The Global Sparkling Masters 2019: results in full

Our annual Sparkling Masters gives the judges the chance to hone in on which fizzes are hitting the spot in terms of taste, quality and value. This year, they were particularly impressed with the quality of crémants from the Loire.


Of all
the categories in the wine business, it’s sparkling where the competition appears to be the most intense. Whether its between regions, or countries, there seems to be a near-ceaseless urge to prove that one fizz-making area is better than another, with producers pitted against each other in a range of tastings.

It’s why we tend to see headlines such as ‘English fizz beats Champagne in landmark tasting’, ‘Aussie sparkling voted best in the world’, or ‘Discount crémant better than fizz costing five times the price’, and so on.

While we take no issue with the reporting, it is worth considering the nature of such comparisons. How are these tastings being conducted? And who are the judges? After all, with an issue as emotive as sparkling wine quality, it’s vital that such events employ professionals, and the organisers do their best to minimise any bias.

Repeated sampling

With such thoughts in mind, it is important to state that db’s tastings see samples judged ‘blind’, although the entries are organised loosely according to style, and presented in given price bands. As for the tasters, they must be Masters of Wine, or Master Sommeliers, and where buyers or writers are enlisted, it is because they are specialists in the category being judged. Not only that, but every entry is scored then discussed, ensuring that each taster’s result is scrutinised by a peer, and every wine is properly assessed. This may be a drawn-out process, often involving repeated sampling of the same wine, but it yields credible results, which are then shared in full here, and in the magazine too, with the addition of analysis and opinion.

In short, with the Global Sparkling Masters, you can trust the results, which have been arrived at via a rigorous tasting process, one conducted purely to assess quality, not to yield a particular outcome. So, the conclusions we draw from a day’s sampling are based on the nature of the samples submitted, and yes, sometimes the results do yield a sensational outcome, but that is by accident, not design.

So, what were the headline findings from this year’s Global Sparkling Masters? Initially, the tasting highlighted the broad sweep of places now making delicious traditional-method sparkling wine. We had Golds from bottle-fermented fizz-producing areas from the Loire to the Western Cape, Hungary to Hampshire, and New Zealand to Austria. In other words, if you thought the source of great sparkling wine was either France or Spain – or just Champagne or Cava – be prepared for a surprise as you scan the origins of our medallists this year.

Also, for those who believe that Prosecco is the go-to for little more simple-tasting fizz, then think again. When this tank-method sparkling was tasted blind against similarly priced bottled-fermented products, it did just as well or better, in many cases. This was true at higher prices too, with, for example, Andreola’s Dirupo Brut Prosecco picking up a Gold in the £30-£50 sparkling wine flight, along with a traditional-method fizz from Austria (Schlumberger Wein) and one from England (Louis Pommery).

We were also impressed by the quality-to-price ratio among the sparkling wines from two producers in particular: South Africa’s Pongracz and Hungary’s Törley. But if one were to pick out the source of the best-value fizz on the market based on this year’s tasting, it would have to be the Loire. As you can see in the tables, two names stood out for their crémants – the name for bottle-fermented fizz from France that hails from outside Champagne. These were Bouvet Ladubay and Langlois Château. The most keenly priced Gold-medal-winning fizz of the competition was the £11 Sainsbury’s Taste The Difference Crémant de Loire Brut, which is made by Bouvet Ladubay for the supermarket. The sparkling wine garnered a high score for its combination of richness and refreshment, combining the cleansing flavours of apple and chalk, with more creamy characters, and a touch of honey-coated toast, which provided added interest.

Quality fizz

Such was the quality of this fizz for the money, the judges agreed that they would now be looking closely at crémant when selecting wines for their own events.
Bearing in mind the creep upwards of Champagne prices in this decade, it’s becoming more common for consumers to seek out a cheaper alternative to this famous fizz when pouring a sparkling wine for big, celebratory events.

