2013’s Rioja Masters medalists revealed

The results of 2013’s Rioja Masters by the drinks business have been released, highlighting the medal-winning producers and best-performing categories.

Rioja-Masters-2013-JudgesTHERE’S NOTHING quite like a competition focused on a single region to highlight its strengths, and in the case of our annual Rioja Masters, a full day’s tasting of wines from this famous Spanish DOC proved that barrel-aged reds and whites are undoubtedly its specialisms. That’s not to suggest the area can’t make high quality wines without the influence of oak, and there were a clutch of medals awarded within the Joven category, but rather its high points are reached when the best fruit is aged in barriques.

This was the second year the drinks business has conducted a competition focused just on Rioja as part of its Masters series for wine. On this occasion a higher number of entries forced us out of The Institute of Masters of Wine and into the larger venue of London’s Home House, where 10 judges worked their way through just under 200 wines.

Rioja-Masters-Judges-2Beginning with Rioja’s youngest wines, the Joven category included whites, rosés and reds from 2010, ‘11 and ’12 vintages. Light and gently fruity wines were in stark contrast to dark, concentrated and vanilla flavoured examples encountered later in the day, reminding the tasters just how broad the range of styles are from this single region. Among the entries in this entry-level sector that stood out for quality were wines from Muriel, Paternina and Viñedos de Aldeanueva, with each of these producers gaining a silver medal for their red Joven Riojas, which this year was the highest accolade awarded in this category.

However, once we stepped up in price to the Crianza arena, we saw our first Rioja gain a gold, with Ramón Bilbao’s Mirto Special Cuvée 2008 declared the best of the crianzas and the only wine to get a gold. Two blancos were awarded a silver medal, and four further silvers went to red Crianza Riojas from Baigorri, Dinastia, Ontañón and Valpiedra.

The competition’s highest accolade of Master was then awarded for the first time in the Reserva category, with the Vina Muriel Reserva 2006 impressing the judges with its balanced richness and freshness, as well as appealing evolution. Indeed, it was felt this wine was drinking extremely well now, in comparison to some examples that were either felt to be still a little too tight and youthful, or somewhat tired and prematurely aged. Beyond this example, however, were as many as nine golds – among which were two blancos – and 18 silvers, attesting to the quality in the reserva category, which is a style of Rioja deemed particularly attractive by the judges.

About the competition

The Rioja Masters is a competition conceived and managed by the drinks business and an extension of its successful Masters series for Champagne, fortified wines and grape varieties from Chardonnay to Pinot Noir. The competition is exclusively for Rioja and comprised just under 200 entries which were judged by a selection of highly experienced tasters using Riedel Chianti/Riesling glasses supplied by Sensible Wine Services.

The top Riojas were awarded Gold, Silver or Bronze medals according to their result, and those wines that were deemed by the judges to be outstanding received the ultimate accolade – the title of Rioja Master. The wines were tasted over the course of one day at Home House, 20 Portman Square, London W1H 6LW.

Moving up yet another quality and age level into the Gran Reserva category, unlike last year where just one gold was awarded, 2013 saw six wines gain a gold, 11 given a silver, and, like the Reserva category, one wine identified as outstanding, with Castillo Clavijo gaining a Master for its Gran Reserva from the exceptional 2005 vintage.

Results in the more controversial Vinos de Autor category, dubbed “new wave wines”, were rather more extreme, with no golds, but one master for Bodegas Lan with is Lan A Mano 2009, and then seven silvers. Freed from the strictures of Rioja’s traditional categories, this sector allows winemakers to experiment with grapes, extraction techniques, oak use and ageing times, but in some cases, the judges expressed concern that the cellar master may have gone a little too far, hiding Rioja’s bright fruit character with either too much oak, or rather heavy handed winemaking methods.

In the case of Bodegas Lan however, the result was a great age-worthy red that could compete with some of the best wines from any fine wine region.
Finally, the judges were presented with a small selection of very old Riojas to taste, which highlighted the longevity of great wines from the region, and among the entries, it was the Coto de Imaz Gran Reserva from 1996 which gained the highest accolade in this class.

