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Asian Chardonnay Masters 2017: Results

Chardonnay, a grape variety that has mushroomed out from its spiritual home in Burgundy to practically every wine-producing country in the world, proved that with the right terroir and skills of its winemakers, it can produce thrilling, savoury and age-worthy expressions as found in our Asian Chardonnay Masters competition.

The judges (from left to right): Jeremy Stockman, general manager of Watson’s Wine, Hong Kong, Yvonne Cheung, director of Wine for Swire Hotels and Restaurants, James Rowell, corporate and VIP sales manager of Altaya Wines, Francesca Martin, founder & director of BEE Drinks Global, Ying-Hsien Tan MW, founder & owner of Singapore-based Taberna Wine Academy, Ivy Ng, publisher of the Drinks Business Hong Kong, Eddie McDougall, trained winemaker and founder of The Flying Winemaker and Yang Lu, corporate/group wine director of Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts

A relatively neutral grape, Chardonnay is an ideal translator of local terroir and winemaking craft, thanks to its malleability through malolactic fermentation, lees contact and barrel ageing. The grape’s versatility has made it a favourite among wine producers. Despite soil types and climate, it’s one of the most widely planted white grape varieties in the world with more than 400,000 acres worldwide; as seen in our competition entries that encompassed Chardonnays from obscure regions such as China’s northwestern Xinjiang, Israel’s Judean Hills and South Africa’s Western Cape to more established sites in Champagne and Burgundy, Chile’s Casablanca Valley, northern and central Italy, and all the way to Australia’s Adelaide Hills and New Zealand’s Hawke’s Bay.

Close to 80 samples were submitted by wineries and importers for our Asian Chardonnay Masters held on 26 April at Hong Kong’s swanky HIP Cellar. The competition is the second instalment following our successful Asian Cabernet Sauvignon Masters in March. The samples were tasted blind and assessed over the course of one day by price bracket and stylistic difference (still or sparkling and within the still category, oaked or unoaked) to identify the best of Chardonnay in their own price range in the local market.

The results are encouraging as a cherry-picked panel of eight judges including a master of wine, top wine buyers/directors and trained winemaker gave out seven Masters, 15 Gold medals, 27 Silvers and 19 Bronzes. The wines are scored out of 100 points with the ones gaining 95 points or above being awarded the top accolade of Master. Wines scored higher than 90 points were given a Gold medal, those over 85 points a Silver medal and those over 80 points a Bronze.

“I think the overall quality is very good. When I say overall quality, we try to judge them in the context of price bracket. Some of the wines may be simpler or more obvious, and perhaps not designed for long ageing but they are well made in that context, and are good quality,” commented Ying-Hsien Tan MW, founder of Singapore-based Taberna Wine Academy, who was one of the Panel Chairs.

Eddie McDougall, wine critic and ‘The Flying Winemaker’, agreed addeing: “The class of all the wines showed a good spread of stylistic expressions of Chardonnay. There were some very good examples of wines at approachable price points, which goes to show that quality Chardonnay doesn’t need a hefty price tag.”

In addition, Yang Lu, corporate/group wine director of Shangri-la Hotels and Resorts, noted a good representation of entries from almost all major wine regions. “I think different winemaking styles and philosophies are well represented in the competition as it covers all styles and wine regions as well different levels of quality,” he ssaid.

For James Rowell, corporate and VIP sales manager of one of Hong Kong’s leading wine importers, Altaya Wines, tasting a diverse range of Chardonnays is a revelation. “For someone who doesn’t have the opportunity to taste or drink a lot of New World wines, it’s very interesting to see what’s currently out in the market at different price points because some styles have changed and evolved,” he explained.

The Judges

Ying-Hsien Tan MW, Founder & Owner, Taberna Wine Academy, Singapore
Yvonne Cheung, Director of Wine, Swire Hotels and Restaurants
Yang Lu, Corporate/Group Wine Director, Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts
Francesca Martin, Founder & Director, BEE Drinks Global
Eddie McDougall, Founder, The Flying Winemaker
James Rowell, Corporate and VIP Sales Manager, Altaya Wines
Jeremy Stockman, General Manager, Watson’s Wines, Hong Kong
Ivy Ng, Publisher, the drinks business Hong Kong 

Burgundian in style  

Different from aromatic grapes such as Riesling or Gewürztraminer, Chardonnay is easier to cultivate and responds well to a wider range of winemaking techniques. Given its chameleon-like nature, it takes on a wide spectrum of aromas from green apple and tomato leaf to tropical fruits, peaches, cream and vanilla. The grape variety has undergone some stylistic changes from rich, buttery, full bodied wines, favoured in the 1990s to today’s trendier, crisp and less-oak dominated expressions. Burgundy is still held in high regard as the reference point for Chardonnay, but fine examples from the New World can rival if not surpass top Burgundy wines in quality and style.

“I think the biggest surprise for me was the fact that a couple of  the wines that seemed to be particularly Burgundian in style that is very restrained yet with finesse and complexity, but to my surprise they were not. So that was an interesting discovery for me,” commented Tan.

This is a sentiment echoed by Francesca Martin, founder of Bee Drinks and a Master of Wine candidate, as well. “There were certainly more New World wines in our line-up than Burgundy, however, many of these were of very high quality and a couple I would have put money on being from top villages in the Côte d’Or,” commented the Hong Kong-based wine consultant.

The Elephant Hill Chardonnay from New Zealand’s Hawke’s Bay, which was awarded a Master title, stumped a few judges and led them to believe it was a Chassagne-Montrachet before its identity was revealed after the competition.

Meanwhile, a Tapanappa Tiers Vineyard Chardonnay 2015, another Master winning wine, was believed to have measured up to many Côte d’Or classic examples, Martin added noting that, “it was a lovely wine combining wonderful ripeness of fruit with a taut, linear structure” without sacrificing its own style to emulate Burgundy.

Elaborating on the ever-blurring line between Burgundians and top New World Chardonnays, Tan explained: “Chardonnay is a very competitive grape variety that producers around the world are now really getting the hang of understanding how the grape variety works in that particular region or environment and producing very good quality wines.

“Now it’s getting harder and harder to tell Burgundian wines apart from a premium New World wine. So that was a nice surprise for me, not actually a surprise but more a pleasant growing realisation that how well these non-European regions can compete not just in quality but in style with some top Burgundian wines.”

Chardonnay from Australia’s cooler climate in Adelaide Hills or even a South African Chardonnay Capensis by Jackson Family Wines impressed judges with their winemaking precision, proving South Africa’s massive potential. The latter was awarded a Gold medal.

Nonetheless, Burgundy’s Domaine Servin Chablis Premier Cru Butteaux 2015 proudly showcased unoaked pristine Burgundian quality and nabbed a Gold. And a few old guards from Europe including: a Laroche Mas La Chevalière Vignoble Peyroli 2014 from the Languedoc, Champagne Nicolas Feuillatte’s Brut Blanc de Blancs 208 and Italy’s Mezzacorona Chardonnay Vigneti delle Dolomiti 2016 from Trentino-Alto Aldige and Monteverro Chardonnay 2013 from Tuscany all stunned and took home Gold medals.

Australia Setting the New World Benchmark

Among all the New World competitors, Australia by far stood out for the consistency of its Chardonnay quality and its value for money, bagging six out of the seven much coveted Master titles and seven Gold medals.

The country’s Chardonnay mania is such that today it’s hard to think of Australian wines without Chardonnay. The grape is now responsible for half of the country’s white wine production with 406,000 tonnes crushed in 2016 out of a total of around 808,000 tonnes, according to Wine Australia.

From Hunter Valley to cooler region such as Adelaide Hills, Yarra Valley and Tasmania to warmer regions in Margaret River, the country provides a contrast of styles between the leaner, crisp style found in Adelaide Hills and riper, richer style in Margaret River.

Moving to price brackets, as most judges noted in the competition medium priced Chardonnays under HK$400 (US$51) outperformed many heftily priced bottles. The finding is especially uplifting as most of them, fine examples of New World Chardonnay as we discovered in the competition, can give Burgundy a run for its money especially when prices for top Burgundy wines seem to be going nowhere but up.

