Wine Champions 2021: Tales from the tasting room

We talk to our wine buyers about this year’s Wine Champions tastings to find out more about the winners, surprises and stories behind the bottles.

M Horsley

Matthew Horsley on English wine

Q: The number of English sparkling wine winners this year was stunning. Do you think this is going to become and ongoing trend? What do you recommend we should try?

A: The recent success of English sparkling wine in Champs and other competitions has been great to see. It’s no longer a novelty product – it’s a genuine consideration for people wanting to purchase high-quality traditional method sparkling wine and people are spending less time trying to compare it to Champagne and more time appreciating it for its own strengths. Strengths which really shine in blind tastings such as defined, elegant fruit, fresh acidity and wonderful structure.

It also helps that there’s so many options to choose from and I’m delighted that the wines which I think are the best England has to offer are also appreciated by what is the most experienced buying team in the country. One of the great things about our winners this year is that there’s a broad range of regions – Gusbourne’s Blanc de Blancs from Kent, Nyetimber’s simply stunning 2009 Classic Cuvée in both 75cl and magnums from Sussex, and then two producers from the chalky soils of Hampshire – The Grange Classic and Hambledon’s Premier Cuvée. They’re all wonderful for their own reasons but if I had to pull a few out then it’d be The Grange’s Classic for sheer elegance and Gusbourne’s Blanc de Blancs for absolute gluttony.

Q: This year saw an English red come through as a Champion. Is this another sign of an upward trend in quality and something we can look forward to seeing more of?

A: Perhaps the biggest surprise of this year’s Wine Champions was the crowning of an English pinot noir which shone like a ray of cranberry and strawberry-tinged light amongst a number of high-quality red Burgundies. We always say that the majority of pinot noir’s pleasure is on the nose – and the Gusbourne Boot Hill Pinot Noir 2018 just smelt so… pure.

We’ve been blessed with a few cracking vintages recently in the UK and the quality of our red wines has been steadily creeping up. Prices for many are still unrealistic but there are a few gems to be found. Again, it’s about appreciating these wines for what they are, not as a comparison to other more famous regions. They’re pale, pure-fruited and smoky with brisk acidity and light in body, but are extremely elegant and charming.

Tim Sykes

Tim Sykes on Bordeaux, Beaujolais and sherry

Q: Bordeaux did brilliantly this year with the haul of medals speaking for itself. Sebastian Payne MW said the cabernet round saw some of the best wines in the 21-year history of the competition. Any thoughts on why it did so well this year?

A: Well, it’s all down to the skill of the buyer of course! But seriously, one of the gratifying results is that, because everything is tasted blind, there is no ‘vintage discrimination’; often there are preconceived ideas about what a certain vintage should or could taste like. Several of the wines that were crowned were from less highly rated vintages such as 2012, 2014 and 2017 and are evidence that the producer is often as important (if not more so) than the vintage and a reminder that these vintages are often a good bet. Also several member favourites came through, suggesting that we’re still on the right track with these properties, many of which we’ve worked with for decades. It’s always great to get that kind of affirmation.

Q: 2020 Beaujolais is notable for its acidity and freshness this year with both our Society and Exhibition-label wines shining through. What are your thoughts on this vintage and indeed on Beaujolais in general?

A: It’s true that 2020 is a lovely vintage for Beaujolais, although some care was required to identify and select wines that were not overly ripe. In years like this, if you pick the grapes too late, you end up with wines that are on the jammy spectrum and lack the freshness which makes Beaujolais so appealing. I was pleased to see that two wines that we blend with Aujoux (The Society’s Beaujolais-Villages and our Exhibition Fleurie) came through. I believe this is the 3rd vintage in a row that the Fleurie has been selected; also a favourite with our members, it shows what good palates they have!

Q: We only managed to squeeze a couple of sherries into the printed Wine Champions offer but this wasn’t indicative of their overall success was it? Are people waking up to discovery what’s so great about sherry, finally?

A: Yes, the plan is to release more winning sherries and other fortified wines closer to Christmas and the truth is that nowhere can match sherry in terms of ‘bang for buck’. The amount of winners also shows just how much buyers at The Wine Society love good sherry! Happily, many of our members do too, but it’s our job to get to the still unconverted and get them to try these wines – these winners are a great place to start.

