Asian Chardonnay Masters 2018: Results and Analysis

Chardonnay, arguably one of the most versatile white grape variety that has been popularised in virtually all vine-growing regions, is also among the most maligned on earth: first too oaky then too lean. The ‘Anything But Chardonnay’ movement of the 1990s was a vocal market rejection of an oaky, overripe and buttery style that was like sticking your nose into a bucket of popcorn. What followed later was a withdrawal from the heavy-handed use of oak to create austere, lean and racy expressions with acidity sometimes so pronounced that it was like biting into a lemon. Regardless of stylistic differences, though, the Hong Kong market seems to have a shelf space to accommodate both, as the results from Asian Chardonnay Masters this year have shown.

From left to right: (first row: JC Viens, wine educator, Joao Pires MS, Jennie Mack, managing director of AWSEC, Ivy Ng, former publisher of the drinks business Hong Kong, Sarah Wong, wine judge and columnist; second row: David Wainright, director of Andromeda Wine, Eric Desgouttes, general manager of Kerry Wines, Derek Li, group sommelier at JIA Group, and Allie Braithwaite, former employee at drinks business Hong Kong.

Nowadays, while both styles still exist, winemakers are generally refraining from excessive oak use to achieve a balance between acidity, oak and structure, a key point for the judges when reviewing all the samples.

Describing her perfect example of a Chardonnay, Sarah Wong, wine judge and columnist, said: “It is one that has fresh fruit. It should be balanced with crisp acidity levels, and good fruit intensity. Oak should be discreet and well-integrated into the wine”.

With balance in mind, the judging results showed that heavy oak use that overwhelmed Chardonnay’s own pleasant fruit profile was penalised, so were samples that were cloying, flabby and ripe, without an acidic backbone, or samples that were too green and racy, lacking fruit intensity and texture.

Chardonnay, a blank canvas for winemakers

About the competition

The Asian Chardonnay 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 single varietal Chardonnay wines and the entries were judged by a selection of experienced tasters including Hong Kong and Macau’s top sommeliers, wine buyers and wine educators. The top Chardonnay wines 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 samples 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 20 May at Hip Cellar. This report features only the medal winners.

Different from Pinot Noir or Sauvignon Blanc, regardless of its growing region, Chardonnay, can be deftly shaped by a winemaker’s skills, cellar techniques and barrel ageing, giving it a chameleon-like nature.

This means a clever winemaker can create a plethora of styles with a repertoire of techniques including malolactic fermentation, lees stirring and time spent in barrel. In a market like Hong Kong, consumers seem to be more receptive to different styles of Chardonnay from this wide spectrum.

Derek Li, group sommelier of JIA Group, said even heavily oaked Chardonnay has a spot on a restaurant’s wine list. “Chinese people would like to pick a Chardonnay with quite heavy influence of barrel ageing and Western diners prefer a mineral-driven style,” he said.

Jennie Mack, founder of Asia Wine Service & Education Centre (AWSEC), said: “Casual drinkers like fruity and sometimes oaky styles but more experienced wine drinkers prefer Chardonnays from Beaune, particularly Chassagne-Montrachet and Meursault.”

When it comes to high-value Chardonnays, Burgundy rules among Hong Kong’s deep-pocketed wine enthusiasts and collectors, added David Wainwright, independent wine consult and judge, who previously worked for auctions houses such as Christie’s and Zachys. “Burgundy still dominates, maybe a bit of California here and there,” Wainwright said, but stressed that at the same time, Burgundy, the spiritual home for Chardonnay, and in many cases still considered the pinnacle of a winemaking, is “aspirational” to many young wine drinkers.

Ivy Ng, former publisher of the drinks business Hong Kong

Chardonnay from down under 

Joao Pires MS and Eric Desgouttes, general manager of Kerry Wines

The Master-winning Greywacke Chardonnay 2011 from New Zealand’s Marlborough region, made by Kevin Judd, the former winemaker at Cloudy Bay, is a prime example of what a balanced Chardonnay can taste like. With a creamy and silky texture, supplemented with abundant citrus zestiness, and spice nuance from barrel ageing, the wine was a surprise for judge Li.

“The wine is showing brilliant minerality, like crushed stone, and intense freshly picked white peaches. The palate is well integrated, with a balance of fresh acidity with good use of oak. The wine also has a long-lasting finish,” the sommelier said.

As well as Greywacke, a few other New Zealand Chardonnays also came in for high praise from the judges, proving that the country has more to offer than Sauvignon Blanc. Spy Valley Chardonnay 2015 is a lighter style with lively acidity, hints of floral notes on top of its citrus-dominated nose and costing less than HK$150 a bottle.

Aside from Marlborough, Hawke’s Bay is another region that has championed Chardonnay, accounting for 32% of New Zealand’s total plantings in 2016. Babich Irongate Chardonnay 2016, from the region’s now renowned Gimblett Gravels subzone, rich with gravelly soils, is a steely version of Chardonnay that impressed Wainwright. The quality of the Chardonnays from New World countries like the Greywacke and Babich wines is their value, both in the HK$200-HK$300 price band.

