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.
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.
Chardonnay Masters 2017: the results in full
Where once the choice for Chardonnay drinkers was either a big, buttery, oaky expression or, in response, an austere, lighter version, now producers have found an appealing middle ground, as Patrick Schmitt MW and fellow judges discover.
No single variety of wine has suffered more abuse than Chardonnay. As those of you in the trade know well, the most overt sign of this came with the ‘Anything But Chardonnay’ movement of the last decade – shortened to ABC – which emerged as a response to buttery, oaky, rather sickly styles of wine that had appeared on the market from the late 1990s onwards, when heavy-handed cellar techniques were used on lightweight grapes. Unfortunately, it wrongly tarred all Chardonnays with the same brush. But the ABC sentiment was to some extent justified; it was a reaction to something real.
As a result, combatting such an image issue took drastic, tangible measures. It required the emergence of ‘skinny’ Chardonnay: a style of wine created so lean that the trade and consumers couldn’t help but notice. It was proof that Chardonnay’s stylistic pendulum had well and truly swung to another extreme. And, for this reason, initially, it was welcome. But it wasn’t the long-term solution for a grape that had created a mass following for its richness. Should one crave a fresh, lightweight drink, one wouldn’t ask for a Chardonnay. So, while the lean Chardonnay showed that winemakers could produce something delicate from this grape, it was, at the same time, disappointing those who loved Chardonnay for its generosity; that crowd-pleasing combination of ripe yellow fruit and notes of buttered toast.
Moving forward to today, and following another extremely comprehensive Chardonnay sampling through our Global Masters programme, it is apparent that an appealing, balanced middleground has now been struck. One can still find the rich, oaky, Chardonnay caricatures, and the more feathery, austere examples too, but the extremes are less extreme. The variation now comes with price point – so, as one moves up the quality ladder, you can literally buy more fruit, oak, and layers of flavour, for the most part, in harmony. What’s important is that, in general terms, the Chardonnay on the market at the moment is better to drink than it has ever been before. And, with so many sources, there’s a lot to excite the adventurous drinker.
All this means that, at present, any wine lover who is tired of Chardonnay, to paraphrase Samuel Johnson, is tired of life. With all that said, before looking closely at the high points from this year’s tasting, there is still controversy in the handling of Chardonnay by winemakers. In the vineyard, lower yields, and attempts to pick neither under- nor over-ripe may be producing musts with the potential for greatness, but management during and after fermentation is bringing a particular and divisive character to the resulting wines – and this results from differing levels of hydrogen sulphide (H2S). At low levels, this compound can add a complexing whiff of smoke, reminiscent of a freshly struck match.
At higher concentrations, it can be stinky, like rotten eggs. Skilled winemakers can control the influence, mainly through lees management, and will allow the almost rampant production of the compound in some barrels, before blending these into the wine to a bring about a desired level of sulphide-sourced characters. Where they have been apparent, but not unpleasant, sulphidic aromas have been a shortcut to success in wine competitions. However, our judges are more sceptical of heaping high scores on such artefact.
As a result, while the top medallists in the Chardonnay Masters may display an attractive sulphidic note, it is in combination with other flavours, primarily the character of the grapes, enhanced by the addition of aromas created by malolactic fermentation and barrel-ageing. In other words, our judges aren’t swayed by the instant aromatic smoky hit from sulphides, but are happy to reward this trait in well-made Chardonnay, as long as it is in harmony with other elements in the wine. On that note, it is important to stress that texture too is vital for great Chardonnay, and the judges were looking for a wine not just with flavour complexity, but a certain weight in the mouth from ripe fruit (not sugar or elevated alcohol). Not only that, but the oleaginous had to be balanced by a brightness on the finish – all wines must deliver refreshment, however weighty.