Marlborough, where big can be good: Villa Maria

Villa Maria describe themselves as New Zealand’s most awarded winery. They became this through the clever strategy of making lots of small production high-end wines and then entering all the competitions. Back in 1962 founder George Fistonich entered a couple of his reds in the Royal Easter Show and won second and third prize, so it’s not surprising he developed a taste for competition success. It’s a strategy that has worked for them, but as a big company (around the sixth largest in New Zealand) it’s probably more significant that they are doing a good job with their high-volume wines. I visited the Marlborough winery to do a range tasting with senior winemaker Helen Morrison.

We tasted most of the whites from the Riedel Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc glass, which I really like (and it would also be great for Champagne). Helen was involved in the development process of this glass, which involved trying 16 different designs, some of which were ridiculous. ‘If you didn’t know it was the same wine in the 16 glasses you wouldn’t believe it,’ she says. ‘The flavour and texture were so different. They did the exercise twice, a year apart, narrowing the shape down. They got it down to two glasses, this and their Grand Champagne glass. The room was split in the end so Riedel decided.

One of the main jobs for the Marlborough winery is preparing the volume equivalent of 300 000 bottles of Private Bin Sauvignon Blanc a week, which is sent up to the Villa Maria Auckland winery by tanker for bottling. The cold stabilization is done in Auckland because electricity is cheaper there. Throughout the year, the Sauvignon is kept in tank at 8 C in Marlborough to help maintain its aromatic character.

Helen explained how the contracts with growers are managed. They are given a target Brix level which they are expected to meet, otherwise payments are renegotiated. If Villa think it is a good time to harvest but the Brix level is lower than the contract, then they’ll still give the grower full payment. If the wine turns out to be really good despite it not meeting Brix requirements, they will do a top-up payment for the grower. And if a wine is upgraded (all the reserve level wines are selected on the basis of assessment in the winery), then the grower will get a top up payment as an incentive to keep doing good work.

The wines here are consistently very good and sometimes exciting. It’s a very strong performance from such a large winery.

Villa Maria Cellar Selection Sauvignon Blanc 2017
A split of Awatere and Wairau, looking for more fruit concentration and pungent flavours. Putting this blend together looking to get the characteristics of the two valleys. In 2017 put a bit into old oak. Really aromatic with delicate, fine grassy, tomato leaf green notes and also some lovely tropical/passionfruit notes. A little light on the palate but really fresh and expressive. Pure and well balanced with a crisp lemony finish. 90/100

Villa Maria Wairau Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2017
Looking for riper flavours with some thiol character from the Wairau, but not wanting it to get too sweaty. Includes some lower Wairau heavy silt soils, and some clay. Harvested at night, some skin contact (for 6-8 h). This has a distinctive green pepper note on the nose with some melon and a hint of sweat. The palate is fresh and juicy with nice weight and well integrated green notes. Nice weight in the mouth. 89/100

Villa Maria Clifford Bay Reserve Sauvignon Blanc Awatere 2017
From Taylor Pass and Black Birch, both on northern bank of the Awatere. Black Birch is much further in on the slopes, and provides c 1000 tons of Sauvignon Blanc for Villa each year. This has nice focus with lovely green pepper, lemongrass and tomato leaf, with some nice pear and citrus on the palate. Softly textured and expressive with a delicacy to it. 90/100

Villa Maria Cellar Selection Albariño 2016 Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
George Fistonich has always been excited about trying new things. He introduced Arneis, but this struggled to capture the interest of the consumers. However, there seems to be a lot more potential with Albariño. This is quite different with some pear and citrus, as well as some herb and nut notes, a twist of wax, and some briny hints. It’s a bit unusual, but attractive and refreshing. Savoury. 88/100

Villa Maria Cellar Selection Sauvignon Gris 2017 Marlborough
A really unusual grape variety to work with: it tastes like Sauvignon Blanc in the vineyard but has pink/grey skins, and can be pushed ripe. 20% in barrel. Fourth year of this. Very rich and fruity with some pear and tangerine notes, some lemony brightness, but also a soft, almost creamy texture. Broad but fresh, this is really successful. A generous, fruity wine. 90/100

Villa Maria Reserve Chardonnay 2007 Marlborough
Broad, rich, quite toasty and bold with some sweet melon and pear characters. There’s some nuttiness here with a bit of peachy richness. Harmonious with nice development, and a nice mealy, bready finish. 91/100