The judges

Eric Desgouttes, General Manger at Kerry Wines
Derek Li, Group Sommelier at JIA Group Holding Ltd
Jennie Mack, Managing Director of Asia Wine Service & Education Centre (AWSEC)
Joao Pires MS, Director of Wine at Melco Resorts & Entertainment, Macau

David Wainwright, Director of Andromeda Wine
Sarah Wong, Independent Wine Judge, Freelance Columnist at South China Morning Post
JC Viens, Managing Director of Grande Passione
Ivy Ng, former publisher, the drinks business Hong Kong

In Australia, another country where Chardonnay has come of age, unburdened by oak and high-octane personality, the trend is to craft wines of more polished, nuanced flavours and smooth textures. It’s hard to make generalisations about a style for Chardonnay in Australia, and there are classics coming from regions such as Margaret River, as in the iconic Leeuwin Estate Art Series Chardonnay that commands strong market interest, or the richer and more generous style of Allegiance Wines Unity Chardonnay 2017 that equally impressed the judges, earning a Gold medal.

David Wainwright, Director of Andromeda Wine

There was also a more restrained ‘Burgundian’ version from the region’s Voyager Estate. The white is smooth, textured and has seamless tension that was lauded by Eric Desgouttes, general manager of Kerry Wines, who called it “an excellent example of what Chardonnay should taste like”, one that suited the general trends in the market.

In Clare Valley, it was one Chardonnay by the region’s pioneering winery Wakefield Taylors Family Wines that bowled over the judges, not just for its craftsmanship but also for its price point, selling for less than HK$150.

Another value-for-money wine is McGuigan’s The Shortlist Chardonnay 2016 from Adelaide Hills, in the HK$100-HK$150 price band, with a thrilling smoky and lemony nose. As well as the well-established wine regions in the country, a relatively newer one, Pemberton, in western Australia also bagged a Gold medal with its Castelli Estate Chardonnay 2016.

US and South Africa 

Derek Li, group sommelier at GIA Group

Another top-medal winning wine from the blind tasting is Jackson Family Wines’ Cambria Benchbreak Chardonnay 2015 from California’s cooler-climate Santa Maria Valley. This smoky and leesy Chardonnay is laced with citrus notes, lemon peel, toastiness and a pleasant struck-match whiff, a result of hydrogen sulphide during fermentation. The wine, harking back to a more classic Chardonnay style, impressed the judges enough to take home a Master.

Another Jackson Family Wines’ Chardonnay made with parcels picked from high-elevation vineyards in its Stonestreet winery in Alexander Valley also stood out, and earned a Gold medal.

This was a plusher example but had plenty lively acidity and structure. This year, another top-performing wine country from the competition was South Africa. With a record number of entries from the country, three won Gold medals.

Columnist Sarah Wong

Distell Wines, the South African wine giant, netted two Golds, with its Durbanville Hills Collectors Reserve The Cableway Chardonnay in Cape Town and its Fleur du Cap Series Privée Chardonnay made with grapes selected from two vineyards in Stellenbosch.

The Durbanville Chardonnay is a lighter version with a slight touch of wood, while the Fleur du Cap Chardonnay is a more bodied and dense wine with ripe fruits. Contrasting with larger-scale Distell, the Kershaw Elgin Clonal Selection Chardonnay is a small artisanal production by Richard Kershaw MW.

A restrained and site-specific white, the wine from the country’s Elgin Valley impressed the judges with its mineral style and white-fruit characters.

Aside from the regions mentioned above, this year the majority of the samples we received were from the New World, including entries from lesser-known regions such as China’s Ningxia region, Japan’s Yamanashi, and many more from Chile, Argentina, Israel, Italy, and France. Except for a few number of wines that had notes of unbalanced reduction and oxidation notes, most of the samples were well made and technically correct.

Asian Cabernet Sauvignon Masters: The Results and Analysis

No other grape variety is more resilient and adaptable than Cabernet Sauvignon. Whether made in a single variety or in a blend, the grape’s characteristics are unmistakable with blackcurrant, cassis, spicy peppery notes, cedar and a leafy lift. Hailed by many as the king of red grapes, from its heartland in Bordeaux to adopted homes in Napa Valley, Australia, Chile or even as far as Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley or China’s Ningxia, Cabernet Sauvignon trumps other varieties for its faithful interpretations of terroir, vintage conditions, winemaking techniques and most importantly, its longevity that allows some of its best to age gracefully for decades.

Front row from left to right: Natalie Wang, Rebecca Leung, Eddie McDougall, Sarah Heller MW and Ivy Ng. Back row from left to right: Allie Braithwaite, Darius Allyn MS, Howard Palmes and Ron Taylor

Because of these attributes, it’s not hard to see why this grape has travelled so far outside of historical base in Bordeaux to other parts of the world with even the slightest interest in winemaking.

The authority of this red grape is so pronounced that many seasoned and aspiring winemakers across the globe consider making a world-class Cabernet or a Bordeaux blend – dominated with the grape – the final step to seal its reputation.

Think of Napa’s cult wines such as Screaming Eagle and Opus One, or Italy’s famous Super Tuscans or Lebanon’s Château Musar. Examples are legion.

In our Asian Cabernet Sauvignon Masters 2018 competition, results will show that the proven sites for the late-ripening grape are a reliable source for stellar wines with plenty of good value examples. A bunch of high performers from lesser known regions might also indicate the promises of the grape’s future elsewhere.

Samples are all judged blind by a panel of experts consisting of a Master of Wine, a Master Sommelier, and five seasoned judges for the wines’ quality based on price and style (either as a 100% varietal or in a blend of at least 50% of the grape), irrespective of regions. The samples are primarily from the New World such as Australia, Chile, the US, Argentina and South Africa though there are a few Old World bottles in the mix.

A Balancing Act

Sarah Heller MW

There are more than 40 wine producing countries in the world, and Cabernet Sauvignon is the most planted grape worldwide. High in tannins, acidity and colour, Cabernet Sauvignon ripens late and tends to find its greatest expression in warmer climates, which means you are not likely to find it planted side by side with Pinot Noir. Struggling to ripen or outright unripeness in less than ideal sites often results in excessive methoxypyrazine characters, giving out green, herbal, and stem notes, accompanied by astringent and austere tannins.

