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Villa Maria Marlborough – A Revisit

By March 3, 2014No Comments
In June last year, I had the opportunity of taking my first look at Villa Maria’s Marlborough winery. The winery is one of the larger in the region and serves to process the most significant tonnage for the Villa Maria group before the wine is transported and finished in the Auckland winery. Then, winemaker Murray Cook took me around, and I was amazed at how much the plant had been expanded from the time it was built in1999. The initial crush handled then was 2,000 tonnes, building to an incredible 17,000 tonnes in 2013, which all came in at a rush last year. For the coming 2014 vintage, 22,000 tonnes is anticipated. In the space of less than a year, there have been major additions and expansion again. Of the 22,000 tonnes projected to be crushed in 2014, the vast majority of it will be Sauvignon Blanc. Around 1,500 tonnes will be Pinot Gris, and there will be around 1,000 tonnes each of Chardonnay, Riesling and Pinot Noir.

This time, winemaker Helen Morrison took us around the winery, for a fresh perspective. Helen joined Villa Maria in December last year, following Murray’s departure, joining the team headed by George Geris and Jeremy McKenzie. Helen is a fully experienced and highly regarded operator, having previously been with the contract winemaking facility Indevin in Marlborough for 4 years, and Forrest Wines as winemaker for 4 years before that. She was very much in her element as she explained the grape and juice flow through the winery, which was a hive of activity, as the winery crew and contractors were preparing the equipment for the coming crush.

For a more detailed background about the winery, read my report from June last year by clicking here. I’ve posted several photos I took during our visit of the winery following.

In the depths of the fruit reception

Continous floatation unit

One of two batteries of large tipping tanks

State of art cross-flow filter

There are 32 of the 225,000 Litre tanks

Villa Maria Pinot Noir
Since the very first ‘Reserve’ Marlborough Pinot Noir 2000, Villa Maria has been making top-flight expressions of this variety. There’s a slight snobbishness in the high-end market place about the wines, as some critics and consumers can’t see how a large producer such as Villa Maria, that has wines for nearly every segment of the quality market place can make anything near as good as that from a boutique, specialist maker. The truth is that the Villa Maria Pinot Noir wines can be counted among the country’s best in all respects. They are extremely expressive of variety and place, and show layers of interest and complexity, as well as having the ability to age well. I’ve been a fan of them since the start, and wine judging results support my view too. My tastings of the Villa Maria wines among the likes of Fromm, Ata Rangi, Felton Road, Pegasus Bay and Neudorf show they are in the same league. And not only applies to the ‘Single Vineyard’ and ‘Reserve’ labels, but also the ‘Cellar Selection’ releases.

I expressly asked if I could have a look at the ‘Southern Clays’ vineyard site which has been a major component in Villa Maria’s success with Pinot Noir. This single vineyard label is complemented by the sibling ‘Taylors Pass’ and ‘Seddon’ wines which come from sites on the northern and southern banks of the Awatere river respectively. The ‘Southern Clays’ is a textbook example of the Southern Hills or Valleys sub-region of Marlborough.

Visiting the ‘Southern Clays’ Vineyard
We were given a tour, led by Andrew Benger, viticulturist and grower liaison for Villa Maria, responsible for the area ‘south of New Renwick Road’. Andrew originally hails from Bremerton Wines, Langhorne Creek in South Australia, but spent 8 years with Delegats in the Oyster Bay vineyards, and has been with Villa Maria for 2 years.

Andrew’s role as grower liaison includes an educational aspect to the support provided to the growers he deals with. As can be expected, there is considerable encouragement to lift the bar in qualitative terms, and that includes the adoption of organic techniques and regimes. Villa Maria’s proprietor Sir George Fistonich is behind this view, and one can expect the increasing release of fully certified organic wines from Villa Maria’s Marlborough produce in coming years.

The ‘Southern Clays’ site is actually three different, neighbouring vineyards in the Ben Morven Valley, surrounded by those of Auntsfield. Two of the sites are used for the super-premium wine. The ‘Rutherford’ vineyard was the original site for the wines, and indeed, the wines were labelled as such for the first years. Villa Maria changed the designation to ‘Southern Clays’ from the 2008 vintage to indicate the geology and geography better, and allow the inclusion of fruit from the ‘Finlayson’ site to be named under the ‘Southern Clays’ moniker. The mix of Pinot Noir vineyards is recorded on the detailed tasting notes that Villa Maria produces, but for Pinot Noir, the ‘Rutherford’ vineyard has been the major source. However, the fruit from the other sites has widened the clonal diversity and can give increased layers of flavour.

All the vineyards are north-facing and are on a gentle hillside. The ‘Rutherford’ site is approx. 3 ha, planted to Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc. It is ‘semi-organic’. The ‘Finlayson’ vineyard has around 3 ha planted with Abel, 113, 114 and 10/5 clones of Pinot Noir, and this is certified BioGro organic. There are also 2 ha comprising Pinot Gris, and a further 2 ha of the ‘Jack’ clone Pinot Noir. The organic Pinot Noir is 12 y.o. all planted at a standard ‘hillside’ density of 2,700 plants per hectare.

Connecting the finished wine with the vineyard site, we tasted the Villa Maria ‘Single Vineyard – Southern Clays’ Marlborough Pinot Noir 2010 in situ – glasses poured in the back of Andrew’s utility vehicle. Dark coloured and still vibrant and young, aromas of black berry and cherry fruits form the core of this wine. With aeration, layers of violetty florals, dark plums and complexing savoury dried herb and whole cluster notes emerge. There’s a subtle richness, near fleshy and luscious ibn mouthfeel, all encased by supple, but open, fine-grained tannins. Some oak toast emerges; it’s all perfectly judged and seamless in its boldness. I really like it!  www.villamaria.co.nz

Helen Morrison, winemaker and Andrew Benger, viticulturist
at the ‘Finlayson’ Southern Clays vineyard

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