Wednesday, July 5, 2017

New Zealand’s Villa Maria Wines Blend Sustainability, Variety

For more than 50 years, Villa Maria has been a leader in the New Zealand wine industry. We open some bottles to discover why this winery in a tiny country is making such a big splash.

A Visit To New Zealand

New Zealand is a country about the size of Japan in the southwest Pacific. Although it is often lumped together with Australia in the minds of many, it is actually more than 2,500 miles away. New Zealand offers a dizzying array of terrain including glaciers, fiords, mountains, plains, rolling hillsides, subtropical forest, a volcanic plateau and miles of coastline. The unique combination of climate, soil and water results in conditions just right for outstanding wine.

We recently toured New Zealand. One day, maybe next year, we’ll tour it firsthand. But most recently, it was an armchair tour courtesy of Villa Maria, a leading New Zealand winery, and Snooth, the online wine site which hosted a virtual tasting.

Villa Maria was started by George Fistonich, who leased five acres of land in the early ‘60s. Today they export to 50 countries, employ 250 staff and are known for industry-changing moves such as moving to 100% screwcap closures and the emphasis on sustainable practices in every area of the family owned company

Sauvignon Blanc Yes, But So Much More

Green Dragon loves, loves, loves New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. It is the epitome of New World wine – bold, fruit-forward flavors that can be enjoyed with or without food. My wife could drink a river of it.

If Sauvignon Blanc is all that New Zealand contributed to the world, that would be enough. But as we discovered during our tasting, their winemaking prowess isn’t confined to Sauvignon Blanc. Spread over two nights, we sampled a sextet of Villa Maria wines accompanied by some of Green Dragon’s culinary creations. Our tasting panel consisted of Green Dragon, my brother Tom and his wife Helen plus our friend Maria. (We explained that we arranged a tasting of Villa Maria wines in her honor!)

We actually tried two Villa Maria Sauvignon Blanc. The 2016 Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc is light yellow in color with an aroma of cut grass. On the tongue there is mouthwatering acidity with notes of honeysuckle, lemon and apricot. This version is not as jarringly acidic as some New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, and so I would categorize this as a crowd pleaser that wine experts and newbies can enjoy together. At $13, this is a downright steal.

The next Sauvignon Blanc was distinctly different from the rest of the wines. It was a bubbly and in fact, is called Bubbly. The wine is made as a regular Sauvignon Blanc, but then is carbonated with the injection of carbon dioxide. It’s unfair to compare this with a true Champagne or a Cava. Those undergo a second fermentation in the bottle. This is frizzante in style – lightly effervescent, just enough to tickle your nose. It was refreshing during the hot evening on the back patio. It has a $15 SRP.

We sampled the 2016 Private Bin Rosé with Amaretto chicken. This is a Hawkes Bay wine made primarily from Merlot. This is a delightful wine that’s light rose in color with a light-medium body. It has flavors of candied rose petals – but remains crisp and dry. This is a sure winner for hot weather refreshment and is another bargain at $14.

The remaining white was the 2015 Taylors Pass Vineyard Chardonnay. The Single Vineyard series is a range above the Private Bin series. In the case of the Taylors Pass Chard, the results are evident in the glass.

The wine is whole cluster pressed and is aged on the lees for nine months. It is oaked in a combination of 25% new and 75% seasoned French oak. The wine also undergoes malolactic fermentation.

We served the Chardonnay with pierogi and passion fruit carrots. The wine has a buttery aroma and on the palate there are notes of oak, toast and butter all tied together with nice acidity. It retails for $45.

Reds New Zealand Style

There was a duo of Villa Maria reds to sample. We tasted the Cellar Selection Merlot blend with Green Dragon’s Texas barbeque. This was the first wine we opened. I’m not sure there’s any connection between Texas and New Zealand – but it was a nice evening and we had a hankering for a cookout.

The blend is 70% Merlot, 23% Cabernet Sauvignon and 7% Malbec. It hails from Hawkes Bay, where the climate is more suited to the production of high quality Cabernet and Merlot than Marlborough.

This is a deep, dark red in the glass – almost opaque. On the palate Green Dragon found Bing cherry and mulberry. There is a smidge of spice on the finish.

The wine is aged 20 months in French oak, but even so, our barbeque was a bit overpowering for it. A pork or lighter beef entree would have made a better match for this medium bodied wine.
New Zealand Pinot Noir has been getting a lot of buzz lately, and so we were glad to sample the Villa Maria 2014 Cellar Selections Pinot Noir from Marlborough. This paired nicely with the variety of small artisan pizzas rustled up by Green Dragon.

Marlborough has high heat during the daytime, but the temperatures are regulated by cooling ocean breezes. This is just the recipe for the notoriously difficult Pinot Noir grapes. The Villa Maria Pinot delivers herbal and smoky notes overlaid on red fruit flavor. The acidity keeps this a lively sip. The wine ages in French oak for 10 months and also gives time on the lees for added texture. It retails for $26.

In all, Villa Maria offers a tasty range of New Zealand wines. They are priced to overdeliver on value and present a wide range of styles. There’s surely one (or several) to appeal to any wine lover.

Full Disclosure: We received this wine as a marketing sample.

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