Therefore, ripeness even for a survivor-like grape such as Cabernet Sauvignon is key to make or break the wine. “Ripeness is somewhat tricky in Cabernet, in that right up until the point of ripeness it can be too green for many consumers who don’t want a hint of herbaceousness, but then once it’s overripe it loses any distinctive characters,” commented Master of Wine Sarah Heller, highlighting the fine line between unripe and ripe. “For me, Cabernet should have some herbal tones to add complexity, but they shouldn’t taste chemical or overly medicinal.”

The judges

Sarah Heller MW, Proprietor of Heller Beverage Advisory
Darius Allyn MS, Independent Consultant
Rebecca Leung, Independent Wine Educator, Wine Judge and Writer
Ron Taylor, Independent Wine & Spirits Educator and Wine Judge
Eddie McDougall, The Flying Winemaker
Howard Palmes, General Manager of Fine Vintage Fine Wines Limited
Ivy Ng, Publisher, the drinks business Hong Kong

This doesn’t mean tilting the scale towards the other end is preferred, which would produce equally unpleasant samples that are what Darius Allyn MS called “heady” wines. “In the vineyard, planting Cabernet Sauvignon in too warm a climate has detrimental effects. It changes its relative profile and makes a pretty ‘heady’ style of wine (that is; with the burn of higher alcohol on the palate and especially through the persistence),” the American Master Sommelier explains. A few lesser samples in the competition are faulted for eerily off-putting unripeness and over-ripeness.

But unlike the temperamental and delicate Pinot Noir, thick-skinned Cabernet can withstand some rough and tumble in the cellar with pumping and extracting. The grape also has a strong affinity with oak, a component that interacts with its primary fruit flavours to impart complexity and additional flavours of sweet spices, vanilla, coconut into the wine, if integrated harmoniously, leading Heller to warn of heavy-handed use.

“With Cabernet varieties the common mistake by winemakers is the overestimation of the wines’ fruit concentration and its ability to stand up to a new oak regime. I believe the wines that were marked down were just too oaky and the wine itself became lost,” remarked Eddie McDougall, The Flying Winemaker.

Darius Allyn MS

“Apart from the faulty bottles, the over use of oak was the most obvious to me,” added independent wine & spirits educator Ron Taylor, echoing McDougall on oak, “and probably some bottles that needed more bottle development.”

Adding a further note, Allyn believes that medium toasted oak barrels are best to bring out the sweet brown baking spices without overwhelming the fruit and overall balance.

Strength of Oz

Australia was among the first countries to receive the gospel of Cabernet Sauvignon ahead of Chile or California. Having arrived in Australia in the early 1800s, it has become one of the country’s great success stories and this was reflected in our medal chart with the highest number of Gold medals (five in total) in addition to one Master, the ultimate accolade in our judging, going to Australian wines. 

Rebecca Leung

Today, Cabernet Sauvignon is Australia’s third most planted grape after Shiraz and Chardonnay, with regions such as Coonawarra and Margaret River anchoring their reputations on the red noble grape. The charm of the grape entices a much wider audience beyond the two regions, and wineries in Clare Valley, Barossa Valley, McLaren Vale are also crafting juicy, layered and velvety reds often at a fraction of what Napa Cults would cost.

Wakefield Taylors Family Wines Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 from Clare Valley is redolent with blackberries, mulberry, eucalyptus and plenty of dark berries and cigar box that only costs between HK$100 and HK$150. Moving upscale, the winery’s pricier version – ‘The Visionary Exceptional Parcel Release Cabernet Sauvignon 2014’ – was also lauded by the judges for its perfumed nose and concentrated fruits, and particularly impressed judge Howard Palmes, general manager of Fine Vintage Fine Wines Ltd. The Gold medal winning wine however bears a price tag of HK$800+.

Eddie McDougall

One great strength of Australia and Chile is that there’s no shortage of good value Cabernets. With competitive price, quality is not necessarily comprised. De Bortoli Wines, one of the larger privately owned family wineries in Australia, is a good source for great value Cabernet. Its ‘Deen Vat Series 9 Cabernet Sauvignon 2015’ from Victoria, for instance, impressed the judges with its supple concentration of fruits and structure.

Similarly, in the HK$150-200 price range, Barossa Valley’s Chateau Tanunda Grand Barossa Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 was awarded a Gold for its typicity of the grape, rich fruits and long ageing potential.

But one notable region stood out for crafting refined Cabernet with restraint and elegance, the relatively cooler wine region, Yarra Valley. Wines of real finesse and subtlety are found in producers such as Levantine Hill; its Samantha’s Paddock Mélange Traditionnel 2015, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot, is a wine of strength and elegance, with lush flavours and a lingering finish that goes on and on, and was voted unanimously a Master.

About the competition

The Asian Cabernet Sauvignon 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 Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet-dominated blends, and the entries were judged by a selection of experienced tasters including Master of Wines, Master Sommeliers, top wine merchants in Hong Kong and seasoned wine judges. The top samples were awarded Gold (93 points or above), Silver (89 points or above) or Bronze (85 points or above) medals according to their result, and the wines 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 18 April, 2018 at The Pawn, housed in a 19th century historic building in Wanchai.

This report features only the medal winners.

