The Global Sparkling Masters 2019: results in full

Our annual Sparkling Masters gives the judges the chance to hone in on which fizzes are hitting the spot in terms of taste, quality and value. This year, they were particularly impressed with the quality of crémants from the Loire.


Of all
the categories in the wine business, it’s sparkling where the competition appears to be the most intense. Whether its between regions, or countries, there seems to be a near-ceaseless urge to prove that one fizz-making area is better than another, with producers pitted against each other in a range of tastings.

It’s why we tend to see headlines such as ‘English fizz beats Champagne in landmark tasting’, ‘Aussie sparkling voted best in the world’, or ‘Discount crémant better than fizz costing five times the price’, and so on.

While we take no issue with the reporting, it is worth considering the nature of such comparisons. How are these tastings being conducted? And who are the judges? After all, with an issue as emotive as sparkling wine quality, it’s vital that such events employ professionals, and the organisers do their best to minimise any bias.

Repeated sampling

With such thoughts in mind, it is important to state that db’s tastings see samples judged ‘blind’, although the entries are organised loosely according to style, and presented in given price bands. As for the tasters, they must be Masters of Wine, or Master Sommeliers, and where buyers or writers are enlisted, it is because they are specialists in the category being judged. Not only that, but every entry is scored then discussed, ensuring that each taster’s result is scrutinised by a peer, and every wine is properly assessed. This may be a drawn-out process, often involving repeated sampling of the same wine, but it yields credible results, which are then shared in full here, and in the magazine too, with the addition of analysis and opinion.

In short, with the Global Sparkling Masters, you can trust the results, which have been arrived at via a rigorous tasting process, one conducted purely to assess quality, not to yield a particular outcome. So, the conclusions we draw from a day’s sampling are based on the nature of the samples submitted, and yes, sometimes the results do yield a sensational outcome, but that is by accident, not design.

So, what were the headline findings from this year’s Global Sparkling Masters? Initially, the tasting highlighted the broad sweep of places now making delicious traditional-method sparkling wine. We had Golds from bottle-fermented fizz-producing areas from the Loire to the Western Cape, Hungary to Hampshire, and New Zealand to Austria. In other words, if you thought the source of great sparkling wine was either France or Spain – or just Champagne or Cava – be prepared for a surprise as you scan the origins of our medallists this year.

Also, for those who believe that Prosecco is the go-to for little more simple-tasting fizz, then think again. When this tank-method sparkling was tasted blind against similarly priced bottled-fermented products, it did just as well or better, in many cases. This was true at higher prices too, with, for example, Andreola’s Dirupo Brut Prosecco picking up a Gold in the £30-£50 sparkling wine flight, along with a traditional-method fizz from Austria (Schlumberger Wein) and one from England (Louis Pommery).

We were also impressed by the quality-to-price ratio among the sparkling wines from two producers in particular: South Africa’s Pongracz and Hungary’s Törley. But if one were to pick out the source of the best-value fizz on the market based on this year’s tasting, it would have to be the Loire. As you can see in the tables, two names stood out for their crémants – the name for bottle-fermented fizz from France that hails from outside Champagne. These were Bouvet Ladubay and Langlois Château. The most keenly priced Gold-medal-winning fizz of the competition was the £11 Sainsbury’s Taste The Difference Crémant de Loire Brut, which is made by Bouvet Ladubay for the supermarket. The sparkling wine garnered a high score for its combination of richness and refreshment, combining the cleansing flavours of apple and chalk, with more creamy characters, and a touch of honey-coated toast, which provided added interest.

Quality fizz

Such was the quality of this fizz for the money, the judges agreed that they would now be looking closely at crémant when selecting wines for their own events.
Bearing in mind the creep upwards of Champagne prices in this decade, it’s becoming more common for consumers to seek out a cheaper alternative to this famous fizz when pouring a sparkling wine for big, celebratory events.

And, if one goes to other aspirational traditional-method winemaking regions, such as Franciacorta in Italy, or the southern counties of England, such as Kent and Sussex, you’ll find brilliant quality, but also prices that are similar, if not higher, than an equivalent Brut NV from Champagne.

Delicious options

So it was exciting to find in this year’s Global Sparkling Masters that there are delicious options of creamy, gently toasty fizz on the market today at roughly half the price of grandes marques Champagnes.

Some of these were from the Loire, but there were a wide range of other sources providing an exciting set of choices for the open-minded sparkling wine lover. This is an extremely competitive area of the wine business, but like all areas of the drinks industry, it pays to look broadly in the search for quality and value.

Over the following pages you can see all the medallists from this year’s competition, as well as comments from the judges (who are pictured below), and more information about the Global Sparkling Masters, including how to enter.

The judges (left to right): Michelle Cherutti-Kowal MW, Simon Field MW, Patricia Stefanowicz MW, Ennio Pucciarelli, Antony Moss MW, Andrea Briccarello, Patrick Schmitt MW

Prosecco Masters 2019: see the results in full

We bring you all the medalists from this year’s Prosecco Masters, along with some comments on the highs and lows of the 2019 competition.

Following a report earlier this year on the best performers from the Prosecco Masters 2019, including five samples that we felt were class-leaders in their category, we have listed all the entries that picked up a Bronze or better, including our top accolade of Prosecco Master.

These can be seen below, and, with the number of Golds increasing for pricier Proseccos, it shows that going up the price ladder does bring greater returns in terms of quality, as does opting for a Prosecco Superiore DOCG over a DOC, with the former covering the hilly region between the towns of Conegliano and Valdobbiadene, along with a further area near the town of Asolo. (Click here to read more about classifications in Prosecco).

Before looking through the results in full, we have re-produced some judges’ thoughts on what they liked, as well as what wasn’t so appealing – with, initially, one judge’s more personal reflection on the Proseccos, and then another, from our panel chair, giving a more detailed analysis of the samples.

Our rigorous judging process ensures that each sample gets a thorough assessment, and due to the calibre of our tasters, gaining a medal in the Global Wine Masters is a significant achievement.

Click here to read more about the Global Wine Masters, and please click here to see a review of five outstanding Proseccos from this year’s competition.

The Proseccos were tasted over the course of one day at Balls Brothers wine bar, London, EC2N, on 4 April. The judges in the 2019 Prosecco Masters were (left to right): Nick Tatham MW, Alex Canetti, Patrick Schmitt MW, Patricia Stefanowicz MW, Jonathan Pedley MW, David Round MW, Simon Field MW

Organic Masters 2018: the results in full

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Asian Sparkling Masters 2017: Results and Analysis

Our inaugural Asian Sparkling Masters was a sure sign that Champagne, the holy grail of sparkling wine, is still the crème de la crème of all fizz and unapologetically reigns with its rich tradition, layers of complexity and razor-sharp precision in the winemaking process.