And, if one goes to other aspirational traditional-method winemaking regions, such as Franciacorta in Italy, or the southern counties of England, such as Kent and Sussex, you’ll find brilliant quality, but also prices that are similar, if not higher, than an equivalent Brut NV from Champagne.

Delicious options

So it was exciting to find in this year’s Global Sparkling Masters that there are delicious options of creamy, gently toasty fizz on the market today at roughly half the price of grandes marques Champagnes.

Some of these were from the Loire, but there were a wide range of other sources providing an exciting set of choices for the open-minded sparkling wine lover. This is an extremely competitive area of the wine business, but like all areas of the drinks industry, it pays to look broadly in the search for quality and value.

Over the following pages you can see all the medallists from this year’s competition, as well as comments from the judges (who are pictured below), and more information about the Global Sparkling Masters, including how to enter.

The judges (left to right): Michelle Cherutti-Kowal MW, Simon Field MW, Patricia Stefanowicz MW, Ennio Pucciarelli, Antony Moss MW, Andrea Briccarello, Patrick Schmitt MW

Organic Masters 2018: the results in full

We reveal all the medallists from the UK’s only blind tasting for certified organic wines, with some surprising results, including top scores for fizz from Surrey and Champagne aged in the sea, as well as a Sauvignon Blanc blend from Mallorca, plus a stunner from the Minervois.

The Organic Masters 2018 was judged by a panel comprising MWs and one MS at Opera Tavern in London. The judges were (left to right): Sam Caporn MW; Patricia Stefanowicz MW; Susan McCraith MW; Alistair Cooper MW; Beverly Tabbron MW; Patrick Schmitt MW, Clement Robert MS

It’s safe to say that every wine region in the world has at least one producer who employs certified organic viticultural practices – a statement that this year’s Organic Masters certainly lends weight to. With medal-winning samples from a vast array of places, from Surrey in south-east England to the Spanish island of Mallorca, we found greatness in areas little-known for top-end wines, let alone organic vineyard management. Such results also proved that even challenging climates, such as those in the UK and Champagne, can produce class-leading wines using this restrictive approach.

Not only that, but organics spans all price bands, with plenty of entries this year sub-£10, and a handful over £50 too, highlighting that this form of viticulture can be employed to produce wines at the commercial end of the pricing scale, as well as in the territory of fine wine.

Importantly, the tasting proved that being organic, or more accurately, using organically-grown grapes, is a decision that need not be detrimental to quality. Although the choice to eschew synthetic herbicides, pesticides and fungicides does generally leave one more vulnerable to yield losses, it should not negatively affect the style of the resulting wine. In fact, particularly where organic practices are combined with life-enhancing soil management, such an approach should heighten the wine quality, and, as some producers will insist, bring a more accurate reflection of site specifics, or terroir.

Although it is certainly possible to find drawbacks in the organic approach, any ambitious, quality-minded producer should be doing everything possible to augment soil health – after all, it is this substrate that is a great domaine’s most valuable asset.

So with that in mind, who were the star producers that managed to be both certified organic and a source of greatness? In the sparkling category, it was notable how many organic Proseccos we saw in this year’s tasting, and their consistent level of quality, with no fewer than eight Silver medals awarded across a range of price points. We also had a lovely good-value Cava from J. Garcia Carrión, along with a pleasant organic Lambrusco from Cantine Riunite, and, like last year, a brilliant fizz from Oxney, in England’s East Sussex.

But for the very top of the pile, just two Golds were awarded in the sparkling wine sector. One, as one might expect, went to a Champagne – and the biodynamic Leclerc Briant brand, resurrected in 2012 by American investors, and curated by respected sparkling winemaker Hervé Jestin. Although their range of Champagnes are excellent, it was the new cuvée Abyss that gain a top score, a blend that has been aged at the bottom of the sea. The other Gold was more of a shock, awarded to a pink fizz from England. This refreshing, pretty, strawberry-scented sparkling hailed from the organic and biodynamic Albury Vineyard of the Surrey Hills, and the judges felt it was a real find.