The Americas

Outside of Australia, one can always count on South America’s powerhouses of Chile and Argentina to churn out minty, plush, and fruity Cabernets. Chile’s proven sites in Maipo and Colchagua Valleys are home to the New World Cabernet kings such as Concha y Toro’s Don Melchor, Santa Rita and Almaviva to name a few. In our judging, perhaps most stunningly, it was a Siegel Family Wines Single Vineyard Los Lingues Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 that took home a gold medal. Costing less than HK$100, the Chilean Cabernet specialist confirms that the country remains a steadfast source for value and quality.

Its neighbour Argentina’s Salentein Primus Cabernet from the sun-filled Uco Valley also took home a gold medal for its 100% Cabernet, which showed sumptuous black fruits and intense aromas. Although Uco Valley is more famously linked to the country’s national pride, Malbec, plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon are expanding as well.

Ron Taylor

Moving northward to the US, Napa Valley naturally springs to mind when it comes to crafting world-class Cabernet Sauvignon. In the HK$400-800 price bracket, Trinchero BRV Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 produced from Atlas Peak, Napa’s highest appellation, perched 1,500 feet above sea level in the Vaca Mountains, earned heaps of praise from the judges for its refined structure and complexity in flavours, and therefore was awarded a Gold.

Ancient land with new promises 

Outside of the proven regions, in Israel the Upper Galilee region is raking in praises for its pure Cabernets and blends, which have become the country’s most commercially successful wines on the international stage. The hot Mediterranean climate poses a challenge for growers, leading Heller to comment that the wines tend to be “too ripe”, yet with wineries that enjoy higher altitude, finesse can still be achieved. Barkan Vineyards in the cooler northern Upper Galilee is known for producing high altitude wines, and its 100% Cabernet grown at 624 metres above sea level got a nod from the judges for its refined fruits and elegance.

Howard Palmes

Far away to the east, China, a country that is known more for its wine consumption power is now demanding respect for its wine producing prowess as well. In fact, almost all the judges after the tasting singled out China’s Ningxia as a Cabernet-focused wine region that deserves serious attention. “New and emerging regions such as Ningxia and Xinjiang in China are very interesting ones to watch out for,” remarked wine judge and writer Rebecca Leung.

The rise of China’s wine producing reputation corresponds with a nation-wide wine revolution on quality from family owned boutique wineries to state owned large scale wineries such as Changyu and GreatWall Winery. Ningxia in northwestern China, known as the country’s Bordeaux, in particular is making strides in the international wine scene. In our competition this year, judges were stunned when it was revealed after blind tasting that a Chinese wine, Helan Mountain Xiao Feng Cabernet Sauvignon by Pernod Ricard in Ningxia, was awarded the highest award of a Master medal.

The Pawn is a restaurant and bar housed inside a 19th century heritage site that was previously as its name suggests used as a pawn shop.

“The clear standout was the Helan Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon from Ningxia that won a Master medal. The wine has velvety tannins, is powerful, balanced, lively, showed great Cabernet Sauvignon characteristics and proved that Chinese winemakers are truly emerging,” enthused McDougall.

Another outlier that stood out from the competition to win the Master medal was a Greek wine by Domain Mega Spileo in Achaea. You would be forgiven if Greece is not yet on your wine radar, but the ancient Mediterranean country is making a strong comeback. Finally, I hadn’t previously thought of Greece as somewhere to look for great Cabernet,” admits Heller, “but we had some interesting examples from here as well.” 

As in Israel, the heat like is a challenge for winemakers but the winery, located on the site of a monastery with traceable winemaking history back to 1550, is making wines at roughly 800 metres above sea level. The 2011 showing more complexity of flavours and bottle development, impressed the judges with its supple fruits, velvety tannins and chocolate and cigar notes.

Overall, the majority of the wines showed good typicity across a wide array of price points, as McDougall sums up: “The spread of Cabernet Sauvignon’s across the board showed good typicity and regionality. It was wonderful to sample so many benchmark examples and see the level of consistency across the brackets.”

Click through the pages to see all the results and judge profiles

Asian Rosé Masters 2018: Results and Analysis

Rosé, the pink wine that has forever been linked with sun-soaked summers, beach holidays and cruise trips, has more depth and complexity than one might have thought. Top medal-winning wines from our inaugural Asian Rosé Masters competition prove that a great rosé is more than a pretty pale colour, the frivolity of marketing gimmicks, and celebrity tie-ins.

From left to right: Kyle Oosterberg, wine director at The Flying Winemaker; YK Chow, independent wine consultant; Ivy Ng, former publisher of the drinks business Hong Kong; Corinne Mui, COO and senior wine educator at Asia Wine and Spirits Education Centre (AWSEC); Juwan Kim, head sommelier at Zuma Hong Kong; Stefano Bartolomei, manager and wine director at Arcane.

Much like a white or a red wine, a well-crafted rosé shows no shortage of aromas, flavours and complexity. Popular opinion often goes that rosé in general is a no-frill, carefree, easy and light drink, giving rise to the idea floated around by some marketers calling for the exemption of rosé wine from any kind of serious critiquing because of its so called “ephemeral summer-friendly nature”. This, however, sounds suspiciously like sloppy natural winemakers advocating faulty wines. An honest, well-made rosé demands – and should be given – the same kind of attention and respect reserved for a white Burgundy.

This year’s competition, as judge Stefano Bartolomei, manager and wine director of Michelin-starred restaurant Arcane, pointed out, showed the high level of quality found in all the samples around the world, and a concerted effort among winemakers to reposition the pink wine.

