Peter Cowley, Rudi Bauer, Helen Masters and Ivan Sutherland

Sean Connolly’s hatted restaurant, Gusto at the Grand in Auckland’s SkyCity, is renowned for its exceptional food and cracking wine list, so that’s exactly where we headed to hold Gourmet Traveller WINE’s annual NZ Winemaker of the Year awards in conjunction with Vintec.

finalist Dr Andrew Hedley and Bob Campbell

Finalist Dr Andrew Hedley and Bob Campbell

It would have been difficult to find a more helpful, creative and congenial team than Richard Seldon, restaurant manager Jeremy Bayet, sommelier Marek Przyborek, and head chef Vaughan Kay and his kitchen brigade who went above and beyond the norm to make sure New Zealand’s winemakers were properly honoured on a lovely summer evening at the end of January.

With all looking spectacular in the restaurant, New Zealand’s winemaking elite gathered for pre-dinner drinks. A choice of Rudi Bauer’s robust and flavoursome Quartz Reef Blanc de Blancs or a refreshing NZ Reid+Reid gin and tonic were served with canapés, while Tim Severne from Antipodes, who had recommended Gusto at the Grand in the first place, made sure we all remained hydrated with what we think is one of the finest waters around – and certainly when tasting wine.

Peter Cowley accepts his Lifetime Achievement Award
Peter Cowley accepts his Lifetime Achievement Award

Finalists from far and wide were there including Helen Masters from Ata Rangi with husband Ben and the winery’s founders Phyll and Clive Paton. Dr Andrew Hedley of Framingham arrived with his UK-based parents who, even at that stage, had no idea he was up for an award. The gregarious Jen Parr of Valli bounced in, while James Healy from Dog Point arrived with business partner and viticulturist Ivan Sutherland. Winemaker Richard Ellis stood in for Kevin Judd from Greywacke who was travelling overseas at the time, while Peter Cowley, the only winemaker to have been nominated for a second time, seemed pleased to find himself in for another round of awards before retiring after 34 years at Te Mata Estate.

Jen Parr

MC for the night, New Zealand editor and chair of judges Bob Campbell ONZM, MW brought more gravitas than ever to the event having received his Queen’s New Year’s honour. His fellow judges were Cameron Douglas MS and the late Raymond Chan who will be remembered for judging both the 2018 and 2019 awards.

I was tasked with welcoming guests and explaining that only the most exceptional winemakers were selected for consideration by the members of the judging panel, who keep a vigilant watch on exactly what is being achieved in the wineries and vineyards throughout the year, and then pick contenders on the merit of the wines they have produced in the recent past. I must say, considering the number of winemakers in New Zealand, it’s quite an achievement to be listed among the top six.

Judy Sarris,  Grant Taylor,  Helen Masters,  Callum and Jen Parr
Judy Sarris, Grant Taylor, Helen Masters, Callum and Jen Parr

Dinner began with three exquisite whites, including the pure and flinty 2016 Greywacke Wild Sauvignon Blanc served in the stunning new Riedel Veritas Sauvignon Blanc glass which had winemakers intrigued, and some even wanting to order stemware for themselves.

The concentrated and classy 2016 Dog Point Chardonnay preceded a very special treat, the 2003 Framingham Select Riesling. This was the first vintage made, and there were only ever 40 cases of it, so it was remarkable that Dr Andrew Hedley had bottles saved and generously shared them with us.

Ivan Sutherland of Dog Point Vineyard
Ivan Sutherland of Dog Point Vineyard

To his great credit, Gusto at the Grand’s head chef Vaughan Kay had decided to think outside the box when creating the menu for the dinner. Instead of taking the traditional route of matching one dish to each flight of three wines, he instead decided to match a dish to every single wine, serving three shared plates per course, and it worked. We dined on tender octopus carpaccio, caper, shallot & chilli; salty San Daniele prosciutto; as well as delicious pickled zucchini and cauliflower fritti with aioli respectively matched to the line-up of whites.

The SkyCity team
The SkyCity team

The second course proved to be equally as thrilling with three of New Zealand’s most outstanding pinot noirs on show. Tasting from left to right we enjoyed the 2016 Valli Gibbston Pinot Noir, the best of the winery’s subregional pinots from founder Grant Taylor’s own carefully sited vineyard. The fragrant and aromatic 2016 Dog Point Pinot Noir followed, while the 2013 Ata Rangi Pinot Noir, with its trademark savoury characters and plum and dark berry fruit, rounded out the bracket.

Rudi Bauer and  Ben Masters
Rudi Bauer and Ben Masters

Proving how versatile pinot noir can be when pairing with food, Vaughan Kay presented us with a trio of dishes including aromatic casarecce with Ligurian pesto, potato, beans and pecorino; grilled snapper, zucchini flowers, peas and mint; and lamb cutlets with summer beans, garlic and mint all of which, in their own way, complemented the wines beautifully.