As for the still wines, it was exciting to see some good quality and great value organic wines from countries such as Romania and Bulgaria, along with some well-known brands, such as Marqués de Cáceres and Quinta de Maipo, as well as longstanding Australian organic-only wine producer, Angove.

It wasn’t until the wines moved beyond the £10 mark that our first Golds were awarded, with, in whites, a wonderful and original sample from Mallorca, comprising Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc and Prensal Blanc, made by Oliver Moragues. Within the £10-15 category in reds, we saw Golds awarded to wines from areas well-suited to organic viticulture, such as the Languedoc, Sicily, Jumilla and South Africa’s Tulbagh region – the latter from Waverley Hills.

Moving beyond £15, but staying below £20, it was thrilling to unearth a wonderful organic dry Riesling from the Nahe, and, among the reds, a magnificent balanced, gently peppery Syrah from the Minervois, made without the addition of sulphites by biodynamic specialist of southern France, Château Maris. Despite its relative affordability, the judges awarded this latter sample the ultimate accolade, a Master.

At the higher end, over £20, the judges were wowed by a rosé from Domaine la Goujonne in Provence, and a Shiraz from Gemtree Wines in the McLaren Vale.

But our only other Master of the day’s tasting went to a further Syrah and another wine from Château Maris – this time the producer’s top drop, called Dynamic. Such a sample proved not only the quality of this brand, but also the potential of biodynamically-farmed vines in the cru of Minervois La Livinière – the Languedoc’s most celebrated place for Syrah.

In short, the day’s tasting drew attention to the wide range of places where organic viticulture is practised to glorious effect, whatever the wine style. Being organic may not be a guarantee of quality, but it certainly shouldn’t be seen as a farming decision to the detriment of vinous excellence. And this year’s Organic Masters proved that decisively.

Over the following pages are the results in full, followed by details about the competition and comments from the judges. 

Asian Sparkling Masters 2017: Results and Analysis

Our inaugural Asian Sparkling Masters was a sure sign that Champagne, the holy grail of sparkling wine, is still the crème de la crème of all fizz and unapologetically reigns with its rich tradition, layers of complexity and razor-sharp precision in the winemaking process.

Judges at our latest Asian Sparkling Masters held on 30 January at HIP Cellar: (from left to right) Jeremy Stockman, general manager of Watson’s Wine; Yu-Kong Chow, independent F&B consultant and wine judge; Francesca Martin, director of BEE Drinks Global; Ivy Ng, publisher of the drinks business Hong Kong; Derek Li, chief sommelier at Duddell’s; Natalie Wang, managing editor of the drinks business Hong Kong (observing); Eddie McDougall, The Flying Winemaker; and Anty Fung, general manager of HIP Cellar.

In our inaugural Asian Sparkling Masters competition on 30 January, an expert panel of judges including Hong Kong’s top wine buyers, sommeliers and consultants blind-tasted a diverse spectrum of sparkling wines including Champagne, Prosecco, Cava, Cremant de Bourgogne, Asti and, without exception, the famous French fizz came out swinging.

Champagne reigns 

To put it in perspective: Champagne alone is responsible for producing all five of the Master medal winning wines, the top accolade of our competition, which is awarded only to wines that have been unanimously scored 97 points or above by the judges. In addition to sweeping all the Masters, Champagne dominated the gold medal chart nabbing seven out of the eight awards given out.

Yu-Kong Chow, independent wine consultant and wine judge

Compared with other sparkling categories, its association with good times, zippy acidity and complex aromas cut through the competition and was ultimately rewarded with the biggest medal haul. “For this inaugural Asian Sparkling Masters, the entries were overall of high quality. The top houses showed well, proving their consistency,” Yu-Kong Chow, independent food&beverage consultant and wine judge, commented.