Judges at our latest Asian Sparkling Masters held on 30 January at HIP Cellar: (from left to right) Jeremy Stockman, general manager of Watson’s Wine; Yu-Kong Chow, independent F&B consultant and wine judge; Francesca Martin, director of BEE Drinks Global; Ivy Ng, publisher of the drinks business Hong Kong; Derek Li, chief sommelier at Duddell’s; Natalie Wang, managing editor of the drinks business Hong Kong (observing); Eddie McDougall, The Flying Winemaker; and Anty Fung, general manager of HIP Cellar.

In our inaugural Asian Sparkling Masters competition on 30 January, an expert panel of judges including Hong Kong’s top wine buyers, sommeliers and consultants blind-tasted a diverse spectrum of sparkling wines including Champagne, Prosecco, Cava, Cremant de Bourgogne, Asti and, without exception, the famous French fizz came out swinging.

Champagne reigns 

To put it in perspective: Champagne alone is responsible for producing all five of the Master medal winning wines, the top accolade of our competition, which is awarded only to wines that have been unanimously scored 97 points or above by the judges. In addition to sweeping all the Masters, Champagne dominated the gold medal chart nabbing seven out of the eight awards given out.

Yu-Kong Chow, independent wine consultant and wine judge

Compared with other sparkling categories, its association with good times, zippy acidity and complex aromas cut through the competition and was ultimately rewarded with the biggest medal haul. “For this inaugural Asian Sparkling Masters, the entries were overall of high quality. The top houses showed well, proving their consistency,” Yu-Kong Chow, independent food&beverage consultant and wine judge, commented.

The region, encompassing 34,000 hectares of vineyards, sold more than 307 million bottles worldwide last year, and the lure of the frothy bubbles is expected to grow as demand from emerging markets is set to accelerate.

About the competition

The Asian Sparkling Masters is a competition created and run by the drinks business Hong Kong, and is an extension of its successful Asian Masters series. The competition is exclusively for sparkling wines and the entries were judged by a selection of experienced tasters including Hong Kong’s top wine buyers, sommeliers and consultants. The top Sparklings were awarded Gold (93 points or above), Silver (89 points or above) or Bronze (85 points or above) medals according to their result, and those Sparklings that stood out as being outstanding received the ultimate accolade – the title of Master (97 points or above). The wines were tasted over the course of a single day on 30 January, 2018 at Hip Cellar. This report features only the medal winners.

One of the top performers was Taittinger’s premium cuvée – Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs – made with Chardonnay from six of its grand cru sites. The 2006 vintage was reflective of the year’s fine integration and expression and scored 97 points, landing it the coveted Master title.

“It is a fine example of an excellent Champagne with its seductive delicate floral aroma, rich complexity and the balance of beautiful acidity. It ticks all the boxes,” declared Chow. 

Jeremy Stockman, general manager of Hong Kong’s biggest wine retailer Watson’s Wine, agreed, describing the wine of having, “such freshness, balance and texture (creaminess).”

Moving down from the price ladder, Champagne Lanson Extra Age Brut and Champagne Barons de Rothschild Brut – both in the HK$400-799 bracket – were equally impressive. The Rothschild Blanc de Blancs was a favourite among a couple of judges, and is believed to be more expressive than the Champagne house’s vintage 2008 cuvée, which carries a heftier price tag (Above HK$800).

“It actually shows even better than the vintage 2008 version – not to say the latter isn’t good it just wasn’t within its drinking window yet, thus it appears a bit more closed than the brut version,” commented Anty Fung, general manager of Hip Cellar.

Eddie McDougall, the Flying Winemaker, is another judge that gave a firm vote for the fizz, calling it “a classic”. He added: “I admired the elegance which was well supported by the complex layers induced by the methode traditionelle techniques.”

Lanson’s Extra Age Brut NV, a tri-vintage blend of Chardonnay (40%) and Pinot Noir (60%), landed a Master for its weight, length and balance. Different from most of our Master series competitions, with sparkling wines, notably Champagne, price tends to directly correspond with quality – as opposed to Shiraz, for instance, where it’s not uncommon that out-liers can sometimes outperform pricier samples.

Anty Fung, general manager of Hip Cellar

But that doesn’t mean there’s no value bottles within Champagne. The surprises among the top winning wines came from Champagne Castelnau Cuvée Blanc de Blancs Millésimé 2003 (HK$200-299) and Champagne R&L Legras Brut Blanc de Blancs NV (HK$300-399). 

The former from the torrid, frost-bitten and sun-scorched 2003 vintage, which saw the majority of Champagne houses forfeiting declaring a vintage, showed classic autolysis aromas and plenty of personality. “Its great complexity and length won me over, as were its great toasty and nutty characters,” exalted Chow. The Champagne R&L Legras Brut from Chouilly, the famous and most northerly village of the Côte de Blancs, meanwhile is a good example of precision with a dosage of 7 g/l. 

Non-vintage stars 

Ivy Ng, publisher of the drinks business Hong Kong, and Jeremy Stockman, general manager of Watson’s Wine

For Gold medal winning wines – scoring 93 points or above – the highest number were awarded to non-vintage cuvées, the bread and butter of the Champagne sector, proving that with careful grape selection, attentive and gentle pressing and extended lees contact, non-vintage specific cuvées do not lack for finesse and clear definition; as we found in Champagne Barons de Rothschild Blanc de Blancs Brut, Lanson Rosé Label Brut, Lanson Black Label Brut, Berry’s United Kingdom Cuvée Grand Cru Mailly and Champagne Thienot Brut. 

Two vintage cuvées – Champagne Barons de Rothschild Blanc de Blancs 2008 and Lanson Nobel Noble Cuvée from the stellar 2002 vintage – were also gold medal decorated winners, carrying higher price tags (both in the above HK$800 range).

Gramona’s vintage Cava is the only other non-Champagne sparkling wine that managed to break Champagne’s choke-hold at the top of the medal charts. The 2012 Brut, a blend of local varieties Xarello and Macabeo, impressed the judges with its quality considering its accessible price tag (HK$200-299).

But with pleasing samples, there were a few cases where excessively green fruits, oxidation and cork taint made the judges scrunch their noses and turn their head away. 