Within the price band of under HK$400 (US$51), five Masters were given out to high performers from Australia. They were: Bird in Hand Nest Egg Chardonnay 2015 from Adelaide Hills, Alkoomi Black Label Chardonnay 2016 from Frankland River, Voyager Estate Chardonnay 2013 from Margaret River, and McGuigan The Shortlist Chardonnay 2015 from Adelaide Hills and Cape Mentelle Chardonnay 2015 from Margaret River, with the latter two from an even more modest sub-price bracket of HK$150 (US$20) to HK$300 (US$39).

“It was great to taste such a range and in our group we found that wines in the medium to premium range that wines are consistently showing technical precision and also a level of expression,” stated Yvonne Cheung, director of wine for Swire Hotels and Restaurants.

Moving up to higher price bracket between HK$400 (US$51) and HK$799 (US$102), Tapanappa Tiers Vineyard Chardonnay from Piccadilly Valley and Elephant Hill from New Zealand received the top honour of Master. A Japanese Chardonnay from Suntory winery’s Tomi No Oka in Yamanashi near Mount Fuji set high standards for its Asian peers and nabbed a Gold medal for its “very restrained, savoury, elegant and balanced” style as the judges noted. The wine, however, bears the most hefty price tag, selling more than HK$800 in retail.

Chardonnay, a winemaker’s wine

Ying-Hsien Tan MW, founder & owner of Singapore-based Taberna Wine Academy

It’s worth noting that nearly all wines in the competition went home with a medal, which speaks loudly for the quality of Chardonnay found in the tasting. “I thought generally oak was very well integrated on the majority of the wines, adding subtle notes of toasty spice, rather than lots of overt vanilla. Lactic notes from malolactic fermentation, if apparent, were likewise well integrated and didn’t dominate on many of the wines. I feel that lees ageing and stirring are now having more of an impact on style and seemingly something producers are playing around with and paying more attention to. What I love about Chardonnay is the fact that it’s such a winemaker’s wine that the stylistic possibilities are seemingly endless. I very much felt during the tasting that there really is a style of Chardonnay for everyone,” commented Martin when asked about winemaking in Chardonnay.

Indeed, McDougall, a trained winemaker, believed that compared with other white grape varieties, winemakers are given more latitude to put their own stamp on the wine. “I believe that winemakers are far smarter when it comes to the selection of oak treatment in the wines. Across the board there was a lot more balance shown than my initial expectation. The stand-out examples really came about when the wines showed honesty in its fruit profile and a complex under-layering of either lees contact, barrel fermentation or the positive traits of sulfide development from wild yeast fermentation,” he added.

Likewise, the ones that disappointed, though small in number, were the ones that lacked balance between oak and fruit or had an overly elevated level of dimethyl sulfide, which according to him, showed traits of creamed corn.

Reduction, a winemaking technique that contrasts with oxidation, was mentioned by a few judges during tasting. When applied correctly, it adds to a wine’s complexity and flavour, otherwise, it can upset a wine’s balance and flavour profile.

“Reduction was certainly a dimension for a number of the wines with a few having a bit too much to be pleasant. This was only overdone on a couple of the wines however, many others displaying just a subtle touch of struck match character that I personally really enjoy. As with any of these things it’s all a question of balance. Reduction can certainly add an element of complexity, I believe, but in excess it becomes a fault and deters from the overall attractiveness of the wine, masking fruit and making the wine rather hard and harsh. Overall with this particular lineup I felt winemakers clearly had a good handle on where the balance lay,” Martin explained in detail.

Adding to the discussion, Jeremy Stockman, general manager of Hong Kong’s top wine retailer Watson’s Wine, delved deeper into the fine distinction between reduction and the otherwise struck-match character. “The subjective (but enjoyable!) discussion was between reduction and struck match/flinty notes. I thought in general they were factors that added complexity although a few were out of balance,” he said.

Value for money

Yang Lu, corporate/group wine director of Shangri-la Hotels and Resorts

Another finding perhaps most welcoming to consumers is that a few samples that were awarded Gold medals sell for less than HK$150 (US$20) retail. A Nepenthe Chardonnay 2016 won over the judges for its pure, focused, consistent and balanced style with good intensity. The Mas La Chevalière Vignoble Peryroli, albeit an Old World style Chardonnay, still gripped the judges with its “pithy and integrated” nature, while a “technically sound” Chardonnay from New Zealand’s The King’s Bastard equally garnered the judges’ praise.

