Chardonnay Masters 2017: the results in full
Where once the choice for Chardonnay drinkers was either a big, buttery, oaky expression or, in response, an austere, lighter version, now producers have found an appealing middle ground, as Patrick Schmitt MW and fellow judges discover.
No single variety of wine has suffered more abuse than Chardonnay. As those of you in the trade know well, the most overt sign of this came with the ‘Anything But Chardonnay’ movement of the last decade – shortened to ABC – which emerged as a response to buttery, oaky, rather sickly styles of wine that had appeared on the market from the late 1990s onwards, when heavy-handed cellar techniques were used on lightweight grapes. Unfortunately, it wrongly tarred all Chardonnays with the same brush. But the ABC sentiment was to some extent justified; it was a reaction to something real.
As a result, combatting such an image issue took drastic, tangible measures. It required the emergence of ‘skinny’ Chardonnay: a style of wine created so lean that the trade and consumers couldn’t help but notice. It was proof that Chardonnay’s stylistic pendulum had well and truly swung to another extreme. And, for this reason, initially, it was welcome. But it wasn’t the long-term solution for a grape that had created a mass following for its richness. Should one crave a fresh, lightweight drink, one wouldn’t ask for a Chardonnay. So, while the lean Chardonnay showed that winemakers could produce something delicate from this grape, it was, at the same time, disappointing those who loved Chardonnay for its generosity; that crowd-pleasing combination of ripe yellow fruit and notes of buttered toast.
Moving forward to today, and following another extremely comprehensive Chardonnay sampling through our Global Masters programme, it is apparent that an appealing, balanced middleground has now been struck. One can still find the rich, oaky, Chardonnay caricatures, and the more feathery, austere examples too, but the extremes are less extreme. The variation now comes with price point – so, as one moves up the quality ladder, you can literally buy more fruit, oak, and layers of flavour, for the most part, in harmony. What’s important is that, in general terms, the Chardonnay on the market at the moment is better to drink than it has ever been before. And, with so many sources, there’s a lot to excite the adventurous drinker.
All this means that, at present, any wine lover who is tired of Chardonnay, to paraphrase Samuel Johnson, is tired of life. With all that said, before looking closely at the high points from this year’s tasting, there is still controversy in the handling of Chardonnay by winemakers. In the vineyard, lower yields, and attempts to pick neither under- nor over-ripe may be producing musts with the potential for greatness, but management during and after fermentation is bringing a particular and divisive character to the resulting wines – and this results from differing levels of hydrogen sulphide (H2S). At low levels, this compound can add a complexing whiff of smoke, reminiscent of a freshly struck match.
At higher concentrations, it can be stinky, like rotten eggs. Skilled winemakers can control the influence, mainly through lees management, and will allow the almost rampant production of the compound in some barrels, before blending these into the wine to a bring about a desired level of sulphide-sourced characters. Where they have been apparent, but not unpleasant, sulphidic aromas have been a shortcut to success in wine competitions. However, our judges are more sceptical of heaping high scores on such artefact.
As a result, while the top medallists in the Chardonnay Masters may display an attractive sulphidic note, it is in combination with other flavours, primarily the character of the grapes, enhanced by the addition of aromas created by malolactic fermentation and barrel-ageing. In other words, our judges aren’t swayed by the instant aromatic smoky hit from sulphides, but are happy to reward this trait in well-made Chardonnay, as long as it is in harmony with other elements in the wine. On that note, it is important to stress that texture too is vital for great Chardonnay, and the judges were looking for a wine not just with flavour complexity, but a certain weight in the mouth from ripe fruit (not sugar or elevated alcohol). Not only that, but the oleaginous had to be balanced by a brightness on the finish – all wines must deliver refreshment, however weighty.