The region, encompassing 34,000 hectares of vineyards, sold more than 307 million bottles worldwide last year, and the lure of the frothy bubbles is expected to grow as demand from emerging markets is set to accelerate.

About the competition

The Asian Sparkling Masters is a competition created and run by the drinks business Hong Kong, and is an extension of its successful Asian Masters series. The competition is exclusively for sparkling wines and the entries were judged by a selection of experienced tasters including Hong Kong’s top wine buyers, sommeliers and consultants. The top Sparklings were awarded Gold (93 points or above), Silver (89 points or above) or Bronze (85 points or above) medals according to their result, and those Sparklings that stood out as being outstanding received the ultimate accolade – the title of Master (97 points or above). The wines were tasted over the course of a single day on 30 January, 2018 at Hip Cellar. This report features only the medal winners.

One of the top performers was Taittinger’s premium cuvée – Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs – made with Chardonnay from six of its grand cru sites. The 2006 vintage was reflective of the year’s fine integration and expression and scored 97 points, landing it the coveted Master title.

“It is a fine example of an excellent Champagne with its seductive delicate floral aroma, rich complexity and the balance of beautiful acidity. It ticks all the boxes,” declared Chow. 

Jeremy Stockman, general manager of Hong Kong’s biggest wine retailer Watson’s Wine, agreed, describing the wine of having, “such freshness, balance and texture (creaminess).”

Moving down from the price ladder, Champagne Lanson Extra Age Brut and Champagne Barons de Rothschild Brut – both in the HK$400-799 bracket – were equally impressive. The Rothschild Blanc de Blancs was a favourite among a couple of judges, and is believed to be more expressive than the Champagne house’s vintage 2008 cuvée, which carries a heftier price tag (Above HK$800).

“It actually shows even better than the vintage 2008 version – not to say the latter isn’t good it just wasn’t within its drinking window yet, thus it appears a bit more closed than the brut version,” commented Anty Fung, general manager of Hip Cellar.

Eddie McDougall, the Flying Winemaker, is another judge that gave a firm vote for the fizz, calling it “a classic”. He added: “I admired the elegance which was well supported by the complex layers induced by the methode traditionelle techniques.”

Lanson’s Extra Age Brut NV, a tri-vintage blend of Chardonnay (40%) and Pinot Noir (60%), landed a Master for its weight, length and balance. Different from most of our Master series competitions, with sparkling wines, notably Champagne, price tends to directly correspond with quality – as opposed to Shiraz, for instance, where it’s not uncommon that out-liers can sometimes outperform pricier samples.

Anty Fung, general manager of Hip Cellar

But that doesn’t mean there’s no value bottles within Champagne. The surprises among the top winning wines came from Champagne Castelnau Cuvée Blanc de Blancs Millésimé 2003 (HK$200-299) and Champagne R&L Legras Brut Blanc de Blancs NV (HK$300-399). 

The former from the torrid, frost-bitten and sun-scorched 2003 vintage, which saw the majority of Champagne houses forfeiting declaring a vintage, showed classic autolysis aromas and plenty of personality. “Its great complexity and length won me over, as were its great toasty and nutty characters,” exalted Chow. The Champagne R&L Legras Brut from Chouilly, the famous and most northerly village of the Côte de Blancs, meanwhile is a good example of precision with a dosage of 7 g/l. 

Non-vintage stars 

Ivy Ng, publisher of the drinks business Hong Kong, and Jeremy Stockman, general manager of Watson’s Wine

For Gold medal winning wines – scoring 93 points or above – the highest number were awarded to non-vintage cuvées, the bread and butter of the Champagne sector, proving that with careful grape selection, attentive and gentle pressing and extended lees contact, non-vintage specific cuvées do not lack for finesse and clear definition; as we found in Champagne Barons de Rothschild Blanc de Blancs Brut, Lanson Rosé Label Brut, Lanson Black Label Brut, Berry’s United Kingdom Cuvée Grand Cru Mailly and Champagne Thienot Brut. 