Moving up to the HK$150 (US$20) – HK$299 (US$39) range, Taylor’s Wines Jaraman Chardonnay 2015 stood out for its layers of flavours, bright acidity and its oily texture. In addition, its ‘St Andrews Single Vineyard Release’ of the same vintage knocked judges off their feet with its complexity, persistent finish and elegance. Another Chardonnay from Nepenthe’s ‘Ithaca’ 2015 also got a nod for its minerality and intensity.

Even a few technical wines under HK$100 (US$13) garnered judges’ praise for offering decent quality and great value, winning a trove of Silvers. “The technical wines were generally the less expensive ones and I think that is normal from large producers making wines for sale under HK$100. They were technically correct with sunshine fruit and balance – I think a customer is getting value for that price range,” Stockman pointed out.

Judges’ profiles:

Ying-Hsien Tan MW is the first Singaporean Master of Wine, one of the first two Asian men to attain the prestigious title in 2015. Owner of Singapore-based Taberna Wine Academy, Tan frequently conducts tastings, classes and wine dinners. He is currently engaged in the Institute of Masters of Wine Education Programme for candidates studying for the MW qualification. He also served as a judge at many international wine events including the Sopexa French Wine Sommelier Competition 2015 and the Singapore National Sommelier Competitions in 2014 and 2016 to name a few. In his own time, Tan writes for a few wine and food magazines.

Eddie McDougall, an award-winning winemaker and TV personality in Asia, is the creator of TLC’s popular The Flying Winemaker TV series. A trained winemaker with a diploma in Wine Technology and Viticulture from the University of Melbourne, McDougall has more than a decade of winemaking experiences working with wineries such as Vietti and Innocent Bystander. McDougall just successfully launched his first ever Asian Wine Festival this year, showcasing some of the best wines made in Asian countries from Japan to Bali in Indonesia.

Francesca Martin is the founder and director of BEE Drinks Global, a wine and spirits consulting company. Martin has spent more than 12 years in brand management, PR, winemaking and marketing. Over the years, she has worked for some of the most renowned names in the global wine industry including Francois Lurton in Argentina, Miguel Torres in Spain, Liberty Wines and Steven Spurrier in the UK and ASC Fine Wines in Hong Kong. A WSET diploma holder and a certified WSET educator, Martin is currently studying for Master of Wine exam.

James Rowell, corporate and VIP sales manager of Hong Kong’s leading wine importer Altaya Wines, has worked in the wine trade for more than 20 years, with experiences spanning across the UK, Hong Kong, Macau and mainland China. Rowell has visited many wineries all over the world and has hands-on winemaking experiences in Bordeaux and Marlborough. Rowell is also a WSET diploma holder and a certified WSET educator.

Jeremy Stockman, a London native, is the general manager of Hong Kong’s biggest wine retailer Watson’s Wine. Stockman has built a formidable career in wine, running his own consultancy business in Australia before taking on his current stint at the Hong Kong retailer. Stockman previously worked for Coles Group in Australia, Vintage Cellars and Wine Rack in London and was a frequent judge for Australia’s most respected wine shows including the Royal National Wine Show, McLaren Vale Wine Show and Royal Sydney Wine Show.

Yang Lu, corporate/group wine director of Shangri-la Hotels and Resorts, is widely regarded as a leading sommelier in Greater China. The first Advanced Sommelier from Greater China, Lu honed his skills while working for Peninsula Shanghai and his palate and skills in wine were further validated when he won the Best Sommelier of Greater China competition in 2014. Graduated with a degree in Viticulture and Winemaking from Niagara College in Canada, Lu is also a dedicated wine educator in China. A holder of WSET Level 4 diploma, Lu is currently studying for the ultimate accolade of Master Sommelier title.

Yvonne Cheung is the director of wine for Swire Hotels and Restaurants and oversees the group’s wine programmes in Hong Kong and mainland China. After graduating from Culinary Institute of America, Yvonne went on to work for The Caneros Inn in Napa where she developed her operational and wine-centric skills as assistant general manager, sommelier and wine buyer for the property. Since joining Swire Group in 2010, she has risen through the ranks and became the group’s wine director in 2013. She is also a wine consultant for Cathay Pacific Airline.

