The best fizz in the world?


A version of this article is also published in the Financial Times. See also Stevenson's world champions.

While it is more and more difficult to make money selling wine magazines, it seems easier and easier to generate an income by setting up a wine competition. Britain's leading wine magazine Decanter has firmly established its annual Decanter World Wine Awards as a serious rival to the much longer-established International Wine Challenge, owned by business publishers William Reed, and the International Wine & Spirit Competition, owned by financier Ty Comfort (better known by the tabloids as Caprice's boyfriend). With thousands of entries, entry fees of over £100 each, and judges happy to spend a few days tasting together without charging substantial fees, these are nice little earners.

Decanter's awards are run with specialist judging panels under the chairmanship of a category judge. Their champagne regional chair had long been Tom Stevenson, a wine writer whose email address 'mrfizz' gives some clue as to his principal predilection. But two years ago he was asked to step aside and chair only the Alsace panel, for which he had also had responsibility. He declined. And started to work on setting up a champagne and sparkling wine competition of his own, which has just announced its first results.

He has his prejudices and obsessions but is a highly established figure in the world of fizz. He assembled his small dream team of fellow judges, the Finnish champagne specialist and Master of Wine Essi Avellan (who succeeded him for a year at the Decanter awards) and Dr Tony Jordan, the Australian scientist who set up Domaine Chandon, LVMH's sparkling wine business in Australia, and much else besides. They met last May to judge the first-ever Champagne & Sparkling Wine World Championships.

Presumably because of the standing of the judges, they managed to garner nearly 650 entries in their first year, including many a de luxe champagne such as Dom Pérignon Oenothèque and Grand Siècle, some of which, they claim, had never been entered into a competition before. The cynic in me suspects they are hoping that the fact that their 'Supreme World Champion' was Roederer's Cristal Rosé 2002 may lure in some more of the Champagne aristocracy next year.

At a dinner designed to showcase some of the leading trophy winners, Stevenson and Avellan spoke wistfully of Krug and Salon, for example. They were also extremely picky. A good third of the bottles opened by the waiting staff at the Savoy were rejected, with Essi being the chief arbitrator on whether a wine was very slightly oxidised, tired, or corked. We were quite surprised, for example, to see the World Champion Non Vintage Brut Blend title won by a magnum of Pommery, not a name that has recently been garlanded with awards, and indeed the first magnum opened was pretty dull and dusty. A second one was much fresher and more convincing.

Another surprise result, much reported by the popular press, was that an own-label £24.99 bottling made for Co-op supermarkets by the Piper and Charles Heidsieck team, Les Pionniers 2004, was made World Champion Vintage Blend.

Not that there was any shortage of awards, although many wines won more than one of them. In all more than 50 trophies (known as World Champions) and 85 gold medals were doled out, a rather different result from that achieved at this year's Decanter World Wine Awards, in which the new Swedish chair of the champagne panel, specialist writer Richard Juhlin, gave a grand total of six gold medals to the 549 champagne entries.

We were assured that all the medals in Tom Stevenson's competition were awarded unanimously. The three tasters worked away over seven consecutive days at Plumpton College outside Brighton, Britain's wine industry training college, and winner of gold medals for its fizz The Dean in both white and pink versions. We must assume that all three tasters have resilient tooth enamel and acid-resistant palates. Even champagne professionals try to limit the number of samples they taste in a day to a dozen or two but these three must have worked much harder than this to marshal their 650 entries into order. They are hoping that next year there will be enough entries for them to be judged over two weeks with a weekend off in between, but assured me that their memories of this year's experience were dominated not by an excessive if effervescent workload, but by the amount of time they wasted waiting for pre-paid taxis to ferry them back to their accommodation in Brighton.

With the world's apparently insatiable current thirst for Prosecco and Cava, the Champenois are no longer feeling quite so unassailable in all that sparkles. They have been used to decades of solid growth but the ground seems to be shifting – not least because climate change has been affecting the structure of the base wines on which champagne depends, resulting in higher sugars and lower acids. Notable among the beneficiaries of climate change meanwhile have been England's vignerons, with their most successful product by far being particularly crisp, dry sparkling wine made using the same technique as champagne.

In the light of this it is interesting to see how champagne fared compared with other sparkling wines in this new competition. Knowing the Champenois extremely well, and that their bête noire is being compared directly with their imitators, Stevenson was careful to segregate entries geographically. There were individual trophies for the best examples from notable sparkling wine producing countries or regions – Cava, Prosecco, Franciacorta, TrentoDoc, Austria, England, South Africa, US, Chile, Australia and New Zealand. He has long been famous for his distaste for Cava, but managed to give a trophy to Gramona's super-mature 2000. He is also extremely critical of the new fad to produce champagnes with no added sweetness, the so-called dosage, when they are finally re-corked after ageing, so it was not that surprising that in the trophies given not geographically but by style, the World Champion Non-Dosage award went not to a champagne but to a wine from Franciacorta, the northern Italian fine fizz zone that benefits from more sunshine and warmth than the Champagne region.

Another shock result was that the trophy for the best overall Vintage Rosé, from anywhere, went to an English wine, the 2011 from the new Hattingley Valley in Hampshire (the 2009 Reserve Brut from négociants Digby won the English trophy). And I was particularly taken by the fact that the trophy for best fizz from South Eastern Europe went to a Serbian wine, Aleksandrovic 2009 Trijumf Chardonnay. Full details at

These were my favourite wines from the trophy winners selected for a celebratory dinner by judges in the Champagne & Sparkling Wine World Championships, in ascending price order. See my tasting notes on all of them.


Hattingley Valley 2011 England

Il Mosnel, Parosé Non Dosé 2008 Franciacorta

Charles Heidsieck Réserve Rosé NV Champagne

Louis Roederer, Cristal Rosé 2002 Champagne


Ca' del Bosco, Cuvée Annamaria Clementi 2005 Franciacorta

Dom Ruinart, Blanc de Blancs 2002 Champagne

Laurent-Perrier, Grand Siècle NV Champagne (based on 1999 vintage)

Dom Pérignon, Oenothèque 1996 Champagne