A BRILLIANT VINTAGE
The results from the tasting can be viewed in full in the tables, but it is worth mentioning a few highlights. Among these was the delightful nature of pure Chardonnay Champagne in a brilliant vintage – such as the blanc de blancs from Nicolas Feuillatte in 2008; a real find of a fizz at a relatively affordable price. It was also good to see some Gold medals among the unoaked still Chardonnays this year, with the bright and ripe style of Santa Rita’s Gran Hacienda Chardonnay form Chile’s Colchagua Valley delivering a lot of wine for the money.
Also unoaked and Gold medal-winning were wines from De Bortoli in Australia’s Yarra – already proven as a great source of pure, balanced Chardonnay – and Maso Grener, flying the flag for Chardonnay from Trentino, a region more famously used as a base for traditional-method fizz Trentodoc.
Moving to the oaked samples, which made up the majority of the entries, it was interesting to see that New Zealand can deliver price-competitive whites with Chardonnay, as well as Sauvignon Blanc, and particularly from Hawkes Bay – the home of Sacred Hill’s Gold-medal winner under £10.
Judging by the number of Golds awarded in the £10-£15 price band, this is a sweet spot for oaked Chardonnay, and from a broad range of sources.
The leading light among these was North America’s best-selling ‘premium’ Chardonnay, Kendall-Jackson’s Vintner’s Reserve – a barrel-aged white wine made on a massive scale, but to an extremely high standard, and, importantly, in a creamy style that would delight any longtime Chardonnay drinker on a budget. But we also had lovely examples in a range of styles from diverse sources, from Burgundy to the Okanagan, as well as a Silver medallist from the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon.
Above £15, and we had an notably interesting set of top medallists. New Zealand’s Matahiwi Estate scored the highest, again highlighting the quality potential of Hawke’s Bay Chardonnay, but, not far below this, were delicious and balanced examples of the grape from Anatolia, Bordeaux, and Lincoln Lakeshore in Canada, proving that there is the potential for greatness in a broad array of viticultural areas.
Indeed, these wines were tasted alongside famous Chardonnay specialists, Wakefield / Taylors, Journey’s End, Australian Vintage and Trinchero Estates – all of which also gained Golds for their brilliantly made whites.
At yet higher prices, the greatness was confirmed for several traditional regions for Chardonnay, such as the appellation of Pernand-Vergelesses in Burgundy and the Anderson Valley in California. We also saw a wonderful full but fresh Chardonnay from Tuscany, and another ripe, balanced style from Trentino, showing that Italy can achieve great things with Chardonnay. Again, Australia and the US showed why these two countries are go-to nations for top-quality Chardonnay.
THE WORLD’S GREATEST
Such a picture was reinforced by the results between £30-£50, and again over £50, where Australia and the US dominated the top medals. When the wines were revealed, it wasn’t hard to see why: among the samples were several of the world’s great Chardonnay makers, from Jackson Family Wines to Howard Park, Jacob’s Creek, Tapanappa, Uva Mira, and a perennial high performer, Bird in Hand.
In short, even among our judges, both self-professed Chardonnay lovers and highly experienced tasters, there was an element of surprise at the high quality of the wines in this year’s competition – even they weren’t aware that complex, balanced and generous examples were coming from such a wide range of sources. And, debate over the influence of sulphide-sourced characters aside, everyone agreed that Chardonnay is rightly the world’s most-loved white grape – even if Riesling tends to vie for the trade’s greatest affections.
Over the following pages are the medallists from this year’s Chardonnay Masters, along with comments from the judges (who are pictured below).