Having spent the day tasting every expression from the region, it was clear that Rioja can produce a very broad range of styles to a high standard. However, its strength lies in barrel-aged reds and whites. These are wines with weight, a pleasing oaky edge, and a refreshing finish. Furthermore, they are wines with age that are released ready to drink. It is such characters that typify the wines from this region, and explain why Rioja is so successful worldwide.

The Judges:

DROR NATIV Buyer – Marks & Spencer
JACQUES SAVARY DE BEAUREGARD Head Sommelier & Wine Buyer – Home House
PIERRE MANSOUR Spanish Wine Buyer – The Wine Society
ROBIN LANGTON Buyer & Winemaker – Laithwaites Wine
GEMMA ADAMS Product Manager – Grossi Wines
REBECCA PALMER Associate Director & Buyer – Corney & Barrow
JEAN WAREING MW Buyer – Boutinot
ISOBEL KOTTMANN Project Manager – Gonzalez Byass
PATRICK SCHMITT Editor-in-chief – the drinks business
RUPERT MILLAR Staff writer – the drinks business

rioja masters judges

The judges

Global Rosé Masters 2014: The results

The inaugural Global Rosé Masters heralded an uncorking of our expert judges’ views on all things pink.

Rose-Masters-Judges-Tasting
Would a rosé by any other name taste as sweet? The inaugural drinks business Rosé Masters tackled some thorny questions about this quintessentially summer wine.

Rosé is enjoying its time in the sun — literally and proverbially. Summer is when rosé comes out from the hidden pages of wine lists and the corners of shop cellars and takes pride of place.

Indeed, such has been its commercial success in recent years that the category is now breaking beyond its seasonal and gender-based pigeon holes to secure year round popularity among consumers.

Our Rosé Masters showcased the broad range of pink wines available in the UK, and the countless countries that produce them for us. In keeping with the approach adopted through the Global Masters Series, we divided the wines into flights in order of ascending price within three larger categories: sparkling rosé, dry rosé (including all still wines with less than four grams of residual sugar) and an off- dry rosé category, made up of still rosés with over four grams of residual sugar.

While the Rosé Masters saw myriad styles represented, from bone dry to sweet, still to sparkling, early drinking to age-worthy, one of the major points of debate it provoked among judges was the influence that colour has on the category.

Although residual sugar levels in the wines provoked perhaps the most dissent among judges, it was the colour spectrum, from the lightest hint of pink to translucent ruby that generated a considerable amount of discussion. What colour should a rosé be? Pink, okay, but aside from that the jury was out.

Simon Howland of the drinks business and Matthieu Longuère of Le Cordon Bleu

Simon Howland of the drinks business and Matthieu Longuère of Le Cordon Bleu

What was clearer than a Côtes de Provence was that while quality and value exist across the range, everyone has a personal view of what constitutes good rosé. The panel of MW and MS judges did an expert job of putting aside preconception and personal preference to focus their assessment on balance and, an important factor for rosé, refreshment.

PINK BUBBLES

It no longer makes the front page when English fizz receives plaudits but it was interesting to see this country take two of the top three medals in this class alongside an Italian.

France and Spain were predictably well represented here, but Greece, South Africa and Chile, none of whom have a global reputation for sparkling wine, held their own against wines of very high quality, broadening the base against which the judges could award their scores.

With few exceptions, when buying sparkling rosé you get what you pay for.

The wines that dominated the sparkling category were universally in higher price ranges. That said, although less expensive examples often lacked the complexity of pricier competitors, there were an impressive number in the sub-£10 range that punched well above their weight.

“There really are sparkling rosés for all occasions,” commented Matthieu Longuère MS, head of wine development for Le Cordon Bleu in London, who praised the broadness of appeal from “inexpensive, clean, obvious and relatively simple” to “more complex and developed” styles.