Asian Chardonnay Masters 2017

Sparkling Chardonnay

Company Wine Name Vintage Region Country Medal
Champagne Nicolas Feuillatte Champagne Nicolas Feuillatte Brut Blanc de Blancs 2008 Champagne France Gold

Unoaked Chardonnay

Company Wine Name Vintage Region Country Medal
Under $100
Viña Los Vascos Los Vascos Chardonnay 2016 Colchagua Chile Bronze
Bernard Magrez Grands Vignobles du Sud La Référence – Bernard Magrez 2016 Languedoc, IGP Pays d’Oc France Silver
Nosio S.p.A. Castel Firmian Chardonnay 2016 Trentino DOC Italy Bronze

Oaked Chardonnay

Company Wine Name Vintage Region Country Medal
Under $100
De Bortoli Wines Sacred Hill Chardonnay 2016 Riverina Australia Silver
Barkan Wine Cellars Ltd. Reserve Chardonnay 2016 Upper Galilee Israel Silver
Limestone Coast Wines The Atrium Chardonnay 2015 Southeast Australia Australia Bronze
Growers Wine Group Limestone Coast Chardonnay 2016 Limestone Coast Australia Silver
Bernard Magrez Grands Vignobles du Sud Domaine des Songes L’Occitanie Chardonnay 2015 Verzeille, IGP Pays d’Oc France Bronze
De Bortoli Wines Villages Chardonnay 2015 Yarra Valley Australia Silver
Nosio S.p.A. Feudo Arancio Chardonnay 2016 Sicilia DOC Italy Bronze
Viña Ventisquero Ltda Ventisquero Grey Chardonnay Single Block, Tapihue Vineyard 2015 Casablanca Valley Chile Silver
Laroche Wines Domaine Laroche Chablis Saint Martin 2015 Burgundy France Bronze
Shanxi Grace Vineyard Co., Ltd. Grace Vineyard Premium Chardonnay 2014 Shanxi China Bronze
M.P. Wines Salentein Reserve Chardonnay 2016 Uco Valley, Mendoza Argentina Silver
Australian Vintage Ltd Tempus Two Copper Wilde Chardonnay 2016 Hunter Valley/Adelaide Hills Australia Silver
Tyrrell’s Vineyards Pty Ltd Tyrrell’s Hunter Valley Chardonnay 2016 Hunter Valley Australia Silver
Cakebread Cellars Bakestone Cellars Chardonnay 2015 North Coast California USA Silver
Wakefield/Taylors Wines Jaraman Chardonnay 2015 Clare Valley/Adelaide Hills Australia Gold
Nosio S.p.A. Castel Firmian Chardonnay Riserva 2014 Trentino DOC Italy Bronze
Australian Vintage Ltd Nepenthe Ithaca Chardonnay 2015 Adelaide Hills Australia Gold
Wakefield/Taylors Wines St Andrews Single Vineyard Release Chardonnay 2015 Clare Valley Australia Gold
Jackson Family Wines Freemark Abbey Napa Valley Chardonnay 2015 Napa Valley USA Silver
Elephant Hill Elephant Hill Chardonnay 2015 Hawke’s Bay New Zealand Silver
Santolin Wines Chardonnay, Willowlake Vineyard 2015 Yarra Valley Australia Gold
Babich Wines Ltd Babich Irongate Chardonnay 2015 Hawke’s Bay- Gimblett Gravels New Zealand Silver
Jackson Family Wines Kendall-Jackson Grand Reserve Chardonnay 2015 Monterey USA Bronze
Australian Vintage Ltd Tempus Two Pewter ‘Tumbarumba’ Chardonnay 2016 Tumbarumba Australia Silver
Bird in Hand Bird in Hand Nest Egg Chardonnay 2015 Adelaide Hills Australia Master
Alkoomi Wines Alkoomi Black Label Chardonnay 2016 Frankland River Australia Master
Voyager Estate Voyager Estate Chardonnay 2013 Margaret River Australia Master
Tiansai Vineyards Skyline of Gobi Chardonnay Reserve 2015 Xinjiang China Silver
Bat Shlomo Vineyards Bat Shlomo Chardonnay 2014 Sharon, Judean Hills Israel Silver
Tapanappa Winery Tapanappa Tiers Vineyard Chardonnay 2015 Piccadilly Valley Australia Master
Elephant Hill Elephant Hill Reserve Chardonnay 2015 Hawke’s Bay New Zealand Master
Accolade Wines Hardys Eileen Hardy Chardonnay 2010 Tasmania & Yarra Valley Australia Gold
Suntory Wine International Limited Tomi White 2014 Yamanashi Japan Gold

