Gordon Russell, Andrew Keenleyside, Jason Flowerday, Jen Parr, James Millton,
Larry McKenna and Peter Bartle.

Gourmet Traveller WINE
headed back to Gusto at the Grand in Auckland’s SkyCity for the third New Zealand Winemaker of the Year Awards supported by Vintec. How could we resist? SkyCity’s Richard Seldon, restaurant manager John Logan, chef Vaughan Kay and sommelier Marek Przyborek go all out to ensure a great night.

So, on a warm summer’s evening, New Zealand’s winemaking elite gathered to enjoy pre-dinner drinks – a delicious glass of NV Quartz Reef Methode Traditionnelle Rosé from Rudi Bauer, who won the Leadership Award in 2019, or a reviving Reid + Reid gin, one of our favourite Kiwi spirits, with a splash of tonic. Our great mate Tim Severne joined the party, bringing with him his still and sparkling Antipodes water, which is easily the best choice for rehydration when seriously tasting wine.

Our finalists and winners came from the top of the north to the bottom of the south, and from everywhere in between. Legendary winemaker Larry McKenna of Escarpment wines breezed in from Martinborough with his son Ryan. Gordon Russell of Esk Valley and wife Pia joined us from Hawke’s Bay. Central Otago was well represented by Andrew Keenleyside of Akarua, Jen Parr from Valli Vineyards, who was also a finalist last year, and Pete Bartle contract winemaker at Vinpro and co-owner and winemaker at Providore Wines. Alastair Maling MW was away but Foley colleagues Claire Sussmilch and Yvette Holden were there.

Our New Zealand editor, Bob Campbell ONZM, MW was on hand to host the awards that he’d judged with Cameron Douglas MS and Liz Wheadon, general manager of Glengarry Wines. The late, great Raymond Chan judged both the 2018 and 2019 awards and will be remembered for laying the groundwork for the awards, along with Campbell and Douglas.

I, once again, fulfilled my role of welcoming guests and, at the risk of sounding like a broken record to those who had attended before, explained how the judging panel picked contenders. Without a doubt, it is an exceptional achievement to be listed among the top six.

Dinner began with two astonishing whites: the elegant, taut, high-energy 2013 Millton Te Arai Chenin Blanc from Gisborne, which for some was the wine of the night; and 2016 Escarpment Blanc, a creamy textured pinot blanc, “restrained and rather elegant”, according to Campbell. All the wines at the dinner were served in Riedel stemware, shipped in by the truckload courtesy of Mark Baulderstone.

Rather than match a specific dish to each of these wines, head chef Vaughan Kay sent three shared plates for guests to experiment with, including trevally crudo with cucumber, caperberry, chilli and lemon; a deliciously salty San Daniele prosciutto; and a Caprese salad.

Next were the chardonnays. The 2018 Martinborough Vineyard Chardonnay from Alastair Maling MW was rich and flavoursome, with grapefruit, white peach oyster shell and a touch of ginger, and a seam of tangy acidity to refresh the palate.

The 2017 Domaine Rewa Chardonnay made by Pete Bartle in Central Otago had excellent concentration and wonderful mouthfeel, leading to an extremely long and engaging finish. A beautifully complex wine.

Any fears that the dish of crab spaghetti with chilli and garlic might kill these wines were soon allayed: the gentle touch of chilli did nothing but enhance the food and wine match.

Each received an elegant framed certificate and a set of Riedel glasses.

We raised a toast to the finalists with a couple of pinot noirs from Central Otago. The
clear garnet 2018 Valli Gibbston Pinot Noir made by Jen Parr had “a fascinating array
of aromas from mineral to floral to earthy, spicy and herbaceous”, according to Campbell.
The palate was savoury with dried herbs, mushroom and red fruit.

Our tasting note for the 2018 Akarua Pinot Noir made by Andrew Keenleyside read: “very aromatic with plum, cherry, thyme, savoury herb and nutty flavours.” A beautifully complex wine.

A fleet of wait staff glided through the room delivering three more outstanding dishes: line-caught snapper fillet with pistachio, preserved lemon and chilli; a veal cutlet alla Milanese; and a refreshing rocket and pear salad – and dangerously moreish roast potatoes.

