Villa Maria’s ambitious portfolio

New Zealand’s Villa Maria Group is planning ahead, for life after Sauvignon Blanc, its new chief winemaker says

The Villa Maria Group, New Zealand’s fifth-largest winery, has an ambitious portfolio of 27 grape varieties, some of which cannot be found elsewhere in the country. As well as the obvious “commercial” varieties, the viticultural team has planted Albarinho (from Spain’s coolest and wettest region, Galicia), Italian Arneis and Verdelho, French Sauvignon Gris, and even Viognier – in the warmer Gisborne area of the country’s North Island. “If there is life after Sauvignon Blanc, we want to be there,” says Nick Picone, chief winemaker.

But Picone adds that it is difficult to see the bubble bursting. “We’re making an energetic, pungent wine with Sauvignon Blanc that cannot be replicated outside New Zealand. It is a unique wine.” Bottlings of Sauvignon Blanc account for about 70 per cent per cent of Villa Maria’s production, for 72 per cent of national production, and for a staggering 86 per cent of total wine exports.

He says there’s a need to look at trends, or predict trends, from when Marlborough becomes fully planted. “Demand for Sauvignon Blanc is still growing, and soon demand will be greater than supply,” he points out. He believes it is not enough to bask in global recognition. The next step is to achieve recognition for quality. “No more status quo,” he says, referencing homogenous fruity wines designed for early drinking.

When demand outstrips supply prices will surely rise, and higher prices will allow winemakers to work harder on higher-end, textural wines with ageing potential – which can attract premium prices. In fact, the move away from homogeneity and towards more crafted wines is already happening: think of Dog Point, Serensin, one or two of the St Clair stable, and Cloudy Bay’s Te Koko.

A pair of Picone’s wines also illustrate this story. The Villa Maria Reserve Wairau Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2015 and the Villa Maria Reserve Clifford Bay Sauvignon Blanc 2015 are both from Marlborough, and made from the same clone, yet are completely different in character. The Wairau Valley is the more “classic” and exuberant New Zealand tropical style, redolent of passion fruit and gooseberry (plus a touch of “body odour”, as Picone jokes). Made from grapes grown at a higher elevation, the Clifford Bay is restrained, with notes of nettle and bell pepper.

Picone is adamant that specific sites, with their own soil makeup, are becoming more important than regions as a whole. He’s looking for site expression – terroir in other words. As well as making “commercial” wine, he wants to drive quality and make “great” wine. These kinds of statements are a reminder of just how short the history of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is. The first plantings of Sauvignon Blanc in Marlborough, the epicentre of its production, took place in 1973. The style is globally known, but there’s still so much more that can be learned, experimented with, and achieved.

Picone also believes in a very strong future for Chardonnay, citing it as “one of New Zealand’s best-kept secrets”. While New Zealand Chardonnays produced in the warmth of Gisborne might tend to softness and roundness, and be suitable for early drinking, he’s making a single vineyard wine in the Keltern Vineyard in Hawkes Bay. This represents the highest site in the region, at 200 metres, where the grapes can achieve a better acid profile than even Chardonnay grown in Marlborough. He throws (40 per cent) new oak at it, and the 2013 vintage is still very oaky, but this is a wine that is not intended to be approachable for three years, and can age for up to 10 years. More importantly, it is an expression of a specific site.

Against this dynamic backdrop of white wines, the establishment of vineyards in the North Island’s Gimblett Gravels is driving quality in red wine. The buzz has tended to be around the country’s Pinot Noir, but French varieties being grown here such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Malbec are gaining traction. An 800-hectare plot that just a few years ago “you couldn’t give it away” is now nearly planted to capacity, he said.

The Syrah from here is looking super (try the Craggy Range), and Picone produces a fabulous Merlot. He says the grape is as fickle as Pinot Noir, and he blends it with a touch of Malbec for extra complexity. The Villa Maria Reserve Merlot 2013 is perfumed with violets with a structure of velvet tannins and, dare one say, a far cry from the all-too-typical fruity-to-the-point-of-jammy New World Merlot.

Picone is “passionate” about Gimblett Gravels, and he predicts that in the next 10 years Cabernet Sauvignon – the offspring of Sauvignon Blanc – will be the shining star of this dry and sparse region, unsuitable for anything but vines.

Words: 783

About squinn33

Writer and wine lover
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