Asian Chardonnay Masters 2017:

Unoaked Chardonnay

Company Wine Name Vintage Region Country Medal
Under $100
Velenosi Vini Villa Angela Chardonnay 2016 Marche IGT Italy Silver
Nosio S.p.A. Mezzacorona Chardonnay Vigneti delle Dolomiti IGT 2016 Vigneti delle Dolomiti IGT Italy Gold
Societa Agricola Giusti Dal Col srl Chardonnay “Dei Carni” IGT Delle Venezie 2016 Veneto Italy Silver
Domaine Servin Domaine Servin Chablis 1er Cru Butteaux 2015 Chablis France Gold

Oaked Chardonnay

Company Wine Name Vintage Region Country Medal
Under $100
Limestone Coast Wines Vandenberg Chardonnay 2015 Limestone Coast Australia Bronze
Chateau Ksara Chateau Ksara Chardonnay Cuvée du Pape 2015 Bekaa Valley Lebanon Silver
Viña Ventisquero Ltda Kalfu Molu Chardonnay 2016 Casablanca Valley Chile Bronze
Barkan Wine Cellars Ltd. Special Reserve Chardonnay, Winemakers’ Choice 2015 Upper Galilee Israel Silver
Australian Vintage Ltd Nepenthe Chardonnay 2016 Adelaide Hills Australia Gold
Laroche Wines Mas La Chevalière Vignoble Peyroli 2014 Languedoc France Gold
Marisco Vineyards Ltd The King’s Bastard 2015 Marlborough New Zealand Gold
Australian Vintage Ltd Tempus Two Copper Wilde Chardonnay 2015 Hunter Valley/Adelaide Hills Australia Bronze
Matahiwi Estate Matahiwi Estate Holly Chardonnay 2015 Hawke’s Bay New Zealand Silver
Australian Vintage Ltd McGuigan The Shortlist Chardonnay 2015 Adelaide Hills Australia Master
Shanxi Grace Vineyard Co., Ltd. Grace Vineyard Tasya’s Reserve Chardonnay 2015 Shanxi China Bronze
Robertson Winery Constitution Road Chardonnay 2015 Robertson South Africa Silver
Jackson Family Wines Cambria Benchbreak Chardonnay 2014 Santa Maria Valley USA Silver
Cape Mentelle Vineyards Ltd Cape Mentelle Chardonnay 2015 Margaret River Australia Master
Jackson Family Wines La Crema Sonoma Coast Chardonnay 2015 Sonoma Coast USA Silver
Santolin Wines Chardonnay, Yarraland Vineyard 2015 Yarra Valley Australia Silver
Casa Lapostolle SA Lapostolle Cuvée Alexandre Chardonnay 2013 Casablanca Valley Chile Bronze
Jackson Family Wines Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay 2015 California USA Bronze
Australian Vintage Ltd Tempus Two Pewter Chardonnay 2016 Hunter Valley Australia Gold
Bird in Hand Bird in Hand Chardonnay 2016 Adelaide Hills Australia Silver
Tiansai Vineyards Skyline of Gobi Chardonnay Selection 2015 Xinjiang China Bronze
Aziende Agricole Planeta Planeta Chardonnay 2015 Sicily Italy Silver
Accolade Wines Grant Burge Summers Chardonnay 2013 Eden Valley, Alpine Valley and Adelaide Hills Australia Bronze
Jackson Family Wines Capensis Chardonnay 2014 Western Cape South Africa Gold
Marisco Vineyards Ltd Craft Series The Pioneer Chardonnay 2014 Marlborough New Zealand Bronze
Treasury Wine Estates Penfolds Bin 311 Chardonnay 2015 Tumbarumba Australia Silver
Shanxi Grace Vineyard Co., Ltd. Grace Vineyard Chairman’s Reserve Chardonnay 2015 Shanxi China Bronze
Monteverro Srl Società Agricola Monteverro Chardonnay 2013 Tuscany Italy Gold

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