“Overly oxidative, which I believe may be a problem during the vinification when the producer ferments base wine in the barrel to increase contact with oxygen. If not done properly, it may create some unpleasant aromas in the sparkling wine,” commented Derek Li, chief sommelier of Duddell’s. “On the other hand, some sparkling wine showed intense green notes. This may be related to the overall unripeness of the grapes themselves.”

Sugar 

The judges

Jeremy Stockman, General Manger of Watson’s Wine
Derek Li, Chief Sommelier at Duddell’s
Francesca Martin, Founder of BEE Drinks Global
Anty Fung, General Manager of Hip Cellar
Eddie McDougall, The Flying Winemaker
Yu-Kong Chow, independent F&B consultant and Rush Rich
Ivy Ng, Publisher, the drinks business Hong Kong

One of the trends on the lips of producers and consumers nowadays is a move towards lower dosage.

“The recent trend is going for lower dosage sparkling especially in grower Champagnes. This is closely tied with consumers’ pursuit for single vineyard, special Cuvée, more premium examples of grower Champagne. They don’t need low or even any dosage in order to show balance, harmony and complexity,” commented Fung. 

Even contrary to popular convention that Chinese drinkers favour a more generous touch of sweetness, in more mature markets like Hong Kong and Japan lower dosage and zero dosage are much sought-after. “The standard of four(ish) g/l I think works well. I don’t believe Asia in particular looks for more sugar: my experience of top quality sparkling is that consumers appreciate in the same way as elsewhere,” Stockman noted.

Derek Li, Chief Sommelier of Duddell’s, and Eddie McDougall, the Flying Winemaker

This was echoed by Chow: “I think the more sophisticated segments of the Asian markets like Hong Kong seem to be following this flow with even zero dosage sparkling wines in vogue.”

In the on-trade sector in Hong Kong, not only are drier styles of wines attracting consumer interest, German grower Sekt, other premium New World bubbles and English sparkling wines are also piquing interest from consumers, Fung observed based on her on-trade experiences.

This doesn’t mean sweeter versions of sparkling wines are pushed out of the market. Outside Hong Kong and Japan, most drinkers in mainland China and other Southeastern Asian countries still prefer a higher content of dosage. “Hong Kong and Japan are sophisticated markets, preferences are generally towards refreshing and savoury styles. As you move into Southeast Asia a higher level of sweetness is preferred. China is still learning about the intricacies of sparkling wine so it’s still undefined as to what their preference are,” McDougall suggested.

Italy and beyond 

Moving towards higher dosage category, above 12g/l, in our competition one of the more commonly noted drawbacks is their overtly cloying and unbalanced sweetness. When the scale tilts too much towards sugar, the wine’s overall balance is sacrificed without the backbone of acidity.

“It’s when sweetness isn’t balanced, then you have a problem. The wine will become cloying, less refreshing thus less appealing to drink,” commented Francesca Martin, founder of BEE Drinks Global, adding that a Silver-medal winning Asti from Diama was a fine example of achieving balance between sweetness and acidity.

In the higher dosage category (over 12g/l), that’s when Italy’s strength in crafting fruity, refreshing fizz came through, with plenty to offer such as Asti Spumante and Prosecco. Mezzacorona Moscato Giallo Spumante, Stantero Fratelli & CIVASS 958 Santero Asti Secco, and Societa Agricola Giusti Dal Col Prosecco DOC Treviso Rosalia were noted examples of fizz that found the sweet spot in the lower price category under HK$149. Mas de Fer Rive di Soligo’s 2016 vintage Prosecco from Valdobbiandene DOCG region added another medal to Italy’s silver streak. Other illustrious names in Italy’s sparkling wine scene including Bellavista and Andreola took home Silver medals as well.

Francesca Martin, founder of BEE Drinks Global

It’s safe to say that with Prosecco’s growing global popularity, we’ll be sure to see more samples from the region climbing up the medal chart either for drier samples or in higher dosage category. Global sparkling wine consumption is forecast to grow by an average of 2% year-on-year through to 2021, and Prosecco is undoubtedly in the driving seat, according to the latest joint report by Vinexpo and IWSR. By then, Prosecco’s growth will far outstrip other major categories such as Champagne and Cava.

Outside of Italy, Austria made a savoury sparkling using its indigenous variety Grüner Veltliner. Treasury Wine Estates’ Marquis de La Mysteriale Champagne Cuvée Grand Esprit Extra Dry was given a Silver as well. Spain’s Félix Solis Avantis’ Vina Albali Bianco Brut and Prospero Gran Selezione Bianco Brut were two good value bottles for under HK$100, so was the François Labet Cuvée Splendid Blanc de Blancs Bru. LVMH’s more accessible Champagne G.H. Mumm NV also got a nod from the judges with a Silver medal.

In the rosé category, meanwhile, Schlumberger’s Rosé Klassik from Austria and Lanson Extra Age Rosé both took home Silvers.

You can scroll over the pages to see the full results. 

The Prosecco Masters 2015: The medalists

Prosecco that stayed true to its roots, providing freshness and charm with value for money, shone brightest in our second annual Prosecco Masters.

Prosecco-Masters_HEL2601-JudgesProsecco, as we know, is flying in the UK. Last year sales were up 75% and overtook Champagne for the first time as Brits splashed out an estimated £1 billion on the stuff in the on- and off-trade. Sales of the fizz are up by around 40% in supermarkets, with Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Waitrose and M&S all reporting strong growth. It’s a similarly rosy picture in the on-trade, where sales are surging due to Prosecco’s image as an affordable luxury that suits all occasions. Light, fresh, slightly sweet, and with an appealing price point, Prosecco ticks all the boxes, meaning guilt-free cork popping from living room to bar. The recession brought about a change of mindset, meaning a certain kudos is now attached to bargain hunting, thus wallet-friendly Prosecco has emerged as the ultimate crowd-pleaser. The strength of “brand Prosecco” has solidified to the point where it now seems bulletproof, having carved a niche as a stylish sparkling wine rather than simply a cheap alternative to Champagne.

As consumers become better acquainted with the category, they are more likely to trade up from DOC to DOCG Prosecco, and in some cases, to the top drops from Cartizze. But is the difference in quality perceptible enough to warrant the extra cash? And can you really taste the terroir in the top examples from the region? We attempted to answer these questions at our second annual Prosecco Masters competition held in March at the über-swish Punch Room housed within Ian Schrager’s London Edition hotel in Fitzrovia. Having received just under 100 entries, we gathered a panel of seasoned sparkling wine experts, including wine writer Michael Edwards, Italian wine expert Tom Bruce-Gardyne and Alex Canetti, off-trade director at Berkmann Wine Cellars, to taste through the line-up.