Comment from the panel chair

MARK SAVAGE MW
“I am a big fan of good rosé wines and drink plenty of it all through the year, not merely in the summer months. I think that producers should be encouraged to be more ambitious in the category and try to vinify in a way that will produce real originality. Vitality is essential and too many wines were rather lifeless and dull. Good rosé can be made to sing and there is, I believe, a lot of scope and much unrealised potential in the category.”Longuère mused on how different styles could suit multiple occasions: “The Champenoise typically look at pink Champagne as more for food and it can fit this purpose, but sparkling rosé can also cater to a night out in a bar when it’s simple and refreshing.”On the varietal front there were few surprises. The “classic” Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay combinations dominated, although not without the occasional exception. A Manzoni Moscato, described as “alluring, lively and light footed” by one judge, was the aforementioned Italian awarded the third gold medal.Mark-Savage-MW

COLOURFUL QUESTIONS

Price points were less important in deciding the still rosé results. Although French rosé dominated and Grenache played a part in the vast majority of medal winners, it was the combination of colour and sugar that got our judges talking.

“What does one look for in a good rosé wine?” asked Mark Savage MW of Savage Selection — a question that hung in the air for the rest of the day.

Could it be colour? From pale to borderline red, everyone agreed that rosé has a wide spectrum of acceptable hues. The only real issue, ventured Savage, was when “wines simply failed as rosé because they were about as pink as good Muscadet,” i.e, “not very pink at all.”

As a rule the Provençal rosés were a pale, salmon pink whereas the examples from warmer climates such as Spain and southern Italy tended towards the darker end. There were obvious exceptions though and the New World wines went either way.

Comment from the panel chair

PATRICK SCHMITT
“Our inaugural Rosé Masters certainly highlighted the wide range available within this sector, which is, after all, defined by nothing more than its colour. With wines ranging from the lightest of pink to translucent ruby, from bone dry to sweet, still to sparkling, and almost weightless rosés to oak-fermented, age-worthy examples, every possible style was represented.”Patrick-Schmitt

The question of colour was ultimately one of individual producer preference. If a rosé was pale, was it by rights better than a rosé which was darker? Many winemakers seemed to think so, and this was supported by the number of winemakers who, given the choice, opted for a paler style irrespective of climate.

Hugo Rose MW of the Wine Investment Association urged judges to remain open minded: “Different colours and different wines for different people,” he said, calling for colours to be regarded equally from a commercial perspective.

While few would reject the idea that scope for individuality and choice of stylistic preference is wholly positive, the scores told a different story: insofar as style, paler wines almost universally scored higher.

AN UNCOMMON STYLE

So maybe colour is important after all. But where does that leave style?

“It’s great to talk of individuality but how do we communicate it?” asked Savage. Later in the day Rose made a very similar point, “How do we award the same medal to two examples if they are polar opposites?”

Then, taking a different tack, Savage queried whether the expectation with rosé is to avoid individuality. “I would like to think that rosé wines could achieve a distinct personality but that seems to be asking too much,” he remarked. Despite the strong performance of pale rosés, the broader scoring and medals were still generally positive in regards to the darker pours, particularly those from Spain, whose wines left with the second biggest medal haul after France, while Italy and South Africa also showed well.

Judging-at-Rose-MastersChallenging the idea that rosé is simply a bit of fun was Domaines Sacha Lichine’s Château d’Esclans, the only wine of the day to be awarded a Master, the competition’s highest accolade. One judge described it as ”intriguing, attractive, not just fruity, nice texture, good depth, lovely finish.”

Along with this Master were four golds, including two from Provence, one from Minervois and one from South Africa — all of them pale pink.

SWEET TOUCH

So how do you appreciate a style if you don’t understand it or wouldn’t drink it at home? This was the key question raised when discussing the rosé with higher residual sugar, a broad category ranging from 4-100g/l.

More importantly for the consumer, how do you label and define styles which offer a sweeter style? Should there be an indication of sugar on the bottle, a dosage system along the lines of that which is applied in Champagne? Or should we refrain from creating more brackets so as not to confuse the consumer?

In short, while the judges were able to recognise the instant appeal of sweeter styles, as well as the food-matching possibilities for fuller, darker or oakier rosés, there was nothing so pleasing as the archetypal Provençal rosé.

As Savage put it: “The normal context for drinking rosé is a warm summer day, probably outside, with or without food.

