Award win tops off a complex journey for student winemaker

Award win tops off a complex journey for student winemaker

A lack of grapes, a heating malfunction and ravenous birds don’t usually lead to an award-winning wine but NMIT Bachelor of Viticulture and Winemaking student Johnny Valencia has pulled it off.
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Marcus Pickens from Wine Marlborough (left) presents Johnny Valencia with the Gingko Trophy.

Johnny has won the 2021 Ginkgo Trophy for the best student wine at the 2021 Marlborough Wine show(external link) for his chardonnay. When he found out he was pretty surprised especially as it was judged alongside commercial wineries.

“I was flabbergasted and completely shocked but I was really happy.”

All first-year students have the opportunity to create their own wine. However, in Johnny’s case not everything went according to plan.

“My original style was going to be an oak-influenced chardonnay but I was annoyed I hadn’t put the nets on the chardonnay grapes earlier and there wasn’t much left. I was kind of panicking—going up and down rows trying to decide what to do next.  Then I found some chenin blanc grapes but they were just about all gone too,” says Johnny.

“I thought I was pretty stuffed but I found some alboriño grapes, which have completely different characteristics to chardonnay and you wouldn’t normally blend them together, but I didn’t have a Plan B so ended up with 60 per cent chardonnay, 20 per cent chenin blanc and 20 per cent alboriño— and no idea how it would turn out.”

Johnny continued with his wine-making plan, treating it as a chardonnay. However, he had an issue with high acidity due to the unripe alboriño grapes and things were not looking good. He decided to carry on using malolactic fermentation to give the wine a creamy, buttery taste, done by adding a bacteria culture to kickstart the process.

Unfortunately, the room the wine was in had a temperature malfunction which killed off the malolactic fermentation process.

“At this stage I nearly called it quits as nothing was going my way and I seemed jinxed.  But I put the wine in oak and left it on the lees—the acid levels started to drop and every week it developed and became how I wanted it.”

Johnny was the last in his class to get his wine bottled.

Ngarita Warden, NMIT Viticulture and Wine tutor says Johnny’s win is ‘awesome’ especially as no other student won a medal.

“Johnny worked so hard in every paper, he has a great attitude and the effort he put in to his wine was unbelievable—it’s a really well-deserved award,” says Ngarita.

 “2021 has been a hard year — the crop was down in Marlborough but the wine quality was very high across the board.”

Johnny is from the United Kingdom, although he was raised in Spain.  He was formerly in the military where he met his wife and the couple came to New Zealand when she took up a job offer in Marlborough.

Johnny says although he has always enjoyed wine, and grown a few vines, he had never made wine. However, after spending time in Queenstown, and seeing all the vineyards in Marlborough, he realised it was an industry he could be passionate about.

“I actually wanted to learn te reo Māori and went on to the NMIT website.  Then I thought I would look at other courses and came across the viticulture degree.”

Johnny is working at Lawson's Dry Hills vineyard through the summer and will do the vintage there.

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