To put it lightly, Bartolomei reminisced that in the past, producers made rosé as a “solution” to deal with leftover reds and whites, or excessive red wine must. But with rosé’s profitability and commercial success (in France, for instance, rosé’s volume sales have surpassed white wine), today’s rosé winemaking is hardly a necessity to dissipate stocks but a new field for winemakers to experiment with wine styles from colour extraction, sugar level to virtually undiscriminating use of all red varieties such as Cinsault, Grenache, Pinot Noir, Sangiovese, Cabernet Franc, and Tempranillo to produce still and sparkling wines.

Yu-Kong Chow, independent wine consultant and judge

This lends the winemaker a creative hand to develop a new dimension of rosé wine, as Junwan Kim, head sommelier of Zuma noted. “It’s a chance to establish a new dimension of rosé wine by creative winemakers, unlike white or red winemakers who stick to traditional grape varieties. But winemakers certainly shouldn’t treat rosé wine as byproduct or additional wines when they make red or white wine,” as the sommelier deduced.

In addition, more premium rosés with a bit of barrel ageing, body and texture are increasingly embraced by the on trade and sommeliers for more versatile food pairings, according to Corine Mui, COO and senior wine educator at AWSEC, when speaking about the new and recent ‘Rosé Gastronomique’ trend. Cantonese food in particular, as she singled out, is a match made in heaven for rosé wine especially for signature dishes like BBQ pork and fried rice.

Kyle Oosterberg, wine director at The Flying Winemaker

This is echoed by Bartolomei, who believes rosé is becoming a starter-to-finish, full menu-worthy food wine.

“Until 15 years ago, you would never thought of suggesting it for the whole meal,” he exclaimed, as most associate it as an aperitif. “The key of the change has been the offer. More and more producers are offering nowadays very high quality and various types of rosé wines. That gives the sommelier the chance to propose it for a lot of dishes with different consistencies, flavours and fat content.”

The industry’s efforts to elevate rosé’s profile is best demonstrated in our Asian Rosé Masters Results with three wines winning the highest accolade of Master – one from Australia which is stunning value for money at under HK$150, and another two from France’s Languedoc and Champagne, respectively. New World regions such as Australia and New Zealand gave the traditional rosé historic base, Provence, a run for the money with the highest number of Gold-medal winners. Silvers are abound in countries such as Italy and Spain, traditional markets for the pink wine, and many medal winners from this year’s competition more encouragingly are mainly from the commercially viable price category of HK$100-HK$300.

Rosé from down under 

About the competition

The Asian Rosé 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 rose wines and the entries were judged by a selection of experienced tasters including Hong Kong’s top sommeliers, sommeliers and wine educators. The top rosé wines 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 rosé 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 4 July, 2018 at The Flying Winemaker’s office in Central. This report features only the medal winners.

The beauty of blind tasting, as we have stressed again and again in the past, is that we can put all wines regardless of wine regions on the same level playing field, without bias and preconceptions. Judged only by price and style (still, off-dry and sparkling), the competition saw the most number of Gold medal and Master medal winners under HK$150. Out of the total seven gold medals we have given out, five came from this price band, confirming that there’s plenty of quality in value – all from down under in Australia and New Zealand.

“French producers still led the category at the top end of the spectrum, with gems from Australia and New Zealand giving a run for the money, particularly at the lower price range,” Yu-Kong Chow, independent wine consultant and wine judge, commented after all the identifies of the wines are revealed.

At this level, judges are looking for approachable wines that are well balanced with abundant fruit characters and refreshing acidity. One stand-out is actually Jacob’s Creek Le Petit Rosé, a Provence style light coloured rosé produced from southeastern Australia. This crisp wine with plenty of berry and floral notes, perhaps is the quintessential quaffable rosé, and yet more stunningly, costs less than HK$100. Similarly, New Zealand’s Yealands Wine Group’s two value wines – Babydoll Rosé and Clearwater Cove Rosé – made from Pinot Noir grape in Marlborough impressed the panel with its depth of fruit character and liveliness. The three wines all achieved Gold medal in the under HK$100 price band.

Stefano Bartolomei, manager and wine director at one Michelin-starred restaurant Arcane in Wanchai

Moving slightly higher up in the HK$100-HK$150 price bracket, it is another leading Australian wine producer, Australia Vintage, parent company of McGuigan Wines, Tempus Two and Nepenthe, that proved to be the biggest winner. The McGuigan Rosé from Australia’s cool climate Adelaide Hills is lauded by Bartolomei for its “long finish and great complexity” with a “fresh floral and very clean” nose, earning the top prize of Master, the highest scoring Australian wine in this competition.

Another high-scoring rosé is also from Adelaide Hills. The bone dry, full-bodied Nepenthe Altitude Rosé 2017 is redolent with red fruits, and subtle cranberry and grapefruit notes, earning it a Gold. The Marisco Vineyards’ The Ned Pinot Rosé, blended from Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris from Marlborough, is a crowd-pleaser noted for its strong and focused core of fruits and razor-sharp acidic edges.

In the HK$151-HK$200 category, it is a copperish-coloured Romato from Italy’s venerable Marchesi Frescobaldi estate’s Attems rosé made in Northern Italy’s Friuli Venezia Giulia that swept the judges away with its incredibly long lingering flavours, flinty minerality and red core fruits.

Shades of rosé

Corinne Mui, COO and senior wine educator at AWSEC, Hong Kong’s oldest wine and spirits education centre

So far, most of the samples are Pinot dominated rosé made in the non-impassive stainless tanks with gentle pressing and short maceration to emulate Provence’s light-coloured style, still arguably the most popular category among consumers, which also makes it the most successful one by far in export market.

