IF THE chef’s universal test is an omelette, then a winemaker’s should be a Chardonnay. With its relatively delicate flavours the grape is able to transmit winemaking tweaks more clearly than any other variety, making it the ultimate tool to judge cellar technique. And like that egg- based dish, the wine from Chardonnay may seem uncomplicated to make, but it’s also easy to get wrong. If it’s good, however, the wine trade will undoubtedly sit up and salivate.
It’s for these reasons that our annual Chardonnay Masters is such a popular and revealing judging session. Not only does it give us a chance to see the trends at work in winemaking, but also discover some of the hottest talent in the global vinous scene. Furthermore, as the grape can only be grown in few places with great success – despite its appearance almost everywhere there are vineyards – the tasting highlights places of brilliance.
And, as this year’s tasting showed, one of these places is England. Our first flight of the day considered sparkling Chardonnay, taking in a mixture of blanc de blancs from Champagne and a range of English counties, including Sussex and Hampshire. Just two golds and three silvers were awarded, split almost equally between English sparkling Chardonnays and those from Champagne, proving that the Brits can create traditional method fizz that is comparable in quality with Champagne, if different in style. With Wiston Estate the sole gold from England, the tasting also reinforced the belief that its creator, Dermot Sugrue, is one of this small industry’s greatest winemakers.
Moving onto still wines, it was notable that the unoaked Chardonnay category yielded no golds in 2014. “At the cheaper end the oaked Chardonnay seemed to do better, so if you are going to do a sub £10 Chardonnay then having some carefully judged oak seems to add something,” commented judge Martin Gamman MW. Nevertheless, a few names stood out in this category, with the Co-op supermarket’s Chablis, made by Jean-Marc Brocard, one of just two silvers in the under-£10 unoaked Chardonnay category, proof that this region is one of the very few areas that delivers real character from the grape without a heavy wood influence.
That said, it requires the economies of scale and low margins of a multiple retailer to hit a sub-£10 price point for Chablis today.
Another star was a new Chardonnay from Giusti, a producer in Asolo and one of only two wineries to achieve the top title of Master in our 2014 Prosecco Masters. Italy was the source of another silver in the unoaked category, although this time in the £10-20 price band, with Zonin’s IGT Toscana Chardonnay impressing the judges, along with Valdivieso Reserva Chardonnay from Chile.
However, the majority of entries in the competition had seen some oak in their production, and looking at the cheapest category, it was pleasing to see the brand leaders performing well. Indeed, the top three best scoring Chardonnays in the oaked under-£10 flight were from three of the biggest names in the business: Hardys, Jacob’s Creek and Torres, representing Australia and Chile. “With inexpensive New World Chardonnay I look for something with some oak and balanced, bright acidity,” commented another judge, Clement Robert, head sommelier at London’s Medlar Restaurant and 2013 Moët UK Sommelier of the Year. Considering further this category, he also described the general standard of the wines as “good to very good”, and was pleased to see no obvious signs of added acidity.
Notable in the next price band, £10-20, was the strong performance of Chardonnays from Chile. Leading the nation in this category was the Viñas Errázuriz Group, which took one of only two Masters in the entire competition for its £15 Arboleda Aconcagua Costa Chardonnay. Exciting the judges was its combination of ripe fruit, toasty oak and a refreshing grapefruit tang, all for a sub-£20 wine. The group’s slightly cheaper Errázuriz Max Reserva also did well in the same category, gaining one of the 16 silvers. Using Chardonnay from the same region of Aconcagua Costa, it seems this area of Chile is a region to watch for high-quality Chardonnay, although Leyda- sourced Chilean Chardonnays from a number of producers, including Santa Rita, did well too.
Proving that New World Chardonnays from as broad a set of sources as Lake Ontario Canada and Hawke’s Bay New Zealand are able to compete with Burgundy in the same price range, among the silvers awarded in the £10-20 band were two Côte-d’Or whites from Domaine Pierre Labet, including its Beaune Clos du Dessus Des Marconnets. In other words, those New World Chardonnays in this price band that gained silvers are making wines of equivalent quality to good village- level Burgundy.
Moving up to the higher price points however, it was notable how good the Chardonnays were from Australia, California and South Africa – the latter perhaps a somewhat underestimated source of high quality Chardonnay. In Australia specifically, the judges were pleasantly surprised by the quality of the Taylors Wakefield St Andrews Chardonnay from the Clare Valley, which had plenty of ripe fruit, but also an appealing smoky and subtle sulphidic character, palate-cleansing citrus and well-judged toasty oak. This wine was awarded a gold in the £20-£30 band, along with the Katherine’s Vineyard Chardonnay from Cambria Estate Winery in California’s Santa Maria Valley, heralding from the Jackson Family’s impressive stable of wines. The latter wine was a wonderful example of a more classic Californian Chardonnay, with richness, warmth, but also complexity and just enough acidity to offset the generosity. Sommelier Clement Robert, having tasted the wine blind and scored it highly, was particularly pleased, as he later revealed he had previously chosen this Chardonnay to serve by the glass at his restaurant.
At even higher prices, once more, Australia’s Bird in Hand Chardonnay, made by highly respected winemaker Kym Milne MW, was given a gold for its Nest Egg label, highlighting the quality of fruit from the Adelaide Hills. But it was a Chardonnay from the Yarra Valley that scored even more highly, with the region’s Oakridge winery achieving a Master for its 864 Chardonnay. Made in a slightly leaner manner, but with a fashionable struck- match character, touch of toast, and lovely grapefruit flavours, not everyone liked the style, but at least it attracted plenty of discussion, and all agreed it was an excellent wine.
Over £50, without the presence of grand cru Burgundy in the tasting, we had few wines, but those that were commanding such high prices thankfully performed as well as one would expect for the expense. At the very top were Penfolds Yattarna, the wonderful white equivalent of Australia’s flagship red, Grange, and the boutique South African producer, Uva Mira, which produces intense Chardonnay from its high-altitude vineyards on the slopes of the Helderberg Mountains in Stellenbosch.
So what made the best examples great? For the judges it was the intense flavours from a broad set of complementary components, coupled with freshness. Summing up, David Bird MW commented, “You can mould Chardonnay into a simple wine or a lovely oaked example, but it is very easy to overdo it, and too many still think that you can produce a superb Chardonnay by sticking lots of wood in it.” Continuing, he concluded, “It is hard to produce a great wine from Chardonnay, but when you do, it is the greatest wine in the world.”
The wines were judged blind using Schott Zwiesel Cru Classic glasses at Broadway House in London. Wines were awarded Gold, Silver and Bronze medals, with only the very highest scoring entries being given the accolade of a Master.