Chair of Judges Report 2008

20 November 2008

The Air New Zealand Wine Awards, now approaching its 30th year, is our most iconic annual wine event, a place to judge ourselves amongst ourselves, by ourselves and by some others. It is where the annual toil of the land and of the vigneron is presented to a collection of carefully selected individuals for critique and eventual celebration or commiseration. It is where excellence has a chance to shine without arrogance or self interest, it is independent and it is exceptional in the standards it sets for itself. No other wine competition in the world goes to such rigour to insure integrity in judging and in the marketplace for those wines it endorses.

This year we judged 1,751 wines up by 211 (12%) from 2007. Percentages of gold, silver and bronze medal wines were similar to 2007 although there was a significant change in the relative performance of different classes which merits some discussion.

The positives first. Results don’t lie, and the analysis for the Pinot Noir class indicates a spectacular performance for the variety that is set to become a world class icon for New Zealand. This offering delivered on that potential. 55% of the wines won medals against a show average of 42% with almost 7% of entries achieving gold or elite gold medal ratings against a show average of just on 5%, this in a very large class of 297 wines. There is not just absolute quality at the top end but also indicates great breadth and depth of quality. When one looks at the regional, sub-regional, and single vineyard diversity of style and the stamp of the winemaker’s personality, this is a collection of serious, diverse and exciting expressions of the world’s most capricious grape variety. There is no doubt that 2007 was a great vintage, one wonders how much this is due to the relatively low yields. Producers shouldn’t question the significance of this and should never doubt managing it in future vintages.

Syrah continued its stellar performance with wines from both the 2006 and 2007 vintages, 10% of the wines receiving gold and elite gold medals, all from Hawke’s Bay. These wines are deeply expressive and serious when at this level, unique in a world of rich red wines without grace and breed. There however needs to be more depth to the class if it is to deliver on the potential at anything but a curiosity level. There is no doubt however that if this explosion in quality and character continues, we will have another wine style to prove our position as a country of great red wine.

Riesling and Chardonnay continue on from their performance in 2007, with some great wines over a range of styles, and while they may not create the hype of other wines, the best are truly world class. Riesling of this quality will eventually find its place in a new world of freshness and restrained alcohol.

There is however some news from this show that is not so good. The Sauvignon Blanc class of 2008 was disappointing, not because there were not great wines made, as there were. The problem was more than 62% of the wines failed to win an award. For our most important international variety, it is simply not good enough. The vintage was nowhere near that bad, this is a human issue. This disappointment was not universal, the small number of gold and silver medal wines (15%), were exceptional and indicate those dedicated producers were able to make the most of what was a very good season until the April rains came. Commentators must be very careful not to misjudge wines based on the failings of others. We should not be disheartened, the top wines show a remarkable expression of our place that can be repeated nowhere else.

In a similar vein is Pinot Gris, a variety with so much real and commercial potential. Only 22% of the wines entered won medals, in what was a very large class of 184 wines. This series of wines misrepresented the fact that there were some terrific examples in the gold and silver medal awards but they only accounted for 7% of the class. Like the Sauvignon Blanc class the reasons are obvious and unacceptable.

Producers of red wines from the Bordeaux red varieties need to pay more attention to attaining full ripeness of flavour and tannin, and becoming more careful with the extraction of tannins. There is real potential, the best wines have ripeness and class that suggest a modern look at the claret style is a better approach than an enthusiasm for large proportion.

When writing the judges citations for the trophy announcements, with all wines on the table in front of me, I felt enormous pride in what we can do. It was a Saturday, deep in the bowels of the New Zealand Winegrowers office and I did not want to leave. These wines are not only world class, but they have a sense of deep brooding seriousness to them, continually evolving in the glass, revealing a breeding, purity and appearance of lightness that is unique. There is no other New World wine country that can match this.

The Judging Team

This year we saw a return of many of the senior team from 2007 and also some exceptional New Zealand judges from previous Air New Zealand Wine Awards competitions. Joshua Greene, editor of Wine and Spirits Magazine in the USA, and James Lawther MW, an English fine wine specialist and journalist from Bordeaux, were two of our international judges. Joshua was very much involved in the Pinot Noir class, important seeing this variety is the new red wine darling in the USA. James, with his Bordeaux speciality, significantly influenced the results from the Bordeaux reds classes, as he should. Nick Stock, the famous Australian sommelier, independent author and editor of the 2009 Penguin Australian Good Wine Guide, and Kym Milne MW, a vastly experienced international winemaker joined us from Australia. Nick was very involved with the Chardonnay and Syrah classes, and Kym with the Bordeaux reds and Riesling. We thank these four international judges for giving their time, incredible expertise and personality to this year’s competition.

Mark Compton and Shona White again ran the back room and administration of the show in a truly professional manner. Along with their team of stewards they delivered over 10,000 glasses of wine to judges over the week without a glitch. This was Shona’s last year as Competition Convenor after four years in this position. She is a remarkable person, setting the highest of standards, personally and professionally, without ever losing her cool, at least apparently. We wish her all the best and welcome Kate Brajkovich, back from the back blocks of Kumeu, to take over from Shona. I have no doubt she will impose her own style.

Once again I treat this appointment as an honour and appreciate the opportunity to play my part in evolving the quality, fabric and style of the wines from our little jewel in the South Pacific.

Steve Smith MW
Chair of Judges
Air New Zealand Wine Awards
November 2008