Sparkling Brut Chardonnay
|Champagne Nicolas Feuillatte||Blanc de Blancs||Champagne||France||2008||Master|
|Santa Rita||Gran Hacienda y Chardonnay||Colchagua Valley||Chile||2017||Gold|
|De Wetshof Estate||Limestone Hill||Robertson||South Africa||2017||Silver|
|Wakefield/Taylors Wines||Promised Land Chardonnay||Clare Valley||Australia||2016||Silver|
|Wingara Wine Group||Deakin Estate Chardonnay||Murray Darling||Australia||2017||Silver|
|Viña Ventisquero||Kalfu Kuda Chardonnay||Leyda Valley||Chile||2014||Bronze|
|Viña Maipo||Mi Pueblo Chardonnay||Central Valley||Chile||2017||Bronze|
|VSPT Wine Group||Santa Helena Siglo de Oro Reserva||Central Valley||Chile||2017||Bronze|
|DeBortoli Wines||Yarra Valley Villages Chardonnay||Yarra Valley||Australia||2016||Gold|
|Viña Los Boldos||Chateau Los Boldos Grande Reserve||Cachapoal||Chile||2017||Bronze|
|De Wetshof Estate||De Wetshof Estate Bon Vallon||Robertson||South Africa||2017||Bronze|
|De Bortoli Wines||Deen Vat 7 Chardonnay||Riveria||Australia||2016||Bronze|
|Giusti Wines||Chardonnay ‘Delle Carni’ IGT Delle Venezie||Veneto||Italy||2016||Bronze|
|Maso Grener||Vigna Tratta Chardonnay Trentino DOC||Pressano||Italy||2016||Gold|
|Giesen Wines||Ara Single Estate Chardonnay||Marlborough||New Zealand||2015||Silver|
|Cantina de LaVis||Chardonnay Classici Trentino DOC||Trentino||Italy||2016||Silver|
|De Bortoli Wines||Yarra Valley Estate Grown Chardonnay||Yarra Valley||Australia||2015||Bronze|
|Aresti Chile Wine||Trisquel Series Vichuquén Costa Chardonnay||Curicó Valley||Chile||2017||Bronze|
|Sacred Hill||Halo||Hawke’s Bay||New Zealand||2015||Gold|
|Sacred Hill||Chardonnay||Hawke’s Bay||New Zealand||2015||Silver|
|Direct Wines Le Chai au Quai||La Voûte||Languedoc Rousillon||France||2016||Silver|
|Yealands Family Wines||Peter Yealands Chardonnay||Hawke’s Bay||New Zealand||2016||Silver|
|Aresti Chile Wine||Bellavista Chardonnay||Curicó Valley||Chile||2016||Bronze|
|Distell||Durbanville Hills – Chardonnay||Durbanvillle Hills||South Africa||2016||Bronze|
|Distell||Fleur Du Cap – Chardonnay||Western Cape||South Africa||2016||Bronze|
|Maycas del Limarí||Reserva Sumaq Chardonnay||Limarí Valley||Chile||2016||Bronze|
|Distell||Nederburg – Winemaster’s Chardonnay||Paarl||South Africa||2016||Bronze|
|Andrew Peller Limited||Wayne Gretzky Chardonnay||Okanagan Valley||Canada||2016||Bronze|
|Jackson Family Wines||Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay||California||USA||2015||Master|
|Maison Champy||Bourgogne Chardonnay ‘Signature’||Burgundy||France||2016||Gold|
|Santa Rita||Carmen Gran Reserva Chardonnay||Colchagua Valley||Chile||2015||Gold|
|Viña Concha y Toro||Gran Reserva Serie Riberas Chardonnay||Colchagua Valley||Chile||2016||Gold|
|Jacob’s Creek||Reserve Adelaide Hills Chardonnay||Adelaide Hills||Australia||2016||Gold|
|Jackson Family Wines||La Crema Monterey Chardonnay||Monterey||USA||2015||Gold|
|Bouchard Finlayson||Missionvale||Hemel-en-Aarde||South Africa||2015||Gold|
|Montes||Montes Alpha Chardonnay||Aconcagua||Chile||2015||Gold|
|Andrew Peller Limited||Sandhill Chardonnay Terroir Driven Wine||Okanagan Valley||Canada||2016||Gold|