Two vintage cuvées – Champagne Barons de Rothschild Blanc de Blancs 2008 and Lanson Nobel Noble Cuvée from the stellar 2002 vintage – were also gold medal decorated winners, carrying higher price tags (both in the above HK$800 range).

Gramona’s vintage Cava is the only other non-Champagne sparkling wine that managed to break Champagne’s choke-hold at the top of the medal charts. The 2012 Brut, a blend of local varieties Xarello and Macabeo, impressed the judges with its quality considering its accessible price tag (HK$200-299).

But with pleasing samples, there were a few cases where excessively green fruits, oxidation and cork taint made the judges scrunch their noses and turn their head away. 

“Overly oxidative, which I believe may be a problem during the vinification when the producer ferments base wine in the barrel to increase contact with oxygen. If not done properly, it may create some unpleasant aromas in the sparkling wine,” commented Derek Li, chief sommelier of Duddell’s. “On the other hand, some sparkling wine showed intense green notes. This may be related to the overall unripeness of the grapes themselves.”

Sugar 

The judges

Jeremy Stockman, General Manger of Watson’s Wine
Derek Li, Chief Sommelier at Duddell’s
Francesca Martin, Founder of BEE Drinks Global
Anty Fung, General Manager of Hip Cellar
Eddie McDougall, The Flying Winemaker
Yu-Kong Chow, independent F&B consultant and Rush Rich
Ivy Ng, Publisher, the drinks business Hong Kong

One of the trends on the lips of producers and consumers nowadays is a move towards lower dosage.

“The recent trend is going for lower dosage sparkling especially in grower Champagnes. This is closely tied with consumers’ pursuit for single vineyard, special Cuvée, more premium examples of grower Champagne. They don’t need low or even any dosage in order to show balance, harmony and complexity,” commented Fung. 

Even contrary to popular convention that Chinese drinkers favour a more generous touch of sweetness, in more mature markets like Hong Kong and Japan lower dosage and zero dosage are much sought-after. “The standard of four(ish) g/l I think works well. I don’t believe Asia in particular looks for more sugar: my experience of top quality sparkling is that consumers appreciate in the same way as elsewhere,” Stockman noted.

Derek Li, Chief Sommelier of Duddell’s, and Eddie McDougall, the Flying Winemaker

This was echoed by Chow: “I think the more sophisticated segments of the Asian markets like Hong Kong seem to be following this flow with even zero dosage sparkling wines in vogue.”

In the on-trade sector in Hong Kong, not only are drier styles of wines attracting consumer interest, German grower Sekt, other premium New World bubbles and English sparkling wines are also piquing interest from consumers, Fung observed based on her on-trade experiences.

This doesn’t mean sweeter versions of sparkling wines are pushed out of the market. Outside Hong Kong and Japan, most drinkers in mainland China and other Southeastern Asian countries still prefer a higher content of dosage. “Hong Kong and Japan are sophisticated markets, preferences are generally towards refreshing and savoury styles. As you move into Southeast Asia a higher level of sweetness is preferred. China is still learning about the intricacies of sparkling wine so it’s still undefined as to what their preference are,” McDougall suggested.

Italy and beyond 

Moving towards higher dosage category, above 12g/l, in our competition one of the more commonly noted drawbacks is their overtly cloying and unbalanced sweetness. When the scale tilts too much towards sugar, the wine’s overall balance is sacrificed without the backbone of acidity.

“It’s when sweetness isn’t balanced, then you have a problem. The wine will become cloying, less refreshing thus less appealing to drink,” commented Francesca Martin, founder of BEE Drinks Global, adding that a Silver-medal winning Asti from Diama was a fine example of achieving balance between sweetness and acidity.