Not a lot of concentration in terms of careful sniffing and swooshing round the palate is in order for the drinker.”

That outdoor summer drinking occasion colonised so naturally and successfully by rosé may indeed mean it continues to be judged by rather different criteria to other categories of wine.

However, at a time when rosé’s popularity is seeing its reach extend well beyond a garden setting, this year’s Rosé Masters demonstrated that today’s category offers both the stylistic diversity and calibre to make even deeper inroads into our drinking repertoire.

THE JUDGES
• Demetri Walters MW, private wine events sales manager, Berry Brothers & Rudd
• Simon Howland, the drinks business
• Matthieu Longuère MS, head of wine development for Le Cordon Bleu, London
• Sarah Abbott MW, head of wine services, The Perfect Cellar
• Gabriel Savage, the drinks business
• Mark Savage MW, Savage Selection
• Patrick Schmitt, the drinks business
• Hugo Rose MW, Wine Investment Association
Roe-Masters-Judges

Scroll through to see the results from each category…

Champagne Masters 2014: The medalists

This year’s competition showed that efforts to create the upmost in luxurious sparkling wine stretched beyond the top-end offerings and into categories that previously didn’t fare well.

Champagne-Masters-Judges

Judges, left to right: Simon Field MW, buyer, Berry Bros. & Rudd; Jamie Hutchinson, owner, The Sampler; Sue Daniels, wine buyer, Marks & Spencer; Rebecca Palmer, associate director & buyer, Corney & Barrow; Michael Edwards, journalist, author, Champagne expert; Anthony Foster MW, director/buyer, Bonhote Foster; Marcel Orford-Williams, buyer, The Wine Society; Patrick Schmitt, editor-in-chief, the drinks business

Bearing in mind the high price of Champagne, particularly grandes marques, one should expect a large collection of medal-winners in any competition devoted to this sparkling wine region. But having awarded silvers to almost half the entries in this year’s Champagne Masters cheapest category – Brut NV under £30 – we realised that the sector’s base level was now home to very high quality fizz, and undoubtedly fewer disappointing examples compared to 2011, when we first held the competition. Furthermore, former weak points in the tasting – the extra brut and rosé categories – both contained first-rate wines in 2014, proving that Champagne with very low levels of sugar can be attractive, while pink Champagne is a serious fizz too. In essence, the results attest to the fact that viticultural and winemaking improvements across the region are really becoming evident now in the wines, whatever the style.

FAMOUS FACES

Anthony-Foster-MW

Initially, the non-vintage category at all prices yielded some impressive results, and in particular, proved the quality available among Champagne’s most famous names. Commenting after the tasting’s results were revealed, chair of the judges and Berry Bros buyer Simon Field MW said, “The grandes marques are really on form at the moment,” before adding, “Showing well across the piece were, not to my great surprise, Charles Heidsieck and Deutz.” He then mentioned his particular respect for Louis Roederer, which, like Heidsieck, achieved the top award of the tasting: a Master for its Brut NV. “Hats off to Roederer’s Brut, demonstrating [chef de caves] Monsieur Lecaillon is primus inter pares when we are discussing Champagne masters!”

Findings from the tasting

• Champagne’s grandes marques performed well in this year’s competition, particularly Charles Heidsieck, Louis Roederer and Deutz.
• Brut NV Champagnes proved high quality and good value, while rosé and extra brut styles did better than in previous competitions, suggesting a quality improvement among wines in these fashionable categories.
• Blanc de Blancs Champagnes gained good scores, particularly more expensive examples.
• Charles Heidsieck was the outstanding house in this year’s competition, a testament to the skill of its late chef de caves, Thierry Roset, who died suddenly aged 55 in October this year.
• Some lesser-known houses also performed well, such as Chassenay d’Arce and Ployez Jacquemart.
• The overall quality standard was extremely high.

Nevertheless, it was Charles Heidsieck that performed the best overall in this year’s competition. Not only did this house achieve a Master for its Brut Réserve, but also its Brut Millésime 2000, while it gained a gold for its Blanc des Millenaires 1995 and a silver for its Rosé Reserve. Indeed, while we are paying tribute to winemakers, such a successful outcome for Charles Heidsieck Champagnes is testament to the skill of the late Thierry Roset, chef de caves at the house, who sadly died suddenly in early October aged 55.