|Marisco Vineyards||The King’s Legacy Chardonnay||Marlborough||New Zealand||2016||Gold|
|Cono Sur||20 Barrels||Maipo Valley||Chile||2016||Silver|
|McPherson Wines||Laneway Chardonnay||Central Victoria||Australia||2016||Silver|
|Chateau Ksara||Chardonnay – Cuvée du Pape||Bekaa Valley||Lebanon||2015||Silver|
|Distell||Fleur du Cap Unfiltered Chardonnay||Western Cape||South Africa||2016||Silver|
|Linton Park Wines||Linton Park Wines||Wellington||South Africa||2016||Silver|
|Viña Concha y Toro||Marques de Casa Concha Chardonnay||Limari Valley||Chile||2016||Silver|
|Mas la Chevalière||Mas la Chevalière Vignoble Peyroli||Languedoc||France||2015||Silver|
|Maycas del Limarí||Reserva Especial Chardonnay||Limarí Valley||Chile||2016||Silver|
|Australian Vintage||Nepenthe Altitude Chardonnay||Adelaide Hills||Australia||2016||Silver|
|Distell||Plaisir de Merle Chardonnay||Simonsberg||South Africa||2016||Silver|
|Santa Rita||Medalla Real Chardonnay||Colchagua Valley||Chile||2016||Silver|
|Marisco Vineyards||The Ned Chardonnay||Marlborough||New Zealand||2016||Silver|
|Trinchero Family Estates||Three Thieves||California||USA||2015||Silver|
|Bodega Trapiche||Trapiche Costa & Pampa Chardonnay||Chapadmalal||Argentina||2016||Silver|
|Wakefield/Taylors Wines||Wakefield/Taylors Chardonnay||Clare Valley||Australia||2016||Silver|
|Bird in Hand||Two In The Bush Chardonnay||Adelaide Hills||Australia||2016||Bronze|
|Miguel Torres Chile||Cordillera Chardonnay||Coquimbo||Chile||2014||Bronze|
|Domaine Laroche||Chablis Saint Martin||Burgundy||France||2016||Bronze|
|Distell||Durbanville Hills – Rhinofields Chardonnay||Durbanvillle Hills||South Africa||2016||Bronze|
|La Motte Wine Estate||La Motte Chardonnay||Franschhoek||South Africa||2016||Bronze|
|West Cape Howe Wines||Old School Chardonnay||Mount Barker||Australia||2016||Bronze|
|Yealands Family Wines||Peter Yealands Reserve Chardonnay||Hawke’s Bay||New Zealand||2016||Bronze|
|Andrew Peller Limited||Red Rooster Chardonnay||British Columbia||Canada||2016||Bronze|
|Wakefield/Taylors Wines||Taylor Made Chardonnay||Adelaide Hills||Australia||2016||Bronze|
|Andrew Peller Limited||Trius Chardonnay Barrel Fermented||Niagara Peninsula||Canada||2015||Bronze|
|Trivento Bodegas y Viñedos||Golden Reserve Chardonnay||Mendoza||Argentina||2015||Bronze|
|Matahiwi Estate||Holly Matahiwi Estate Chardonnay||Hawke’s Bay||New Zealand||2016||Master|
|Kavaklıdere||Côtes d’Avanos Narince Chardonnay||Anatolia||Turkey||2016||Gold|
|Le Petit Marand||Cuvée Elise||Bordeaux||France||2016||Gold|
|Wakefield/Taylors Wines||Jaraman Chardonnay||Clare Valley/Adelaide Hills||Australia||2016||Gold|
|Journey’s End Vineyards||Journey’s End Single Vineyard||Stellenbosch||South Africa||2016||Gold|
|Australian Vintage||McGuigan Shortlist Chardonnay||Adelaide Hills||Australia||2016||Gold|
|Trinchero Family Estates||Pacific Heights||Russian River Valley||USA||2015||Gold|
|Andrew Peller Limited||Trius Showcase Wild Ferment Oliveira Vineyard||Lincoln Lakeshore||Canada||2015||Gold|
|Ashbrook Estate||Ashbrook Chardonnay||Margaret River||Australia||2014||Silver|
|Giesen Wines||The Brothers Chardonnay||Marlborough||New Zealand||2015||Silver|
