Chair of Judges Report 2009

21 November 2009

The Air New Zealand Wine Awards, running now for almost thirty years, represents the pinnacle of the wine show circuit in New Zealand. It is our national show and sets a standard of rigour and integrity for the independent assessment of our wines that few can match.

In 2009 we judged 1655 wines, down slightly from 2008, and for the first time in the history of the Air New Zealand Wine Awards we awarded more than 100 wines (102) gold medals (including 2 pure elite golds, 36 elite golds and 8 pure golds). Some may say this is too generous, however, never before have we had such a thorough process of tasting and re-tasting of wines before they were given their gold or elite gold medal. The international judges were involved in making the final decision on all the classes, and many of these international judges remarked that our New Zealand judges were being “too tough”. The wines were simply that good. When one looks at the details, this high number of gold medal awards makes sense.

As a mark of our maturity as a fine wine nation, we awarded 37 gold medals (including elite and pure gold medals) in red wine classes, a record number. It will be the red wines of our country that I believe will determine our future. There are several reasons why these red wines have shone.

We have had two extremely good vintages in a row of Pinot Noir with 300 wines entered in the 2009 show, the most ever. This variety takes patience, experience and, of course, a good vintage to express itself at the highest level. With many producers now having that experience and a couple of very good vintages, the results are not surprising. The 2008 vintage, that some considered inferior to 2007, had a strong showing where producers controlled yield and grape quality. There is a real expression of regionality starting to appear with Pinot Noir, and also producers allowing their own personality as winemakers to show. This is exciting and bodes well for the future of this most fickle of grape varieties. Syrah continues its great excitement with 10 gold medal wines from only 77 entries and forms a compelling full bodied red wine partner to Pinot Noir. Once again there is no monotone of style here, however, there is that hallmark New Zealand character of vibrancy of fruit and richness combined with elegance that few in the world can match. The red wines from the Bordeaux red varieties complete the triumvirate of red wine styles with a strong showing of five gold and elite gold medals from the cool but very good 2007 vintage. In all of these red wine styles winemakers are beginning to realise that the wines are better when extraction is balanced and elevage in oak is more for softening tannins than adding oak flavour.

Sauvignon Blanc returned to form from the challenging 2008 vintage with a high overall medal count and strongly flavoured wines covering a good range of styles, including some very serious, more reserved textural wines. Some may say that New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc has its style and success so why change it. These wines are still uniquely New Zealand, however, they have a stamp of sophistication and style that elevates our position in the world to the highest level. The aromatic white varieties, Riesling and Gewurztraminer continue their renaissance with an exciting expression of modern, elegant and fragrant wines. I implore the wine marketers in our country to put as much effort into these styles as they do into Pinot Gris which once again disappointed.

The star of the white wine classes was Chardonnay with 18 gold medals (including elite and pure gold medals) awarded to a series of wines that represent real diversity of style and regionality. They really are exciting world class wines that show a degree of complexity , balance and, may I even suggest, age ability that we have never seen before. This is the great white grape of the world, let us ensure the world knows that these wines exist.

The 112 ‘pure’ medals, which are awarded to sustainable wines this year, is nearly twice the number awarded in 2008, signalling the New Zealand wine industry’s increasing commitment to sustainable wine production. The total is made up of 2 pure elite gold medals, 8 pure gold medals, 38 pure silver medals and 64 pure bronze medals.

The Judging Team
We continued with the structure of the previous two shows with five panels comprising three senior judges and two associate judges. The local judging team were joined by John Avery MW from the United Kingdom, a hugely experienced international wine judge who first judged at this competition in 1978; Ch’ng Poh Tiong, an influential and well respected wine commentator, became our first international judge from the Asian continent; Huon Hooke, one of Australia’s most respected wine critics and wine show judges, and the influential and charismatic Geoff Merrill from Geoff Merrill Wines also from Australia. These judges were asked to play a forceful hand in the judging process to ensure the results had a strong benchmark internationally. Each provided a unique perspective with strong but carefully crafted opinions and we thank them very much for their time and energy.

I continued the theme of judges chairing panels where they show a speciality and the results strongly endorse that approach. We managed to encourage Michael Brajkovich MW back into the New Zealand judging ring and our three new senior judges in Simon Nunns, Cameron Douglas MS and Rod Easthope, all performed very strongly. We also had a number of new associate judges, bringing through a group of young talented people into the judging pool. We thank all the judges very much for their time and skill.

Kate Brajkovich, returned to the fold as Competition Co-ordinator and excelled as one would expect. Mark Compton competently headed our team of busy stewards who make things happen professionally and without fuss.

It was again an honour to serve in the position of Chair of Judges for the Air New Zealand Wine Awards and continue this competition’s role in charting a course for the style and quality of New Zealand wine.

Steve Smith MW
Chair of Judges
Air New Zealand Wine Awards 2009