Thursday, November 26, 2009

As usual, the Air New Zealand wine awards spring a few surprises

It’s always interesting to browse through the results of the Air New Zealand Wine Awards, the most important of New Zealand’s annual wine competitions.

Some things change little – like the swag of gold medals picked up every year by Villa Maria, which has an unparalleled record of competition success. But the awards always turn up a few unexpected results, and often throw light on previously obscure wineries that are destined for bigger things.

This year the big surprise was sprung by Julicher Estate, a small, family-owned winery in the Te Muna Valley near Martinborough whose 2008 pinot noir was named the Champion Wine of the Show. Remarkably, given Martinborough’s status, it was the first time in 20 years that a wine from the South Wairarapa winemaking region had won the supreme prize.

Perhaps even more remarkably, given the fact that Martinborough was the first New Zealand region to produce consistently good pinot noir and still makes many of the country’s best examples, it was the first time a Martinborough pinot noir had won. This is partly explained by the fact that some exalted Martinborough wineries, such as Ata Rangi and Dry River, don’t enter competitions. (The previous Martinborough wine to win the coveted champion’s trophy, in 1989, was a Martinborough Vineyard chardonnay.)

Julicher Estate was founded only 10 years ago by Dutch immigrant Wim Julicher (pronounced You-licker), a retired Hutt Valley builder. Though the Dutch are not noted as a nation of wine drinkers, it’s one of several New Zealand wineries established by immigrants from the Netherlands. Others include Alpha Domus (Hawke’s Bay), Mebus Estate (Wairarapa) and Staedt Landt (Marlborough). Even more intriguingly, Julicher has a Finnish winemaker, Outi Javovirta.

Before the Air New Zealand awards were announced last weekend, Julicher was a label familiar to wine lovers in the Wairarapa, and perhaps Wellington, but probably little known further afield. There had been signs, however, that this was a winery to watch. Julicher’s 2005 riesling scored the maximum five points in a Cuisine tasting three years ago, and the winery's 99 Rows Pinot Noir 2008 – an early-drinking style of pinot, cheaper than the label’s premium, trophy-winning wine – was another Cuisine five-pointer, securing a place in the Top 10 in the magazine’s recent annual pinot tasting.

The irony is that Wim Julicher started out in 1996 intending to grow olives, not grapes. It was only after his olive trees were devastated by frost in 1998 that he decided there might be a more promising future in wine.

As a result of its weekend triumph, Julicher Estate will now enjoy a cachet in the marketplace and status-conscious wine drinkers who hadn’t previously heard of the label will be clamouring to acquire its wine. This demonstrates one of the great virtues of competitions: they alert the market to promising new wineries (well, newish in this case) that might otherwise go unnoticed.

Julicher isn’t the first obscure winery to have beaten more illustrious names to top honours. In the 2001 Air New Zealand awards, a sweet riesling made by Canterbury House (a label now part of the Mud House group, but rarely heard of these days) was named champion wine of the show. Best-in-class trophies have often gone to outsiders such as Gisborne’s small Amor-Bendall winery, which in 2004 won the hotly contested sauvignon blanc trophy, and Martinborough’s now-defunct Lintz Estate, whose shiraz won the champion “other reds” trophy in 1998 (a prize controversially withdrawn after British judge Oz Clarke realised the wine submitted for judging was different from the one under the same label that was served at the awards dinner.)

These examples show that success in the Air New Zealand awards is no guarantee of a stellar future – but it’s a good start nonetheless, and my guess is that Julicher will be no flash in the pan.

Catalina Sounds, Couper’s Shed and Georgetown are three other little-known names that thrust themselves into the spotlight in the 2009 Air New Zealand awards, winning the trophies for best sauvignon blanc, best pinot gris and “best exhibition red wine” respectively. Marlborough label Catalina Sounds, owned by an Australian wine distributor, produced its first vintage in 2006. Couper’s Shed is an even newer name; it’s a Hawke’s Bay label owned by Pernod Ricard and targeted mainly at the restaurant market. Georgetown is a Cromwell (Central Otago) label about which I know nothing, and which appears to be so new it isn’t even mentioned in the 2009 Winegrowers New Zealand annual report which lists all its members.

Otherwise the trophies went to well-established and mostly familiar names, as can be seen from the following complete list:

Air New Zealand Champion Wine of the Show Trophy
Julicher Pinot Noir 2008
Bell Gully Champion Sustainable Wine Trophy
Olssens Annieburn Riesling 2009
JF Hillebrand New Zealand Ltd Champion Pinot Noir Trophy
Julicher Pinot Noir 2008
Label & Litho Champion Chardonnay Trophy
Villa Maria Reserve Barrique Chardonnay 2007
OI New Zealand Champion Sauvignon Blanc Trophy
Catalina Sounds Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2009
BDO Champion Other White Styles & Rosé Trophy
Church Road Reserve Viognier 2007
Fairfax Media Champion Open Red Wine Trophy
Waipara Hills Southern Cross Selection Central Otago Pinot Noir 2008
Fruitfed Supplies Champion Syrah Trophy
Coopers Creek SV Hawkes Bay Syrah Chalk Ridge 2008
LatitudeGT Champion Pinot Gris Trophy
Couper’s Shed Pinot Gris 2009
Newstalk ZB Champion Other Red Styles Trophy
Trinity Hill Gimblett Gravels Tempranillo 2008
New World Champion Open White Wine Trophy
Forrest The Doctors’ Riesling 2009
New Zealand Winegrowers Champion Gewurztraminer Trophy
Johanneshof Cellars Marlborough Gewurztraminer 2009
New Zealand Winegrowers Champion Merlot Trophy
Villa Maria Reserve Merlot 2007
Plant & Food Research Champion Riesling Trophy
Esk Valley Marlborough Riesling 2009
Rabobank Champion Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot/Cabernet Blend Trophy
Mills Reef Elspeth Cabernet Merlot 2007 Champion Sparkling Wine Trophy
Deutz Marlborough Cuvee Blanc de Blancs 2006
Wineworks Champion Dessert Wine Trophy
Farmgate Noble Harvest Riesling 2007
Corbans Viticulture Champion Exhibition White or Sparkling Wine Trophy
Villa Maria Reserve Marlborough Chardonnay 2006
Kapiti Champion Exhibition Red Wine Trophy
Georgetown Vineyard Pinot Noir 2007