A short leap upwards

Prosecco-Masters_HEL2615-MainOverall, the judges were impressed by the quality of the wines on show, though all agreed that there was less of a perceptible leap in quality from DOC to DOCG than they anticipated. All sought freshness, bright fruit, purity and prettiness in the wines, with those that were evidently trying to ape Champagne being marked down. “Prosecco is meant to be fruity and fresh; it isn’t Champagne and therein lies its charm,” believed Tom Bruce-Gardyne. “I think the brut styles are trying too hard to be Champagne-like.” Canetti of Berkmann concurred: “I’m looking for softness, roundness and prettiness, that’s what you want from a Prosecco. The best were delicate, ethereal, spicy and soft. There were no bad wines in the line-up but a lot of boring wines. I’m looking for commercial wines in that there’s something in them that consumers will love,” he said.

Michael Edwards, meanwhile, was impressed with the lower end of the spectrum. “The standard of the wines on show was much higher than last year. I was particularly impressed with the DOC wines,” he said. In 2009, the Conegliano-Valdobbiadene region north of Treviso – where grapes are hand-harvested from steep, south-facing hillside slopes – was elevated to DOCG status, while the DOC name was extended to the wider Veneto and Friuli Venezia Giulia regions, supposedly marking a crossroads for quality.

At the same time, Glera became the official name for the grape variety used in Prosecco production and the practice of selling Prosecco on tap was banned. The tasting threw up an interesting debate about the quality differences between DOC and DOCG Prosecco with all agreeing that the two were closer in character than they were expecting. “When we got to the DOCG wines I thought there would be a step up in quality but there wasn’t really, which was disappointing. I expected more from the category,” lamented Canetti.

The other judges agreed: “Surprisingly, there didn’t seem to be much of a difference in quality between the DOC and DOCG wines,” said Edwards, while Bruce-Gardyne observed: “The first round of DOCGs wasn’t very good but thankfully there were no shockers.”

Delicacy and freshness

Prosecco-Masters_HEL2652-27The DOC category put in a strong performance, scooping five silver medals in the £10-and-under price bracket and four gold medals in the £10-20 bracket. Moving up to £20-30, a single DOC Prosecco – Bottega Gold – won a medal, but made it count by scooping a Master. In the DOCG category, only one of the wines in the £10-20 bracket won a Master: Val d’Oca Le Rive Di Colbertaldo Extra Dry, while six of the £10-20 DOCG wines were awarded gold medals.

Canetti was disappointed not to be able to taste the terroir in the DOCG wines: “I expected them to be richer and more flavoursome, and for the terroir to come through, but it didn’t really happen,” he said. “Glera is quite a neutral grape – it’s neither Chardonnay nor Pinot Noir, nor is it trying to be. The key is in the delicacy and freshness.” Moving up to the top of the tree, just one Prosecco from Cartizze scooped a gold medal: Bisol Jeio. The 106-hectare “grand cru” is viewed as the jewel in Prosecco’s crown, producing low yielding, surprisingly sweet Prosecco due to the extended hang time the grapes undergo. Canetti was full of praise for the three that entered: “When we got to the Cartizzes it was a real step up – you could taste the terroir in the wines. They are better than ever,” he enthused.

Sugar sweet

Sugar levels were also a sticking point during the tasting. Produced as either a fully sparkling (spumante) or lightly sparkling (frizzante) wine, Prosecco is increasingly being made in a brut style, which may contain up to 12g/l of residual sugar. “Dry” Proseccos confusingly contain 17-32g/l of sugar, “extra dry” between 12-17g/l and demi-sec 32-50g/l. Both Michael Edwards and Tom Bruce-Gardyne believe that Prosecco benefits from the presence of sugar. “The best Proseccos are on the cusp of brut and extra dry,” said Edwards.

“Glera is a delicate grape; it’s hard to achieve the depth of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay with it, so it needs the sweetness to work. I prefer the extra dry styles to the bruts. Prosecco with a touch of sweetness is a great proposition for Asian food.” Bruce-Gardyne, meanwhile, described the extra dry examples as “crowd pleasers” that “slipped down easily”.

Bang for your buck

Prosecco-Masters_HEL2637-36When rounding off the tasting, talk turned to value for money, with all agreeing that there is fantastic value to be had at the £10 mark, with Bruce-Gardyne questioning whether the £20 DOCG Proseccos were worth the money given the quality available for half the price at DOC level: “An £11 Prosecco compared to a £19 should be a very different proposition – they need to offer something more if consumers are having to splash out on them,” he said.

Overall, it was the DOC category that surprised and delighted the judges most in terms of the quality on offer for its price point. “Prosecco DOC was the stronger of the two categories – there were a lot of winners in there, particularly for their price,” said Canetti. Bruce-Gardyne agreed, highlighting that it was the wines that weren’t trying too hard that impressed him most. “Prosecco isn’t a wine to be taken too seriously. The best examples offer notes of apple and pear, fresh acidity, balance on the palate and complexity without losing their elegance,” he said. Prosecco’s charm lies in its lightness of touch. When on point, it offers such balletic poise and delicacy that it dances across the palate. The wines that stayed true to Prosecco’s signature style shone, proving that the category should carry on doing what it does best.

Scroll through for this year’s medal-winning wines…

About the competition

The Prosecco Masters is a competition created and run by the drinks business and an extension of its successful Masters series for Champagne, Rioja and fortified wine, as well as its Global Masters series for major international grape varieties such as Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The competition is exclusively for Prosecco and the entries were judged blind by a selection of highly experienced tasters using Schott Zwiesel Cru Classic White Burgundy glasses supplied by Wine Sorted. The top Proseccos were awarded Gold, Silver or Bronze medals according to their score, and those that stood out as being outstanding received the ultimate accolade – the title of Prosecco Master. The Proseccos were tasted over the course of one day at the Punch Room within Ian Schrager’s London Edition hotel in Fitzrovia.

Prosecco Masters 2016 : the results

What makes a good Prosecco? The question may seem simple, but is in fact becoming increasingly difficult to answer.

1Fresh, fruity, lively, easy drinking: these are all common indicators of quality and characteristics that have helped the category soar above its sparkling counterparts. Sales of Prosecco increased 72% by value in the UK off-trade for the 52 weeks to 18 July 2015, beating Champagne, which saw sales slip by 1.2% in the same period, according to IRI. During this period, Prosecco sales in the UK totalled £338 million, up by £142m on the previous year.