Also impressive were the scores of Charles Heidsieck sister house Piper- Heidsieck, which achieved the only gold in the NV category for Champagnes priced £30-40 for its Brut Essential, while it gained a silver for its Brut NV in the under £30 category. Another notable success was Jacquart, which gained a silver for its Brut Mosaïque – a Champagne that has undergone a quality improvement since former Veuve Clicquot winemaker Floriane Eznack joined the brand in January 2011. It also earned silvers for its new prestige cuvée Alpha, with the 2005 vintage, as well as its blanc de blancs 2006 and its extra brut NV.

Meanwhile, the little-known brand of Chassenay d’Arce picked up silvers for its Cuvée Première Brut NV, Pinot Blanc Extra Brut, and a gold for its blanc de blancs 2005 as well as its prestige cuvée, named Confidences.

Meanwhile, Field mentioned further houses which impressed him in the tasting, which was conducted, like last year, at The Dorchester hotel. “I was pleased that some of the less lauded houses such as Lanson and Piper were able to rise to the challenge too.” He added, “This indicates to me a confidence across the region and an overall qualitative consistency.”

Finally he said that he was pleased to see Cattier, Palmer and Henriot “all showing their worth”, describing them as “three houses I admire”. In particular, he commented that he was “encouraged” to see large co-op Palmer making “such good wines”.
Rebecca-Palmer

Rioja Masters 2014: The medalists

Rioja has the scope, accessibility and innovation that allows the region to tick nearly every box.

Rioja-Masters-2014-JudgingFew wine regions can truly claim the sort of collective brand status that makes it a household name, but, however vague people’s understanding of its identity, Rioja has carved itself just such a coveted position. That familiarity helped the region to sell a record 277 million litres of wine in 2013, of which Spain accounted for almost two thirds.

However UK consumers’ thirst for Rioja has made it by far the region’s largest export market, accounting for 32.8m litres in 2013 – almost double that of number two market Germany.

What makes this success so striking is that consumers clearly feel confident in the style they expect from Rioja, but – as the broad spectrum of categories tasted in The Drinks Business Rioja Masters demonstrates – the reality is a diversity seen in few other wine regions. When prices range across the board, as does its signature oak influence, Rioja can mean anything from primary fruit-led styles for immediate drinking to tobacco-laced, leathery wines with 50 years ahead of them. Add to the mix its no less polarised white expressions, not to mention the ambitious but classification-defying “Vino de Autor”, and the value of a dedicated, expert assessment of this region becomes ever-more clear.

VALUE AND VARIETY

In addition to picking out individual star performers across each price bracket or category, the results of this year’s competition highlight areas where Rioja offers particularly consistent quality and value for money. The good news for consumers is that there’s plenty of both these two factors on offer at very accessible prices. For Hugo Rose MW, director of fine wine merchant Vinsignia, there were rich pickings below £10.

Ian-Waddington-Judging

Ian Waddington, group wine buyer at Gordon Ramsay Holdings

“The high marks awarded to a good range in the lowest price category continues to speak of the value for money offered by Rioja,” he observed, picking out crianza as a particular “sweet spot”. Indeed, it was crianza and reserva – an increasingly popular style in Rioja’s export markets according to the DO – that attracted the most effusive plaudits from this year’s judges. Describing these two categories as offering “always sure value”, José Godoy, restaurant manager at Arzak’s London partnership Ametsa, also highlighted the “incredible complexity” offered by mature gran reserva as he summed up: “I believe that Rioja in general has the best value for money among the best known wine regions in the world.” That certainly appears to be the view of Laithwaites’ customers, as the retailer’s consultant winemaker and senior buyer Robin Langton confirmed that Rioja is a “huge” part of its business. “We’re gaining the most traction in terms of crianza,” he reported. “For me, it’s probably the most interesting segment where you can find real value.”

