meanwhile, moving up to the price bracket between HK$301-500, Vasse Felix Heytesbury Chardonnay 2018 was another high performer. Anty Fung, a wine specialist and manager of Hip Cellar, said, “the wine shows great finesse. It has good tension, mineral structure and a long finish.”

The competition also proved that Sauvignon Blanc powerhouse, Marlborough in New Zealand, boasts equally outstanding Chardonnay production. Marisco Vineyards Craft Series ‘The Pioneer’ Chardonnay 2016 picked up a Gold medal in the Oaked HK$201-300 flight.

Shieh found it to be “a pleasant wine with a nice blend of fruit and oak flavours and good acidity”. Hailing from the same region, Leefield Station Chardonnay 2018 took home a Silver medal for achieving “a good balance of oak, fruit and creaminess”, according to Yu.

Again from the same price range, another highlight of the competition was a Gold medal winning Bourgogne Blanc by Francois Labet, one of the region’s pioneers of organic viticulture. The panel was impressed by the performance of Francois Labet Vieilles Vignes Chardonnay 2018.

Eva Ma, senior marketing executive of EMW Fine Wines, said, “The nose is so complex, which unveils hints of chestnuts and smokiness. On palate, it exudes a sweet flavour with much freshness.”

Greek wine is on the rise around the world and the country never ceases to surprise drinkers with its continually improving quality. Bearing a price tag between HK$100-150, Alpha Estate Ecosystem Chardonnay Tramonto 2018 impressed our judges.

“I am captivated by the palate, which offers notes of Meyer lemon, orange peel and yuzu. It’s a very perfumed Chardonnay with impressive palate weight and a refreshing finish. It’s an excellent wine that offers great value,” said one of our judges.

The panel also enjoyed some exciting discoveries from regions that aren’t well-known for Chardonnay, such as Barkan Vineyards Classic Chardonnay 2019 from Israel, which offered pretty lemon and white flower aromatics.

Another appealing expression was Emiliana Gamma Reserva Chardonnay 2019 from Chile, liked by Shieh for its intense acidity and juciness; and Cavit Maso Torsella Chardonnay Trentino Superiore DOC 2019 from Trentino in Italy, which hooked Ma with its perfumed nose and balanced structure. The comeption highlighted that there are great value Chardonnays being made around the world to suit all palates.

Unoaked

Company Wine Name Region Country Vintage Medal
Under $100HKD
Barkan Vineyards Classic Chardonnay Judean Hills Israel 2019 Bronze
Viñedos Emiliana S.A. O Reserva Chardonnay Casablanca Valley Chile 2019 Bronze
Viñedos Emiliana S.A. Gamma Reserva Chardonnay Casablanca Valley Chile 2019 Silver

Oaked

Company Wine Name Region Country Vintage Medal
Under $100HKD
Marisco Vineyards Ltd The Ned Chardonnay, 10.99 – Marlborough, New Zealand Marlborough New Zealand 2018 Bronze
Marisco Vineyards Ltd Leefield Station Chardonnay Marlborough New Zealand 2018 Silver
Wakefield / Taylors Taylors One Giant leap Chardonnay Clare Valley Australia 2018 Master
$100-$150HKD
Alpha Estate Ecosystem Chardonnay Tramonto Florina Greece 2018 Gold
Cavit s.c. Maso Torsella Chardonnay Trentino Superiore Doc Trentino Italy 2017 Silver
Australian Vintage McGuigan Cellar Select Chardonnay Adelaide Hills Australia 2019 Bronze
Wakefield / Taylors Taylor Made Chardonnay French Oak Clare Valley Australia 2018 Bronze
Wakefield / Taylors Taylors Wakefield Jaraman Chardonnay Clare Valley Australia 2018 Silver
$151-$200HKD
Australian Vintage McGuigan Shortlist Chardonnay Adelaide Hills Australia 2018 Silver
Australian Vintage Nepenthe Pinnacle Ithaca Chardonnay Adelaide Hills Australia 2018 Bronze
Treasury Wine Estate Penfolds Bin311 Chardonnay Tumbarumba Australia 2017 Silver
Vasse Felix Vasse Felix ‘Filius’ Chardonnay Margaret River Australia 2018 Gold
Vasse Felix Vasse Felix Estate Chardonnay Margaret River Australia 2018 Bronze
Wakefield / Taylors Taylors Wakefield St Andrews Chardonnay Clare Valley Australia 2018 Silver
$201-$300HKD
Australian Vintage Tempus Two Pewter Chardonnay Hunter Valley Australia 2018 Bronze
Australian Vintage Tempus Two Pewter Chardonnay Hunter Valley Australia 2019 Silver
Australian Vintage McGuigan Personal Reserve HR Chardonnay Trentino Italy 2018 Bronze
Francois Labet Francois Labet Bourgogne Chardonnay Vieilles Vignes Bourgogne France 2018 Gold
Marisco Vineyards Ltd Marisco Vineyards Craft Series ‘The Pioneer’ Chardonnay, Marlborough New Zealand 2016 Gold
$301-$500HKD
Vasse Felix Vasse Felix Heytesbury Chardonnay Margaret River Australia 2018 Gold
Vina Concha y Toroa Concha y Toro Amelia Chardonnay Casablanca Valley Chile 2018 Bronze

The Cabernet Sauvignon Masters – Asia 2020 results

While Australia and Chile are well known for the quality of their Cabernet Sauvignon, other countries are snapping at their heels, with China and Israel in particular impressing in our annual blind-tasting competition, writes Alice Liang.

Robust yet approachable, Cabernet Sauvignon has long been a staple in consumers’ cellars. “In Hong Kong, Cabernet Sauvignon has become a brand name for people to go after,” said judge Jessica Ochoco, senior sales executive at Altaya Wine. “Most of them encountered the grape variety because of Bordeaux, but thankfully, after getting on with the first growths, they are willing to explore the same variety made in other regions.”