By volume, sales increased by 78% to just over 37.3m litres. But while Prosecco remains on a path of seemingly unstoppable growth, the extent to which producers should deviate from its trademark fresh and fruity profile is becoming the subject of debate. Typically, the Glera grape from which Prosecco is produced exudes fruit and floral aromas with crisp notes of green apple, pear and melon on the palate, with some examples developing notes of tropical fruits, banana, hazelnut and vanilla. Because it is produced using the Charmat method, and aged in large tanks with less pressure, its bubbles are generally lighter, frothier and less persistent than Champagne.

A proven formula

Operating within a category driven so acutely by price, few producers have strayed from this proven formula. Why should they? Prosecco is the sparkler that can apparently do no wrong. But is a commercially successful style of Prosecco that adheres to a reliable formula always the best example in its category? Or are Proseccos that push the boundaries of style, but which are nonetheless well-made wines, equally worthy of praise? More importantly, are consumers ready, and willing, to explore the extremities of the category, or spend more than £10 on a bottle? This separation, which sets the mass consumer against winemaking innovation, was highlighted at the 2016 Drinks Business Prosecco Global Masters, now in its third year.

Having tasted more than 100 Proseccos, obtaining a snapshot of the category, the thrust of discussion among judges centered not only on the style, quality and characteristics of the wines entered, but crucially if they matched up to what was expected of a Prosecco. “Some producers re-ferment in the bottle,” notes sommelier Roberto Della Pietra, “which for me defeats the point.” But as Anthony Foster MW observes: “Now and then we came across a wine that we thought was delicious, but didn’t taste like Prosecco,” suggesting that perhaps what constitutes a good Prosecco is in transition.

3Big on value

A total of 130 wines were judged by our expert panel, with nine awarded a Gold, 41 a Silver and 47 a Bronze. None of the wines entered matched up to what our judges would have expected of a Master. Gold medals were awarded across a broad swathe of price categories, as well as DOC, DOCG, Cartizze and Rive categories, with higher priced Proseccos not necessarily the top wines on pour, demonstrating the immense value on offer in the category.

Three standout wines in terms of value were Giusti’s Rosalia Prosecco DOC Treviso, Montelvini’s Asolo Prosecco Superiore Brut DOCG and Cantine Machio’s Prosecco Superiore di Valdobbiadene DOCG Brut, all of which took home a Gold medal while sitting comfortably in the £10 to £15 category. Montelvini was not the only producer from the Asolo DOCG to be awarded a Gold medal, with Tenuta Amadio’s Asolo Prosecco Superiore DOCG Extra Dry also putting in a strong performance, having nudged slightly into the £15 to £20 category. Not to be overshadowed by their DOC and DOCG neighbours, two wines from the prized Cartizze vineyard achieved a Gold medal – Bisol Cartizze Dry 2014 and Carpenè Malvoti’s 1868 Cartizze – which both sit at a slightly higher price point of between £20 and £30. Also awarded a Gold medal in this price category was Scavi & Ray’s Prosecco Millesimato Momento d’Oro 2014.

While wines priced higher than £30 were judged, no Masters were given with the most expensive Prosecco to be awarded a gold medal Masottina’s ‘Le Rive Di Ogliano’ Extra Dry Conegliano Valdobbiadene DOCG Prosecco at £27. Masottina also received a Gold medal for its DOC Treviso Extra Dry Prosecco, which placed in the slightly lower £15 to £20 category. Moving on to the Silvers, a respectable clutch of wines priced under £15 reaped success. This included Lidl’s Allini Prosecco Conegliano Valdobbiadene Superiore, which at £7.50, was the lowest-priced wine of the competition. At the other end of the spectrum was Bottega’s diamond-studded Stardust DOC Prosecco, which, at £100, was the highest-priced Prosecco of the competition. Dozens more wines in the sub-£10 category were awarded a Bronze medal.

6Price and preference

The affordability and relative quality of Prosecco has of course driven much of its success, with the majority of consumers not inclined to step out of the sub-£10 price category, let alone trade up to the £10 to £15 category and beyond. As Della Pietra asserts: “A lot of people drink Prosecco because it’s cheaper, but it’s also very trendy. There are also a great number of people that drink Prosecco because they prefer it, not because it’s cheaper.” Convincing consumers that it is worth paying a bit more for a bottle of Prosecco is therefore perhaps the most practical challenge for producers to undertake, given that demand is, for now, unshakably secure. However, volumes of such higher-priced wines are almost certain to be decidedly small. Regardless, there is no doubting Prosecco’s success in carving a niche for itself, so much so that producers have not had to strive too far in terms of innovation to capture, or maintain, the attention of consumers.

As Alex Canneti of Berkmann Wine Cellars adds, Prosecco is “something of a rarity” in the drinks trade in that it gives consumers exactly what they want. “It’s about freshness of fruit,” he says. “It’s easy to drink, it’s not acidic or too dry. The Italians happen to be producing a product that’s spot on, which is so unusual in the wine business. Usually it’s ‘try this or try that’.” Producers with an ambition to push the boundaries of the category are therefore, in some ways, hamstrung by its success. Within such a commercially successful category, producers’ efforts to diversify or play about with style, one might cynically conclude, are destined to fall on deaf ears. “Most people like Prosecco simply because it’s easy to drink,” says Nick Tatham MW, wine development manager at Continental Wine and Food. “It has a sugar content that makes it very drinkable; it’s very soft and not too complex or acidic. There is a danger that when Prosecco tries to be more serious many of those people who currently drink Prosecco won’t like it.”

Certainly, wines that didn’t fit with the typical profile of Prosecco stood out, with judges on occasion, although not to their detriment, stopping to consider their place within the category. “If a wine is atypical, is that a fault?” asks Foster. “That was the biggest issue as far as I am concerned. That’s one of the things that we discussed more than anything – the typicity of Prosecco. Are you looking for a good drink and a good style that is elegant, or are you looking for Prosecco as they sell? You have to consider both.”

Mass appeal

In reality, the vast majority of Prosecco plays to the mass consumer, whose purchases are importantly not driven by individual brands but firstly by the generic power of ‘brand Prosecco’ and secondly by price. As Tatham notes: “For me, there isn’t this top end of Prosecco – 99% of Prosecco sold is commercial, and is incredibly successful because of what it is. The 1% is the other stuff. For me, the tasting today is about finding the best possible Prosecco in that 99% of the core business.” With a sea of producers fighting for space in what is essentially an unbranded category, quality has become the battleground on which producers are working to push the category forward. Talking up terroir is one way that producers are working to communicate quality, with undiscovered sub-regions continuing to emerge. “Prosecco is fresh, fruity and drinkable, and that really is it, but there’s no doubt that I can find terroir,” says Canetti.

