Sniffing out New Zealand’s best wine for 25 years

During the last 25 years New Zealand has increased its production of wine by more than six times while export sales have gone from $4.4 million to more than $1 billion; a staggering increase. Although growth in quality is harder to measure than growth in volume there is little doubt in my mind that the quality of New Zealand wine has grown faster than the quality of any wine-producing country in the world over the past quarter century.

One of the biggest drivers of wine quality over that period has been competition, or more specifically, wine competitions. Wine competitions give winemakers a chance to see how their wines stack up against those of their peers. If a new wine district or winemaking technique spawns a winner then others are quick to follow. For example in 1983 John Hancock was one of the first producers to ferment his Chardonnay in oak barrels. His wine performed well in a wine competition. Within a few short years most serious Chardonnays were being fermented in barrel. Competition speeds up the evolutionary process.

This country’s leading wine competition is the Air New Zealand Wine Awards. Air New Zealand became a major sponsor in 1987 although the original show started in 1957. This year will be the 25th Air New Zealand Wine Awards.

I was one of the judges at the first Air New Zealand Wine Awards in 1987. The show chairman was Wellington lawyer, John Comerford. My fellow senior judges were Joe Babich (winemaker, Babich Wines – tastings), Michael Brajkovich (winemaker, Kumeu River – tastings), Bruce Collard (winemaker, Collard Brothers), Geoff Kelly (scientist, DSIR) and Randy Weaver (winemaker, Coopers Creek – tastings). International judges were Oz Clarke from the UK, who I still rate as one of the two best wine judges I’ve ever worked with, and Jerry Mead from the US.

The wines were served in anonymous glasses by type and vintage. For example, all of the Chardonnays were served together, a welcome change from the one-glass-at-a-time convention in past years. Each panel of three judges and two associate judges then tasted the wines in silence awarding each wine a score with comments.

When everyone had finished we sat down to compare scores. There is a high degree of consensus in wine judging. Perhaps half-a-dozen wines out of 50 are typically re-tasted and re-scored because one judge is at variance with the others.

In 1987 two panels judged 430 wines over two days – a relatively easy workload of just over 100 wines each day. 35 gold medals were awarded. Chardonnay and Riesling earned nine gold medals each, Cabernet Sauvignon scored five golds, Gewurztraminer and Sauvignon Blanc were next with three golds each, blended reds and sparkling wines won two gold medals while there was one gold medal awarded to Semillon and Pinot Noir.

I recall that one of the sparkling gold medals went to Montana Bernadino, a wine that would certainly raise a few eyebrows if it earned such a high award today. There was considerable discussion in my panel before we finally decided to give it gold. We all acknowledged that a sweet, fruity sparkling wine styled after Italian Asti Spumante was not likely to be a prestigious wine label but we also agreed that it was an excellent example of its type. Twenty-five years later I believe we made the right decision.

It’s fair to say that none of the wines that scored gold 25 years ago would earn the same medal today. The standard of New Zealand wine has risen spectacularly in that period.

I talked to several judges who had attended most of the Air New Zealand Wine Award events. Many offered colourful stories although most of these involved the judges dinner, a popular and mildly competitive event where each judge brings a bottle of wine that he hopes will be rated “wine of the night”.

My favourite anecdote involving the judging process was related by Jim Harre, an inflight service director for Air New Zealand for over 30 years and a judge at the Air New Zealand Wine Awards for 15 years. “I remember on one occasion an associate judge left the judging room to answer his cell phone which had been vibrating insistently on the table from time to time during the judging. He returned about 15 minutes later with a smile and explained the call had been from the Police who asked if he could examine and sign the death certificate of a patient who had passed away. He had explained that he was judging at a national competition and couldn’t leave. The Police replied they knew he was involved in this important competition and that they had the body down-stairs and could they bring it up to the judging room to save him time. He apparently replied he would be happy to come downstairs, and I’ve always wondered how the results would have changed that year if the body had appeared in the judging room.”

