Dave Roper – Auckland winemaker
I’ve always had huge admiration for Villa Maria Estate and its family of wineries. The quality of the wines and their individuality comes foremost to mind, but in reality it is the quality of the people behind the wines that is the most important factor. It is true that the culture of any company “stems from the top”, and Sir George Fistonich can be admired for instilling the enthusiasm, passion and integrity that is evident in his staff. In attending the Trade Day for the Villa Maria Family of Wineries, it was obvious that all of the staff very well-informed, keen to help and educate, enjoy the interaction with clients, and respect and collaborate with their colleagues. The support that the staff provided each other was very clear, whether winemaker, administration or sales and marketing. I’m sure there is a degree of rivalry between the makers and team of each brand, but is friendly for sure, and no doubt for the betterment of all, as you can see that information is rapidly shared among them all. www.villamaria.co.nz
Oliver Powrie – company viticilturist
The Trade Day
In reality, there were two Trade Days’ held, one on Sunday and the other on Monday, at Villa Maria’s Auckland winery facility. I attended the Monday event, after asking Ian Clark which would be the quieter day. My intention was to look at as many of the wines on offer, as I comfortably could, and to meet and talk to the staff. There were masterclass sessions I enrolled for as well.
On offer were wines from Villa Maria, Esk Valley, Vidal, Te Awa – including the Left Field and Kidnapper Cliffs brands and Thornbury. Altogether, there were over 70 wines to taste (in 5 hours) from these brands, and on hand were the well-known winemaker public faces of group chief winemaker Nick Picone, Dave Roper from the Auckland Villa Maria winery, Gordon Russell from Esk Valley, and Richard Painter from Te Awa. Hugh Crichton of Vidal, Simon Fell of Thornbury and Helen Morrison of Villa Maria’s Marlborough winery were not available.
However, a number of the other winemakers and production staff were there, along with several sales and marketing people. Although I didn’t see Sir George, his daughter Karen, chair of the board, and Ian Clark, who some people think has been at Villa Maria longer than Sir George, were there to meet the attendees. I took several photos of some of the staff, and posted them here.
Kathrin Jankowiec – Marlborough winemaker
Many Outstanding Wines
I believe that the wineries involved pulled out all the stops and put on a selection of their most interesting and best wines for attendees to taste. I did not taste all of the wines by any means, as much of my time was taken up in discussions with the staff, but I note several that stood out for me:
Villa Maria: New season Sauvignon Blanc is of real interest to me, as it was a very challenging vintage. The ‘Wairau Reserve’ 2017 would be among the top two or three I have tasted to date (of dozens), with its rich, pungent passionfruit flavours. Chardonnay is one of Villa Maria’s strengths. The ‘Reserve’ Marlborough 2015 had intense and vibrant citrus fruit underlined by acidity then the flinty complexities. The ‘Reserve’ Hawke’s Bay 2015 was more interwoven and integrated with stonefruits and gunflint complexity. A great wine. Interestingly the ‘Reserve Barrique Ferment’ Gisborne 2016 was surprisingly elegant and fruit-focussed with excellent oak balance. The three ‘Single Vineyard’ Chardonnays of offer were excellent, the ‘Ihumatao’ 2016 rich and stylishly restrained, the ‘Keltern’ 2016 a stunner, with great depth and complexity, and the ‘Taylors Pass’ 2015 with wonderful vitality. It was fascinating to compare three Marlborough Pinot Noirs, the ‘Reserve’ quite a complete wine. The ‘Single Vineyard – Seddon’ 2013 showed the blacker fruits of the Wairau, whereas the ‘Single Vineyard – Taylors Pass’ 2013 displayed wonderful florality. And it was a treat to taste the Bordeaux-varieties, the ‘Reserve’ Gimblett Gravels’ Cabernet/Merlot 2014 with its richness, ripeness and vibrancy, the Cabernet input looking brilliant. Even better was the flagship ‘Ngakirikiri’ 2013, a pretty much 100% Cabernet Sauvignon wine. It is a wine with such beauty, style, richness and restraint that puts it onto the international stage, beyond what New Zealand typically delivers.
Vidal: I attended the ‘Legacy’ release tasting in Wellington recently (click here for my report), so was up-to date with the top wines. As there were no ‘Legacy’ wines made in 2015, the next tier down, the ‘Reserve’ wines received the declassified fruit, making them potentially better than other years. Indeed the ‘Reserve’ Syrah 2015 had lovely ripe black fruits and perfumes, and the ‘Reserve’ Merlot/Cabernet 2015 possessed great clarity and varietal definition.
Esk Valley: I had just recently caught up with Gordon Russell in Wellington, who put up a superb tasting, including three vintages of ‘The Terraces’ (click here to see my report). So I tried some of the other new vintage releases. The Pinot Gris 2017 has plenty of fruit for a vintage that didn’t favour the variety. Looking really smart was the Chardonnay 2016, fruit-focussed, but with all the interest you could ask for, without gunflint! The ‘Winemakers Reserve’ Syrah 2013 was lighter than the 2014 I tasted in Wellington, but was more vibrant, and also funkier.
Te Awa: As time was running out, I only tasted the Te Awa Merlot/Cabernet 2015, crafted very cleverly to balance the plummy Merlot and the cassis-like Cabernet, all underpinned by fine structure. It was a pity to miss out on the ‘Left Field’ and ‘Kidnapper Cliffs’ wines.