“The reason for that is because Glera is so light and almost neutral, so the effect of terroir has an even bigger influence. You can taste the soil and different environments. “There’s definitely a style of very interesting wines being made at the top end, over £10.” Several quality indicators are currently in use across Prosecco-producing regions, from the traditional DOC and DOCG demarcations to the more specific Cartizze – a 107-hectare hillside vineyard owned by 140 growers in the Conegliano Valdobbiadene Superiore. Speaking of terroir, Canetti believes the Asolo DOCG to be the most interesting to have emerged in recent years.

4Going Asolo

“Asolo DOCG is a new area that we came across about a year ago,” he says. “The db tasting really discovered Asolo and it has become a really interesting area.” He adds: “Cartizze has always been good but I think now we are starting to find the Rives.”

The more recently introduced Rive sub-zones were launched about five years ago by the Prosecco Consorzio and represent a step up from DOCG. Unlike Cartizze, Rives are not geographically limiting, and produce wines from single vineyards typically found in steep hillside locations. The intention is to highlight different microclimates and terroirs found throughout the growing zone and exemplifies a trend toward terroir among Prosecco producers in their search for quality. While new Rive sub-zones are now being discovered the indication is yet to make an impact with consumers, with DOC, DOCG and increasingly Cartizze more commonly recognised. “I think we will see Cartizze in London but I don’t think it’s the future,” believes wine writer and Champagne expert Michael Edwards.

“I get annoyed when people say Prosecco is just sugared water because there are very good terroirs in DOCG, these individual sites. There are some fabulous wines. I think the future will be about specific vineyards – I hesitate to say single vineyards because I know blending is still important. “Some of the Rive sites are very important, but there are also some very good terroirs in the DOCG.”

Premium possibilities

As Prosecco continues to dominate the global sparkling wine category, the distinction between what makes a good commercial Prosecco and simply a good wine is becoming more important. While Prosecco is undoubtedly strong in the UK, it is generally an unbranded category. The mass consumer is yet to grasp the intricacies of individual terroirs and producers, which highlights an opportunity for premium producers to carve a niche in the future. Focusing on terroir is perhaps the most logical and expedient way for producers to add a further layer to their offer. This, optimistically, could be the key to pushing consumers beyond ‘brand Prosecco’ and encouraging a more meaningful exploration of the category. However, no matter how far producers choose to experiment, or the multitude of terroirs that may emerge, there will always be a place for Prosecco’s trademark fresh, fruity and easy drinking style. As Della Pietra notes: “Prosecco has its own place and its own space.”

About the competition

The Drinks Business Global Prosecco Masters, now in its third year, is a competition exclusively for the Italian sparkling wine. This year’s event saw more than 100 entries judged blind by a panel of highly experienced tasters. Wines were scored out of 100, with those gaining more than 95 points being awarded the top title of Master.Those earning over 90 points were given a Gold, those over 85 points a Silver and those over 80 points a Bronze. A total of 130 Proseccos were tasted over the course of one day at Aubaine in London’s Marylebone on 3 March. This report features only the medal winners that adheres to a reliable formula always the best example in its category ? Or are Proseccos that push the boundaries of style, but which are nonetheless well-made wines, equally worthy of praise? More importantly, are consumers ready, and willing, to explore the extremities of the category, or spend more than £10 on a bottle? This separation, which sets the mass consumer against winemaking innovation,was highlighted at the 2016 DrinksBusiness Prosecco Global Masters, now inits third year. Having tasted more than 100 Proseccos, obtaining a snapshot of thecategory, the thrust of discussion among judges centered not only on the style,quality and characteristics of the wines entered, but crucially if they matched up to what was expected of a Prosecco.

The judges (left to right)

> Anthony Foster MW, director and
buyer for Bonhote Foster

> Nick Tatham MW, wine development
manager, Continental Wine & Food

> Lauren Eads, deputy editor,
the drinks business

> Alex Canetti, off-trade director,
Berkmann Wine Cellars

> Patrick Schmitt MW, editor-in-chief,
the drinks business

> Michael Edwards, journalist, author
and Champagne expert

> Roberto Della Pietra, sommelier and
brand ambassador, French Bubbles

Sparkling Masters 2016: the results

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

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

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

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

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

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

ABOUT THE COMPETITION

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

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

BILLION-POUND BUBBLY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FEEL THE ENERGY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Layout 1‘GREAT STRIDES’

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

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

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

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

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

A WEEKDAY TREAT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE SWEET SPOT

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

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

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

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

The judges (l-r)

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

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Prosecco Masters 2017: the results

This year’s Prosecco Masters showed that despite the rapid expansion in the sector, quality across the board has risen, with the wines having improved since 2016’s competition. By Patrick Schmitt MW

Ask any member of the wine trade to name the European drinks phenomenon of our time, and one can be pretty sure they will mention Prosecco.

A drink that barely existed 20 years ago has become the best-selling fizz in major sparkling-wine markets, such as the US, Germany, and particularly the UK.

Indeed, it’s now outselling Pinot Grigio in Britain, while in several European nations, Prosecco is one of the few areas of the wine business in growth, single-handedly propping up markets that would otherwise be showing a decline in drinks consumption.

But ask those same people why Prosecco has become so successful and one can expect a range of responses. Some credit the drink’s popularity to the catchy name, others its Italian origin, or the stand-out packaging.

But the basic, simple reason for the impressive performance for this single type of fizz is the nature of the liquid – it’s a pleasing, slightly sweet fizz with a pear and peach flavour. Importantly, it’s not demanding of the drinker; Prosecco succeeds because it is simple. Indeed, it is proof that a drink doesn’t have to be sophisticated to give pleasure.

However, that doesn’t mean it’s all the same.

About the competition

The drinks business Prosecco Masters, now in its fourth year, is a competition exclusively for the Italian sparkling wine. This year’s event saw more than 100 entries judged blind by a panel of highly experienced tasters. The best wines were awarded medals that ranged from Bronze through to Gold, as well as Master, the ultimate accolade, given only to exceptional wines in the tasting. The Proseccos were tasted over the course of one day at Café Murano in London’s Covent Garden on 15 March. This report features only the medal-winners.

