Tasting Plate: clockwise from left: Yellow Fin Tuna, Parma Ham, Smoked Wild Venison

Appraising the Air New Zealand Wine Awards 2011

[dropcap]M[/dropcap]any milestones were marked at Saturday nights Air New Zealand Wine Awards 2011: primarily it recognised a staggering 25 year partnership between New Zealand Wine Growers and very generous naming sponsor Air New Zealand; it also saw record entries of more than 1,500 New Zealand wines, celebrated 5 years of renowned Chief Judge Steve Smith MW chairing the Awards judging panel, the first ‘appearance’ of Air New Zealand’s marketing sweetheart the twittering Air New Zealand Fairy (@airnzfairy), and the Awards MC debut of TV’s funny guy Jeremy Corbett.

With so much going on, it was appropriate that the format was a little different this year, with a focus on celebrating the awards history with multimedia displays rather than the traditional live entertainment. It allowed awards attendees to mix and mingle a little more amongst the 60+ tables during the dinner breaks in The Langham’s grandiose The Great Room – albeit this meant a great deal more work for staff, ushering guests back to tables to keep to a well-timed schedule.

Firstlight Wagyu Beef Dish

For the 630 wine drinkers and unquestionable food appreciators in the audience I believe there were little qualms about the evening. The cuisine, a collective effort by household names Peter Gordon, Rex Morgan, and Geoff Scott presented to our table was impressive, featuring local ingredients such as crayfish, kawakawa, Yellow Fin Tuna and Firstlight Wagyu beef (a New Zealand first, produced exclusively in Hawkes Bay and solely grass-fed). The latter was exceptional, Peter Gordon had cooked this indulgence to perfection – rib-eye braised slowly, it was succulent, marbled and simply stormed with flavour in the presence of its plate counterparts – a beetroot and Wagyu tongue fritter, piquant mustard mash and slaw of seasonal greens. Regrettably I heard from another table the antithesis was true, the dish underperformed due to its inedible overcooking… I must put it down to the assumption that their dish was the woeful victim of just too long a wait time under hot lights. It’s a shame it meant upbraid by them for what was a truly magnificent dish – it’s patent there’s promise for New Zealand Wagyu-esque beef production.

Earlier in the evening Gordon’s taster of seared yellow fin with nori puree, salmon caviar and toasted coconut, cucumber and green mango salad had guests wowing, and I think his dishes overall stole the comestibles show.

Tasting Plate: clockwise from left: Yellow Fin Tuna, Parma Ham, Smoked Wild Venison

Morgan and Scott’s tasters, which were very complementary and well-executed, held their own too. All flavour smacks on the starters plate provided their own unique profiles of flavour. I loved Morgan’s ingenious and innovative kawakawa gazpacho that lay peacefully beneath the featherweight Parma Ham, while Scott’s tea-cured and smoked wild venison loin on pickled cauliflower was an exciting contrast.  These tantalizing tasters were superb with trophy winning bubbles The Sounds Marlborough Methode Traditionelle 2008 – delightfully autolytic, with grapefruit citrus and white peach.

Scott’s poached crayfish and hapuku rendition was least visually appealing on the plate, but still carried the sensual delicacy of crayfish alongside a rather strong bisque/jus, with a new season asparagus and leek terrine. The weight and flavour spectrum complemented well with Spy Valley’s gorgeous trophy winning Pinot Gris 2011, collected by a very happy Paul Bourgeois on the night.

Last but certainly not least a chocolatey finale by Rex Morgan was summoned, which was wolfed down in inadvertent seconds by the increasingly jolly audience. I fear the majority of desserts were consumed without appreciating the nuances of Ghana chocolate, golden syrup ice-cream, and freeze dried fruit sherbet. I especially savored it withCharles Wiffen’s Late Harvest Marlborough Riesling 2009 even though this sticky was more suited to the divine Kapiti cheese course which preceded the chocolate.

Ubiquitous admiration resounded with the most awarded wine of the night – taking out Champion Chardonnay, Champion Sustainable Wine, and Supreme Wine of the Show – the adored, venerated Villa Maria Single Vineyard Keltern Chardonnay 2008. A veritable triumph for the Villa Maria team, cementing for them an unprecedented number of trophies, awards and accolades for a variety that in recent times has seemed an utterly trumpable one (Chardonnay has been frequently surpassed by red wines such as Pinot Noir and Bordeaux blends). Not so with this style – gloriously autolytic, with attractive struck match sulfides, it indeed emulates the Kumeu River style that has put an alternative, sparse-on-the-oak New World Chardonnay on the map. It’s an exciting development reaffirming New Zealand’s suitability to producing world-beating wines, both red and white.

My encounter with Langham’s service staff reiterated the hotel’s uniform polished style without losing the Kiwi touch, and Jeremy’s act was well-received with his mercurial performance in the company of Fairy while engaging the crowd effectively backstage. His frequent trips backstage interviewing each of the esteemed chef trio prior to each course was well done. There were mixed reviews on fairy’s ‘real’ appearance, though I’m inclined to think the dissenters were of the more mature demographic or weren’t so social media savvy. Either way I think everyone loved the Air Points and Flights showered out like lolly scrambles by Fairy’s koru wand. Ultimately I think it was a clever, entertaining touch highlighting the effort Air New Zealand has put into being a cutting edge business, forward thinking not just in their delivery of innovative birds and interiors but with their marketing and brand strengthening by personalisation. Some had wished the ribald Rico had been in Fairy’s place – but perhaps he may get a look in next year…

Other notable acceptances of trophies included Warren Gibson for his outstanding Bilancia Syrah 2010 – this wine is a true delight (even though it’s a baby), expressing lifted Rhone like aromatics of cracked black pepper, plum, red fruit, violet florals and bacon. Peter Bartle’s received the Champion Exhibition Red Wine Trophy for his Charcoal Gully Estate Sallys Pinch Central Otago Pinot Noir 2010 and Alan Johnson’s Pencarrow Martinborough Pinot Noir 2010 took out both the Champion Pinot Noir Trophy and Champion Open Red Wine. Good wine / food pairings here.

So to next year – changes are afoot. Kumeu Estate’s Michael Brajkovich MW takes the helm of this well-oiled ship for 2012 as Chief Judge of the Awards. I look forward to witnessing his skill and experience coursing through this wine show in the new year. A big congratulations to Air New Zealand, New Zealand Wine Growers, the Chef Trio and The Langham for a fantastic event, and congratulations to all the Elite Gold and Trophy Winners – may these awards continue to inspire greatness in New Zealand wine.