While the spectacular array of Riedel glasses, especially shipped in for the night, continued to be topped up, Thibaut Caumont of Vintec and I headed to the stage to hand out awards to the six finalists, while Bob Campbell invited each of them to the stage.

James Healy and Ivan Sutherland
James Healy and Ivan Sutherland

“Helen Masters, thoughtfully rebellious head winemaker at Ata Rangi in Martinborough; Dr Andrew Hedley, obsessive compulsive riesling lover and head winemaker at Framingham in Marlborough; James Healy of Dog Point in Marlborough who says ‘winemaking is all about the fruit quality’; Jen Parr, winemaker at Valli in Central Otago who’s been making wine for 16 years, but in that time has done 28 vintages. A lady with a high energy level.”

Greywacke winemaker Richard Ellis stood in for Marlborough winemaker and finalist, Kevin Judd who was away travelling, while self-confessed “Bordeaux man” and technical director of Te Mata Estate, Peter Cowley picked up a finalist gong for a second year running.

Margaret Sutherland, Marion Campbell, Gail Cowley  and Wendy Healy
Margaret Sutherland, Marion Campbell, Gail Cowley and Wendy Healy

All were toasted with the excellent 2014 Te Mata Estate Bullnose Syrah that had been poured to accompany the course of New Zealand cheeses from around the land. It was, at last, time for the major awards to be announced. Each winner received an elegantly framed certificate and a magnificent Riedel Amadeo decanter.

The Leadership Award, given to someone who has made a difference through their actions and has inspired others to follow their lead, was first to be announced. Campbell said the judges threw the net wide but were in close agreement on the final winner, Rudi Bauer of Quartz Reef, who gave a moving speech on how the NZ wine community should continue to support each other and to work together as it has over the years.

Richard Ellis and Mr Hedley
Richard Ellis and Mr Hedley

Bob Campbell quite rightly pointed out that viticulturists are often the unsung heroes of the wine industry when presenting the Viticulturist of the Year Award. “It seems quite unfair to me that they seldom get a chance to collect trophies and medal awards at wine competitions or feature on critic profiles. This award goes to the true heroes of quality wine production – and this year to Ivan Sutherland of Dog Point.”

Ben and Helen Masters
Ben and Helen Masters

For special reasons, this year Gourmet Traveller WINE presented a one-off Lifetime Achievement Award. Campbell explained why: “One of the finalists for the Winemaker of the Year Award could quite easily have been a viable candidate for the Leadership Award, at a pinch the Viticulturist Award and was the only person to have been shortlisted for the Winemaker of the Year Award both this year and last. This worthy candidate has recently retired from his winemaking position. To recognise this person, we have created a special Lifetime Achievement Award which quite rightly goes to Peter Cowley of Te Mata Estate.”

Guests dined on a fantastic menu at Gusto  at the Grand
Guests dined on a fantastic menu at Gusto at the Grand

The air of excitement in the room noticeably escalated prior to the Winemaker of the Year award being announced. “Winemakers are the front line in the battle to produce wine. They get the bouquets, but they also get the brickbats,” Campbell said. “Well, tonight it’s all about the bouquets with this year’s award going to Helen Masters of Ata Rangi.”

Masters, who has quietly been making extraordinary wine at Ata Rangi for many years said how honoured she was to receive the award, but just as importantly how happy she was to be spending an evening in the company of her fellow winemakers. It was a memorable night for one and all.

Chef Vaughan Kay (middle) with his team
Chef Vaughan Kay (middle) with his team
Gusto at the Grand Menu

Chef Vaughan Kay

2013 Quartz Reef Blanc de Blancs
Reid+Reid gin & tonic
Mushroom cigars
Crab & mascarpone lettuce gondola
Grilled prawns wrapped in pancetta with salsa romesco

2016 Greywacke Wild Sauvignon Blanc
Octopus carpaccio, capers, shallots & chilli
2016 Dog Point Chardonnay
San Daniele prosciutto
2003 Framingham Select Riesling
Pickled zucchini, cauliflower fritti & aioli

2016 Valli Gibbston Pinot Noir
Casarecce, Ligurian pesto, potato, beans & pecorino
2016 Dog Point Pinot Noir
Grilled snapper, zucchini flowers, peas & mint
2013 Ata Rangi Pinot Noir
Lamb cutlets, summer beans, garlic & mint

2014 Te Mata Estate Bullnose Syrah
Over the Moon Dairy Galactic Gold – washed rind cow’s cheese, South Waikato, NZ
Barrys Bay Cheddar – 18-months aged, Canterbury, NZ
The Drunken Nanny Black Tie – chèvre-style rolled in vine ash, Martinborough, NZ
Ohau Blue – goat’s milk cheese, Oamaru, NZ

Water supplied by Antipodes

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