Thornbury: As with Te Awa, I was constrained by time to taste the Thornbury range. What did show well was the Waipara Valley Pinot Gris 2017, a success in a growing season that was really quite disastrous. True pear fruit, honey and florality, all assisted by the 12 g/L RS. Well done, Simon Fell.
Gianni Flego – Auckland production winemaker
Six masterclass sessions, led by winemakers were available to attend. Villa Maria take wine education very seriously, as demonstrated by the masterclasses. The themes were: Emerging Varietals, Summer Trends, Chardonnay, Syrah, Pinot Noir and Library Release. They ran for 30+ minutes, depending on who ran the classes and how many questions were asked! These proved popular with the trade attendees, many attending several of the masterclasses. I attended only two, and my impressions follow.
Emerging Varietals Masterclass
This masterclass was led by Dave Roper, the Auckland winery winemaker. First wine was the Left Field Gisborne Albarino 2016. This was finely constructed with intense floral aromatics on a lively palate. The Villa Maria ‘Single Vineyard – Braided Gravels’ Hawke’s Bay Albarino 2016 was richer and more weighty and rounded with definite barrel inputs. Both of the Albarinos show why this variety is a truly promising one with its floral and citrus fruit intensity, and lively acidity. Next was the Villa Maria ‘Cellar Selection’ Marlborough Sauvignon Gris 2016. This had strong grassy, capsicum and herbaceous flavours on a palate with some more roundness and body than Sauvignon Blanc. Interestingly like Semillon to me, but seen as very useful as a blending component as well as a varietal wine. Fourth was the Esk Valley Hawke’s Bay Verdelho 2017, with is lovely stonefruit, floral and herbal mix, along with a kiss of oak, plus lively, zesty acidity. I saw this at Gordon Russell’s tasting in Wellington, but here it seemed a little richer.
First of the reds was the Villa Maria ‘Cellar Selection’ Gimblett Gravels Hawke’s Bay Grenache 2016. Strong, bold and sweet, earthy-raspberry aromas and flavours with a decent whack of tannin and plenty of structure. And finally the Te Awa ‘Single Estate’ Gimblett Gravels Hawke’s Bay Tempranillo 2014. Youthful in appearance and with classical sweet and savoury red cherry and raspberry fruits, along with a oak vanillin-like layering. This had fine-grained tannins, and a taste that suggested American oak, though only French oak was employed.
This was a very interesting masterclass showing the promise of these new-to-New Zealand (except the Verdelho which has been in the ground since the late 1990s) varieties. For me, the Albarino was particularly exciting.
Richard Painter – Te Awa winemaker
The Syrah masterclass was led by Gordon Russell, the Esk Valley winemaker, who gave a brief, but concise background and history of Syrah in New Zealand, giving credit to Alan Limmer at Stonecroft for the prominence of the MS clone, that is regarded as the best to date in the country.
The first wine was the Villa Maria ‘Cellar Selection’ Hawke’s Bay Syrah 2015, a lovely pure-fruited wine with blackberry and raspberry flavours, with juiciness and accessibility. This was archetype Syrah with fine, supple tannins. This was followed by the Vidal ‘Legacy’ Gimblett Gravels Hawke’s Bay Syrah 2014. A black-coloured with very ripe and concentrated black fruits, iron-earth and minerals, with taut, very fine-grained, flowery tannin structure. Simply a great wine, with the potential to age extremely well. Third in the group was the Esk Valley Hawke’s Bay Syrah 2015. This is a deliciously rich, sweet and succulently fruited wine, quite plush, but with some serious depth and weight. This includes nearly 50% declassified ‘Winemakers Reserve’ wine, which was not made in 2015. This was excellent to compare with the Esk Valley ‘Winemakers Reserve’ Gimblett Gravels Hawke’s Bay Syrah 2014. Very concentrated, deeply fruited and intense with ripe black berried fruits, and iron-earth complexities, but texturally with accessibility and fine extraction, allowing the fruit sweetness to feature. A wine that says “come drink me”, but will also keep well. Then onto the Left Field Hawke’s Bay Syrah 2015, a beautifully elegant wine, lighter than what has preceded it, showing bight and lively dark-red and peppery aromas and flavours, with floral lift and a touch of herbs. This has freshness. And finally the Te Awa ‘Single Estate’ Hawke’s Bay Syrah 2014. This featured finely concentrated and intense black fruits, pepper and spices, minerals and a beautiful dark-red, violet and black floral fragrance, This too has plenty of tannin grip, and the ability to keep.
One of the perspectives was the comparison of vintage. 2015 gave more accessible wines, with sweet and plush fruitiness. 2014 gave riper, black-fruited wines with more structure and greater complexity, along with ageworthiness. Another perspective was the definite expression of house style. The Villa Maria/Vidal wines were firmly constructed. The Esk Valley pair showed the sweetness of fruit and generosity of style. The Te Awa wines the most elegant, possessing florals.
As one can see, the Villa Maria Family of Wineries Trade Day is full-on. There is plenty of wine to try, some of the wines among the best and most awarded in the country. The staff are very active in their interaction with both clients and each other. Support is clearly a key aim. There I so much to learn about wine, and attending events such as this is a wonderful opportunity to do so. I must thank Sir George Fistonich and his team for conducting their Trade Days.
Michele Lam – Asia sales & marketing