In the higher dosage category (over 12g/l), that’s when Italy’s strength in crafting fruity, refreshing fizz came through, with plenty to offer such as Asti Spumante and Prosecco. Mezzacorona Moscato Giallo Spumante, Stantero Fratelli & CIVASS 958 Santero Asti Secco, and Societa Agricola Giusti Dal Col Prosecco DOC Treviso Rosalia were noted examples of fizz that found the sweet spot in the lower price category under HK$149. Mas de Fer Rive di Soligo’s 2016 vintage Prosecco from Valdobbiandene DOCG region added another medal to Italy’s silver streak. Other illustrious names in Italy’s sparkling wine scene including Bellavista and Andreola took home Silver medals as well.

Francesca Martin, founder of BEE Drinks Global

It’s safe to say that with Prosecco’s growing global popularity, we’ll be sure to see more samples from the region climbing up the medal chart either for drier samples or in higher dosage category. Global sparkling wine consumption is forecast to grow by an average of 2% year-on-year through to 2021, and Prosecco is undoubtedly in the driving seat, according to the latest joint report by Vinexpo and IWSR. By then, Prosecco’s growth will far outstrip other major categories such as Champagne and Cava.

Outside of Italy, Austria made a savoury sparkling using its indigenous variety Grüner Veltliner. Treasury Wine Estates’ Marquis de La Mysteriale Champagne Cuvée Grand Esprit Extra Dry was given a Silver as well. Spain’s Félix Solis Avantis’ Vina Albali Bianco Brut and Prospero Gran Selezione Bianco Brut were two good value bottles for under HK$100, so was the François Labet Cuvée Splendid Blanc de Blancs Bru. LVMH’s more accessible Champagne G.H. Mumm NV also got a nod from the judges with a Silver medal.

In the rosé category, meanwhile, Schlumberger’s Rosé Klassik from Austria and Lanson Extra Age Rosé both took home Silvers.

You can scroll over the pages to see the full results. 

Sparkling Masters 2016: the results

No longer just a tipple for ladies who lunch, sparkling has become a ‘lifestyle’ wine for consumers around the world, and as our Masters competition showed, the quality is rising from Champagne to English sparkling and beyond.

Layout 1

THE SPARKLING wine category is on fire at the moment, not only in the UK but around the world. It’s so hot, in fact, that a trade show dedicated to fizz launched in Paris in June, with organisers hoping to make the City of Light the global capital of the sparkling wine trade.

Held at the Parc Floral, Bulles Expo drew 130 sparkling wine producers from across the globe and over 5,000 members of the wine trade with the aim of boosting the already buoyant international sparkling wine market.

In February, Vinexpo CEO Guillaume Deglise described sparkling wine as “the hottest category in the world” due to its consistent growth since 2010.

According to the IWSR, fizz is expected to drive a 1.8% increase in UK wine consumption from 2015 to 2019, with Prosecco leading the charge due to its status as an everyday luxury that consumers can indulge in guilt-free.

UK consumption of sparkling wine by volume is expected to rise by 13% between now and 2019, compared with modest still wine growth of just 0.6%. Meanwhile, global sparkling wine consumption is expected to grow by 7.4% over the same period, with Asia, North and South America and Europe all expected to increase their volumes by more than a million 9-litre cases each.

ABOUT THE COMPETITION

The Drinks Business Global Sparkling Wine Masters is a competition for sparkling wines from around the world. This year’s inaugural event saw 280 entries judged blind by a panel of highly experienced tasters.

Wines were scored out of 100, with those gaining more than 95 points being awarded the top title of Master. Those earning over 90 points were given a Gold, those over 85 points a Silver and those over 80 points a Bronze. The sparkling wines were tasted over the course of one day at Cambridge Street Kitchen in London’s Pimlico on 10 June. This report features only the medal winners.

BILLION-POUND BUBBLY

This year sparkling wine sales in the UK soared past the £1 billion mark for the first time according to the WSTA, with retail sales during the first three months of the year enough to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

While off-trade volume sales are up 20% year on year (more than two-thirds of sparkling wine sales by value go through Britain’s retailers and almost 90% by volume), the on-trade is electric, with sparkling wine volume sales up 50%.