“I think nowadays, a consumer is trained to think that pale pink rosés are where the quality lies and more than half of the world market for rosé is made pale. Producers can’t sell dark rosé abroad even if the quality of the wine is fantastic so the darker rosés are made for local consumption (especially in the New World) and the paler ones for the international market,” explains Kyle Oosterberg, wine director of The Flying Winemaker, organiser of the Rosé Revolution tasting events in Asia.

Admittedly, Provence rosé is coveted around the globe, but in this competition, with a wide spread of wines from across the globe, Provence entries performed well mostly in the Silver medal chart with fine representations from Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s ‘Miraval’, Chateau Routas Rosé and Chateau d’Ollieres Prestige Rosé.

The age old question 

The judges

Corinne Mui, COO and senior wine educator at AWSEC
Juwan Kim, head sommelier at Zuma Hong Kong
Stefano Bartolomei, manager and wine director at Arcan, a one Michelin-starred restaurant in Wanchai
Kyle Oosterberg, wine director at The Flying Winemaker
Yu-Kong Chow, independent F&B consultant and wine judge
Ivy Ng, former publisher, the drinks business Hong Kong

Within France, another challenger came from Provence’s neighbour to the west, Languedoc. The sunny region bagged one Master medal with Gérard Bertrand Château la Sauvageonne La Villa 2017. Made from Grenache, Mourvedre, Vermentino, Viognier, the wine is a more complex version of rosé with six months of ageing in oak, giving it an extra layer of subtle toastiness on top of berry fruit flavours. The Grenache varietal is co-fermented with Vermentino and Viognier to ensure a seamless integrity, and the efforts are righteously awarded by the judges.

This brings out a ticklish quality of the wine that has both rosé condemned and praised for – age, in the form of oak ageing and ageing potential.

Juwan Kim, head sommelier at Zuma Hong Kong

Granted many love rosé for its early drinking ability, a character that differs drastically with tannic reds, as nearly all samples of the competition are from either 2017 or 2018 vintage. Yet this ephemeral quality made many question rosé’s ageing potential, leading people to believe rosé is meant to be drunk young.There are however exceptions to the rule, as we have seen from top rosé from Bandol or Chateau d’Esclan’s premium Burgundian style ‘Garrus’, and also the top medal winner Gérard Bertrand Château la Sauvageonne La Villa that can age and improve over years.

This Languedoc rosé is a fine example of how oak and barrel ageing can compliment rose’s overall quality if a wine has enough fruit core and acidity. For most producers, the key to rosé is its fruitiness, thus most are fermented in stainless steel tank to retain the fresh fruits. But with thicker skinned grapes with higher acidity such as Mouvedre, Tempranillio and Grenache, oak and barrel is applied more liberally in line to produce a more age-worthy rose.

“like with many other wines, oak needs to be applied judiciously, and this would be no different for rosé as well. When done well, they taste fresh and vibrant in their youth, yet becoming more complex and mellowed as they grow older with dried fruits coming to the fore as the fresh fruits are nudged into the background. The texture would also transform becoming softer and more velvety,” Chow analysed.

“An early indication of such an example is evidenced by the stellar performance and potential of the 2017 vintage of Château La Sauvageonne La Villa from Gérard Bertrand in this competition,” he praised.

The key however as wine educator Mui succinctly summarised still hangs in balance. “Whether oak/barrel can improve the quality, it still depends on the balance of everything, i.e. oak, fruit flavours, acidity, body etc.” she demurred. “This is still the same for wines of all colours”.

Judges unwrapping all the wine samples after blind tasting to reveal wine identities

Of course, with more ageablity comes with higher price tags. “It depends on producers to be honest. Some styles of rose can be aged. For example, Clos Cibonne Tibouren Cuvée Spéciale des Vignettes can be aged for more than 5 to 6 years. But we can’t expect same longevity from wines under HK$1,000 per bottle,” Kim from Zuma restaurant exclaimed.

Another category of rosé that can withstand longtime ageing is top cuvée from Champagne. The Champagne Lanson Rosé Label Brut Rosé NV, A blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier with racy acidity is a vibrant, flinty, superb sample of rosé that won over the judges with a much deserved Master, with firm certainty of ageing potential. The Champagne house’s Extra Age Brut Rosé with additional five years of ageing before release has more richness and bottle maturity on the front. The more vivid pink-coloured bubble was awarded a Gold as well. Both wines fall into the pricier HK$400-HK$800 price category.

Overall, the samples are correctly made except a couple that showed hints of rotten egg, which could be excessive sulfur dioxide.

Asian Cabernet Sauvignon Masters 2017: Results

Well-priced Cabernet Sauvignon from the New World dominated the medal chart of our inaugural Asian Cabernet Sauvignon Masters, impressing judges with their quality and approachable price points.

All the judges for the Asian Cabernet Sauvignon Masters. First row (from left to right): Eric Desgouttes, general manager of Kerry Wines, Jennie Mack, managing director of Asian Wine Service & Education Centre, and Wallace Lo, hotel sommelier of The Park Lane Hong Kong. Second row (from left to right): João Pires, director of Wine, Food & Beverages at City of Dreams Macau, Ivy Ng, publisher of the drinks business Hong Kong, Amanda Longworth, head of marketing and wine services at BBR Hong Kong, Wendy Chan, general manager of wine & spirits at Telford International, Alan Liu, beverage and country store manager of The American Club Hong Kong and Peter Nicholas, winemaker and general manager of Boutique Wines

The Asian Cabernet Sauvignon Masters is the Asian edition of our popular Global Cabernet Sauvignon Masters where all the entries are judged solely by grape variety instead of region of origin. The entry requirements state that the wines needed to be made from a minimum of 50% Cabernet Sauvignon. The samples were blind tasted and assessed by price bracket and stylistic difference (oaked or unoaked) to identify the best of Cabernet Sauvignon in their own price range in the local market.