|Terranoble||Gran Reserva Chardonnay||Casablanca||Chile||2016||Silver|
|Trinchero Family Estates||Joel Gott||California||USA||2016||Silver|
|Bouchard Finlayson||Kaaimansgat Crocodile’s Lair||Western Cape||South Africa||2015||Silver|
|Andrew Peller Limited||Peller Estates Andrew Peller Signature Series||Niagara on the Lake||Canada||2015||Silver|
|Andrew Peller Limited||Thirty Bench Small Lot Chardonnay||Beamsville Bench||Canada||2015||Silver|
|Alpha Estate||Alpha Estate Ecosystem Single Block “Toumpa”||Amyndeon||Greece||2016||Bronze|
|Babich Wines||Babich Black Label Chardonnay||Marlborough||New Zealand||2016||Bronze|
|Babich Wines||Babich Family Estates Headwaters Organic||Marlborough||New Zealand||2016||Bronze|
|Trinchero Family Estates||Complicated||Sonoma Coast||USA||2016||Bronze|
|De Grendal Wines||De Grendel Op die Berg Chardonnay||Ceres Plateau||South Africa||2016||Bronze|
Oaked Chardonnay (continued)
|Elephant Hill||Elephant Hill Chardonnay||Hawkes Bay||New Zealand||2016||Bronze|
|Australian Vintage||Nepenthe Ithaca Chardonnay||Adelaide Hills||Australia||2016||Bronze|
|Bodega Trapiche||Trapiche Perfiles Calcareo Chardonnay||Mendoza||Argentina||2015||Bronze|
|Andrew Peller Limited||Wayne Gretzky Estate Series Chardonnay||Niagara Peninsula||Canada||2015||Bronze|
|Andrew Peller Limited||Wayne Gretzky Okanagan Signature Series||Okanagan Valley||Canada||2015||Bronze|
|Domaine Chanson||Pernand Vergelesses Les Caradeaux 1er Cru||Burgundy||France||2015||Master|
|Wakefield/Taylors Wines||St Andrews Chardonnay||Clare Valley||Australia||2016||Master|
|Babich Wines||Babich Irongate Chardonnay||Hawke’s Bay||New Zealand||2016||Gold|
|Maisons Marques et Domaines||Domaine Anderson Carpe Diem Chardonnay||Anderson Valley||USA||2014||Gold|
|Santa Margherita||Chardonnay ‘Vigna Maso Reiner’ Alto Adige DOC||Trentino||Italy||2015||Gold|
|Trinchero Family Estates||Napa Cellars||Napa Valley||USA||2015||Gold|
|Constellation Brands||Robert Mondavi Winery Napa Valley||Napa Valley||USA||2014||Gold|
|Santolin Wines||Gladysdale Chardonnay||Yarra Valley||Australia||2016||Gold|
|Serafino Wines||Serafino Sharktooth Chardonnay||Mclaren Vale||Australia||2016||Gold|
|De Bortoli Wines||Yarra Valley Single Vineyard Section A5||Yarra Valley||Australia||2016||Gold|
|Cakebread Cellars||Bakestone Cellars North Coast California||North Coast California||USA||2015||Silver|
|Bird in Hand||Bird in Hand Chardonnay||Adelaide Hills||Australia||2016||Silver|
|Masciarelli Tenute Agricole||Chardonnay IGT Colline Teatine Marina Cvetic||Abruzzo||Italy||2014||Silver|
|Marisco Vineyards||Craft Series The Pioneer Chardonnay||Marlborough||New Zealand||2014||Silver|
|Yealands Family Wines||Crossroads Winemakers Collection||Hawke’s Bay||New Zealand||2015||Silver|
|Cantina LaVis||Diaol Chardonnay Trentino DOC||Trentino||Italy||2015||Silver|
|Zontes Footstep||Dusk til Dawn||Adelaide Hills||Australia||2016||Silver|
|Journey’s End Vineyards||Journey’s End ‘Destination’ Chardonnay||Stellenbosch||South Africa||2015||Silver|
|Journey’s End Vineyards||Journey’s End ‘Destination’ Chardonnay||Stellenbosch||South Africa||2016||Silver|
