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Visiting Villa Maria’s Marlborough Winery

By June 12, 2013No Comments
For those driving along New Renwick Road near Fairhall, one can only be impressed with the sight of Villa Maria’s Marlborough winery set against the backdrop of the hills of the southern valleys. With Ben Morven to the east and Dog Point to the west, the location is as blue-chip as, and handy to, any of the important growing sub-regions in Marlborough. The winery, built in 1999, still looks new and modern, due in no small way to the design of architect Hamish Cameron, landscape designer Jo Saunders and structural engineer Mike Brading, the work overseen by George Fistonich’s nephew Fabian Yukich. This team was also responsible for the newer Auckland winery.

Murray Cook – Villa Maria Marlborough winemaker, at the cellar door
A Tour Inside
I had the pleasure of a tour of the winery with winemaker Murray Cook. While fitting in comfortably with the surroundings and landscape, the winery has a strong presence. However, I’d been told that I’d be surprised by the actual size of the winery. Indeed, the footprint extends a long way back. The work areas, equipment and tanks get bigger and bigger as one goes further in, and it’s a bit like an Aladdin’s cave. The winery originally had a 2,000 tonne capacity, but growth was anticipated. In 2013, the fruit processed was around 17,000 tonnes! To handle the increased fruit, all the press equipment was moved outside to the rear of the winery for the 2013 vintage. All of the presses and receival area is covered. The winemaking area is demarcated to white wine production and red winemaking (read: Pinot Noir) with plenty of smaller capacity tanks for limited production wines, and batch fermenters with mechanical plungers to handle the various lots of Pinot Noir. New and innovative gear was present, and I was taken by the large tipping tanks and associated presses which provided increased storage capacity. There has been considerable work in increasing insulation for the tanks, this having benefits in energy consumption as well as greater control for wine quality. It was intimated that the winery has a 12 million litre capacity.

Tipping tanks and presses

Dedicated barrel halls for different varieties and for different tiers are part of the winery. The winery team sees vinification and elevage to the finished wine stage, whereupon they are sent to the Auckland winery by road tanker for bottling. This procedure involves less movement for the wines and a lower carbon footprint than bottling on-site. Murray explained that if wine quality was going to be improved by local bottling, then it would certainly be considered.
The ‘ACE’ Programme
The most important innovation has been the institution by Fabian Yukich of the ‘ACE – Achieving Continuous Excellence’ programme, here, and in all of Villa Maria’s winemaking facilities. Essentially a ‘lean management’ system which is based on sustainability, reducing the carbon footprint, minimising movements, waste and the like, there have been the additional benefits of increased efficiencies and minimising work. My impression was that all of the staff were very pleased with the results to date and fully supportive of the programme. Talking later to winemakers from other companies who were aware of ACE, they too were enthused by its adoption at Villa Maria.
Tasting 2013 Sauvignon Blanc and 2012 Pinot Noir
Murray took me through a tasting of finished new vintage 2013 Sauvignon Blanc wines from tank, and 2012 Pinot Noirs, now taken out of barrel, now in tank, waiting to for a final light filtering before bottling. I think I was treated very well, these being ‘Single Vineyard’ and ‘Reserve’ tier wines.

The ‘SV Taylors Pass’ Sauvignon Blanc 2013 from south-facing Awatere Valley vines is crisp, steely and linear with pure minerality. Very tightly bound, there’s no shortage of fruit, described by the Villa Maria personnel as ‘pea-pod’ like. For me it was minerals and gooseberries. Then onto a ‘SV Graham’ Sauvignon Blanc 2013, a coastal Awatere wine. Certainly in the greener flavour spectrum, possibly more grassy, and acceptably so, but with a wonderful roundness and succulent energy to the palate. The ‘SV Southern Clays’ Sauvignon Blanc 2013 is all about texture and mouthfeel. The flavours are more restrained, in the riper passionfruit end, but not fully sweaty. Lovely dry linearity and presence is the hallmark of this wine, and a favourite for Murray.

Then onto the two ‘Reserve’ wines, these being more complete expressions, whereas the ‘Single Vineyard’ wines quite distinctively individual. The ‘Reserve Clifford Bay’ Sauvignon Blanc 2013 is beautifully aromatic with finesse allied to freshness. A wine of great concentration and outstanding acid quality. This is the Awatere Valley at its best? As good as the previous wine was, the ‘Reserve Wairau Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2013 is just as good, but with textbook Lower Wairau pungent passionfruit, tropical fruit and fresh sweat. Densely packed, yet not overbearingly undrinkable, and in fact deliciously decadent. These would be among the best set of Villa Maria Sauvignon Blancs I have seen.

In discussing the Pinot Noirs, I was surprised to learn that the Villa Maria winemakers employed more whole cluster fermentation in 2013, and less in 2012, even though the 2012s are regarded as outstanding wines. It was a cooler vintage, but the low yields contributed to their quality and style. The wines received 18-30 days on skins and had 25-30% new oak maturation, so they’re certainly up there in fruit depth.

Starting with a ‘SV Taylors Pass’ Pinot Noir 2012, this is analogous to the Sauvignon Blanc with its tight and linear structure and red berry fruit flavours. I see a creamy, unctuous texture, quite seductive and inviting. The ‘SV Southern Clays’ Pinot Noir 2012, with up to 50% Abel clone is considerably darker in fruit expression. Spices, herbs and with positive and definite structure and fine grip in wonderful balance. This is another Murray Cook favourite – he’s a ‘Southern Clays Man’ for sure! The next sample was the ‘Cellar Selection’ ‘Templar Vineyard’ ‘Organic’ Pinot Noir 2012, from the Awatere. Borderline ‘Reserve’ quality, but finally downgraded to ‘Cellar Selection’ after much consideration. For me, on the cusp too. Beautifully intense dark berry fruits, with startling linearity. If it was just a little richer, it would all be there. Then finally, a ‘SV Seddon’ Pinot Noir 2012. Full and broad with rich and luscious dark fruits, and matching extract. A wine of completeness, and arguably the star wine of the tasting.

Seasoned oak barrels for Villa Maria ‘Private Bin’ Pinot Noir
Time for an Ale
On the way out of the winery, I spotted a couple of pallets of small kegs and assorted containers of brown ‘liquid’. The 750 ml bottles in the crates turned out to be the Marlborough winery’s attempts at brewing an ale that would win the inter-region, inter-department, inter-winery beer competition. The competition is judged just before the Christmas party, and no doubt the winning brew is appreciated there. Last year, it was the marketing people who took the honours.

The keenness and competitiveness of the Villa Maria personnel is just as strong when having fun as it is in making the best wines possible. I don’t think it’s a secret that the Marlborough team can access good hops locally, and that there’s plenty of professional beer expertise that can be tapped (if you excuse the pun). After all, winemaker Jeremy McKenzie worked alongside Josh Scott, now of Moa. And the Renaissance and No. 8 Wired beers of Marlborough are regularly judged among the country’s best.

Having seen how the winery is a model in itself, and tasted some outstanding 2013 Sauvignon Blancs and 2012 Pinot Noirs, I can imagine the team here winning the beer competition. www.villamaria.co.nz

Marlborough’s best home brew?

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