“It was a great tasting, very interesting range of styles”, commented Peter Nicholas, general manager of Hong Kong-based wine merchant Boutique Wines. Amanda Longworth, head of marketing and wine services at Berrry Bros. & Rudd Hong Kong agreed: “I thought the wines are generally very good, particularly in the lower price points. Excellent quality for value and for money. I thought the quality was very impressive.”

Held on 14 March at the club house of Crown Wine Cellars, located in a UNESCO Asia Pacific Heritage site in Hong Kong, the competition received more than 100 entries from both the New and Old Worlds. Quality of wines was impressive across the board as nine judges gave out a total of four Masters (wines scored 95 points or above), 12 Gold medals (wines scored 90 points or above), 37 Silver medals (85 points or above) and 42 Bronzes (80 points or above).

Old Guards

The judges

Jennie Mack, Managing Director & Senior Wine Educator, Asia Wine Service & Education Center
João Pires, Master Sommelier, Director of Wines, Food & Beverages, Altira Macau, City of Dreams Macau & Studio City Macau
Wallace Lo, Hotel Sommelier, The Park Lane Hong Kong
Alan Liu, Beverage and Country Store Manager, The American Club Hong Kong
Eric Desgouttes, General Manager, Kerry Wines
Wendy Chan, General Manager – Wines & Spirits Division, Telford International Company Limited
Amanda Longworth, Head of Marketing & Wine Services, Berry Bros. & Rudd Hong Kong
Peter Nicholas, General Manager, Boutique Wines
Ivy Ng, Publisher, the drinks business Hong Kong

The results affirmed that Australia, Chile, Argentina and the US have come of age in crafting first-rate pure Cabernet Sauvignons and Cabernet-dominated blends that display the typicity of the grape variety, characterised by high tannins, juicy blackcurrant flavours and spicy peppery hints. Different from delicate Pinot Noir, Cabernet regardless of its growing regions and climates, is famous for its ability to show this typicity without fail.

“Cabernet Sauvignon is no doubt a benchmark grape variety in the same way Chardonnay is for whites. Made all over the world, one can enjoy an entry-level Cabernet or high-end Bordeaux or California, for instance, but its DNA profile is paramount,” João Pires MS, director of Wines, Food & Beverages, Altira Macau, City of Dreams Macau & Studio City Macau, commented. “And this DNA is always related to typical blackcurrant aroma profile, tannic edge, full-bodied rich style, spicy peppery hints and considerable length.”

Australia led the Masters category with three wines clinching the prestigious title. They were: Levantine Hill Estate Samantha’s Paddock Mélange Traditionnel 2013, a blend of Cabernet (81%), Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot from Yarra Valley; Taylors Wines The Visionary Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 and Wolf Blass Black Label Cabernet Shiraz Malbec 2012. The country has proven time and again that it’s capable of crafting masterful Cabernets that can command top market prices and indeed all three wines are in the HK$800+ (US$103) price range. The country’s warmer regions such as Coonawarra and Margaret River are established Cabernet sites. In addition, Clare Valley in South Australia is also shaping up to be a prime site for high quality Cabernet as seen in Taylors Wines’ The Visionary Cabernet Sauvignon, a 100% Cabernet that impressed the judges with its purity of fruit, texture and quality of tannins.

Chile’s Maipo Valley excelled in the top-rated, best value Cabernet Sauvignon category, confirming its superiority among New World Cabernets. Alto Maipo, which encompasses Puente Alto and Pirque, delivered the most top-rated Chilean Cabernet examples. World-class Cabernets are produced here as we found in Santa Rita’s ‘Casa Real’, Viña Ventisquero’s ‘Enclave’ and Cousiño-Macul ‘Finis Terrae’. All three of which received Gold medals. 

Moving inland to Chile’s neighbour – Argentina – it’s known that the Mendoza wine region is defined by Malbec; but as previously noted in our global Cabernet Sauvignon Masters competition, there’s been a surge of beautiful Cabernets made by producers there in recent years. This is also confirmed by our Asian masters results where Bodega Vistalba’s Tomero Cabernet Sauvignon, a pure expression of the red grape, was awarded a Gold medal. The result is extremely encouraging as this high performer only sells between HK$150 and HK$199, making it arguably the best value Gold medal winner among all the entries. 

Newcomers in town

Throughout the competition when the wines’ identities were finally revealed, many judges’ jaws were left on the floor as lesser-known Cabernet samples from Israel’s Central Hills and Upper Galilee, Japan’s Yamanashi, China’s Shanxi province and the US’s Washington State not only stunned judges with their superb quality, but outperformed many of the traditional Cabernet strongholds in Australia and Chile.  

The biggest surprise was a Japanese Cabernet from Suntory’s Tomi Winery located in Yamanashi to the southwest of Tokyo near Mount Fuji. The wine was unanimously given the ultimate accolade of a Master. Its fine-grained tannins, well executed texture and structure left a few judges convinced of its probable provenance from a top Bordeaux estate. Eric Desgouttes, general manager of Hong Kong’s leading wine merchant Kerry Wines, who gave out close to 100 points to this velvety and savoury red, said, on top of its typicity, its outstanding quality, “its minerality is really riveting. It’s truly a special wine”.

A Bordeaux blend red from China’s Chateau Rongzi in Xiangning County in Shanxi also nabbed a Gold, confirming that the Asian country can produce medal-worthy top reds. “It was quite a surprise that Japan and China are doing an exceptional job. Some of the judges like myself even guessed they were fine Bordeaux. That is a really big WOW, and I do think these wine regions really deserve a bit more attention, especially from a restaurant’s or sommelier’s point of view,” Wallace Lo, hotel sommelier of Park Lane Hong Kong, exclaimed after learning the where the wines were from.