Key Milestones

  • 1989: First time the number of entries exceeded 500
  • 1992: First time the number of gold medals awarded exceed 50
  • 1997: First time the number of entries exceeded 1,000
  • 1999: First time a Pinot Noir wins Champion wine of the show
  • 2004: Largest Awards Dinner ever held, with over 1,000 people in attendance (Blenheim)
  • 2005: First time the number of entries exceed 1,500
  • 2007: Sustainability awards introduced (Pure Gold, etc)
  • 2009: First time the number of gold medals awarded exceed 100
  • 2010: Old trophy retires and a new, Weta created trophy is introduced (see photo attached)

Champion Wines: 1987 – 2010

  • 1987: Villa Maria Barrique Fermented Chardonnay 1986
  • 1988: Corbans Private Bin Noble Rhine Riesling 1986
  • 1989: Martinborough Chardonnay 1988
  • 1990: Corbans Private Bin Noble Rhine Riesling 1989
  • 1991: Esk Valley Reserve Merlot Cabernet 1990
  • 1992: Vidal Reserve Cabernet Merlot 1990
  • 1993: Vidal Reserve Cabernet Merlot 1990
  • 1994: Corbans Private Bin Marlborough Chardonnay 1991
  • 1995: Corbans Cottage Block Gisborne Chardonnay 1994
  • 1996: Corbans Verde Méthode Traditionelle
  • 1997: Corbans Amadeus Méthode Champenoise 1992
  • 1998: Corbans Stoneleigh Vineyard Marlborough Riesling 1996
  • 1999: Wither Hills Pinot Noir 1998
  • 2000: C J Pask Reserve Merlot 1998
  • 2001: Canterbury House Noble Riesling 2000
  • 2002: Villa Maria Reserve Pinot Noir 2001
  • 2003: Akarua Pinot Noir 2002 (tastings)
  • 2004: Villa Maria Reserve Pinot Noir 2003 (tastings)
  • 2005: Kim Crawford SP Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc Spitfire 2005
  • 2006: Delta Vineyard Marlborough Pinot Noir 2005 (tastings)
  • 2007: Trinity Hill Homage Syrah 2006 (tastings)
  • 2008: Church Road Reserve Syrah 2007 (tastings)
  • 2009: Julicher Pinot Noir 2008
  • 2010: Peregrine Central Otago Pinot Noir 2009


  • Over the years more than 130 different judges have been involved with determining the winners of the Air New Zealand Wine Awards, including over 50 international judges.
  • Nearly 40,000 wines have been judged
  • Nearly 1,600 gold medals have been awarded
  • Nearly 420 trophies have been won
  • Villa Maria has won the most trophies (total of 56 up until 2010). These 56 trophies include 3 x Champion Wine of the Show and 6 x “Runner’s Up” trophies
  • Although (as at 2010) Corbans have only won 34 trophies to date, they have won the Champion Wine of the Show 7 times

How things have changed in 25 years

  • Competition entries have climbed from 430 in 1987 to over 1500 today
  • In 1987 the grape Muller-Thurgau was New Zealand’s most planted variety with a one-third share of the national vineyard. Today Sauvignon Blanc dominates with more than half the total vineyard area. Muller-Thurgau now represents our 20th most planted grape variety.
  • Pinot Gris is now our fourth most planted grape variety. In 1987 it didn’t exist as far as vineyard statistics were concerned
  • Chenin Blanc was the fourth ranked grape variety in 1987. It has now fallen to 19th place.
  • In 1987 there were six senior judges in two panels. Now there are 15 judges in five panels.
  • One in every 20 bottles of New Zealand wine was fortified (port or sherry) in 1987. New Zealand fortified wines are almost non-existent today
  • Red wine has increased its share from 9% in 1987 to 14% today
  • In 1987 Hawke’s Bay was the country’s largest wine region. Today Marlborough rules with a hefty 75% share of the country’s grape crop
  • The Air New Zealand Wine Awards now has a supreme “gold elite” award. It also features “pure gold, silver and bronze medal” awards for wines made from sustainably grown grapes

To view the 2011 Air New Zealand Wine Awards results go to

First published in KiaOra Magazine – Nov 2011.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *