Chardonnay Masters 2019: the results in full

We bring you a full report on the Chardonnay Masters 2019, including all the medallists, the names to watch, and the go-to regions for great barrel-fermented whites – Burgundy included, but Australia-dominated. Co-chair of the judges, Patrick Schmitt MW, reports

There are several benefits to the blind tasting format employed by our Global Wine Masters, which sees us sample entries by style and grape variety, rather than origin. One of these is to assess the overall quality and character of a category, be that a noble grape such as Chardonnay, or trending sector, from sparkling to rosé. Another is to isolate the great names and domains in the sector, including the best value producers along with those star, if sometimes pricy, performers. A further highly important element to our approach is to find out the hot spots for the type of wine being tasted. And, over the years, the Global Masters has drawn attention to a number of such areas, such as the excellence of pink wines from the Tuscan coast, the brilliance of Sauvignon from Styria, or Pinot Gris from Slovenia, while highlighting the rising quality of sparkling wines from Kent and Sussex, as well as the outstanding value of traditional method fizz from the Loire. There are many more that could be mentioned, such as the reliability of Clare Valley as the source of deliciously intense bone dry Riesling that doesn’t break the bank, or the brilliance of Cabernet Sauvignons from Sonoma, which tend to be a touch fresher, and a whole lot cheaper than the equivalents from neighbouring Napa.

Some of the greatest revelations have come from our Chardonnay tastings, which we’ve held annually since 2013. While such a competition has yielded so much discussion around winemaking techniques, such as the direct influence on style of picking dates, lees management, barrel regimes etc, we have devoted fewer words to the connection between place and quality, and so it’s this aspect to our results that I’m choosing to focus on this year, with a nod to past medallists from this major tasting.

And… if I am to pick out one overwhelming positive origin-based conclusion from these tastings, it is the excellence of Chardonnay from Australia, particularly Hunter and Yarra Valleys, along with Clare/Barossa, and Margaret River in the west of the country. The standout, however, has been the Adelaide Hills. I note this with a pang of sadness, aware that as much as one third of this area’s vineyards have been destroyed by the savage bushfires that swept through this beautiful area just before Christmas.

Over the years, we’ve seen Adelaide Hills deliver not just Australia’s top Chardonnays, but, relative to the global competition in the same price category, the best examples on the planet. As proof of the area’s excellence, in this year’s tasting, three of our six ‘Chardonnay Masters’ were from the Adelaide Hills (with a fourth also hailing from Australia). Examples from Penfolds using Adelaide Hills fruit have wowed in the past, but the most consistent wonders have hailed from Australian Vintage with Nepenthe, Tapanappa, with its Tiers vineyard in particular, and Bird in Hand with its Chardonnays at all levels. Indeed, after years of blind-tasting Chardonnay from around the world, I can say with confidence that a go-to place for fine, barrel-influenced Chardonnay is the Adelaide Hills, and bearing in mind the recent devastation of the region, I urge you to secure some stock from the great names mentioned above, both to benefit the region, but also yourself – prices are likely to go up.

I should also mention the other Australian Master in the 2019 tasting, which went to Clare Valley’s Taylor/Wakefield Wines. This producer, named after the Taylor family in Australia, but called Wakefield Wines abroad (due to trademark laws on the ‘Taylor’s’ brand from the Port producer by the same name), has been a big hitter with its Chardonnays in many of our tastings, but also with its Rieslings, Shirazes and Cabernets in our competitions for each one of these varieties. In short, I have been repeatedly impressed by the quality of their output.

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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