Equally meriting the judges’ praise was a pure Cabernet from Chateau St. Michelle in Washington State. The wine impressed judges with its complexity, structure and fruitiness, in short, it’s a wine that “checks every box of quality Cabernet” Jennie Mack, managing director of Asia Wine Service & Education Centre, commented during assessment. Indeed, when talking about American Cabernet, much of the attention is turned and rightly so – onto Napa or Sonoma in California. Washington State has steadily emerged as a key Cabernet player in the past two to three years, however, to the extent that the grape has now become the region’s dominant grape variety.

Across the Atlantic ocean in the holy land of Israel, two wines – Altitude 624+ by one of the country’s largest wineries Barkan Vineyards in Upper Galilee and Gva’ot Winery from Shomron in Central Hills – sit comfortably in the privileged league of Gold medal winners. Cabernet, being one of the three most widely planted wine grapes in Israel along with Carignan and Merlot, provides a firm backbone either in blend or unblended versions as were seen in these two examples. Such is the power of this versatile and masculine grape variety. Both wines were high-scoring performers, and the Altitude 624+ wine seems to deliver much for its price in the HK$200-HK$299 range.

Winemaking techniques

Judges doing blind-tasting and assessing samples

When it comes to winemaking techniques, it was evident that most of the Cabernet samples were well polished and true to their style, but there were a few instances of what the judges called ‘technical wines’, referring to wines that are clearly heavily influenced by human factors. It’s worth noting that technical wines are not faulty wines but rather more uniform expressions that seem as if they have been made to a ‘recipe’. But with excessive oak use or over extraction, the tannins are drying and coarse, giving an unpleasant sensation on the palate.

I think nowadays, it is not that often to find a really ‘bad’ wine in tasting, but it is more like tasting a lot of wines that are trying to be technical. There’s nothing wrong with them, but they are just wines that are trying to fit in all the boxes in a tasting sheet, nothing more,” Wallace Lo, added.

A few samples with high alcohol levels were not yet well integrated with quality fruit and lacked balance, a few judges pointed out. Wines with “well integrated with fine-grained tannin and a depth of finesse and elegance” in particular are what Wendy Chan, general manager of Wines & Spirits Division, Telford International Company Limited, was looking for when judging the samples.

The colour of most Cabernet samples was deep and luscious, varying on the spectrum from purple to dark ruby. This is a firm indication of the grape variety’s thick grape skin and its predominant dark fruit character. “Personally, I like to see good depth of colour,” added Nicholas, a factor he focused on when judging the wines.

Most of the wines are from recent vintages with the oldest being 2010. Freshness was generally found in nearly all the samples and the judges had a special liking for wines with lively freshness and vibrant acidity. “For me, herbaceousness is an integral part of Cabernet Sauvignon. It just depends on the level. The green bell pepper characters should sit behind and complement the fruit characters. The classic example is the Cru Classé Bordeaux where the herbaceousness sits well behind the fruit, oak and developing aromas and flavours,” commented Nicholas.

About the competition

The Drinks Business Hong Kong Asian Masters Cabernet Sauvignon is the Asian edition of our successful global Masters series. A departure from traditional judging wines by region, the competition assesses wines purely by grape variety. 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 judged without prejudice about their country of origin. Wines were scored out of 100, with those gaining over 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 wines were judged by an expert panel of nine judges including a Master Sommelier, Hong Kong’s top wine buyers and educators on 14 March at the historic Crown Wine Cellars. This report only features the medal winners.

Value for money

Even more encouraging than the quality of Cabernet the judges discovered from New World countries was the unpretentious and approachable retail price points for these top wines, led by Chile in particular. Aside from the four Masters (all in the HK$800 price bracket), between HK$100 and HK$400 five wines picked up a Gold, of which three –unsurprisingly – are from Chile.

Even moving to lower-price brackets below HK$100, it is clear there are some great producers really pushing the envelope to challenge profit margins and quality to produce three Silver medal-wines that were well balanced, pleasant and honest Cabernets. They were Viña I Wines, Palo Alto and Veramonte, not to mention the other Silver medals Chile bagged in the HK$100 to HK$200 range.

“Below HK$300, there were quite a lot of Silvers and even Golds, but between HK$400 and HK$800 it was quite difficult because there was a lot of ambition in the wines, sometimes they get a little bit lost with what they are trying to achieve. Definitely some of the biggest surprises for lower price point wines there,” BBR’s Amanda Longworth commented.

Between HK$400 and HK$800, only three Golds were awarded as judges become increasingly conscious about the price tag in correlation to quality. They Golds went to; Stonestreet Estate Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 from Alexander Valley, Viña Maipo Protegido Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 and Viña Ventisquero Enclave 2012. 

This sentiment was echoed by Alan Liu, beverage and country store manager of The American Club in Hong Kong: “Some lower price point wines performed actually better and have better balance than higher price point wines. Also, the quality from New World countries is better than what I expect.”

However, when it comes to ultra-premium wines including the top performing Japanese and Chinese wines, their higher-than-normal retail price points could intimidate consumers (both were in the HK$800 or above range). “Japanese or Chinese wines are still a relatively new category. It will take a lot of time for them to get where Bordeaux is, if they actually get there. From a consumer’s point of view, they are not familiar with Chinese or Japanese wines, so for them to pay top price for the wine is going to be hard,” Pires added.

Click through the pages to see all the results