|Australian Vintage||McGuigan Personal Reserve Hunter Valley||Hunter Valley||Australia||2015||Silver|
|Miguel Torres||Sòns de Prades||Catalonia||Spain||2014||Silver|
|Uva Mira Mountain Vineyards||The Mira Chardonnay||Stellenbosch||South Africa||2016||Silver|
|Mascota Vineyards||Unánime Chardonnay||Uco Valley||Argentina||2016||Silver|
|Trefethen Family Vineyards||Chardonnay||Napa Valley||USA||2015||Bronze|
|De Wetshof Estate||De Wetshof Estate The Site||Robertson||South Africa||2015||Bronze|
|Maycas del Limarí||Quebrada Seca Chardonnay||Limarí Valley||Chile||2015||Bronze|
|Australian Vintage||Platinum Series Chardonnay||Adelaide Hills||Australia||2016||Bronze|
|Rod McDonald Wines||Rod McDonald Wines Quarter Acre||Hawkes Bay||New Zealand||2016||Bronze|
|Andrew Peller Limited||Sandhill Master Winemaker Howard Soon Single Block||Okanagan Valley||Canada||2015||Bronze|
|Domaine Chanson||Savigny-les-Beaune Hauts Marconnets 1er Cru||Burgundy||France||2014||Bronze|
|Bodega Trapiche||Trapiche Gran Medalla Chardonnay||Mendoza||Argentina||2015||Bronze|
|Jackson Family Wines||Stonestreet Estate Chardonnay||Alexander Valley||USA||2015||Master|
|Howard Park Wines||Marchand & Burch Porongurup & Mount Barker||Great Southern||Australia||2016||Gold|
|Bellavista||Bellavista Convento Santissima Annunciata||Lombardy||Italy||2012||Gold|
|Maisons Marques et Domaines||Domaine Anderson Chardonnay||Anderson Valley||USA||2013||Gold|
|Gran Moraine||Yamhill-Carlton Chardonnay||Willamette Valley Oregon||USA||2015||Gold|
|Jacob’s Creek||Lyndale Chardonnay||Barossa||Australia||2016||Gold|
|Tapanappa Wines||Tapanappa Tiers Vineyard Chardonnay||Piccadilly Valley||Australia||2016||Gold|
|Uva Mira Mountain Vineyards||The Single Tree Chardonnay||Stellenbosch||South Africa||2016||Gold|
|Howard Park Wines||Howard Park Chardonnay||Western Australia||Australia||2016||Silver|
|Giesen Wines||The Fuder Clayvin Single Vineyard Selection||Marlborough||New Zealand||2014||Silver|
|Australian Vintage||Pewter Series Tumbarumba||Tumbarumba||Australia||2016||Silver|
|Pike & Joyce Wines||‘The Kay’ Chardonnay||Lenswood||Australia||2015||Silver|
|Tapanappa Wines||Tiers Vineyard 1.5M Chardonnay||Piccadilly Valley||Australia||2016||Silver|
|Tyrrell’s Vineyards||Tyrrell’s Wines Winemaker’s Selection VAT 47 Hunter||Hunter Valley||Australia||2013||Silver|
|Vidal||Legacy Chardonnay||Hawkes Bay||New Zealand||2015||Silver|
|Domaine Le Petit Marand||eXtra Ordinaire Chardonnay||Bordeaux||France||2016||Bronze|
|Maison Champy||Pernand Vergelesses||Burgundy||France||2015||Bronze|
|Howard Park Wines||Allingham Chardonnay||Margaret River||Australia||2016||Master|
|Bird in Hand||Bird in Hand Nest Egg||Adelaide Hills||Australia||2016||Master|
|Bird in Hand||Bird in Hand Nest Egg||Adelaide Hills||Australia||2015||Master|
|Australian Vintage||Pewter Series Hunter Valley Poppys Block||Hunter Valley||Australia||2016||Master|
|Jackson Family Wines||Kendall-Jackson Jackson Estate Camelot Highlands||Santa Barbara County||USA||2015||Gold|
|Uva Mira Mountain Vineyards||Chardonnay||Stellenbosch||South Africa||2016||Silver|
Judges comments: Alistair Cooper MW
What impact did the tasting have on your perception of Chardonnay?