Jo Locke MW

Joanna Locke MW on the South Africa, the Loire, Portugal and rosé

Q: South Africa came out really strongly this year and members’ purchases are on the up too. It seems to be going from strength to strength. Do you have any thoughts on why this might be?

A: In some ways I was fortunate this year to have been tasting lots of South African wines with the special feature in the March issue of 1874 coming up, and because so many in the Cape were looking for a bit of a helping hand to get through a very challenging year. That, coupled with some earlier buys for keeping, meant that I was spoiled for choice when it came to doing my Champs pre-tasting. The red Bordeaux grapes category was one where I should really have cut back my selection a little more, but several of the wines were so good I just felt I had to include them (and their hit rate proved I was right!). There was one notable exception I could not get a sample of in time for the tasting, which was a shame as it might also have come through; maybe next year?!

I am delighted that members have finally got behind South Africa. It seems that wine journalists are also now coming to realise what fantastic quality and value the wines offer.

Q: Iberia and the Loire really stood out in the rosé round this year (our most successful Champs’ pink line-up) and covered a nice range of styles at keen prices. Were there any standouts for you?

A: It was great to see rosé Champions from parts of the world that have not often featured in the past. I am convinced that scheduling the tasting a little later than previous years was a huge help, allowing the wines a little more time to settle down and lose their distracting primary aromas. To have two Touraine pinks come through was especially pleasing for me, as it’s a style I love personally, and it proves the point for the more consistent quality of the Loire’s red grapes these days (and the beauty of a healthy ripe vintage).

I have been telling the Portuguese for years that they should make more dry rosé. Historically they have not been big consumers of the style, preferring their pinks sweeter or more or less fizzy. But they now seem to have the style cracked, so it’s great that Portugal can pitch for its share of the increase in demand for quality dry rosé. To see the two Portuguese winners come from producers I both like and admire was the icing on the cake; I couldn’t have been happier for them.

Q: … and what about Vinho Verde? The Ponte de Lima got some fantastic quotes this year and it was good to see ‘Serial Champ’ Anselmo Mendes back on the podium. Both wines were 2020s, is this a return to a more classic, fresh vintage?

A: Strangely 2020 was quite a tricky vintage, at least on paper. Tasting the wines – we have more to follow over the summer – certainly didn’t suggest that. Some alcohols are more typically low again, others higher, so I’m not sure this year’s success was a vintage thing. Lucky for us the Portuguese drink lots of Vinho Verde and are sticklers for its quality, so I think that buying from reliable sources we can’t go far wrong.

Freddy Bulmer

Freddy Bulmer on Austria, New Zealand and Australia

Q: I understand that we had a bit of a first with one of the Austrian winners this year. Can you tell us a bit more about the Heidi Schröck Blaufränkisch?

A: Yes, this was a bit of a first for us. Heidi is a relatively new producer to us and I had a sample bottle of this wine in the tasting room waiting to taste it alongside its peers at some point. I thought I had nothing to lose by submitting it into the Wine Champions tasting together with some other Austrian reds (which all did well, by the way), so was delighted when it was unveiled as a winner. The wine was still in tank waiting to be bottled at this point, so Heidi proposed doing a special label for us. So another first for us, this wine actually has a special ‘Wine Champion’ label too!

Q: It’s exciting to see grüner veltliners doing very well, any thoughts on why they stood out this year?

A: Actually, it is really pleasing that these wines showed so well because it isn’t a great time of the year to be tasting them. Lots are still in tank at this point in the year or have only recently been bottled and shipped, making them a bit tricky to taste. In fact a couple missed the deadline for being included in their dedicated slot but I was able to sneak them into a different category in which they came through with flying colours. It was gratifying that these were both from the Stadt Krems winery, home of The Society’s Grüner Veltliner which I know members love too. Ironically, perhaps, another grüner veltliner was also crowned a Champion but this was from another of my producers, Anna’s Way in New Zealand!

Q: Talking of New Zealand, The Society’s Exhibition Marlborough Pinot Noir, another new wine, introduced just this year, also was crowned a winner. Can you tell us a bit more about it?

