Chair of Judges Report 2012

25 November 2012

This has been my first year as Chair of Judges at the Air New Zealand Wine Awards, and it has been a thoroughly enjoyable and rewarding experience to be working with such a group of professionally minded judges and stewards. I have been able to take up the system inherited from Steve Smith, and all previous Chairs and judges, and build on it in my own way.

Sustainability continues to be a focus for this wine competition, and even more so this year with a record 90% of all entries accredited as sustainable wines. This wine competition has been an important vehicle in encouraging New Zealand wine producers to participate in certified sustainability programmes by making it a prerequisite for all entries from vintages 2010 onwards to be accredited as being sustainably grown and produced.

The winning of a Gold Medal is a very difficult achievement to come by, and the five panels of judges were very exacting in their awarding of such medals. Elite Gold medals were awarded by the Chair of Judges, together with the Panel Chairs involved, to the Gold Medal wines that were considered worthy of going forward to the Trophy judging. These Elite Golds have something extra that sets them apart from the other Gold Medals.

This year we saw a total of 1353 entries, which is 9 per cent down on the 2011 competition due to the different vintages. 47 per cent of all entries received awards of which 7 per cent were awarded Gold Medals.

2012 was a challenging vintage across the country, but it was very gratifying to see such a strong lineup of very well made Sauvignon Blanc wines. Within the Gold Medal wines there is diversity of style, with some very ripe, volatile, thiol-dominated wines, and others showing more green hints from methoxypyrazines. However, all have the weight, texture, length and balance befitting the Gold Medal award. The best examples showed a balance between very ripe and slightly edgy mineral characters which give these wines both depth and vibrancy. Sauvignon Blanc accounts for more than half of the wine production in New Zealand, and 80 per cent of our exports, so it is wonderful to see such a strong showing of individualistic and varietally correct wines that show a true sense of the place they are grown.

I have been informed by all and sundry that Chardonnay is back. I never thought it ever went away. The showing of Chardonnay in this competition is very strong indeed, and indicates what can be achieved from a range of regions when the grapes are ripe, and the use of oak is carefully balanced with the fruit elements of the wine. This year all of the Gold Medal wines have had the influence of wood, and it is disappointing that the un-oaked subclass is not of a similar standard. Perhaps in the future more winemakers will divert more high-quality fruit for production without the influence of barrels.

Riesling yielded some truly delightful wines of breed and refinement, and surely commercial success for this under-rated wine star must follow as consumers realise just what an outstanding value it represents. Pinot Gris is an important grape variety in the New Zealand wine sector, and it is great to see so many wines with concentration, strength of character and balance coming forward to receive Gold.

The Gewurztraminer class was a little shy this year, but the best wines still have great weight, texture and varietal definition. The Trophy winner is outstanding by any standard. In Viognier there were some very impressive aromatic profiles across the range, and the sensitive handling of oak and phenolics in this strongly flavoured variety.

It is exciting to see the success of varieties that are not (yet) part of the mainstream. In the reds Tempranillo continues to make its mark, with the excellent 2010 vintage showing the depth and richness that can be achieved with this variety, and a very pretty Grenache wine showing possibilities for the future. In the whites the emergence of delicious examples of Albariño and Grüner Veltliner is a very positive development, and Arneis and Verdelho cannot be far behind.

With 21 Gold Medals, 45 Silver and 91 Bronze , Pinot Noir is the most successful variety in the competition. The top wines are simply stunning, and a further endorsement of Pinot Noir’s suitability to making outstanding wines from many regions around the country. Pinot Noir is not just about fruit, but the nuanced complexity that comes with fermentation and maturation processes that expose the multi-faceted aromas and flavours of this particularly exciting and sought-after wine style. The wines from the outstanding 2010 vintage are of special note, and are showing even more layers after an extra year of age.

Syrah continues to improve and diversify. The best wines range from some very attractive cool climate types with vibrant white-pepper and herby notes through to the more weighty ripe fruit and oak examples from warmer vintages such as 2010.

Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon can be difficult varieties in our typically cool ripening conditions. The top Merlot wine was in a class of its own, with creamy rich ripeness and none of the green-edged herbaceous characters that mar many entries. These varieties obviously require warm conditions and superior sites to achieve the ripeness and savoury characters to succeed, and that was not always evident here.

With our cool growing conditions giving mineral nervosity to many wine styles, Sparkling Wine should be one of New Zealand’s very strong suits, and the Gold Medal wines are very good examples of what can be produced here. However, I have the feeling that this is an area where we can really make great strides and produce even more wines of International appeal.

The Air New Zealand Wine Awards is considered to be New Zealand’s premier wine competition, and not least of all because of the quality of the judging panels. We are blessed with a very high calibre of local judging talent, with a promising group of Associate Judges ready to step up when required. I have instituted a program of judge renewal where Senior Judges have a three-year stint before making way for other experienced Senior Judges to return to the fold, and also for the best of the Associate Judges to graduate to senior level.

Augmenting this team we had three unique and outstanding International Judges: Julia Harding MW, from the UK; Bill Zacharkiw from Canada; and Navneet Singh from Australia. These wine professionals give the judging panels a more global perspective on wine varieties and styles, and provide a better picture of where our wines fit in the International world of wine. They all travelled great distances to be with us, and their contribution of time and professionalism is much appreciated.

Nothing happens in a wine show without an efficient engine room, and those of us at the tasting tables are indebted to the stewards and competition organisers for their running of everything. I would like to particularly thank the Competition Co-ordinator Shona White for her tireless efforts; the Chief Steward Mark Compton, and also Ric and Michelle Little for the backroom organisation. Thanks also to Angela Willis and her team from New Zealand Winegrowers for holding it all together, and making sure that everything that needed to be done, was.

Michael Brajkovich MW
Chair of Judges
Air New Zealand Wine Awards