A few points of interest about the awards:

■ The jury is still out on which region does best with pinot noir. Marlborough and Otago dead-heated for gold medals in the pinot class, with seven each. Wairarapa wines scored four, including one not from Martinborough (Fairmont Estate). [Point of explanation: a gold medal does not indicate that a wine has won its class, merely that it has been awarded more than 18.5 points out of a possible 20. A wine that wins its class is awarded a trophy. In contrast to the Olympic Games, there is theoretically no limit to the number of medals that can be awarded in each category.]

■ The number of trophies seems to be steadily expanding, perhaps to ensure more winners and therefore create an additional incentive for wineries to enter. For example, three rieslings and three pinot noirs were awarded trophies, though in separate categories. This seems to muddy the results and create uncertainty as to which has been judged the “best” wine.

■ The trophy-winning Villa Maria chardonnay is a Gisborne wine, which may provide welcome encouragement to chardonnay growers in a region that has shown signs of falling out of favour.

■ Keep an eye on Waipara. The low-profile North Canterbury region didn’t make a huge splash in the awards, but picked up gold medals for the wine styles it’s best suited to, namely riesling and pinot noir. It was fitting that one of those medals went to Glenmark Weka Plains Riesling 2003, a wine bearing the label established by the pioneer of Waipara wine, farmer John McCaskey. Waipara Springs also picked up a gold medal for its Premo Riesling 2005 and up-and-coming Waipara label Greystone scored with its 2008 pinot noir.

■ Seven gold medals were awarded in the gewürztraminer class, despite it being a small category and a relatively unfashionable wine style that many wineries regard as too troublesome to bother with. Riesling also did well, scoring 10 gold medals. By comparison, only 13 gold medals were awarded in the much bigger sauvignon blanc class.

■ Only one merlot scored gold, suggesting that merlot on its own, while warm and plump, needs the tannic structure of cabernet sauvignon to give it some spine. (Even one gold medal would be too much for the lead character in the cult movie Sideways, who despised merlot.)

■ Of the 10 gold medals awarded for syrah (another very high ratio), three were for Waiheke Island wines. The rest, predictably, went to Hawke’s Bay.

■ It was pleasing to see Mills Reef take home the trophy for best Bordeaux-style red – appropriate recognition for a winery that consistently delivers without hype or fanfare.

■ Small Martinborough winery Margrain walked away with a remarkable haul of three gold medals – from a total of seven – for dessert wines. One of the medal-winning Margrain wines was a botrytis chenin blanc from vines planted 30 years ago by Martinborough wine pioneer the late Stan Chifney, whose vineyard Margrain acquired after his death. Two of the four remaining golds for dessert wines went to Hawke’s Bay producer Ngatarawa, long a proven performer in this class. (Farmgate, the champion dessert wine, is a Ngatarawa label.)

■ Montana Sauvignon Blanc won gold – a fitting honour in the year marking the 30th anniversary of the wine many still consider the archetypal Marlborough sauvignon blanc. Another Marlborough producer, St Clair, won four of the 13 gold medals awarded for sauvignon blanc.

All very interesting, but of course wine competitions are not infallible. Wine judging is subjective, even when carried out by experts, and can throw up quirky results. Bear in mind that the judges do their tasting in a very different setting from that in which most people enjoy wine, and that noses and palates can become tired and jaded over the course of a long day in which literally hundreds of wines may be sampled. It’s well known that wine contests tend to favour “look at me” or “show pony” wines while quieter, very worthy wines may go unnoticed.

Bear in mind too that many of the country’s most distinguished wine producers – among them Te Mata Estate, Ata Rangi, Neudorf, Felton Road, Dry River and Pegasus Bay, to name just a few – rarely, if ever, enter New Zealand wine competitions. Even Montana for many years didn’t bother. One obvious reason is that these wineries don’t need awards to enhance their reputations, but an additional factor is that they don’t make wines to a formula aimed at winning competitions.

This reflects no discredit on wines that do well in competitions, or wineries (such as Villa Maria) that consistently win trophies. A wine that wins a gold medal in a competition such as the Air New Zealand awards will almost certainly be a very good wine, but that’s not to say there are not better wines out there. In any case, the best judge of any wine is the person drinking it.

For the awards in full, go to:

[My book The New Zealand Wine-Lover’s Companion is published by Craig Potton Publishing and has a recommended retail price of $29.99.]


SueNZ said...

"Remarkably, given Martinborough’s status, it was the first time in 20 years that a wine from the South Wairarapa winemaking region had won the supreme prize. "

Yes, at that competition. Remarkably, or perhaps not so remarkably now, Julicher also won the supreme prize at the New Zealand International Wine Show two years ago - the supreme wine - Julicher Pinot Noir 2006.

Martinborough Pinots have now taken out the Champion Pinot Noir three years in a row at the NZ International, but only Julicher has managed the supreme prize. Hats off to them.


Wine Noter said...

An excellent interpretation of the results.
Geeorgetown are the Dees, who grow for Mount Edward. Duncan Forsyth, there, makes the (tiny amount) of wine under the Georgetown label for them.
Cheers, Raymond