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?

Chardonnay Masters 2017: the results in full

Where once the choice for Chardonnay drinkers was either a big, buttery, oaky expression or, in response, an austere, lighter version, now producers have found an appealing middle ground, as Patrick Schmitt MW and fellow judges discover.

The wines, which were all 100% Chardonnay, were judged by a cherry-picked group of Masters of Wine and sommeliers on 12 October at Villandry in Piccadilly in London

No single variety of wine has suffered more abuse than Chardonnay. As those of you in the trade know well, the most overt sign of this came with the ‘Anything But Chardonnay’ movement of the last decade – shortened to ABC – which emerged as a response to buttery, oaky, rather sickly styles of wine that had appeared on the market from the late 1990s onwards, when heavy-handed cellar techniques were used on lightweight grapes. Unfortunately, it wrongly tarred all Chardonnays with the same brush. But the ABC sentiment was to some extent justified; it was a reaction to something real.

As a result, combatting such an image issue took drastic, tangible measures. It required the emergence of ‘skinny’ Chardonnay: a style of wine created so lean that the trade and consumers couldn’t help but notice. It was proof that Chardonnay’s stylistic pendulum had well and truly swung to another extreme. And, for this reason, initially, it was welcome. But it wasn’t the long-term solution for a grape that had created a mass following for its richness. Should one crave a fresh, lightweight drink, one wouldn’t ask for a Chardonnay. So, while the lean Chardonnay showed that winemakers could produce something delicate from this grape, it was, at the same time, disappointing those who loved Chardonnay for its generosity; that crowd-pleasing combination of ripe yellow fruit and notes of buttered toast.

About the competition

In a crowded wine competition arena, The Drinks Business Global Chardonnay Masters stands out for its assessment of wines purely by grape variety rather than by region. Divided only by price bracket and, for ease of judging, whether the style was oaked or unoaked, the blind-tasting format allowed wines to be assessed without prejudice about their country of origin. The best wines were awarded medals which ranged from Bronze through to Gold, as well as Master, the ultimate accolade, given only to exceptional wines in the tasting. The wines, which were all 100% Chardonnay, were judged by a cherry-picked group of Masters of Wine and sommeliers on 12 October at Villandry in Piccadilly in London. This report only features the medal-winners.

Moving forward to today, and following another extremely comprehensive Chardonnay sampling through our Global Masters programme, it is apparent that an appealing, balanced middleground has now been struck. One can still find the rich, oaky, Chardonnay caricatures, and the more feathery, austere examples too, but the extremes are less extreme. The variation now comes with price point – so, as one moves up the quality ladder, you can literally buy more fruit, oak, and layers of flavour, for the most part, in harmony. What’s important is that, in general terms, the Chardonnay on the market at the moment is better to drink than it has ever been before. And, with so many sources, there’s a lot to excite the adventurous drinker.

All this means that, at present, any wine lover who is tired of Chardonnay, to paraphrase Samuel Johnson, is tired of life. With all that said, before looking closely at the high points from this year’s tasting, there is still controversy in the handling of Chardonnay by winemakers. In the vineyard, lower yields, and attempts to pick neither under- nor over-ripe may be producing musts with the potential for greatness, but management during and after fermentation is bringing a particular and divisive character to the resulting wines – and this results from differing levels of hydrogen sulphide (H2S). At low levels, this compound can add a complexing whiff of smoke, reminiscent of a freshly struck match.

At higher concentrations, it can be stinky, like rotten eggs. Skilled winemakers can control the influence, mainly through lees management, and will allow the almost rampant production of the compound in some barrels, before blending these into the wine to a bring about a desired level of sulphide-sourced characters. Where they have been apparent, but not unpleasant, sulphidic aromas have been a shortcut to success in wine competitions. However, our judges are more sceptical of heaping high scores on such artefact.

As a result, while the top medallists in the Chardonnay Masters may display an attractive sulphidic note, it is in combination with other flavours, primarily the character of the grapes, enhanced by the addition of aromas created by malolactic fermentation and barrel-ageing. In other words, our judges aren’t swayed by the instant aromatic smoky hit from sulphides, but are happy to reward this trait in well-made Chardonnay, as long as it is in harmony with other elements in the wine. On that note, it is important to stress that texture too is vital for great Chardonnay, and the judges were looking for a wine not just with flavour complexity, but a certain weight in the mouth from ripe fruit (not sugar or elevated alcohol). Not only that, but the oleaginous had to be balanced by a brightness on the finish – all wines must deliver refreshment, however weighty.

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