According to one of the airline’s wine consultants, John Belsham, who’s also the winemaker over at Foxes Island Wines, “For a lot of inbound passengers, this is their first experience of New Zealand wines.”
His fellow consultant, Jim Harré, who was actually an Air New Zealand flight attendant for over 30 years, continues: “An Air New Zealand plane is almost a little piece of the country—the koru logo on the tail, the Kiwi accents and touches. Even if you’re in London or LA, you feel like you’re home already, and the wine experience is part of that.”
Beyond the flight experience, “The airline is a wonderful marketing tool for our wines, and it works,” enthuses Barbara Lawson, owner of Lawson Dry Hills winery (whose Gewurtztraminer won a trophy at this years awards). “People come to the cellar door who tasted our wines on the plane, and they come to put a place and a face to the wine—that’s a wonderful feeling.” She adds, “I also fly a lot, and I love sitting on a plane and seeing my wine go by on the trolley.” Fancy thatus too.
The Air New Zealand Wine Awards are such a big deal that there were over 700 attendees from wineries all over the country this year, and we had to rent a tux and pack our best bow-tie to attend the gala reception at the Langham Auckland this past Saturday.
The award process is actually organized and run by the New Zealand Winegrowers Association, which means there is no financial component to them and, says Belsham, that the wines are judged amongst their peers by fellow winemakers and industry professionals.
There are five panels of three senior judges and one associate judge each. The airline assembles teams of high-profile industry folk such as winemakers, sommeliers and wine writers, including a few international judges (who are usually journalists or sommeliers), and parcels them out by specialty, such as Sauvignon Blanc or Syrah. The judges taste over a session of about 3 days, reviewing about 120 wines per day.
The judges then award wines Bronze, Silver, Gold and Elite Gold medals for exceptional wines in each of 14 categories (plus a Pure attribution for sustainable wines), including Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Dessert Wines. From these, a Trophy Winner is chosen in each category, and then the Champion of the entire show is chosen from those and announced at the black-tie gala awards ceremony.
We pulled chairman of the judges, Steve Smith, aside to learn why these awards are such a big deal. “They are an independent assessment for improvement in quality across the industry,” he says, “and they promote consumer awareness—those medals on the bottle help the consumer decide which wines to buy in the store.”
Some of the interesting developments this year according to Smith included first-time gold medals for a Verdelho and a Grenache in the competition, as well as an exciting new dynamism to the Sauvignon Blancs being submitted to competition that indicates a sea change in New Zealand mentality and means that some exciting wines made in new styles will make their way to shelves all over the world.
BY THE NUMBERS
Since this year marked the 25th anniversary of the Air New Zealand Wine Awards (the competition was actually started in 1957, but the airline came on as the major sponsor in 1987), the ceremony also focused on its history. Some of the fun facts we learned? In 1987, the country’s most widely planted grape (one third of everything) was Muller-thurgau, while today Sauvignon Blanc represents over half the vines. Red wine was 9% of total production back then, and has since grown to just 14%. Hawke’s Bay was the largest wine region, while today Marlborough produces a whopping 75% of New Zealand’s grapes.
Other interesting statistics include the fact that nearly 30,000 wines have been judged, over 130 judges have been involved in the show, and Villa Maria has won the most medals (with the final count at 60 after this year’s show), which was even cooler since we got to try one of their Syrahs on our flight down.
Among the winners of the evening were Dashwood Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2011, Pencarrow Martinborough Pinot Noir 2010, and Bilancia Hawke’s Bay Syrah 2010. The evening’s highest honor, the Air New Zealand Champion Wine of the Show Trophy, went to one of the country’s most-awarded wineries, Villa Maria, for its Single Vineyard Keltern Hawke’s Bay Chardonnay 2010.
Now, before you get too excited to try that particular wine on your next Air New Zealand flight, remember that these awards are completely independent from the airline’s wine selection process but you’ll probably start seeing more of these wines on the shelf of your local wine shop, and now when you see those medals on the label, you’ll know just how significant a stamp of quality they really are.
Full disclosure: Eric Rosen traveled to New Zealand and attended the Air New Zealand Wine Awards as a guest of the airline, but all opinions expressed are entirely his own.
[Photos: Eric Rosen for Jaunted]