The dbAsia Cabernet Sauvignon Masters brought together entries of 100% Cabs along with blends made up of at least 50% of the grape variety from popular New World countries, such as Australia and Chile, to up-and-coming gems, namely from China and Israel. The panel was able to explore the potential that the grape variety can offer.

As one of the world’s biggest producers of Cabernet, Australia showed how good it is as a producer. Penfolds, the powerhouse of Australian wine, achieved a Master with its exceptional Bin 389 Cabernet Shiraz 2017.

The Cabernet-dominant blend impressed independent wine educator Rebecca Leung with its “supple concentration of vibrant fruit and floral flavours”. Leung said the wine was ready to enjoy now.

The panel also raved about the wines from Wakefield Taylors. Priced under HK$100, both Wakefield Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 and Taylors Reserve Parcel Cabernet Sauvignon won Gold as they proved to be outstanding value for money.

According to Derek Li, Group Sommelier at JIA Group, the former has a “juicy and firm tannin structure topped with mint and herbal notes”, while the latter offers “an intense fruit flavour with a hint of cedar wood”.

Moving upscale, the winery’s costlier wines were awarded Silver medals. Hugo Poon, head of sourcing at Quintessentially, said: “The Wakefield Taylors St Andrews Cabernet Sauvignon 2017 (HK$250) boasts an impressive iintensity. The acidity integrates with the sweetness perfectly. Meanwhile, in Wakefield Taylors’ The Visionary Cabernet Sauvignon 2016, I spotted rich scents of coffee, vanilla and cherry with a nice finish.”

Chile is another country well known for good-value Cabernets. A couple of New World Cab stars are produced in Central Valley regions such as the Maipo Valley and Colchagua Valley. In our competition, Luis Felipe Edwards Family Selection Gran Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon 2018, costing less than HK$100, took home a Gold medal. Li said:

“The wine exudes rich and intense flavours of plum, violet, nutmeg and cinnamon. This is an easygoing wine that I find very enjoyable.” Meanwhile, Luis Felipe Edwards Doña Bernarda 2015, a Cabernet blended with Carmènere, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc, was awarded a Silver medal in the competition.

Other hightlights in the competition included Silver medallists Viña Carmen Gran Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 and Viña San Pedro Tarapaca Gato Negro Cabernet Sauvignon 2019. Both wines are good value, having a price tag of less than HK$100, showing the value of Chilean Cabernets.

As an emerging wine-producing country, China shone in the competition by showcasing the graceful development of its wines. Hailing from Tianjin, Dynasty Fine Wines received Silver and Bronze medals respectively for its Premier Royal Selection – Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2008 and Wisemenship Collection – Ravissantia 2010 respectively.

Carrying a price tag of HK$301 and above, the panel preferred the former as “it offers a lot of tertiary notes such as espresso coffee, caramel, toffee, and dried plums, while being powerful in style,” said Ochoco.

The Upper Galilee region in Israel has started to gain a good reputation for the wines produced there. Situated at a high altitude, Barkan Vineyards is located in the cooler northern part of the region. The high performer stood out in the competition by winning two Gold medals. Named according to the height at which the grapes are grown, The Altitude Series achieved recognition from the panel.

In particular, Gold medallist Altitude Series 624 Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 delivered “a fantastic body and richness,” according to Vincent Chue, beverage director at Tapa Room. He added: “The use of oak is apparent, but it is well balanced, and shows high drinkability.” Meanwhile, Cabernet Sauvignon Superiore 2016, which also won a Gold medal, showed a totally different profile. Li said: “The wine is pleasing and elegant. I am attracted to the intense characters of cassis, roasted coffee beans and nutmeg.”

Unoaked – 100%

Winery Wine Name Region Country Vintage Medal
HK$<100
V.E.S.A. Birds of Paradise Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon Central Valley Chile 2018 Bronze
Vinedos Emiliana O Reserva Central Valley Chile 2018 Bronze
V.E.S.A. Gamma Reserva Central Valley Chile 2018 Bronze

Oaked – 100%

Winery Wine Name Region Country Vintage Medal
HK$<100
Taylors Taylors Wakefield Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Clare Valley Australia 2018 Gold
Taylors Taylors Reserve Parcel Cabernet Sauvignon Clare Valley Australia 2018 Gold
Viña Carmen Carmen Gran Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon Maipo Valley Chile 2018 Silver
Vinedos Emiliana Indigo Gran Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon Maipo Valley Chile 2017 Bronze
HK$101 – HK$200
Tempus Two Pewter Series Cabernet Sauvignon Coonawarra Australia 2017 Silver
Vina San Pedro 1865 Single Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Central Valley Chile 2018 Silver
Viña Santa Rita Santa Rita Floresta Cabernet Sauvignon Maipo Valley Chile 2018 Silver
Nepenthe Altitude Cabernet Sauvignon Adelaide Hills Australia 2017 Bronze
McGuigan The Shortlist Cabernet Sauvignon Coonawarra Australia 2017 Bronze
Katnook Estate Katnook Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Coonawarra Australia 2017 Bronze
HK$201 – HK$300
Barkan Winery Altitude Series 624 Cabernet Sauvignon Galilee Israel 2016 Gold
Allegiance Wines The Artisan Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon Margaret River Australia 2014 Silver
Barkan Winery Altitude Series 585 Cabernet Sauvignon Galilee Israel 2016 Silver
Barkan Winery Altitude Series 720 Cabernet Sauvignon Galilee Israel 2016 Silver
Taylors Taylors Wakefield St Andrews Cabernet Sauvignon Clare Valley Australia 2017 Silver
Vina Tarapaca Gran Reserva Tarapaca Etiqueta Negra Maipo Valley Chile 2018 Bronze
Katnook Estate Katnook Founder’s Block Cabernet Sauvignon Coonawarra Australia 2017 Bronze
HK$301 – HK$400
Dynasty Wisemenship Collection – Ravissantia Tianjin China 2010 Bronze
HK$401 – HK$800
Dynasty Premier Royal Selection – Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve Tianjin China 2008 Silver
Taylors Taylors Wakefield ‘The Visionary’ Cabernet Sauvignon Clare Valley Australia 2016 Silver
Allegiance Wines Unity’ Cabernet Sauvignon Margaret River Australia 2015 Bronze