Going for gold

One company stands out from this year’s winners: Rioja Alavesa group Araex, which scooped no fewer than 19 medals, including three Golds and the top accolade of Master for its Baigorri Reserva. The result marked a vindication of managing director Javier Ruiz de Galarreta’s decision in 1993 to bring together nine small or medium-sized wineries from the region into a single group. “This has been a fantastic achievement, by far the best of any company,” he rejoiced.Last year Araex Rioja Alavesa saw growth of 52%, with 10.5m bottles sold in more than 70 countries. Setting out his mission “to tell everyone about the quality of Spanish premium wine and the confidence we had in it”, Ruiz de Galarreta remains committed to staying ahead of the pack. Outlining each winery’s involvement in the “long-term innovation process that is vital to continue offering great wines” he adds: “The door is wide open to a new era full of opportunities”.

There was further praise for the region from Ian Waddington, group wine buyer at Gordon Ramsay Holdings. Declaring himself “impressed” by the overall quality of wines on show during the tasting, he asserted: “There were enough wines of real interest and which represented good value for money to ensure the region’s guaranteed presence on most wine lists”.

STRENGTH A WEAKNESS?

That’s not to suggest Rioja offers a completely consistent playground for its fans. Simon Field MW, Spanish buyer for Berry Bros & Rudd, drew a parallel with the similarly powerful regional brand of Champagne as he warned that what is in many respects an enviable position also leaves the category exposed to “mediocre quality, quite a lot of discounting, and the general impression that the winemakers cherish the reputation of the brand more than the impulse to improve the raw materials.” In his view the most rewarding categories were perhaps not the most obvious Rioja styles: its unoaked joven classification and the region’s white wines, which account for no more than 10% of total production, despite a push by the consejo in recent years to redress this balance. White Rioja also attracted emphatic praise from Rose, who noted the “exceptional” quality offered from these flights in the competition, adding: “classic white Rioja is a massively underrated category.”

For all the exceptions that exist today, Rioja remains a region that is closely associated with oak maturation. Indeed, the DO’s entire classification system is based largely upon this influence. Reassuringly therefore, judges’ feedback on this element was largely positive. “What impressed me throughout, above joven of course, was the judicious use of oak,” remarked Rose. Reviewing wines tasted during the course of the day he noted: “Oak rarely smothered the fruit component, and surprisingly we were not blasted with once-usual banana, popcorn and vanilla of overt US oak.”

With oak management given the all clear, debate centred instead on those wines that fell outside or strained the boundaries of Rioja’s traditional classification system. Agustin Trapero, head sommelier at Launceston Place, argued that producers wishing to pursue more alternative styles should avoid shoe-horning them into the official DO hierarchy so as not to create confusion among consumers. “I am not against modern styles of Rioja, in fact I think they are even necessary to be able to reach different markets and palates, but what I think is a big mistake is that those modern full-bodied Riojas are classified as crianza, reserva, and gran reserva”, he maintained. Instead, Trapero suggested, “they should be classified as Vino de Autor or Vino de la Tierra to keep the style and tradition of Rioja.”

Rioja Masters categories

RIOJA JOVEN
Young wines which typically have spent no time in oak, or just a few months maximum in barrel before release. Most Bianco and Rosado Rioja falls into the Joven category.
CRIANZA
These are Riojas which have been aged for at least two years with a minimum of 12 months in oak.
RESERVA
This category is for Riojas which have been aged for at least three years, with a minimum of 12 months in oak.
GRAN RESERVA
These are Riojas which have been aged for at least five years with a minimum of 24 months in oak.
VINOS DE AUTOR
These are winemaker’s “icon” style wines, otherwise dubbed “new wave wines” from Rioja, which carry no age statement but generally spend at least a year in barrique, frequently made from new French oak.
RIOJA 15 YEARS AND OLDER
We also included a category of old Rioja to group together older expressions for which the region is well-known. These were typically gran reservas.

From a stylistic rather than communication perspective, Clement Robert, head sommelier at London restaurant Medlar, acknowledged: “I think the more modern style split opinions.” Expressing a personal wariness of Rioja wines made “in the fashion of the New World”, he continued: “I am in the favour of high quality wine but I am not sure that high fruit extraction and 100% new oak allied with more modern techniques are what consumers expect or want from Rioja.”