Villa Maria Taylors Pass Chardonnay 2015 Marlborough
Hand harvested and whole-bunch pressed to barrel, some wild ferment. Planted on the stoniest, boniest part of the vineyard. Delicate and expressive with some lemon and stonefruit, supported by subtle nutty, spicy oak. Real finesse here with good acidity and expressive fruit. Linear and composed with a bright future ahead of it. 93/100

Villa Maria Keltern Vineyard Chardonnay 2016 Hawke’s Bay
Around 30% new oak, hand harvested and whole-bunch pressed. Nice depth here with good structure. There’s quite a bit of spicy oak, but this meshes well with the complex fig, peach and pear fruit, as well as some brioche character. Good acidity too. A bold, expressive wine. 92/100

Villa Maria The Attorney Pinot Noir Rosé 2017 Marlborough
Made one 600 litre tank of this: it’s an organic rosé that sells for $30 from cellar door (it sold out quickly). An unusual Pinot clone nicknamed Jack, from cuttings smuggled in by Steve Smith. It has never made good red Pinot Noir, but has dark skins. This was hand-harvested and whole-bunch pressed, mostly free run. Dense and textural with some creamy notes as well as spice and a touch of herbiness. The acidity is really good and makes it quite refreshing, even though it has lots of flavour. Very nice. 89/100

Villa Maria Cellar Selection Pinot Noir 2016 Marlborough
Around 10 000 cases. Combination of machine and hand harvested parcels from Wairau (dense tannic structures from the clays) and Awatere (more florals and crushed herbs). Supple and juicy with nice floral, silky red cherry fruit. This is quite delicate and elegant with lovely purity. Very pretty fruit here. Has more red than black fruit with a nice stony edge to the palate. Perfect for drinking young: there’s not much to gain from cellaring this. 90/100

Villa Maria Reserve Pinot Noir 2015 Marlborough
Around 1000 cases. Mixture of the valleys. In the Wairau 20 year old vineyard of John Rutherford’s in the Wairau, at the end of Paynters Road on the way to Auntsfield, with dense tannins and black fruit from the tight clay soil. From the Awatere, Seddon, Taylor’s Pass and Ballochdale. Hand harvested and chilled overnight, processed cold. Open top fermenters. Each fermenter is pressed, then homogenized, then goes straight to barrel without settling. Lovely density here with red cherry and plum, as well as some black cherry. There’s a nice spicy, tannic bite here. Lovely combination of silkiness, floral lift, and some structural grunt. 94/100

Villa Maria Single Vineyard Seddon Pinot Noir 2012 Marlborough
Seddon is the most delicate of the single vineyard Pinots. A cold vintage, but a nice autumn, so this was picked late. Supple, fine and quite linear with some sappy green hints meshing beautifully with the floral red cherry fruit, as well as a bit of raspberry. Really elegant and supple with lovely purity. Developing into a really expressive, pure wine, in a light, fragrant style. 94/100

Villa Maria Cellar Selection Grenache 2016 Hawke’s Bay
93% Grenache and 7% Tempranillo, very late ripening. Distinctive peppery nose with some lovely floral red cherry and raspberry fruit. The palate is packed with sweet, crunchy, juicy red fruits, framed with white pepper and a hint of ginger. Very appealing and textural, and fun and serious at the same time. 92/100

Villa Maria Reserve Organic Braided Gravels Merlot 2013 Hawke’s Bay
Fresh and vivid with nice grippy, gravelly structure. Sweet blackcurrant and blackberry fruit with some prettiness, but also some grippy structure. Has a lot of tannin to counter the sweet, soft fruit. So pretty but also with a bit of seriousness. 91/100

Villa Maria The Gravels Ngakirikiri Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 Hawke’s Bay
This is fabulous. There’s a great combination of sweet, ripe blackcurrant fruit with a silky, refined texture, and also some good structure and acidity. There’s great concentration, and a backbone of firm but refined tannic structure. The balance is impeccable: it’s quite European in style with regard to texture, but has new world fruit purity yet without any sweetness or spoof. I love that the ripeness hasn’t been pushed here: there’s still a really attractive green hint that is typical of good Cabernet Sauvignon. A lovely wine that should age very well. 95/100

Find these wines with wine-searcher.com

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