Chair of Judges Report 2007

24 November 2007

The Air New Zealand Wine Awards have, for more than 25 years, been part of the New Zealand wine industry and have played a hugely significant role in providing a forum for individuals and organisations to benchmark themselves against their colleagues in the industry. The Air New Zealand Wine Awards have provided an avenue for new varieties and styles to be evaluated independently, and if successful, their entry into the market is made somewhat easier. Even more the Air New Zealand Wine Awards provide an opportunity to celebrate success; of ourselves, our winemakers, our viticulturists, our entrepreneurs and most importantly our place. We don’t do enough of it. It gives those who strive for excellence a guideline on what it takes to be successful. It gives those who have been successful an opportunity to set the bar higher to keep in front of those chasing. Our natural competitiveness as a people will always mean that these awards provide a wonderful base for the pursuit of excellence and ultimately success in our vineyards and wineries. These awards are without doubt the most influential for the New Zealand wine industry, just ask any retailer and wine buyer, this is the show that they watch. So to ensure this will always remain one of the best wine competitions of its type in the world, in 2007 we made some changes. We took a huge opportunity to look at the Air New Zealand Wine Awards in its modern day. We wanted to give Air New Zealand an event that is modern and innovative like themselves, prepared to throw convention to the wind for a better end result. We also wanted to give our winemakers an event they could have absolute confidence in and one that could provide an important cornerstone to their marketing efforts around the world. So that is what we did.

A New Benchmark

For those of you who know me you will realise that I am not one, when given the responsibility, to take on a new task without some level of significant upheaval. What I have learnt about myself however is that my natural tendency to cause chaos gets a much better result when surrounded by a balancing act of some very good people. So Philip Gregan was wise to put a review committee together comprising his staff who have to execute, and also included for me some friends I respect hugely in Kate Radburnd and Jeff Clarke, with the old man of New Zealand wine shows sitting outside committee but influential. Of course that is John Belsham. This committee when presented with a paper on change embraced the concept and what we came up with was a nice mix of evolution and revolution. We made the following changes:

  • Introduced the Elite Gold for absolutely world class wines.
  • Made an Air New Zealand Wine Awards bronze medal worth more by raising the score required to get an award.
  • We introduced the “Pure” designation for medal winning wines that have been made sustainably and replaced the Reserve Champion Trophy with the Champion Sustainable Wine, indicating the real intentions of our industry.
  • We increased volume requirements for the Open and Limited categories and introduced the Exhibition category to encourage small producers and the production of small lot iconic wines.
  • We set new standards expected of entrants to ensure the wine in the show was exactly the same as the wine in the market, and new standards of rigour to ensure that in no instance did any judge score or even influence the score of their own wine.
  • We introduced more panels to give more time for each wine and introduced more overseas judges to provide an even stronger worldly view of our place in the world.
  • We brought back some experienced judges who had been put out to pasture, to judge and lead specialist classes. How can you judge a Pinot Noir class in New Zealand without Larry McKenna, a Bordeaux Reds class without Peter Cowley, and a Sauvignon Blanc class without John Belsham? All in all a quiet and very ordered embracing of change for this very successful competition.

The Results

The data says that we judged 1,540 wines, gave 32 Elite Golds (2% of entries), 51 Golds (3.3%), 227 Silvers (14.7%) and 364 Bronze medals (23.6%). The most significant change in these statistics is the significant drop in Bronze medals from an historical average of about 35% to a touch over 23% as a result of our higher benchmark.
There were some exceptional classes judged. I have always had the view that aromatic white wines are our special strength in the new world of wine and our results endorse that. 5 Gold medals for Gewurztraminer shows a continuing return to form for this historic variety. A total of 9 Gold medals including 4 Elite Gold awards for Riesling was an outstanding result at a time when the world is looking more closely at this most noble white variety. The wines show strong regional influence and it was very pleasing to see fine mineral textured modern lower alcohol styles. 3 Gold medals for Gisborne Viognier and 1 for Pinot Blanc show the diversity of offering that our fine aromatic white wines have. Sauvignon Blanc was once again very successful with 16 Gold medals including 8 Elite Golds all from the obviously very good 2007 vintage. There was also a pleasing diversity in style and increased presence of more fine mineral textured wines. The 11 Gold medals, including 6 Elite Gold, for Chardonnay were an exceptional collection of world class Chardonnay, however the judges were very tough on any wines showing lack of balance in oak, alcohol and overt slightly oily textured fruit forward wines. This explains the reduction in medal awards for this class. The 2006 Pinot Noir vintage is starting to show what a truly great vintage it was with 16 Gold Medals including 7 Elite Golds in the class. Central Otago showed strongly, however all the major Pinot Noir regions were successful and with the range in style rewarded I believe the judges did an exceptional job. The real star of the red wine classes was Syrah with 7 Gold medals including 4 Elite Golds from only 60 entries. These wines, all from Hawkes Bay indicate that our future in the more richly textured full bodied red wines may well be with this variety. They showed incredible poise and character. The Bordeaux red classes with 9 Gold medals including 3 Elite Golds showed strength and class at the top end however the judges were highly critical of dry tannins and excessive extraction. There is no excuse for this and winemakers here need to have better commitment in the vineyard and winery as the best wines show the environment can deliver. My most lasting memory of this year’s show was the final day’s line-up of wines competing for the consolidated trophies. The Open class trophies, both red and white show our true potential to make high quality wine in some volume. The Exhibition class trophies and the line-up for the Sustainable Trophy were wines that simply made the hair on the back of your neck stand up, they were outstanding examples on a world stage. The wines competing for the Champion Wine of the Show prove that our little country at the bottom of the South Pacific can produce a range of wines that no other region in the New World can compete with, this a comment from one of our international judges that I have always viewed as possible.

The Judging Team

The centre of everything for the judging team is the work that Mark Compton, Chief Steward, and Shona White, Competition Co-ordinator do, to ensure the integrity and standards of the show are at the highest possible level. They and their team of stewards were exceptional both in calibre and integrity with a new set of rules that created significant demands. We were very lucky to have Peter McCombie MW, an on-trade wine specialist and wine journalist from the UK, and James Rodewald, wine editor for the very influential Gourmet magazine in the USA, join us for the 2007 competition. They brought a very international view to the panels they judged on and had significant influence on classes where we are emerging such as Syrah and Riesling. Tom Carson, Chairman of the Judges for the Australian National Show, and Mike de Garis Chairman of Judges of the Liquorland Top 100 competition, joined us from Australia. Once again the aromatic white wine classes, Chardonnay, Syrah and Bordeaux red varieties classes were influenced by their involvement. These four judges along with our experienced New Zealand judges, who were shuffled around to judge classes of their speciality, provided a judging team of the calibre never represented in this country before. I thank them all for their time, professionalism and willingness to embrace change. This has been an honour and a privilege and I have every confidence that the wines we have selected as the best will serve our country proud, wherever they are consumed around the world.

Steve Smith MW
Chair of Judges
November 2007