A: I was particularly thrilled with this win. Not many southern hemisphere pinot noirs made it through the tastings against some serious competition from Burgundy. This was one of the few. When I set out to create this blend for our Exhibition label I really wanted to have a wine that was distinctly different from our Central Otago pinots. Marlborough pinot should be all about fresh red-cherry fruit with lifted acidity. We approached Brian Bicknell of Mahi who agreed to work with us on the project letting us put together our own blend especially for members. I tasted through the samples he sent over with Burgundy buyer Toby Morrhall and we came up with this blend between us. Again, the wine was recently bottled and had only just arrived with us, so it was great to see it showing so well.

Q: Australian chardonnay came through very well across the Championship tastings didn’t it. Is it coming of age?

A: Yes, Aussie chardonnay did brilliantly, with no fewer than five winning wines. I do believe it’s hitting its stride now, though of course it is made in a myriad of styles from one region to the next. One wine writer has said that Australian chardonnay is having its ‘Goldilocks moment’ right now. Gone are the overblown, big, oaky wines of the past and their other extreme, the ultra-steely, mineral wines that were just a bit hard to get to love; now we have some fabulous wines that fall somewhere in the middle and will knock any stereotyped views of this grape for six!

Toby Morrhall on Chile and Wine Champions 2021

Q: On the subject of chardonnay, both The Society’s and our Exhibition Chilean Chardonnay were crowned winners. What do you put this down to?

A: I only put two Chilean chardonnays into Wine Champions this year and they both won! The point about both these wines is they come from Limarí – it’s quite a remarkable place making remarkable wines. Though it is quite far north it’s very cool and it has limestone, unusual for Chile and fabulous for chardonnay. This far north you’d expect the climate to be warm, but what trumps latitude is the coastal range of mountains, or at least, the gaps in them. Up to 1,000 m in places, the mountains prevent the cooling effects of the Pacific Ocean from getting through to the interior, except at Limarí where there’s a big gap in the range allowing the cool air to flood in. There’s this incredible sea mist (La Serena airport is frequently fog bound!). This and the Limarí river with its reservoirs help in such an arid area. Ingenious indigenous Chileans used to trap the sea mist, or camanchaca with fog nets to irrigate the land.

>The extraordinary Limarí region, source of both our Society’s and Exhibition-label chardonnays
The extraordinary Limarí region, source of both our Society’s and Exhibition-label chardonnays

What does this mean for the wines? Well instead of the ‘fruit bomb’ style of chardonnay that you might expect from the southern hemisphere (guava, melon, passionfruit etc), you get more mineral, linear style of wine that’s more fresh and floral. Both wines come from Concha y Toro who have quite brilliant winemakers – Ignacio Recabarren assisted now by an extremely talented young winemaker, Lorena Mora. The Society’s Chilean Chardonnay is largely tank fermented whereas the Exhibition wine is fermented in barrel. Not just any barrel though, they come from an extremely good Burgundian cooper, Chassin Père et Fils. We’ve worked for years to get this just right and find the second or third-fill barrels to be best, imparting less oak, allowing the ingress of some oxygen and lees contact which helps meld the taught style we’re after. Taught and fresh rather than lean and mean is hard to pull off, but this is a special place and the winemaking talent is awesome

>The extraordinary Limarí region, source of both our Society’s and Exhibition-label chardonnays
>The extraordinary Limarí region, source of both our Society’s and Exhibition-label chardonnays

Q: Finally, how did you find the Wine Champions tastings this year, compared to previous years where you are all together in the tasting room at Stevenage?

A: Having to sit at a table and have your wines poured for you this year in ‘flights’ was actually very successful. I found it easier to really focus on the wines and make notes quietly. You could go back and forward between wines and get glasses repoured if you felt you missed something that others later picked up on. I think the overall judging was more precise because of this and I think many of us buyers would welcome doing the tasting in this way again next year. The pourers, Gil and Catherine from the Tastings team did a brilliant job of keeping everyone topped up and kept to your speed too. Thanks must go to them, and to Matthew Horsley who organised the tastings, for helping out with what was probably one of the most successfully executed Wine Champions ever.

Joanna Goodman

Senior Editor

Joanna Goodman

Part of our Marketing Team for over 30 years, Jo has been editor of Society News for much of that time as well as contributing to our many other communications.

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