BEST EXPRESSIONS
And with that in mind, in 2015, we launched the Prosecco Masters. As with all our Masters tasting competitions, the aim is to uncover as much as possible about any single category.

Our plan is to understand not only the overall level of quality, but also the sweet spot in terms of price, and the broad stylistic trends. Finally, importantly, we want to know who is producing the best expressions today.

To deal with the overall quality level first, it was pleasing to discover in this year’s Prosecco Masters that not only is the base standard high, but also a marked improvement on last year’s competition.

The number of medals confirms this, but the general impression from the judges, a number of whom had judged in previous Prosecco Masters, was that, at all levels, this is a better product.

And this came as something of a surprise, because, as is often the case, rapid sales expansion doesn’t usually correlate with increasing quality, quite simply because when there is a rush to supply demand, producers can be tempted to push yields, speed up while DOC Proseccos under £15 received seven Gold medals, DOCG expressions beneath the same price point picked up three.

However, with just one Master awarded to a DOC Prosecco, and four to DOCG examples, one can see that the best sites really do produce the top-level wines.

As one judge, Nick Tatham MW – another Italian wine expert – said after the tasting: “There is certainly a grey area between DOC and DOCG: towards the top end of the DOCG, where the Proseccos were at winemaking processes, and over the longer term, plant in places less suited to the production of high-quality grapes. But with this year’s competition producing 21 Gold medals and five Masters – the highest accolade reserved for outstanding examples only – it is clear that Prosecco is managing to ramp up supply without sacrificing quality, that is, based on the entries assessed in this year’s tasting.

However, and touching on the second point raised above – which is, finding a sweet spot in terms of price versus quality – it was notable that the inexpensive DOC classified Proseccos (as opposed to the pricier DOCG examples) were a source of very good fizz.

As one of the judges, Italian wine expert Alex Canetti, said: “The base level was really good, which is great, because that’s what really counts.”

Interestingly, not all the DOCG Proseccos, which must come from the hilly areas of either Conegliano Valdobbiadene or Asolo, showed an overt step up in quality.

So, higher price points, there was a significant difference in quality, but at lower price points the difference between DOC and DOCG was not clear: we tasted some very good DOC Proseccos and then we went on to try some disappointing DOCGs.” Similarly, sparking-wine expert Roberto della Pietra, who also judged in the competition, said he was “pleasantly surprised by the high quality of the DOC Prosecco”, noting “the great fruit and great balance”. Like Tatham, he said that he was “expecting more of a step up to DOCG.”

GREATER SUPPLY
So what was key to DOC quality? Well, with so much planting over the past five years in the valley floors across this vast zone – the Prosecco DOC covers five provinces in the Veneto and a further four in Fruili Venezia Giulia – there is a much greater supply of grapes, giving producers the opportunity to select the best bunches across a large area.

In other words, the DOC may not encompass the hilly terroir that benefits the DOCG’s best expressions, but the DOC gives producers the chance to select grapes from a diverse range of sites to create something that is balanced and consistent. Or, put simply, as Canetti says: “Producers of DOC Prosecco have access to more fruit.” Also aiding the quality of Prosecco at all levels, and particularly the entry point, is the pristine winemaking processes in this part of Italy.

Canetti explains: “All the top stainless-steel tanks, the best presses, and general winemaking technology comes from northern Italy, so Prosecco benefits from that.” Agreeing, judge Jonathan Pedley MW added: “With the help of stateof-the-art technology, the Italians are able to make something as clean as a whistle, as well as carefully selecting yeasts to accentuate Prosecco’s aromas.” On the subject of aroma, as well as flavour, it seems that, broadly speaking, Prosecco seems to be becoming fruitier, peachier even, and less sweet.

Prosecco classifications

> The Prosecco DOC production area covers the northeast Italian territories of: in the Veneto, five provinces (Treviso, Venice, Vicenza, Padua, Belluno), and in Friuli Venezia Giulia, four provinces (Gorizia, Pordenone, Trieste and Udine).
> Prosecco DOC totals approximately 20,000 hectares.
> Prosecco Conegliano Valdobbiadene Superiore DOCG covers the Treviso province of Veneto on the hills between the towns of Conegliano and Valdobbiadene, while there is also the smaller Asolo Prosecco Superiore DOCG, produced near the town of Asolo.
> Prosecco DOCG totals approximately 6,600ha.
> Superiore di Cartizze is a hill within the Conegliano Valdobbiadene DOCG which is famous for producing the most concentrated expression of Prosecco – and often too, the sweetest. It covers 107ha and is home to the most expensive vineyard land in Italy, with an estimated value of €1.5m-€2m per hectare.
> While Cartizze is at the top of the Prosecco Superiore DOCG quality pyramid, the Consorzio recently-introduced the Rive delimitations, which are named after particular sub-zones with distinct and high-quality terroirs.

In the past, when deriding the drink, it was tempting to dismiss it as smelling of fermentation esters (pear drops/banana) and tasting of sugar, but based on this year’s tasting, it seems Prosecco has much more character from the raw material, rather than production process, and a more refreshing precise edge, as richer fruit flavours allow for lower sugar levels.

But this is not to suggest that the majority of Prosecco has become much more complex.

Indeed, the judges agreed that while the quality of the wines was impressive, Prosecco is still, for the most part, a jolly and unsophisticated drink.

“Charm is what we want and get from Prosecco,” said Canetti, adding: “It’s all about fun with your friends.” Nodding in agreement, Tatham added: “It’s important that Prosecco has immediate appeal,” suggesting that there wasn’t a place for subtlety in this category.

Nevertheless, there were stand-out Proseccos from the blind tasting, examples with plenty of personality, layers of flavour, and a lovely acid-sugar balance.

Notable among the DOC examples was Martini’s 2016 vintage Prosecco, which the judges applauded for its mix of fresh fruits and floral scent, and its pristine lively character, although other producers in this classification were close in terms of quality.

WOWING THE JUDGES
Moving onto the DOCG Proseccos, La Marca wowed the judges among the examples between £15 and £20, although there were plenty of excellent wines in this price band.

Over £20, and the superior nature of Italy’s best sites for the Prosecco region’s Glera grape shone through, despite the high number of strong entries this year.

And, as a result, we saw Riunite’s Rive Prosecco take home a Master for its Colbertaldo. Also, Borgo Molino achieved this ultimate accolade for its Prosecco from the DOCG of Asolo, a hilly and picturesque area that generally produces fruitier styles than the more famous Conegliano Valdobbiadene DOCG Prosecco.