The average price of a bottle of sparkling wine in the UK off-trade is £9.10, which rises to £34.96 in the on-trade, with Prosecco now accounting for over half the sparkling retail market.

The WSTA estimates that by the end of the year around 106.7m bottles of fizz will have been sold through UK retailers; double the amount shifted in 2012. Given the strength of the sparkling wine category, we decided to launch the Global Sparkling Masters this year, with judging taking place in London on 10 June.

Gathering a cherry-picked panel of Masters of Wine and Master Sommeliers, our judges slurped their way through over 200 sparklers, awarding 45 of them Silver medals, 13 Gold and just one – Taittinger Comtes de Champagne 2006 – the top accolade of Master.

Taking in wines from Champagne, Franciacorta, Cava, Prosecco, England, Wales, South Africa, Australia and beyond, the competition saw six of the 13 Gold medal winners hailing from Champagne, including Cattier Blanc de Blancs NV and Perrier-Jouët Belle Epoque 2007.

Meanwhile, three came from Italy, one from Chile – Valdivieso Brut Nature 2014 – and one from England – Wiston Estate Blanc de Blancs 2010, made by sparkling wine maestro Dermot Sugrue.

Layout 1Shaking things up in the category, Gold medals were also awarded to a sparkler from Nova Scotia in Canada – Benjamin Bridge Brut 2008 – and, even more surprisingly, to a 2011 Blanc de Blancs made by Italian vigneron Edoardo Miroglio in the Thracian village of Elenovo in southeastern Bulgaria.

FEEL THE ENERGY

In terms of what our judges were looking for, Champagne expert Michael Edwards best summed it up: “In sparkling wine I look for tension, energy, creaminess, spiciness and refreshment, which is what the category is all about,” he said.

For Clément Robert MS, the man in charge of wines across the 28°-50° group, bubble size was the key to quality. “One of the key things I look for in quality sparkling wine is fine bubbles – I don’t like soda water bubbles. The wines have to be well balanced and the acidity has to be in harmony with the texture,” he said.

Taking it back to the beginning of the production process, Jonathan Pedley MW believes that the key to a standout sparkling wine lies in the quality of the base wines.

“It’s an old truism that sparkling wines need impeccable purity in the base wine as the sparkling process brings any faults in the wines to light, which the tasting illustrated.

All sparkling wines need precision, purity and balance in the base wines,” he said. “The poorer wines had underlying faults like excessive acidity, astringency and bitterness in the base wines and the bubbles amplified it.

There was huge variability in the Proseccos – we found some beautiful aromatic ones and some wretched ones. It was a mixed bag and had nothing to do with price.”

According to Pedley, the best sparklers in show offered “pure expressions of what they were meant to be, with yeast character, nutty complexity, maturity and beautiful balance on the palate, where the acidity, fruit and alcohol are in harmony”.

For Pierpaolo Petrassi MW, head of beers, wines and spirits for Waitrose, the English and Welsh sparkling wines in the line-up performed as well as he thought they would.

Layout 1‘GREAT STRIDES’

“They were really interesting and impressive, and reaffirmed what I thought about them. English and Welsh sparkling wines have made great strides and are now rubbing shoulders with the world’s best sparklers – they showed well and are holding their own,” he said.

“They used to be very taught and acidic, but the winemaking has come on leaps and bounds, and there’s a good balance between the current vintage and reserve wines in the blend now, while the high acidity is balanced out with more richness.”

Robert echoed Petrassi’s thoughts but was “disappointed” not to see more English fizz in the tasting, given that it’s currently enjoying a long awaited moment in the sun. Patricia Stefanowicz MW put the lack of homegrown entries down to the fact that producers have no problem selling out of their stock, giving them less incentive to enter competitions.

With this being his first Drinks Business Global Masters tasting, Petrassi was impressed overall by the quality of the wines on show.