Oaked – Blend

Winery Wine Name Region Country Vintage Medal
HK$<100
Luis Felipe Edwards Family Selection Gran Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon Colchagua Chile 2018 Gold
Vina San Pedro Gato Negro Cabernet Sauvignon Central Valley Chile 2019 Silver
Vina San Pedro Gato Negro Cabernet Sauvignon- Merlot Central Valley Chile 2019 Bronze
Viña Santa Rita Medalla Real Gran Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon, Maipo Valley Chile 2017 Bronze
Taylors Black Label Cabernet Sauvignon Clare Valley Australia 2016 Bronze
Vina Chocalan Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon Maipo Valley Chile 2018 Bronze
Vina San Pedro Gato Negro PeRRRfect Red Blend Central Valley Chile 2019 Bronze
Alpaca Alpaca Cabernet Sauvignon Central Valley Chile 2019 Bronze
Alpaca Alpaca Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot Central Valley Chile 2019 Bronze
HK$101 – HK$200
Vina Chocolan Gran Reserva Origen Cabernet Sauvignon Maipo Valley Chile 2018 Silver
Vina Tarapaca Gran Reserva Tarapaca Cabernet Sauvignon Maipo Valley Chile 2018 Bronze
Viña Carmen Carmen Delanz Alto Jahuel Maipo Valley Chile 2018 Bronze
HK$201 – HK$350
Luis Felipe Edwards Doña Bernarda Colchagua Chile 2015 Silver
Vina El Principal El Principal Metropolitana Chile 2015 Silver
Vina El Principal Memorias Metropolitana Chile 2016 Bronze
HK$351 – HK$500
Penfolds Bin 389 Cabernet Shiraz Barossa Val Australia 2017 Master
Barkan Winery Cabernet Sauvignon Superiore Galilee Israel 2016 Gold

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.

The 2019 Cabernet Sauvignon Masters revealed

We reveal all the medallists from this year’s Global Wine Masters for Cabernet Sauvignon, along with a full analysis of the stylistic trends taking place with the king of grapes.

Cabernet seems in no danger of losing its flagship status as the king of grapes. Such a reputation, bestowed on it for its role in the great wines of the world, could have been diminished by its extensive use in lesser labels, or clumsy handling, even in top-end blends.
However, thanks to Cabernet’s ability to consistently deliver drinks with concentration and structure, along with lift and softness, this is still the go-to grape for attention-grabbing wine.
Augmenting such a position is Cabernet’s affinity for barrel ageing and blending with a wide range of varieties, most commonly Merlot in France, Sangiovese in Italy, and Shiraz in Australia.
So what about the style and quality of the Cabernet being made today?
Judging by this year’s Cabernet Masters, this grape is in a good place.
As you can see from the following tables, we had a large number of Gold medal-winning samples in a range of price bands, and from a broad sweep of sources.
Such a strong performance can be traced to the improved management of the grape in the vineyard and the cellar. While Cabernet can give crunchy green characters when not fully ripe, if the grape receives enough sun exposure and time on the vine, such capsicum-like flavours will diminish, if not disappear.
The challenge is to obtain fully ripe Cabernet without also creating a wine with too much alcohol. Thankfully, the incidence of excessively warming wines in this year’s Masters was lower than in previous competitions.

The Global Masters: making winners out of winemakers

As for cellar management, Cabernet, with its small berries and thick skins, can yield extremely tannic wines, if extraction regimes are forceful. Couple such grape-derived polymers with barrique-sourced tannins, and the wines can be excessively drying.

However, as we found in the majority of wines in the competition, the tannins of Cabernet were certainly present, but not aggressive. It seems winemakers are taking a softer approach to this noble grape, and are pulling back on the proportion of new oak used for maturing the wines.
So, the base standard of Cabernet being produced today seems to be moving upwards. These wines still have plenty of delicious dark fruit, but fewer have fatiguing characters, such as grainy, mouth-coating tannins, hot alcoholic finishes, or overtly sweet vanillin flavours from barrel ageing.
As to the high points – wines with intense blackcurrant fruit, cedar and chocolate complexity, ripe tannins, and a bright finish – we found them from a number of places, but particularly Sonoma Country, Coonawarra, Hawke’s Bay, the Barossa, Napa and the Maipo.
Such places are already famous for the quality of their Cabernet, but it was pleasing to have this confirmed in our blind-tasting format, as well as pick out the top performing producers.
Having said that, there were also a clutch of great Cabernets from more obscure areas of the wine world. These were Israel’s Upper Galilee and Turkey’s Strandja Mountains.
Indeed, this year’s tasting highlighted two great producers of Cabernet that may not be known to many. One is Israel’s Barkan Winery, which is making an exciting array of Cabernets with power and charm, differentiated according to the varying altitudes of their vineyards.
The other is Turkey’s Chamlija, a producer of richly-flavoured dense reds with interest and enough dryness on the finish to keep them refreshing. Among the established Cabernet-producing corners of the globe, we were impressed by the quality-to-price ratio of the wines from Jacob’s Creek and Wakefield/Taylors Wines, showing that Australia can yield soft, juicy, pleasing Cabs at keen prices.
Wines with a real wow factor came, above all, from Sonoma County, along with the Napa Valley, although it was the former region that gained more top medals.
Notably delicious, with pure, polished intense black fruit, were the Cabs from Stonestreet Estate, as well as Kenwood Vineyards, although Gallica and Freemark Abbey were at a similar level of quality.
It should be noted that the tasting did not include the great wines of Bordeaux, but when it comes to varietal Cabernets – as opposed to blended versions – it is generally the aforementioned New World wine regions that dominate global production of the grape.