I believe that I am in a minority in the wine trade, as it is Chardonnay (not Riesling!) that is my favourite white grape variety. I was very pleased that this tasting did not disappoint. It also showed that Chardonnay is a grape that can perform exceptionally well at all price points, offering consumers real value for money at the bottom end and exceptional quality at the top end.
Did it confirm or alter any prejudices you may have had?
I think one of the key issues is the age old problem – oak. Clearly Chardonnay is a grape with an affinity for oak, and when used correctly it can add real depth and complexity to the wine. Whilst producers have largely learnt to tone down the use of oak, it is still an issue for the consumer. Many consumers feel strongly (either way) about oak in their Chardonnay, and whilst we tasted in flights of oaked and non-oaked wines, consumers are still none the wiser as to what they are buying. Clearer labelling could help here, as many consumers I speak to still avoid Chardonnay for that reason.
What did you like?
I thought Australia showed very well, especially Adelaide Hills. What was good to see was the move away from the anaemic, extremely early-picked styles that were just skin and bone. There is now that little bit more flesh, ripeness and fruit yet with real grace and elegance. In general it was good to see that the overtly gunflint, struck match/reductive wines were being tamed just a little. I am a fan of this style, however it can dominate just a little. It’s nice to see the fruit really showing on a lot of the wines. I’ve also got to say that oak (when used) was generally really well managed, integrated and balanced.
What didn’t you like?
There were a few wines at the lower price points, that were overtly ‘pear drop’ ester led wines, with little varietal typicity. This is a style that does absolutely nothing for me.
Were there any surprises?
The few wines from South Africa showed real class, and a tone down in their use of oak. A special mention to the Peller wines of Canada, which really delivered at a very reasonable price point, not something that I expected.
Judges comments: Patricia Stefanowicz MW
What I liked: What a lovely tasting! The wines we judged justify why Chardonnay is ubiquitous and beautiful. Although styles varied from light, even decorous, to rich and full, the wines were generally delicious. Alcohol and oak levels seem to be in balance with splendid fruit concentration and bright acidity. Complete wines, a joy to judge!
Finding good value wines in the £10-15 bracket with plenty in the gold and silver categories was delightful. Producers toning down the oak was often a benefit for balance. There were also some big, full-bodied wines with plenteous oak which were equally polished and balanced.
‘Tis true that the best value seems to be in the £15-20 bracket. The wines show plenty of intensity of flavour, brilliant definition and perfectly-judged oak almost imperceptible across the palate. There was a gorgeous oaked gem from Turkey and an un-oaked Chardonnay from Trentino, both of which got my votes.
Above £30 we expected and found stupendously great wines. Wonderful richness of flavour and integration of acid structure, lees-ageing and oak. ‘Yum-yum,’ more please?
What I didn’t like: Almost nothing. Every now and again the SO2 levels were just a bit too aggressive, or a wine seemed simply a bit reductive.
Final note: The few Blanc de Blancs sparklings showed well; excellent fruit, brioche autolysis and well-judged, integrated dosage. Appropriate maturity also. What’s not to love about Chardonnay?
Judges comments: Jonathan Pedley MW
Good news – there were very few faulted wines. We had one case of cork taint and a couple of wines that were a little tired and vegetal but overall the wines were clean and correct.
There was a very clear price:quality progression through the tasting. This sounds as if it should always be the case but bitter experience has shown that with some grape varieties (e.g. Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir) winemakers try too hard at the higher price levels (e.g. too much oak, over-extraction, over ripeness) and overwhelm the fruit’s inherent character. I guess nowadays most top wineries around the world are good at segmenting their Chardonnay production.