The atmosphere in the room was palpable as platters of Italian cheese were served and final wines were poured prior to the announcement of the main awards.

Nerves were calmed as winemakers sipped on the fine 2015 TWR SV5182 Pinot Noir from Jason Flowerday of Te Whare Ra Vineyards in Marlborough, a concentrated, elegant pinot noir of high energy and good acidity, and the 2014 Esk Valley Winemakers Reserve Syrah made by Gordon Russell at Esk Valley in Hawke’s Bay, a dense, deep flagship syrah only made in the best vintages.  

The Leadership Award recognises a winemaker, viticulturist or marketer who has made a difference through their actions and has inspired others to follow their lead.

This year there was no better recipient than James Millton of Millton Vineyards, aka New Zealand’s ‘father of organic wine’, for his work with both organics and biodynamics, inspiring and counselling others along the way.

Millton offered the following as he accepted his certificate and Riedel decanter: “It is an honour for a small artisan winegrower from a family estate to receive this leadership award. Is this award about succession, the environment, the changing consumer appeal, the embrace of sound biodynamic practices in the vineyard or winery or just simply being a good bugger? Whatever it may be, our journey has found that we are not standing on dirt, but the rooftop of another kingdom – so tread carefully.”

Campbell introduced the next award: “Viticulturists occupy what is arguably the most important role in quality wine production. The judges were looking for a viticulturist who has not only produced inspirational wines, but who has helped others to pursue similarly ambitious goals.” Jason Flowerday, our Viticulturist of the Year, was an eminently worthy winner for the work he’s done at Te Whare Ra in Marlborough.

Tension rose as the moment came to announce the overall Winemaker of the Year for 2020. With tears of joy streaming down her face Jen Parr of Valli Vineyards accepted her Award with these words: “As a student of literature, I often wondered about my purpose. I wondered about [it] for a long time. Eventually I started on this wine journey.

“People often ask me about our purpose as an industry. What good do we do in the world as wine growers – and at the end of the day, it is really difficult to answer. As individuals, (wine writers, wine masters, purveyors, growers) we are like bright colours on an artist’s palette. But our beauty is unleashed when all these colours are put together on a canvas and we become one. And in that beauty, we can capture a moment in time and help people appreciate a moment in time.

“And I think that is important – that capturing a moment in time and enjoying memories and that wine in that glass, it comes from the heart. It comes from our toils and our choices. That memory and that canvas that we create together lasts much longer than wine in the glass (particularly our wines!). So, if we continue to look after each other, take care of each other, our planet and our land, and continue to collectively put colour on the canvas, then I do think we make the world a better place.”  

Without a doubt, all the winemakers celebrated at this special night have made the world a better place by their impassioned efforts to make extraordinary wines and their enduring support for each other.

The latter was made clear when last year’s Winemaker of the Year winner, Helen Masters of Ata Rangi turned up with Nick Mills from Rippon to toast this year’s winners.

Gusto at the Grand menu

Chef Vaughan Kay

  On Arrival
NV Quartz Reef Methode Traditionnelle Rosé
Reid + Reid Gin & Tonic

  First Course
2013 Millton Te Arai Chenin Blanc, Gisborne
2016 Escarpment Blanc, Martinborough

Trevally crudo with cucumber, caperberry, chilli and lemon
San Daniele prosciutto
Caprese salad

  Second Course
2018 Martinborough Vineyard Chardonnay, Martinborough
2017 Domaine Rewa Chardonnay, Central Otago

Crab spaghetti with garlic and chilli

  Third Course
2018 Valli Gibbston Pinot Noir, Central Otago
2018 Akarua Pinot Noir, Central Otago

Line-caught snapper fillet with pistachio, preserved lemon and chilli
Veal cutlet alla Milanese
Rocket, pear and parmesan salad

  Fourth Course
2015 TWR SV5182 Pinot Noir, Marlborough
2014 Esk Valley Reserve Syrah, Hawke’s Bay

A selection of farmhouse Italian cheese

Water supplied by Antipodes