The judges, left to right, front row: Susan Hulme MW, Patrick Schmitt MW, Jonathan Pedley MW, Patricia Stefanowicz MW. Back row: David Round MW, Andrea Briccarello, Beverly Tabbron MW, Tobias Gorn

Results: Beer & Cider Masters – Asia

Below are the results of our Beer & Cider Masters – Asia.

Phenolic/Astringent

Company Product Name Country Sub Category Medal
Authentic Cider (Perrys) Tremlett England Dry Gold
Authentic Cider Olivers Cider and Perry) Gold Rush #5 England Dry Silver
Authentic Cider (Perrys) Puffin England Dry Silver
Authentic Cider (Dunkertons Cider) Dry Organic Cider England Dry Silver
Authentic Cider (Perrys) Barn Owl Wales Medium Master
Authentic Cider (Perrys) Vintage England Medium Silver
Authentic Cider (Dunkertons Cider) Organic Black Fox Cider England Medium Silver
Authentic Cider (Dunkertons Cider) Browns England Medium Silver
Authentic Cider (Perrys) Redstreak England Medium Silver
Authentic Cider (Hallets) Real Cider England Sweet Gold
Authentic Cider (Dunkertons Cider) Premium Organic Cider England Sweet Gold
Authentic Cider (Perrys) Grey Heron England Sweet Silver

Flavoured

Company Product Name Country Sub Category Medal
Authentic Cider Olivers Cider and Perry) At the Hop #7 England Dry Silver

Perry

Company Product Name Country Sub Category Medal
Authentic Cider (Dunkertons Cider) Organic Perry England Medium Gold
Authentic Cider Olivers Cider and Perry) Fine Perry England Medium Silver
Authentic Cider Olivers Cider and Perry) Classic Medium England Medium Bronze
Authentic Cider (Hallets) Real Perry Wales Sweet Bronze

Lager

Company Product Name Country Sub Category Medal
Harviestoun Brewery Schiegallion Scotland Light Gold

Ale

Company Product Name Country Sub Category Medal
Harviestoun Brewery Bitter and Twisted (beer) Scotland Light Bronze
Harviestoun Brewery Broken Dial Scotland Medium Bronze
Harviestoun Brewery Old Engine Oil Scotland Dark Gold
Harviestoun Brewery Old Engin Oil Engineers Reserve Scotland Dark Gold

Speciality (aged)

Company Product Name Country Sub Category Medal
Harviestoun Brewery Ola Dunh 12 Year Old Scotland Dark Gold

Speciality

Company Product Name Country Sub Category Medal
Harviestoun Brewery Ola Dunh 18 Year Old Scotland Dark Master

The best Champagnes of 2018

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

Jonathan Pedley MW of Crown Cellars.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jonathan Pedley MW and Andrea Briccarello.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Galvin restaurants wine buyer Andrea Briccarello

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About the Champagne Masters

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

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

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

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

The judges were:

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

About the tasting process

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The medal winners

Cabernet Sauvignon Masters 2014: The results

An impressive lineup of judges convened for the Global Cabernet Sauvignon Masters to put 200 wines through their paces in June.

Untitled3 Having recently cemented its title as king of the grapes with the news that it has overtaken Spanish white variety Airén as the world’s most widely planted grape, no serious wine competition would be complete that didn’t put Cabernet Sauvignon under the microscope. According to a recent study form the University of Adelaide, since 1990, Cabernet Sauvignon has more than doubled its share of hectares under vine, though many may argue its heartland remains on Bordeaux’s Left Bank, where some of the world’s most highly prized wines are crafted from the grape, which is used to form the backbone of Bordeaux blends. However, this thick-skinned variety can thrive in an array of terroirs around the world, and can be found flourishing everywhere from Coonawarra and Margaret River in Australia to the Napa Valley in California and Chile’s Maipo Valley.

The 17th century lovechild of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon is appreciated by grape growers for its naturally low-yielding, late-ripening nature and ability to add structure, colour and power to blends. In addition, the grape’s naturally high acidity and tannic structure mean wines made from Cabernet can be built to last. Given that it is planted in a plethora of pockets around the world, there is no cookie-cutter signature style for Cabernet, though many boast notes of blackcurrant, mint, eucalyptus, bell pepper and cedar, with cherry and olive notes present in cooler-climate Cabernets, and warmer Cabs often veering towards the jammier end of the flavour spectrum.

Building on from the success of both the Chardonnay Masters and the Pinot Noir Masters, around 200 wines from nine countries were submitted to our inaugural Cabernet Sauvignon Masters, with judging taking place on 8 May at Elysée restaurant in central London. Served blind and assessed without prejudice about their country of origin, the wines were arranged according to their price band as well as style, from low price to high, and unoaked to oaked, in order to make the competition as fair as possible. Judged by a stellar panel of Masters of Wine, including Sebastian Payne MW of The Wine Society, Demetri Walters MW of Berry Bros & Rudd and Justin Knock MW of Encirc, the wines were scored out of 100, with those gaining more than 95 points being awarded the top title of Master. Those earning more than 90 points were given a gold, those more than 85 points a silver, and those more than 80 points a bronze.

New order

The majority of entries for our Cabernet Sauvignon Masters came from the New World, with just one wine from Bordeaux taking part in the competition. While two-thirds of the wines were single-varietal Cabernet, the remainder were blends crafted from at least 75% Cabernet Sauvignon. During the tasting, the judges looked for balance, fine tannic structure, a bright fruit profile and a complex character, as well as a long finish.

So how did the wines fare? Of the 200 wines that entered, 141 were medal-winners, with 83 walking away with a bronze, 41 awarded silver, 14 impressing enough for a gold and just three scooping the top accolade of a Master medal. “Cabernet is one of the great grapes of the world and you can see why it’s planted everywhere as it delivers on many different levels. We haven’t had too many howlers, thankfully,” quipped Payne. “Caberent Sauvignon proved that it is able to deliver value for money. Producers across the world are stepping up their game and the hit rate in the competition was very good,” added Hugo Rose MW of the Wine Investment Association.

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(L-R): Patrick Schmitt, editor of the drinks business, Hugo Rose MW of the Wine Investment Association, Vanessa Cinti of Cut at 45 Park Lane, Sebastian Payne MW of The Wine Society, Rebecca Palmer of Corney & Barrow, Mark Savage MW of Savage Selection, Lucy Shaw, deputy editor of the drinks business, Justin Knock MW of Encirc and Demetri Walters MW of Berry Bros & Rudd.

In terms of individual countries, judges praised Chile for its ability to deliver reliable and consistently high-quality Cabernet at an affordable price point. “You can find fantastic value in Chile, which has a lot to recommend it,” said Payne. “The consistency of the Chilean Cabs was a big surprise for me – the wines offered dark fruit and a creamy texture,” commented Vanessa Cinti, head sommelier of Wolfgang Puck’s debut London restaurant Cut at 45 Park Lane.

While the US put in a consistent performance, it was Australia, and most notably Coonawarra, that got our judges’ pulses racing, with the inherent elegance of the wines from the Southern Australian region setting them apart. Australia also led the way in the gold medal tally, scooping five golds and a Master for Katnook Founder’s Block Cabernet Sauvignon 2010. “Both Australia and Argentina are doing a very good job with Cabernet Sauvignon and are offering decent-quality examples for under £10. You can see the evolution the countries have undergone in recent years. The Australian wines were lovely and fresh with herbal and menthol notes,” said Cinti.

Hot on Australia’s heels was Chile, which won four golds, followed by Argentina, which scooped two golds and a Master for Pascual Toso Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, with Spain picking up the third and final Master for Torres’ Mas La Plana 2010, which has been made from a 29-hectare vineyard in the northern Spanish region of Penedès since 1970. South Africa delivered a solid performance, earning two gold and three silver medals, while, somewhat surprisingly given its strong links to Cabernet, the US picked up only one gold medal for Jackson Family Wines Stonestreet Monument Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon 2010.

Question of style

A debate arose around oak, with a number of judges lamenting the inability on the part of many producers to handle it properly. “While Cabernet has a natural affinity for oak, a lot of the wines were smothered and it wasn’t used judiciously, meaning the oak owned the wine rather than the other way around,” commented Berry Bros & Rudd’s Walters. Payne of The Wine Society concurred. “At the end of the day, you want to be able to drink the whole bottle, not just one glass, and some of the wines messed around with the oak a little too much and the alcohol levels were too high, but there is a market for those styles of wine,” he said.

Untitled1As to whether Cabernet performs better in a blend or as a solo act, the judges were unanimous on the former. “I’m not certain that Cabernet Sauvignon delivers varietal character under £10. What you tend to get is a lot of structure without the fruit balance. A few of the under-£10 wines worked, but the tannin often smothered the fruit. The blends were more rounded and balanced with better palate weight and structure than the single varietals,” said Walters, to which Payne added: “As a single varietal, Cabernet Sauvignon rarely hits the high spots – it works better in blends. As a grape it does fantastically commercially and is hugely successful; the trick is to keep the freshness locked in.” Cinti, meanwhile, was more forgiving of the single varietals. “Some of them worked well – I think there is a space for them in the market. When made well, Cabernet can more than hold its own as a single-varietal wine,” she said.

Global Pinot Noir Masters 2015: the results

There’s little doubt that Pinot Noir is fashionable these days, but such a sensitive grape’s transition into the mainstream is hardly guaranteed.

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By bringing together over 350 examples from 16 countries to be scrutinised by some of the trade’s most experienced MW and MS palates, The Drinks Business Pinot Noir Global Masters offered a perfect opportunity to assess the status quo.

One thing the results made abundantly clear is that top quality examples of this grape variety can now come from just about any of the world’s major wine producing regions. Represented among this year’s gold medal winners were New Zealand, South Africa, Austria, Australia, Chile, Germany and Italy. Although both California and Oregon failed to achieve the same level of accolade as last year, they were nevertheless well represented in the medal table along with Romania, France, Argentina, Canada, Bulgaria, Spain, Switzerland and indeed England.

“My overall impression is that the competition is hotting up,“ remarked Sebastian Payne MW, buyer for The Wine Society. “There seem to be more and more places all over the world getting things right.” While noting the particular strength of New Zealand, whose clutch of gold medals and a Master proved its ongoing prowess, Payne added: “Countries like South Africa and Chile show steady improvement, and there were some surprisingly good wines at under £10 a bottle, which used to be a price point to avoid for Pinot Noir.”

Nevertheless, the feeling among most of the panel chairs was that the perfume and charm that are so intrinsic to Pinot Noir’s appeal tend to emerge at higher price brackets. “It is a tough ask to expect to produce good Pinot at under £10 a bottle with the UK tax regime and generally you need to set the sights a bit higher if you want to be rewarded,” commented Mark Savage MW, managing director of UK merchant Savage Selection. “There are certainly some possibilities at around £15,” he continued. “At over £25 then you deserve to see a good depth of Pinot character.” Excitingly for fans of this variety who are prepared to pay a bit more to indulge their passion, there was certainly no shortage of successfully ambitious examples at these upper price points. Indeed, observed Payne pointedly, “Burgundy seems too scared to enter many wines; perhaps they have more and more reason to watch the competition.”

Tender loving care

4So what is it that winemakers around the world are getting right to produce such an abundance of high quality styles?

According to the drinks business editor in chief Patrick Schmitt, “Something positive that was immediately apparent among this year’s entries to our Pinot Masters was a more sensitive handling of the grape. Not only did we rarely encounter harsh tannins from heavy-handed extraction methods or too much new oak, but there appeared to be a better balance between fruit sweetness and freshness among 2015’s entries.” What’s more, he noted, “fewer examples had fallen victim to the raisined flavours or alcohol burn that can result from picking too late in a warm climate.”

This analysis was echoed by Payne, who pointed to “much subtler wood treatment than I remember from last year, with a touch of American oak working quite successfully on some lower-priced wine.”

For those producers working to make good quality Pinot Noir at the commercially important sub-£10 price point, consultant Richard Bampfield MW had the following advice: “Restrict yields as much as possible, don’t try too hard on extraction and try to add an oak component, even if small.” More generally, Savage highlighted the right picking date as being “crucial” for producers’ success. “A day or two too early and you will get green tannins, while a day or two beyond optimum and you may have prune juice,” he warned.
For all the evidence that excellent Pinot Noir can come from very different corners of the world, he linked this picking decision closely to the importance of finding the right spot to plant such a sensitive variety. “You need to be confident that the vineyard site will allow for marginal ripening with maturity in the fruit that will render unnecessary any correction by either chaptalisation or acidification,” insisted Savage, adding: “The vast majority of vineyard locations in the world will not be suitable.”

Forgetting their roots

2Despite the abundance of high quality Pinot Noirs emanating from different corners of the world today, Bampfield questioned the clarity with which these wines express their origin. In contrast to the deeply nuanced distinctions displayed so famously by the grape in Burgundy, he remarked: “I don’t think that national and regional differences are yet nearly as clear in Pinot as they are with grapes such as Cabernet and Shiraz.” With entries for the Masters series arranged by price bracket rather than country of origin and all wines tasted blind, Bampfield suggested that it would have been “extremely difficult” to pin down wines to specific parts of the world, “whereas, with Cabernet I think I would be more sure of my ground,” he remarked. Indeed, looking ahead to the evolution of this competition in years to come, Bampfield predicted that the line-up is likely to become “more and more interesting as new sites in the New World in particular are developed.”

That suggestion certainly opens up an exciting future direction for Pinot Noir’s international development. As this in-depth assessment of the current state of affairs demonstrated, winemakers have certainly secured a solid base of quality on which to refine their offer in ever more nuanced directions.

About the competition

In a crowded wine competition arena, The Drinks Business Global Pinot Noir Masters stands out for its assessment of wines purely by grape variety rather than 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 wines were scored out of 100, with those gaining more than 95 points being awarded the top title of Master. Those earning more than 90 points were given a gold, those more than 85 points a silver, and those more than 80 points a bronze.

The wines were judged by a group of Masters of Wine and Master Sommeliers on 4 February at The Drapers Arms in Islington, London.

Click through to see this year’s medal-winning wines….

Chianti Classico Masters 2015: The medallists

The Chianti Classico Masters, featuring the first UK blind tasting of the Gran Selezione tier, did justice to the often overlooked Italian region.

CM1It’s hard to ascertain exactly why, but when the world’s great wine regions are discussed, Chianti Classico does not always get mentioned. Other parts of Italy regularly feature, above all the country’s three fine wine “Bs” – Barolo, Barbaresco and Brunello – but somehow Chianti Classico tends to get overlooked.

Now, that could be because this historic area is associated with the much larger and more variable Chianti DOCG.
On the other hand, it could be two to something else hampering Chianti Classico’s fine wine reputation, possibly something connected to the region’s image internationally.

However, following a tasting of the area’s top wines in the inaugural Chianti Classico Masters, which included the UK’s first ever blind assessment of the new Gran Selezione uppermost layer, it was clear such oversight should not have anything to do with quality. Indeed, the judges, who were expecting a tiring day of tasting tannic wine, left excited by the consistently high standard of the entries. In short, it was clear that this is a region making distinctive and very fine wines.

CM4Expert tasters

As with all tastings in the drinks business Masters series, the judges were selected not only for their experienced palates, but their expertise in the relevant region or wine style. So, for the Chianti Classico Masters, we lined up Tom Bruce-Gardyne, a former wine buyer and current wine writer specialising in Italy; Alex Canneti, former brand manager for Antinori in the UK, longtime Italian wine buyer and today’s off-trade director at Berkmann Wine Cellars; and Roberto Della Pietra, Italian native and former head sommelier at Clos Maggiore, home to one of London’s best and longest wine lists, as well as the chosen venue for this tasting.

Having sampled over 50 wines from sub- £10 to well over £30, one thing was apparent: these Chianti Classicos were precisely and deliciously Sangiovese-based wines, even if other varieties were present in the blends. In other words, the wines were all reflective of the region’s hallmark grape, with its naturally high acidity, strong tannins, and flavours of ripe red fruits and sour cherries. This ensured that each of the samples in the tasting had a pleasingly Italianate food-friendly character which results from that combination of bright fruit and firm tannin, despite the range of styles – which included everything from young to old, big-to-medium bodied, and those with and without new oak, along with varying proportions of international grapes.

Climbing the ladder

Something else that pleased the judges was the apparent quality difference between tiers as the tasting moved up from Chianti Classico Riserva and then to the new Gran Selezione. In particular, the latter classification, introduced in February 2014 as a new layer to the Chianti Classico quality pyramid, was clearly home to the most impressive wines of the day. Although the Riserva category saw many high-scoring wines, proportionately it was the Gran Selezione level that did best: from 11 entries there were four silvers, four golds and one master – the highest accolade, given only to wines scoring an average of 95 points or above.

Although the new classification has arrived amid controversy, not least accusations that it represents little more than a slightly riper and longer-aged Riserva, rather than a selection based on site, the tasting did show the superiority of Gran Selezione – as well as the consistently high standard within this tier (which may reflect the fact that these wines are taste-tested by a team of winemakers in the region before they can carry the classification).

So, importantly, the tasting highlighted the rising quality of Chianti Classico as one moves up through the hierarchy quality. This may not sound revelatory, but it’s common to find that more expensive and more rarified wines don’t actually give better results. But, in this case, for the most part, those entries made with a selective approach were, in fact, the better wines.

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The judges: (LR) Alex Canetti, Berkmann Wine Cellars, Tom Bruce-Gardyne, wine writer and Italian specialist, Patrick Schmitt MW, editor-in-chief, the drinks business, Roberto Della Pietra, former head sommelier

About the competition

The wines featured in this list were selected by a panel of experienced tasters at the inaugural Masters Chianti Classico by the drinks business, which was held on Thursday March 12 at Clos Maggiore restaurant in London’s Covent Garden.

All the entries were tasted blind during the course of one day using Schott Zwiesel glasses supplied by Wine Sorted.

Each sample was scored and discussed before the medal was awarded, with the top Chianti Classicos given Gold, Silver or Bronze medals. Meanwhile, those whose quality was judged to be outstanding received the ultimate accolade – the title of Chianti Classico Master

About the Gran Selezione classification

Officially approved by the European Commission in February 2014 after a three year process, the Gran Selezione label can be applied to estate-grown, Sangiovese-dominated wines from the 2010 vintage onwards which meet upgraded meet minimum criteria concerning alcohol, extraction and the maturation process.

No purchased grapes can be used for Gran Selezione (meaning “Great Selection”), and the minimum alcohol is 13% compared to 12.5% for the Riserva, while the wine must be aged for 30 months, compared to 24 for Riserva, although there are no rules around methods of ageing.

Like Riserva, the minimum proportion of Sangiovese must be 80%, allowing for the inclusion of international varieties such as Syrah or Merlot, as well as local grapes such as Canaiolo or Colorino. However, some producers have opted to release pure Sangiovese wines as Gran Selezione, such as Antinori’s Badia a Passignano, which gained the title of top wine of the tasting.

Finally, and somewhat controversially, as long as all the grapes for Gran Selezione are sourced from the same owner’s property, there is no requirement for the wines to come from a single vineyard. So, should a large producer with extensive landholdings choose to blend grapes from across the entire Chianti Classico zone, the resulting wine could still be classified as a Gran Selezione.

Over the following pages you can see the results by category, or click here for a review of the top 11 Chianti Classicos of the tasting. While all that’s left to say here is that if the judges in this competition had ever been guilty of forgetting Chianti Classico, this tasting had ensured that the DOCG would feature prominently in any future discussion about the world’s key wine regions.

Champagne Masters 2015: the results

The fifth Champagne Masters highlighted a distinct upturn in quality in the wines of the 10 biggest brands. Here, we reveal the full results of the competition.

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Due to our desire to stay ahead, each tasting in The Drinks Business Global Masters incorporates small improvements. And in this respect, 2015’s Champagne Masters was no different.

Judges in previous years – this was the fifth Champagne Masters we’ve run – have said that they’d like to blind taste the world’s two biggest brands alongside the other entries we attract, which include almost all the grandes marques.

So this year their wish was granted, and you’ll see from the results that every one of the 10 largest Champagne labels have been assessed, along with the top two by volume: Moët & Chandon Brut Imperial and Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label.

You can look through the performance of these 10 leviathans in the separate table below, alongside information on their lees-ageing times, dosages, and reserve wine proportions, just to shine a little more light on to the components of the most commercially important brands in Champagne.

About the competition

The Champagne Masters is a competition created and run by thedrinks business and an extension of its successful Masters series for grape varieties such as Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, as well as regions such as Rioja and Chianti. The competition is exclusively for Champagne and the entries were judged by a selection of highly experienced tasters using Schott Zwiesel Cru Classic glasses supplied by Wine Sorted. The top Champagnes were awarded Gold, Silver or Bronze medals according to their result, and those Champagnes that stood out as being outstanding received the ultimate accolade – the title of Champagne Master. The Champagnes were tasted over the course of a single day at the Dorchester Hotel in London. This report features only the winners of medals.

What the medals highlight is the high quality of these massive blends. As we reported in the October edition of db, the volume leaders in Champagne have embarked on a series of changes over the past 10 years in a bid to improve their wines, no doubt due to increasing competition from other sparkling producers, be they based in Italy or England.

Changes for the better in Champagne are, in part, due to viticultural improvements, which are yielding riper and cleaner grapes, but also, importantly, cellar practices: the big players have invested in extending lees ageing times and raising the amount of reserve wines in their Brut NVs.

Together, such developments have brought about more richness and a compensatory drop in dosage. Indeed, as one judge commented: “What was so nice about this year’s tasting was that there was no greenness.”This was in reference to Champagne disappointments of the past, when unripe grapes, with limited ageing either on or off the lees, produced tart results. While another observed: “It was good to see that the dosage in the wines was well managed, it was fully integrated.”

This comment alluded to both lower levels, but also longer postdisgorgement resting times – few famous names now release their wines with less than three months, and the quality minded houses over six. Among the entries that really pleased the judges palates were, once more, the wines from Charles Heidsieck, which took one of two Masters in the Brut NV category for its Brut Reserve.

This Champagne house has become a true bastion of quality at all levels and this year it also showed its skill with rosé, a category that often performs poorly in relation to the whites.

038-040-Champagne-masters-2015-1The other top scoring category in the Brut NV sector was Pommery Brut Royal, attesting to the skill of long-serving cellar master Thierry Gasco, who has looked after winemaking at the house for more than 23 years. Almost as high scoring were the Brut NVs from Lanson, Veuve-Clicquot and Laurent-Perrier, as well as Charles de Cazanove, part of the massive GH Martel group, all of which gained a gold.

Of course, the styles of these top performers were far from similar, ranging from the intensely citrus flavours of the Lanson to the mellow richness of the Clicquot.

Moving a touch down in scores, this year we saw a high number of Silver medals among the Brut NVs, proving that this category is home to a large quantity of very good Champagnes, alongside those few mentioned above that are outstanding.

Within the selection of Silvers was Moët’s Brut Imperial, and the judges expressed surprise when it was revealed after the tasting that their high scores were for the world’s biggest Champagne brand – presumably because they had wrongly assumed that a sparkling produced in such high volumes (almost 30 million bottles are produced annually) would not attain this level of quality.

The tasters were also impressed at the good results achieved, for the most part, by the co-ops – De Saint Gall, Jacquart, Nicolas Feuillatte, Palmer and Pannier were all awarded silvers – as well as the good showing from smaller houses such as Cattier and Comtes de Dampierre.

Value in vintage

042-044-Champagne-masters-2015-9While NV is designed to reflect the character of the house, vintage is meant to mirror the conditions of the harvest, and as a result, there was a great range in scores, even among the same producers. However, considering the stricter quality rules for this style, and the fact that vintage Champagne is generally only produced in good years, the highest performers in this category were truly outstanding.

Furthermore, without the accoutrements that come with the prestige cuvées, vintage represents the best-value category for great Champagne.

This class of fizz should also offer something fuller than found in the Brut NV category and it is usually a style that can be enjoyed with meals, not just as an aperitif.

As one judge commented: “Really good vintage Champagne should have some affinity with food.” Master in this category in 2015 was Charles Heidsieck’s sister house, Piper Heidsieck, which took home the top accolade for its 2006 vintage, a relatively warm year producing opulent Champagnes.

Indeed, both Alfred Gratien and Chassenay d’Arce gained Golds for their 2006s, the former benefitting from added richness due to barrel maturation (offsetting to some extent this house’s decision to block malolactic fermentation).

Tasting findings

> This year’s Champagne Masters saw every one of the 10 largest Champagne labels by global volume sales assessed blind by our team of tasters.

> Once more, Champagne’s grandes marques performed well in this year’s competition, particularly Charles Heidsieck.

> The tasters were also impressed by the good results achieved, for the most part, by the co-ops.

> Brut NV Champagnes proved high quality and good value, while rosé did better than in previous competitions, suggesting that there have been quality improvements in these commercially important categories.

> Blanc de blancs Champagnes gained good scores, particularly the more expensive examples.

> Without the accoutrements that come with the prestige cuvées, vintage represents the best-value category for great Champagne.

> The overall quality standard was extremely high.

Another great find in this flight was from Champagne de Castelnau, which is still offering drinkers a chance to enjoy the delights of the remarkable 2002 vintage in Champagne, and for under £40.

And it was both the 2006 and 2002 vintages that performed so well in the prestige cuvée category, in particular PiperHeidsieck’s Rare 2002 and Gosset Celebris 2002, and from 2006, Tattinger’s Comtes de Champagne rosé and blanc de blancs, along with the Amour de Deutz.

Usual star performer Charles Heidsieck Blanc des Millénaires 1995 gained a Master again this year, but when judged in the blanc de blancs category, achieving similar nearperfect scores to Champagne Palmer’s 2006 blanc de blancs, which is less than half the price, as well as the similarly good value 2002 pure Chardonnay from de Castelnau.

Indeed, the blanc de blancs category was home to some of Champagne’s very best performers, including some newcomers to the tasting, such as Champagne Sanger.

Finally, and pleasingly, this year we saw some delicious pink Champagnes, a category once deemed slightly frivolous and, judging by past tastings, poor value.

Charles Heidsieck, as mentioned above, gained the highest scores, but both Henriot and Lanson showed skill at producing outstanding rosé – with Henriot in particular proving its winemaking flair and excellent price-to-quality ratio.

Nevertheless, this category was still felt to be the most inconsistent in terms of style and quality.

Looking across the entire tasting, the judges did feel that Champagne’s mid-priced area performed best, with £40-50 a sweet spot for high-scoring fizz – although there were certain notable exceptions.

Moving beyond that price band, one judge remarked that it “seemed harder to justify a medal”, while another said: “Those in the mid-range seemed to be more classic, more Champagne.”

Nevertheless, 2015’s Champagne Masters showed that this sparkling wine region has nudged upwards, once more, in general quality.

“The standard was very good… We had lots of Golds, and they were all justifiable Golds – each one was well and truly worthy of it,” said one taster, who has judged in this competition since its inception in 2011.

Notably, this year, all the major brands were assessed and none of them disappointed. This is particularly important because, such is the strengthened competition outside Champagne, it’s no longer possible for this fizz to succeed on the basis of image alone.

Champagne

Left to right: Simon Field MW, buyer, Berry Bros & Rudd; Sue Daniels, buyer, Marks & Spencer; Michael Edwards, journalist, author, Champagne specialist; Nicola Arcedeckne-Butler MW, director of buying, Private Cellar; Anthony Foster MW, director/buyer, Bonhote Foster; Rebecca Palmer, associate director & buyer, Corney & Barrow; Patrick Schmitt MW, editor-in-chief, the drinks business; Marcel Orford-Williams, buyer, The Wine Society

Top 10 Champagne brands by volume: reserve wine percentage, lees ageing time, dosage level and medal achieved

Brut NV brand Reserve (%) Lees (mths) Dosage (g/l) Medal
Moët & Chandon 25-29 23-26 8-8.9 Silver
Veuve Clicquot 30-34 31-34 9-9.9 Gold
Nicolas Feuillatte 25-29 35-38 9-9.9 Silver
GH Mumm 30-34 23-26 8-8.9 Silver
Laurent-Perrier 15-19 43+ 10-10.9 Gold
Taittinger 20-24 35-38 9-9.9 Silver
Pommery 27-30 27-30 9-9.9 Master
Piper-Heidsieck 10–14 27-30 10-10.9 Silver
Lanson 20-24 31-34 8-8.9 Gold
Canard-Duchêne 25-29 23-26 9-9.9 Bronze

Click through to see this year’s medal-winning wines…

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