PUSHING BOUNDARIES

For all this concern, at an individual level there was plenty of evidence for the successful results that producers with a more iconoclastic outlook can achieve. Indeed, Waddington noted, “I think there needs to be room for experimentation, Rioja isn’t a museum.” Meanwhile Godoy cited producers such as Amaren and Baigorri, which took home a Gold and Master award respectively, as prime examples of those producers pursuing a more modern style of Rioja. In his view, “I think it is always good to see that a region is trying to be innovative. It shows that they want to improve their products and that is beneficial for the consumers.”

However, where Godoy did express concern was in the challenge of knowing what to expect from wines in the Vino de Autor category. Typically denoting wines at the very top of a producer’s range, these wines are often used to show off a particularly good site or year but, similarly to Chianti’s Super Tuscans, are made in a way that falls outside the official requirements of their denomination. For Godoy, “the absence of regulation in the category of Vinos de Autor makes it more difficult for the consumers to understand those wines.” This tension between ancient and modern, maverick and traditionalist, is hardly unique to Rioja. As demonstrated by the results, judges were happy to reward the best examples in each of these camps. Indeed, here the Masters’ emphasis not just on recruiting expert palates but encouraging discussion ensured that talent was distinguished from shallow artifice and rewarded. The medal winners here should offer some guidance to Rioja as it treads the line between exploring fresh possibilities and alienating the millions who remain loyal to this impressive brand.

ROBIN LANGTON senior buyer & consultant winemaker, Laithwaites Wine IAN WADDINGTON group wine buyer, Gordon Ramsey Group JOSÉ GONZÁLEZ GODOY head sommelier, Ametsa, Halkin Hotel CLEMENT ROBERT head sommelier & wine buyer, Medlar GABRIEL STONE managing editor, the drinks business PATRICK SCHMITT editor-in-chief, the drinks business HUGO ROSE MW director, Vinsignia AGUSTIN TRAPERO head sommelier, Launceston Place SIMON FIELD MW buyer, Berry Bros & Rudd

L-R: ROBIN LANGTON senior buyer & consultant winemaker, Laithwaites Wine; IAN WADDINGTON, group wine buyer, Gordon Ramsey Group; JOSÉ GONZÁLEZ GODOY, head sommelier, Ametsa, Halkin Hotel; CLEMENT ROBERT, head sommelier & wine buyer, Medlar; GABRIEL STONE managing editor, the drinks business; PATRICK SCHMITT, editor-in-chief, the drinks business; HUGO ROSE MW director, Vinsignia; AGUSTIN TRAPERO head sommelier, Launceston Place; SIMON FIELD MW buyer, Berry Bros & Rudd

About the competition

The Rioja Masters is a competition conceived and managed by the drinks business and an extension of its successful Masters series for Champagne, fortified wines and grape varieties from Chardonnay to Pinot Noir. The competition is exclusively for Rioja and comprised over 100 entries, which were judged by a selection of highly experienced tasters using Schott Zwiesel Cru Classic glasses supplied by Wine Sorted.
The top Riojas were awarded Gold, Silver or Bronze medals according to their result, and those wines that were deemed by the judges to be outstanding received the ultimate accolade – the title of Rioja Master.
The wines were tasted on a single day at York & Albany in London.

Chardonnay Masters 2014: The results

Proving that few grapes can beat the malleability and creative potential of Chardonnay was last month’s Masters tasting, where top-price pours and cheaper oaked styles fared well.

Chardonnay-Masters-JudgingIF 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.

ENGLAND SPARKLES

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.

OAKEY-DOKEY

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.

CHILEAN CHALLENGERS

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.

TOP-END TRIUMPHS

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.

Chardonnay-Masters-Judges

Judges left to right: Keith Isaac MW, Justin Knock MW, Clement Robert, Sarah Knowles, Neil Sommerfelt MW, Catriona Felstead MW, Patrick Schmitt, David Bird MW, Matthew Hemming MW, Beverley Blanning MW, John Atkinson MW, Michael Palij MW, Martin Gamman MW (not pictured)

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