“There were lots of good quality examples – I was surprised by how many good South American wines there were, which were well made, refreshing and clean with a good balance of fruit,” he said. Given his role at Waitrose, Petrassi is passionate about getting the message across to consumers that sparkling wine should viewed as an everyday luxury rather than a special occasion treat.

A WEEKDAY TREAT

“Sparkling wine isn’t just for celebrations but rainy Tuesdays too. If you’ve had a bad day, sparkling wine can perk you up – fizz really has its place,” he insisted.

Both Edwards and Robert were pleasantly surprised by the quality to be found in the £10 and under category in the tasting. “The quality of the wines in the £10 and under bracket really struck me,” said Edwards.

“I was impressed with the basic wines and how good the sparklers outside Champagne were.” Robert, however, believed the “real quality” started to show in the £20-30 bracket, which, in his opinion, offered the best value for money of the wines in the line-up.

Layout 1“In the £20-30 price point Champagne has strong competition – it’s not the undisputed king of fizz any more – but at the top end it’s still untouchable and has the monopoly,” he said, adding, “the grower Champagnes performed well – I liked them as much as the grandes marques.”

Stefanowicz MW agreed: “The top-level Champagnes were amazing, even those that were too youthful to show their true colours,” she said.

Petrassi thought it was brave of the grandes marques to enter their wines in the first place, given they have more to lose by doing badly than to gain by doing well. “It was brave of the grandes marques to pop their wines in and they universally did well in the tasting,” he said.

With regards to Prosecco, Robert’s opinion remains unchanged following the tasting. “Prosecco performed as I thought it would – it never reaches complex heights no matter what lengths the winemakers go to.

It’s an enjoyable, easy-drinking, everyday wine but is hard to judge in competitions,” he said. Petrassi was a bit less harsh on the UK’s favourite fizz, and believed its runaway global success has led Cava producers to change their approach in a bid to piggyback off its success.

“Prosecco has created its own style and we’ve seen Cava try to mimic it with residual sugar and a different fruit structure. Cava makers are being more careful in allowing the fruit to sing in a more overt way,” he revealed.

THE SWEET SPOT

A low point of the tasting was overuse of sugar, particularly in a few rogue examples in the brut category that were clearly over the dosage limit. Another complaint was a lack of vivacity in some of the sparklers.

“There were a number of wines across the price spectrum that had lost their freshness and become soggy,” insisted Pedley. “Sparkling wines are incredibly delicate and get tired sooner than still wines. Producers need to make sure fresh stock is reaching the market.”

But despite a few dodgy sugar levels and a cluster of tired wines, our tasters were largely enthusiastic about the wines on show. While Champagne remains the king of fizz at the top level, and untouchable in terms of elegance, complexity and finesse, with growing competition from Franciacorta, Trentodoc and English sparkling wine it can no longer rest on its laurels at grande marque level.

We’re living in exciting times for sparkling wine, as Petrassi pointed out: “Sparkling wine should take its place at the high table of wine – it’s no longer just for cocktail parties,” he said. Though it’s Michael Edwards who had the last word: “The category is doing really well worldwide as a lifestyle wine – it’s not just for ladies who lunch.”

The judges (l-r)

> Michael Edwards, journalist, author and Champagne expert
> Pierpaolo Petrassi MW, head of beers, wines and spirits, Waitrose
> Lucy Shaw, managing editor, the drinks business
> Clément Robert MS, group head sommelier and wine buyer, 28°-50°
> Roberto Della Pietra, sommelier and brand ambassador, French Bubbles
Matthieu Longuère, wine development manager, Le Cordon Bleu
> Jonathan Pedley MW, wine lecturer and consultant
> Patrick Schmitt MW, editor-in-chief, the drinks business
> Patricia Stefanowicz MW, wine writer and consultant
> Alex Hunt MW, purchasing director, Berkmann Wine Cellars

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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?

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