Villa Maria Masterful Moments
This summer, at the International Pinot Noir Celebration (INPC) in Oregon, I had the pleasure of meeting Alastair Maling. He was presenting Villa Maria wines and happened to be one of five winemakers on my mystery bus tour, culminating in a blind tasting of their own five wines.
Maling, who holds the prestigious title of the “Master of Wine”, was the sole panelist, who to the astonishment of consumers and winemakers alike, identified all five wines correctly. He meticulously broke down the aromatics and flavor profile of each one, four of which he had never tasted before, using a classic deductive method. He proceeded to match each wine with its maker while other winemaking panelists whispered nervously. That feat prompted me to ask him for a private visit to Villa Maria during an upcoming trip to New Zealand. Alastair wasn’t in Marlborough at the time of my visit, but he graciously arranged for a formal tasting of thirteen wines at their Cellar Door (tasting room) in Blenheim.
Villa Maria Estate is a global brand that features an extensive portfolio of wines. They export to fifty countries across Europe, North America, Caribbean, Asia, Australia, and the Pacific Islands. It was launched in 1961 with five hectares of leased land by Sir George Fistonich, who is rightly credited with succeeding in putting the New Zealand wine industry on the worldwide stage. To this day, despite dramatic expansion, Villa Maria remains privately owned.
Known for its innovative practices, the brand is fiercely committed to the pursuit of making world-class wine. Dedicated to consistency, sustainability, and efficiency, Villa Maria was one of the first wineries to go 100% screw cap and the first winery to achieve BioGro status. Clean winemaking and dogged dedication to carbon emissions reduction, earned them many environmental accolades.
Hospitality is an important part of Villa Maria’s philosophy, with each facility (except Marlborough) offering on-site dining options. Many accommodate corporate and private functions and celebrations.
Villa Maria Estate has an umbrella of seven brands: Villa Maria, Vidal, Esk Valley, Thornbury, Riverstone, Kidnapper Cliffs and Te Awa. It designates four tiers of wine: Reserve, Single Vineyard, Cellar Selection and Private Bin.
Many wine drinkers are familiar their Sauvignon Blancs. However Villa Maria also produces Sparkling Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Albarino, Arneis, Chenin Blanc, Pinot Gris, Chenin Blanc, Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Verdelho, Viognier, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Malbec, Cabernet blends, Grenache, and Syrah. It’s vineyard holdings and contracts stretch across both of New Zealand’s main islands. Contiguous with their fruit sources, they have production facilities in Auckland, Marlborough, Hawke’s Bay and Gisborne.
Villa Maria Estate has received many accolades, winning numerous wine awards across its brand portfolio. They are the most award-winning winery in New Zealand.
Overnight success takes a lifetime and Alastair Maling is a good example of that aphorism. He was born and raised in Hawkes Bay. He first studied business at Lincoln University, however, after working at a winery in Hungary he pursued a degree in Viticulture and Oenology. After making wine in England, France, California and South Africa, he passed the grueling Master of Wine exam. Upon his return to New Zealand, he joined Villa Maria as a Group Winemaker, ascending to the role of General Manager of Winemaking and Viticulture.
Maling’s winemaking philosophy is that of minimal intervention. Driven by the vineyard and terroir expression, he produces wine that maximizes natural flavors of the fruit, all while being mindful of the environment. Blessed with a vast portfolio of stellar and diverse vineyards, he considers himself a student and steward of the land, as well as its storyteller.
Due to these efforts, Villa Maria wines are inexplicably pure, honest and intensely expressive of their origin. Many reserve red offerings are released three to four years late, in concert with their philosophy of bottle aging.
I had a chance to taste 2010 Taylor’s Pass Pinot Noir at IPNC and again in New Zealand. Sourced from a riverbank vineyard in Marlborough, the first taste of the wine evoked Russian River Valley sentiments. Gorgeous ripe cherry and raspberry emerged from the glass along with exotic spice. Voluptuous, generous texture sealed the deal. Juicy and seductive, this wine stole the show for me in Oregon, and again, in Marlborough.
The other head turner was a Sauvignon Blanc from the same vineyard. A symphony of fresh flavors, with tropical fruit intermixed with pink grapefruit and hints of lemongrass, this is a wine of substance, a poster child for vivid minerality and depth of flavor New Zealand Savvies seemingly effortlessly achieve.
Every one of the thirteen wines I sampled was stellar, a result of thoughtful, conscientious winemaking. Helen Morrison, Marlborough winemaker and my gracious host, guided me through the tasting. Afterwards she walked me through their extensive facility, which made me appreciate the gargantuan task of performing to such high standard in a context of large scale production.
I loved every sip, every word and every moment of my visit. I have developed a whole new appreciation for Villa Maria. I have long been a customer. However, now when I pass a bottle of their wine in an aisle at Safeway, I’m an avid enthusiast.