There were a handful of reasonable wines in the <£10 bracket but nothing to get excited about. As time goes by the chances of finding a star in this category diminish. Increasing duty rates, higher dry goods costs and a parlous exchange rate mean that there is less and less money available to be spent by winemakers on the actual liquid in the bottle.
From a country perspective, I got the impression that Australia was the star, with a couple of standout wines from the Adelaide Hills and Western Australia. I am afraid that California did not cover itself with glory; even at the mid-price level there was too much residual sugar. There was a shocking wine from Alicante. New Zealand did OK. Chile and Argentina were the usual mixed bag. Trentino did well. The smattering of French wines did alright but as is often the case they did not sing in this sort of company.
Stylistically the days of excessive oak and/or dominant lactic notes and/or confected tropical fruit seem to be behind us. The odd wines that showed these traits were useful in benchmarking how far we have come.
I reckon that the biggest talking point was the fashionability of the reductive “struck match” school of Chardonnay. Winemaking is now a fashion led industry. We have seen how the Côtes de Provence style of rosé has come to dominate the premium pink wine category and if you were a gambling man you would back the reductive school of Chardonnay to continue to gain adherents. ‘Group Pedley’ had a vigorous debate about the issue as we worked our way through the wines. Clearly some people have a higher tolerance (or should I say enjoyment) of sulphidic notes than others. However, only the most rabid believer (there are some) in reduction is delighted when this character overwhelms all the other Chardonnay traits. I was delighted that our two top wines (a Gold and a Master) were wines that combined a little bit of “struck match” character with all the other elements that can give Chardonnay its unmatched complexity: stone fruits, subtle oak, biscuity leesiness, creamy malolactic notes and a little bit of nuttiness from ageing.
Judges comments: Michelle Cherutti-Kowal MW
What impact did the tasting have on your perception of Chardonnay?
I was pleasantly surprised by the use of oak – it was less obvious than in the past and the oak is clearly being used to add complexity and not simply to add a vanilla flavour.
What did you like?
I was impressed by the improvement in the wines from Chile and Australia, and I was delighted to see that there were much fewer ‘skinny’ Australian Chardonnays.
On the other hand, I found that New Zealand did less well than I had expected.
Were there any surprises?
Australia – the country seems to finally have come into its own. The Chardonnays from Australia weren’t too skinny nor too fat but they were some truly elegant wines. A nice surprise.
Judges comments: Beverley Blanning MW
What impact did the tasting have on your perception of Chardonnay?
I have always loved Chardonnay, but this tasting really showed how high the quality bar has risen for Chardonnay, and in many diverse geographies.
Did it confirm or alter any prejudices you may have had?
The average quality level was higher than I was expecting, and the wines more interesting. My preference for the unique flavour of Chablis was confirmed, but when I looked at my favourites, I was quite surprised to see that the greatest number of my top-scoring wines was from Australia, and within Australia these were not limited to the more obvious cooler climate wines I’d have expected to prefer.
What did you like?
I liked many of the wines and they showed a range of styles that proves there is a Chardonnay for every taste. There was no problem with boredom here; quite the contrary, in fact, with many characterful wines ranging from fresh, light and lemony examples through lean and mineral styles to rich wines with lush, buttery, tropical flavours. It was a really enjoyable tasting. Australia and New Zealand were the top-scoring countries for me, but South Africa and Argentina also came out strongly in my marks. At the top end, there were some outstanding wines: Margaret River’s Howard Park, Vidal Legacy and Geisen The Fuder Clayvin stood out.
What didn’t you like?
There were few faults, but there was much discussion about reduction in some of the wines. Probably the least impressive wines for me were the few we tasted from the USA, with a couple of disappointments from Chile too.
Were there any surprises?
I was expecting to see more French wines here. I was also surprised by the very high average quality of the wines from different locations in Australia and New Zealand. At the cheaper price points, the oaked wines were considerably better than I’d expected.
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.