Annie and Geoff Nieuwenhuis claimed the top award after 300-plus cheeses from 35 companies were judged by 32 experts across a tightly contested field covering commercial, boutique, new and export sectors, along with the full spectrum of cheese types.
Based in the Hawke’s Bay, the Nieuwenhuis’ have been producing goat cheese since 2018 in a husband-and-wife combination that has Geoff Nieuwenhuis managing the goat operation and wife Annie making the cheeses.
The couple have combined a traditional European approach, while adding an element of localism to the cheeses with brand names including Te Aute and Poukawa Fog.
Master judge for the awards Jason Tarrant says the ability of a relatively small artisan producer to claim the top award was testament to New Zealand cheese industry’s growing diversity and skill.
“It is no small feat being up against some big players with more capital and plant to achieve this,” Tarrant said.
He says the NZ cheese industry was developing in a way similar to the beer industry, with craft beer akin to artisan cheesemakers creating some diverse and interesting cheese types.
Other top awards at the event held in Hamilton included Fonterra’s Kapiti brand claiming the Commercial Champion award with its Te Tihi premium-aged cheddar and well- established Mahoe brand owned by the Rosevear family from Northland winning the Mid-sized Cheese award for their very old edam style.
Tarrant says the Kapiti cheese was an iconic vintage cheddar known and loved by New Zealanders, while the Mahoe cheese, often a podium award winner, was world class.
Kapiti also claimed the award for the country’s Best Export cheese for its Te Tihi Premium cheddar.
The Rosevear family have been making the Mahoe cheeses for 35 years, having been champion cheesemakers four years running from 2012 to 2015.
Other awards included Martinborough couple Amanda and Lindsey Goodman winning the Best Boutique award with their Drunken Nanny black tie petite cheese, inspired by a French approach where goat’s milk cheese is rolled in ash from burnt grape vines.
The cheese is only available seasonally from spring to autumn while the goats are milking.
Tarrant says the cheese was an outstanding world-class example of its type, coming from a very small producer.
The Champion Blue Cheese award went to Puhoi Valley for its Pakiri Beach Blue cheese.
He says the overall calibre of the cheeses in the competition were of a remarkably high standard. He cited the Geraldine Cheese company’s aged deer gouda as a cheese of special note, and winner of the Original Cheese award.
Specialist Cheesemakers Association chair Neil Willman says it was encouraging to see the quality and variety of cheese that had been recognised this year.
“It is proof of the NZ cheese industry and the quality and innovation of cheesemakers. I am heartened by the reports that cheese lovers are seeking out locally-made cheese, supporting the industry as never before and leading to increasing sales for NZ cheese,” Willman said.
During the covid lockdown domestic cheese sales soared as consumers opted to trade up on quality while staying home.
Nielsen Scantrack data reported total cheese sales rose 12% for the 12 months to August last year, with speciality cheeses rising 9%.