Chair of Judges Report 2017

25 November 2017

The Air New Zealand Wine Awards is certainly a well-oiled machine and very well co-ordinated by New Zealand Winegrowers. In my first year as Chair, I wanted to respect the great work of the past and tread somewhat carefully regarding any major changes. However, the New Zealand wine industry is evolving at a rapid rate and the Air New Zealand Wine Awards should be a snapshot of this evolution. I implemented two main changes.

For the last 10 years there have been Elite Gold Medals awarded to what are essentially the ‘Top Golds’ of each class. In discussion with New Zealand Winegrowers, which included polling a number of various sized potential winery entrants, there was a unanimous decision to revert back to a simple Gold Medal being the peak of the medal criteria, individual trophies for each class, and Champion Wine of the Show being the ultimate award.

The other change was to move the scoring from a 20 point scale to a 100 point scale. The main motivation to implement this 100 point scale was to give the panels more time for discussion on the wines and less on the mathematics and false accuracy required with the 20 point scale. In addition, this brings the competition in line with other international competitions and matches demands for reviews out of 100 points from an increasing number of markets.

In future years I would also like to explore implementing a ‘Wines of Provenance’ class, which will reward age-worthy wines.

Although wine competitions tend to polarise opinion in the wine industry, they can potentially be hugely important in a number of different ways. As a supporter I see the positives as:

1.       An excellent benchmarking process
2.       An opportunity to market successes of medals and trophies
3.       An opportunity to celebrate the industry and region
4.       The ability to invite world-class wine commentators to both judge in the competition and, more importantly, to spend time in our regions and leave as future ambassadors.

The 2017 competition
This year we saw a total of 1,320 entries, slightly down on the previous two years, most likely due to a smaller and challenging 2017 vintage in most areas of the country. 60% of all entries received medals with 6.1% Gold, 16.7% Silver and 37.3% Bronze Medals awarded. This is in line with long-term industry averages but down perhaps on other recent domestic competitions. One of the reasons that the Air New Zealand Wine Awards is widely considered to be New Zealand’s premier wine competition is that there is very strong rigour in both the judging and audit process following the show. I can guarantee that if you have won a Gold Medal or Trophy at these awards that the wine went through a stringent tasting and audit process in reaching this result.

The wines
Sauvignon Blanc is New Zealand’s most planted grape variety and any October judging of this variety is a great snapshot of the recent vintage. There were nine Golds from the 235 entries (3.8%) with all Golds coming from the Marlborough region and predominantly from the more challenging 2017 vintage. The best wines were of very good quality and with a good diversity of style and sub-regionality awarded.

Chardonnay was a particularly strong class with 13 Golds from 200 wines (6.5%). There appeared to be less style differentiation than normal with this class. Most wines awarded were from the 2016 vintage and with Marlborough and Hawke’s Bay dominating the class. My feeling is that the 2016 vintage shows more wines in the riper fruit spectrum than normal with less wines exhibiting the polarising flinty and reductive notes often seen in the cooler years. As with any strong class, many of the Silver Medal wines are worth pursuing.

Riesling was a beautiful class of wines with six Gold and 13 Silver Medals awarded to the 61 entries. This variety seems to have enjoyed the 2017 season better than most white varieties and a nice range of styles were rewarded including wines with varying levels of residual sweetness. Central Otago and Marlborough dominated the category.

Pinot Gris was generally a somewhat disappointing class with many of the 2017 vintage wines appearing to suffer from compromised fruit characters. The best wines showed elegance and restraint. Five Golds were awarded from 152 wines (3.3%). Thirty wines achieved Silver Medal status but could not convince the judging panel they had the extra dimension to reach Gold. Marlborough and Central Otago were again the dominating regions.

Gewürztraminer continues to impress as an alternative varietal with three of the 18 entries winning Gold. Abundant varietal fruit with silky texture won the day. The best wines make for delicious drinking, and show delicacy and balance, and the Golds all came from Marlborough.

Sparkling wine is always an exciting class to judge in New Zealand and with four Gold Medals in the bottle-fermented class there was strength at the top end.  Freshness, persistence and complexity was evident in the top examples. The four Golds showed a nice diversity of style and varietal composition.

Sweet wine scored well with four Gold Medals from 35 entries. Riesling from the South Island dominated the class along with one impressive Gewürztraminer from Hawke’s Bay. This is a difficult style to make well and the best wines showed purity, freshness, balance and luscious flavours on the palate.

Other varieties allows new and emerging varieties to shine (or otherwise) alongside each other. This year there were 30 entries in the white category and just 18 in the red. It was the Albariño that shone with two extremely smart examples winning Gold from the Marlborough 2017 vintage. This variety seems to have found a new symbiotic home in New Zealand and displays restraint but also particularly good palate weight versus other emerging white varietals. No red wines reached Gold Medal status this year.

Rosé was perhaps the most disappointing of all classes this year with just two wines from 105 entries reaching the Gold Medal level and 57% receiving no award. This has become a significant and important class reflecting both the popularity of the wine style and perhaps the tendency for producers to chase new trends. The challenging vintage seemed likely to blame for many of the weaker wines but a number of wines also showed winemaking faults and clumsy handling. The best were vibrant, pure and with good palate intensity.

Pinot Noir was once again the most successful class in the completion with 20 Gold Medals from 263 entries (7.6%). This has been the trend for a number of years and reinforces the strength of Pinot Noir from a range of New Zealand’s wine regions. Central Otago dominated the class with 12 wines winning Gold. Marlborough made up the remaining majority along with one wine coming from Martinborough. The best wines were excitingly diverse in style. The common theme was perfume and length with elegant tannins. A consistent judges’ comment was the need for sensitive use of oak with this variety. Many lesser-pointed wines would have benefit from less oak.

Syrah continued its impressive history in this competition with Hawke’s Bay dominating the class. There were also Golds for wines from Waiheke Island and Nelson showing the versatility of the variety. There was a high medal count overall with 44 out 60 entries winning a medal of Bronze or above. The best wines had rich, ripe characters but more importantly were fresh and light on their feet.

Merlot, Cabernet and blends are a traditional Hawke’s Bay strength and no surprises here with five of the six Gold Medals hailing from the Bay along with one wine from Waiheke Island. The 2013 through 2016 vintages are strong for this style and it was pleasing to see two of the Golds were from the 2013 vintage showing positive bottle age.

Finally, I wish to thank the team who were involved in the 2017 Air New Zealand Wine Awards, from New Zealand Winegrowers to our sponsors to the judging and stewarding team. In particular, I wish to acknowledge our three international judges – PJ Charteris (Australia), Elaine Chukan Brown (USA) and Sarah Knowles MW (UK). All three provided great global perspectives on wine varieties and styles and contributed hugely to the stylistic direction of our wines. They were joined by a further 15 senior judges and 10 associate judges to make an impressive line-up of wine-judging talent. I have every confidence that the wines we have selected as a group are a remarkably strong and diverse range of world-class wines. Congratulations to all the winners.

Warren Gibson
Chair of judges, Air New Zealand Wine Awards
November 2017