As for the final Master of the day, nestled among the many Gold medallists was an exceptional Cartizze, from Foss Marai, which combined the rich, plush-textured sweetness one would expect from this revered pinnacle sub-region of Prosecco, combined with a mouth-watering lime-zest finish. After the last of the Proseccos had been sampled, the judges agreed it had been a highly enjoyable tasting, featuring wines with plenty of instant appeal.

It had proved that Italian producers are mastering the Glera grape in the vineyard, and honing their winemaking skills to get the most from this delicate variety.

Also, at the top end, it showed that some Prosecco producers are successfully extending the boundaries of quality with this fruity, youthful, sparkling wine style. So, while this Charmat-method fizz is not a rich, ageworthy product for pairing with powerfully-flavoured foods, it is, when grown in the right place, and handled with care, a brilliant apéritif; a drink with plenty of character, a crowd-pleasing creamy texture, and an uplifting citrus zest.

• See below for a list of the judges and the following pages for all the medal-winning Proseccos in this year’s competition. 

Left to right: Anthony Foster MW, Jonathan Pedley MW; Nick Tatham MW;
Roberto della Pietra; Patricia Stefanowicz MW; Patrick Schmitt MW; Alex Canetti

The best Proseccos for 2018

With its slight sweetness and fruity characteristics, Prosecco is one of the most popular wines available. We bring you the category’s best bubbles from this year’s Prosecco Masters tasting.

While all the competitions in the drinks business’s Global Masters series are important, some are more commercially significant than others. For wine buyers in the UK, particularly those in the supermarket or pub sectors, few parts of the drinks business are more marketable than Prosecco – an area of trade that has grown to such an extent that demand outstripped supply last year. For this reason, the Prosecco Masters is one of the most hotly anticipated tastings in our series – both for the judges and the wider trade, most of whom now handle this product in some way.
But what has made Prosecco such a success? It is a question that can be best answered after a day sampling more than 100 wines from this category, covering every style and price point, including the niche producer and big-brand player.
Nevertheless, before the tasting began, our judges had a pretty clear idea of what they where looking for, believing they know what makes this sparkling wine such a hit with today’s drinkers. Would a the competition alter or confirm their views? Well, in short, it reinforced them, while also drawing attention to the sweet spots in the category, and areas of relative weakness. For them, Prosecco is popular for its fizzy pear and peach flavours, along with slightly sweet character. It’s best enjoyed while it’s young and fresh, and sells best around the £10 mark in UK retail – and preferably below this psychological cut-off.
But what was less well understood were the gradations in quality according to source area and winemaking approaches; essentially, the qualities that justify the higher prices for premium Prosecco.
One element that is clear from the day’s tasting is the high level of appeal at the entry-level end of the category. Prosecco is, in part, sought after because it delivers a consistent flavour and quality – and that was seen among the DOC samples under £10. Nothing was outstanding, but few samples secured less than a Bronze medal. And between £10 and £15, we not only had our first Gold – Ponte’s DOC Extra Dry – but also a remarkably high proportion of Silvers. This is not easy, gaining such a medal requires agreement between a group of exacting judges who are looking for more than just orchard-fruit flavours in their fizz.

Sparkling Masters 2017: results and analysis

While Champagne and Prosecco still rule the roost when it comes to fizz, producers from all over the world are crafting their own exciting styles of sparkling wine, as our blind-tasting competition shows. By Patrick Schmitt MW

The judges: Left to right (standing): Antony Moss MW, Christine Parkinson, Tobias Gorn, Patrick Schmitt MW, Michael Edwards, Clement Robert MS. Left to right (seated): Nicola Thomson, Ana-Emilia Sapungiu MW, Patricia Stefanowicz MW, Lynne Sherriff MW

Which category of drinks has the most sparkle at the moment? Fizz. Not only has this style of booze been the major growth area for the wine business over the past decade, but also, if the forecasts are correct, there’s still mileage in the sector – estimates by the IWSR suggest an 8.6% growth over a five-year period from 2016-2020, taking the total market to almost 2.9 billion bottles. The reason for such an outstanding performance centres on the fact that fizz offers more refreshment than any other drink.

Somehow, something with bubbles does a superior job of cleansing the palate than something without – it’s why Coca Cola, with its carbonated edge, seems to invigorate dry mouths, even though it’s loaded with sugar. But it’s not just refreshment that makes sparkling wine so popular.

It’s the association with good times. OK, so Champagne may be the fizz most closely tied to important moments, from podium wins to major anniversaries, but other sparkling wines still have a celebratory edge, and are connected with fun, sociable occasions – even if they end up being used as an opportunity to mark nothing more than a group getting together for an evening. Of course, one shouldn’t see the category as simply Champagne and sparkling wine, as there is great diversity within both, and an increasing spread of styles and growing number of sources among the latter particularly. Nevertheless, presently, it is viewed as a two-part, or increasingly, three-part sector: Champagne, Prosecco and sparkling wine.

Indeed, Champagne and Prosecco have become the two stand-out successes in sparkling wine that everyone else wants to emulate and benefit from. The former represents the long-time pinnacle in image and quality – but also, with sales of Champagne for 2017 expected to surpass 310 million bottles, a sizeable winemaking machine too.

About the competition

The Sparkling 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 Sparkling and the entries were judged by a selection of highly experienced tasters using Schott Zwiesel Cru Classic glasses supplied by Wine Sorted. The top Sparklings were awarded Gold, Silver or Bronze medals according to their result, and those Sparklings that stood out as being outstanding received the ultimate accolade – the title of Sparkling Master. The Sparklings were tasted over the course of a single day on 8 September at Bumpkin restaurant in London. This report features only the winners of medals.

The latter embodies the fun, easy and affordable side of sparkling wine, and acts as the volume-driver for fizz overall in the past 10 years – the production of Prosecco has risen by around 50m bottles from 2006-2016 to total almost 500m.

As a result, one can split the market into two main areas and a more diverse third. The first concerns Champagne and the relatively pricy traditional-method brut sparklers primarily made from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir that have been designed to take on the original.

The second comprises cheaper tank-method Prosecco and Prosecco alternatives, which often have reasonably high levels of residual sugar.

As for the third, that is made up of the many other types of fizz produced around the world in a range of styles and sugar levels, sometimes using native grapes, others employing Champagne grapes Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

Bearing all this in mind, the next question is, can the challengers to these two benchmarks deliver something as good, if not better for the price? And if so, where are they from, and who is behind them? Or, if not, which producers are ensuring that the benchmarks remain their category leaders today?

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