For the first time in its 18 year history the New World Wine Awards are being judged at a series of regional events, including one in Hawke's Bay.
Held at East Pier on Thursday and Friday three local experts, Kate Radburnd of Radburnd Cellars, Nick Picone from Villa Maria, and Ant Mackenzie of Ant Mackenzie Wines, sniffed, swirled, sipped (and spat) their way through the entries by grape variety, judging each wine on colour, taste and smell.
The double blind tasting mean the judges knew nothing about the wine they were judging.
It was fascinating to stand quietly in the room while Kate, Ant and Nick tasted and discussed the wines in front of them referred to by numbers.
Before I arrived they had sat quietly looking at their flight of wine, tested the aroma, tasted, made notes and scored, based on the 100 point scale international wine score.
The next step was a discussion between the three of them with Kate leading the way.
They discussed what they thought deserved gold, silver and bronze.
I was totally absorbed as they talked about what they thought of each wine. Phrases such as "real drive, looks sweeter than it should, touch of waxiness, palate didn't support what we were expecting from the aroma, gentle fragrance, and slightly edgy".
One that they marked a silver plus was described as "enough vibrancy and expression that we don't often see".
Another wine had the judges excited as they described it as having "beautiful balance and your mouth wants more" got a gold.
The judges who are all winemakers were decisive and so knowledgeable.
The top-ranked silver and all gold scoring wines will be reviewed by a second panel of judges in Auckland including chair of judges Jim Harré, associate chair Sam Kim and consulting winemaker Simon Nunns.
The panel will review the wines to confirm consistency across regional scoring, rank the Gold medal wines to determine the Top 50 and award Champion titles.
Kate said she enjoyed judging as it kept her up to date with the world of wine.
"As a winemaker judging gives me a library of information to refer to," Nick said.
Ant said they all did it for similar reasons. "It broadens your knowledge and allows you to be controlled and focused and not influenced in any way."
More than 1200 wines are set to be judged over 10 days of non-stop tasting at events in and around the country's key wine regions – a big change from the usual one-off Wellington event held each year.
Along with Hawke's Bay, Marlborough and Central Otago will each be a judging hub for wines grown and made in the surrounding areas, while Auckland will hold the judging for local as well as international, sparkling and emerging wines.
The change was designed to ensure the awards could continue safely and effectively during the country's evolving Covid-19 response and has gone on to attract strong entries and support from wineries all over the world.
Jim Harré says the judging team, made up of 18 independent wine experts from around the country, is delighted to see award entries exceed expectations and hold strong to previous records during such a challenging year for many businesses.
"New Zealand's wine industry is an incredibly important part of our economy, and like so many sectors, it has been working through a difficult period with many unknowns. It is encouraging to see such a significant number of local wineries, as well as many of our regular entrants from Australia and beyond, put their wines forward.
"The Top 50 ranked wines will enjoy the prestige of a Gold medal that is recognised and trusted by consumers, as well as the nationwide sales opportunity through New World supermarkets. For some, particularly smaller wineries or those that rely heavily on strained export or hospitality markets, a Top 50 win can go a long way in supporting and growing their business."
Chardonnay, a much-loved speciality of the Hawke's Bay, makes up the largest portion of the entries by class, while several other varieties also promise to add to the excitement for judges.
Jim says the shift to regional events will allow the judges to experience the distinctive styles and unique characteristics of wines grown in specific areas of the country.
"This is particularly the case here, where we are seeing a number of Hawke's Bay Sauvignon Blanc come through. These will naturally differ from the now world-famous Marlborough style many are familiar with, and it will be a treat to taste and evaluate the uniquely local flavour."
The Syrah/Shiraz class also holds the opportunity for Hawke's Bay to rise to the top and go head-to-head with top-ranked Australian wines in the second round of tasting in Auckland next week.
All entries to the New World Wine Awards must retail for $25 or less, and there must be at least 4000 bottles (or 2000 for emerging varietals) available for sale through New World stores to ensure there is plenty on hand for wine-loving shoppers to enjoy. The full results will be announced later this year.
Kate Radburnd (panel leader)
Kate Radburnd has been making wine for over 35 years and is one of New Zealand's most lauded winemakers. After receiving an Oenology degree in her native Australia, Kate moved to New Zealand in 1983 to work as a winemaker at Vidal with legendary New Zealand winemaker George Fistonich. She joined Pask Winery in 1991 and became winemaker, joint owner and then managing director until 2017. Her new winery venture Radburnd Cellars Ltd was established in September 2017 with the purpose of Kate making small parcels of her absolute best. A highly regarded ambassador for New Zealand wine, Kate has been a wine judge all around the globe, earned many trophies for her wines and was at the forefront of New Zealand's Sustainable Winegrowing initiative. She was awarded the Sir George Fistonich medal in 2010, was the first female winemaker to become a fellow of New Zealand Winegrowers in 2015 and was inducted into the New Zealand Wine Hall of Fame in 2019.
Ant Mackenzie has worked in the New Zealand wine industry for over 25 years, holding various positions including stints as a general manager, wine consultant and wine science lecturer at Eastern Institute of Technology. He is currently working for Hãhã Wine Company as chief winemaker whilst continuing to develop his own wine brands under the Ant Mackenzie Wines banner. He enjoys keeping a finger on the pulse of New Zealand's wine industry through awards judging, taking part in the New Zealand Wine of the Year Awards, the Royal Easter Show Wine Awards and has recently been appointed chief judge of the A&P Hawke's Bay Wine Awards.
Nick Picone has been in and around the Villa Maria group for more than 20 years, working as group chief winemaker since 2015. Starting out as a teenager, Nick has made wines across New Zealand's main winegrowing regions and has also completed harvests in Italy and the United States. Nick was the recipient of the Len Evans tutorial scholarship in 2004, helping initiate his presence in wine judging. A regular judge in New Zealand wine shows for 15 years, Nick has also judged for Cuisine, Winestate, Dish and New Zealand Winegrowers.
Shona White is highly regarded for her ongoing contribution to the wine and hospitality industries and has played the vital role of chief steward at the New World Wine Awards for 14 years. She has spent over 30 years as a steward, assistant chief steward, chief steward and competition director of many of New Zealand's most prominent wine shows including the New Zealand Wine of the Year, Air New Zealand Wine Awards and Royal Easter Show Wine Awards. Shona holds a Diploma in Wine Marketing from Adelaide University and a Graduate Diploma in Business (Human Resources) from the University of Auckland. She was inducted into the New Zealand Wine Hall of Fame this year.