Chair of Judges Report 2011

13 November 2011

The 2011 Air New Zealand Wine Awards marks my fifth and final year as Chair of Judges. It seems only yesterday that we sat around embarking on what appeared to be quite revolutionary changes to bring this competition into the 21st century. Not that it was broke, but like all great things, they stay great because they continually evolve and get better because perfection is always the ultimate goal.

The most significant of the changes we made (being the 16 point Bronze medal and the 19 point Elite Gold medal) I believe have been very successful, meaning all medals are worthy of shouting about. And as the number of great wines produced in New Zealand increases there is real recognition for those wines that seek the ultimate quality expression. These changes also allowed and encouraged the judges to use the 20 point scale appropriately knowing that the quality divergence seen on the judging table is represented properly in the score given.

This scoring change was matched by a very deliberate and rigorous process for evaluating and selecting the Elite Gold and Gold medal wines, with wines being recalled for tasting at least three times before final awards are given. The provision of an Elite Gold award has allowed a much more statistically relevant trophy judging process, particularly in the large classes. This rigor was also applied to every aspect of the show, from eliminating possible conflicts of interest of judges, to auditing volumes and ensuring all batches of all gold medal wines adhere to quality and consistency of blends standards that are higher than any other wine show in the world. One must not under estimate the huge demands a process such as this puts on management of the tasting process by the Competition Co-ordinator and Chief Steward, and the associated database management. New Zealand Winegrowers and their appointed staff Shona White and Mark Compton deserve great credit here.

The introduction of the Exhibition red and white/sparkling wine categories has certainly allowed us to see small production wines that we would never otherwise see and the trophies have been keenly sought. This is an encouraging trend however I believe the criteria for entry may need to be tweaked in a way that ensures these wines are true small batch wines rather than declared volumes of larger batches.

Sustainability became a big focus back in 2007 and this wine competition aligned itself with the core sustainability goals that the New Zealand wine industry was setting for itself. In 2011 more than 75% of the entries were both grown and made sustainably, and within a couple of years I expect almost all entries will be such. I would like to think that putting this requirement for sustainability at the Air New Zealand Wine Awards has helped producers make the step up. The New Zealand wine industry should be extremely proud of its achievements here, and must continue the commitment and investment to remain world leading.
To the 2011 competition. This year we saw a total 1489 entries, slightly down on the 2010 competition due entirely to the requirement for all wines from the 2010 and 2011 vintage to be grown and made sustainably. 47% of all entries received awards of which 5.57% were awarded Elite Gold or Gold medals. All these statistics are in line with previous competitions although the percentage of high awards are slightly down. This was in part due to a direction given by myself as chair, and also from all the overseas judges, that aroma and flavour balance be considered very strongly. What this means is that wines that are overly powerful in a single dimension should not be awarded for being singularly strong in this element. Great wines are about balance and aroma and flavour complexity is paramount here. The end result of this approach was in the Sauvignon Blanc class where the over-powering single dimension thiol infused wines were only awarded high marks when other aroma and flavour characteristics provide the balance. Likewise in the Chardonnay and red wine classes, young wines in particular that showed obvious, overt, new oak influence were not rewarded highly because of the lack of aroma and flavour balance. This is not about wine shows setting style preferences, rather it is about judges looking at wines in depth and rewarding those that are complete in all aspects.

There were some significant highlights in 2011, notably the current vintage aromatic white wine classes, included here is Sauvignon Blanc, which was very strong in 2011. More than 52% of Sauvignon Blanc wines entered received medals, up from 42% last year, in a vintage that was not outrageously better. I would like to think that the combination of yield control and attention in the vineyards, high quality winemaking and a more grown-up stylistic approach are working in harmony. The results certainly suggest that is happening. A second strong showing from the Nelson region with three gold medal wines in the Sauvignon Blanc class is encouraging. The stylistic diversity in the top wines indicates that while there is a unique “New Zealandness” to all the wines, there is room for individual expression here, and I certainly embrace that concept with open arms.

There were some sensational wines in the Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer and Viognier classes, confirming a view that I have had for some time that New Zealand is the best place in the world to make aromatic white wines, bar none, Sauvignon Blanc included. There is also a noted diversity in stylistic expression in these wines that was not apparent previously, providing another strong string to our bow. Those producers of the 60% of Pinot Gris and Riesling wines that did not get a medal need to get their act together, a strong category is only as good as its weakest wines. The care and attention that seems to be showing in the Sauvignon Blanc class needs now to be practised, even at higher levels, in the Riesling and Pinot Gris classes. Chardonnay continues to show its potential as a producer of potentially great white wines, be it largely through the eyes of one exceptional producer. These wines are modern, classy expressions of great Chardonnay from various sites and regions throughout New Zealand, but that will only happen with absolute commitment to its production. Over 56% of Chardonnay wines entered did not win an award, showing the difficulty in the 2009 vintage but also a lack of care and understanding. Chardonnay is only worth making if it is very good, if you are not passionate about it, don’t make it. By the way, for some of you, halve the new oak budget! Sweet wines were fantastic and the gold medal for the Verdelho shows this variety has some potential for restrained textural wines that can be great with food.

Pinot Noir continues to be a highlight, with 17 Elite Gold and Gold medal wines all from the 2009 and 2010 vintages, two very different and very good vintages throughout the country. Central Otago fared particularly well, however Marlborough and Martinborough also produced a collection of very smart wines. Great Pinot Noir travels a fine line between fruit and savoury, floral and green, earth and dirt, and elegance and weakness, and hence requires some significant skill and understanding. The best wines achieve this in various forms and styles, they are exceptional. It is gratifying to see fewer wines with overt ripeness and jammy/alcoholic notes although wines that are more ethereal can only be made when the fruit is beautifully ripe. Like Chardonnay though, halve the new oak budget!

If there was one class we may have been too tough on it was Syrah as there were some fantastic wines. The three Elite Gold and Gold medal wines were outstanding examples in any context and on any stage, anywhere. As with Pinot Noir, winemakers are learning that over ripeness is not attractive, in the same sense neither is overt oak. These wines are best presented with the wonderful complexity of fruit to the fore and the length and texture provided by skin and ripe seed tannins is better than any new oak. The Bordeaux reds classes continue to cause me frustration, exceptional wines at the top, and over extracted, over oaked, green edged wines, particularly Merlot at the bottom. Like Chardonnay, these wines are only worth making if you are passionate about it, if you are not, don’t make them!

The Judging Team
Our judging panel contained our normal very strong collection of New Zealand judges, along with three very experienced overseas judges, Michael Hill Smith MW from Adelaide, Australia, Charles Metcalfe from the UK, and Joe Czerwinski from New York, USA. All three provided great leadership and direction from their part of the world, and contributed significantly to the stylistic diversity and balance issues discussed above. I thank them enormously for their time and professionalism.

My time in this role has been one of the highlights of my time in New Zealand wine and I thank the board of New Zealand Winegrowers for their vote of confidence in me, and Air New Zealand for its unwavering support of this competition. It is time to hand over the reins to Michael Brajkovich MW. I can think of no other person I would want to take over the position I have held for the last five years, he is the consummate professional, has an exceptional palate, and is great leader, if somewhat more reserved and contained than myself.

Thank you to everyone who I have worked with and alongside, it has been terrific!

Steve Smith MW
Chair of Judges
Air New Zealand Wine Awards