Villa Maria Estate: Taylors Pass Vineyard and an Interview with winemaker Helen Morrison

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On June 16, 2011, I began this website, writing about wine, travel, and the combination of the two. Almost a year later, on May 22, 2012, I wrote about Villa Maria Estate for the first time. I cannot believe it has been seven and six years, respectively. It feels like we have grown together like longtime friends and family, so I will always have a soft spot in my heart for Villa Maria Estate wines.

In light of these milestones, I thought a great way to celebrate would be to interview Villa Maria’s Senior Marlborough winemaker, Helen Morrison, about the wines that we will be tasting for the summer edition of Villa Maria’s annual First Sip of Summer tweet-up scheduled for 5:00 p.m. Pacific/8:00 p.m. Eastern Time on Wednesday, June 20. This time around, we are so fortunate to be tasting three of Villa Maria’s Taylors Pass, single-vineyard wines, the 2017 Sauvignon Blanc ($26), 2016 Chardonnay ($42), and 2015 Pinot Noir ($42). Below are my sneak peek reviews interspersed with my interview questions and Helen’s answers.

1. How long has Villa Maria been making these single-vineyard wines?

Taylor Pass Vineyard was planted in 1999, the first Taylors Pass Chardonnay was released in 2002, with Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc joining the range in 2003.

2. Does Villa Maria own Taylors Pass or source the fruit? If not, any direct involvement in the vineyard and grape growing? How does Villa Maria ensure growing standards and grape quality?

The vineyard is owned by Terra Vitae group, of which Sir George Fistonich (owner and founder of Villa Maria) is the largest shareholder. Villa Maria employed staff fully manage the vineyard, growing grapes to our requirements. Vine yield is balanced carefully to the site to achieve desired flavours and ripeness levels required.

3. How large of a vineyard is Taylors Pass? How many acres are devoted to the three grape varieties, sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, and pinot noir? Any other varieties grown there?

Riesling and Pinot Gris are grown there which are often used in our Cellar Selection tier of wine. The vineyard is 14 acres of Pinot Noir, 14 acres of Chardonnay, 120 acres of Sauvignon Blanc—however only a very small portion of the highest quality of grapes from these acres is made into our Single Vineyard wines.

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2017 Villa Maria Taylors Pass Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc (sample, $26)
I have a palate that craves sour fruit flavors, usually associated with someone that Tim Hanni MW calls the hypersensitive Vinotype, which makes perfect sense as I am also a highly sensitive person (HSP) with a Myers-Briggs INFJ personality type. I was the kid that used to eat lemons, limes, and grapefruit, without sugar added, and loved them. When I taste this sauvignon blanc, it immediately triggers these childhood memories. This wine is squeaky clean and crisp, with steely tartness and minerality.

4. What makes Taylors Pass such a special vineyard? Tell me more about the location, climate, soils, and growing season.

Villa Maria has been on the forefront of defining sub-regions from the word go. By keeping parcels separate in the winery at harvest time, we gain valuable knowledge about the vineyard sites and the differences in flavor profile. Showcasing the different terroir—the sense of place—has always been important to Villa Maria. The Awatere Valley is colder and stonier, and this reflects in style of this wine as well.  One very special parcel that delivers exiting wines year in and year out is the Taylors Pass Vineyard. Located in the Awatere Valley it sits on very picturesque terraces on the northern bank of the Awatere River. With each terrace the soil type changes; stony gravels are nearest the river, whereas the mid terrace has silt over gravels, and the highest terrace is deeper silt over clay-papa base.

5. Do you have a winemaking style? If so, please share your philosophy.

It really depends on the wine. Pinot Noir is the most transparent of the grape varieties, it showcases exactly where it was grown, how the vines were cared for, and needs to be carefully respected in the winery to craft great wines. We try to be hands-off where possible, allowing native yeast from vineyards to take care of the fermentation process, and once pressed, the wines rest in barrels for the next 9-14 months. It takes years of practise not to jump in and “interfere” too much, it’s best to sit back and be confident the wines will express themselves given time. Whereas with Sauvignon Blanc winemaking, we have very close attention to detail, starting right from the harvesting of grapes, protecting aromatics at every stage, very closely monitoring ferments to achieve the desired aromatics and highly focused wine assessment and blending session to ensure we get the best blends to bottle. Chardonnay is a very contested varietal in the Villa Maria group of wineries, with examples made from Gisborne, Hawkes Bay, and Marlborough—so we always keep focused on delivering a style of Chardonnay that truly represents the vineyard. We want consumers to almost feel the stones beneath their feet when tasting this wine.

6. Besides being single vineyard, what makes the Taylors Pass wines different from the other Villa Maria wines that we have sampled in past tastings?

At this price point, the wine expression is more about the texture, complexity, and overall palate weight rather than simple fresh fruit flavours (which is what we expect at Private Bin level). The Single Vineyard wines are an invitation to the consumer to come on a journey to discover the diversity of Marlborough.

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2016 Villa Maria Taylors Pass Vineyard Chardonnay (sample, $42)
Another confession: I am picky about chardonnay. In fact, I usually limit my chardonnay to Chablis and Champagne because I do not enjoy hot-climate, overripe, “sweet fruit” flavored chardonnays (another example of my hypersensitive palate). This chardonnay exhibits cool-to-moderate climate fruit characteristics like grapefruit, green apple, and stone fruits, which allows it to tolerate oak fermentation and aging, as well as naturally occurring malolactic fermentation.

7. Most of us recognize New Zealand as a producer of sauvignon blanc and pinot noir, so why make chardonnay?

Chardonnay and Pinot Noir originate in the similar area in Burgundy, so naturally any soil or micro-climate suited to Pinot Noir will often grow great Chardonnay. But also, Chardonnay is a very popular variety with New Zealand consumers, second only to Sauvignon Blanc, with demand continually increasing at all price points.

8. Does Villa Maria have a location (or locations) where consumers can taste before purchasing, like a winery or tasting room? If not, how (or does) Villa Maria provide public tastings?

Yes, we currently have two cellar door locations, one at Auckland our head office, restaurant, and conference facility, and the other one in Marlborough (where these wines are made). We also have plans to open a cellar door in the Hawkes Bay in the future.

9. Since Villa Maria does not have a wine club or allocation model, where can we find these wines in the retail market in the United States?

You can find these and any of our other wines on villamariawine.com. Click on Where to Buy at the top of the page and add your zip code for a list of local retailers.

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2015 Villa Maria Taylors Pass Vineyard Pinot Noir (sample, $46)
Although I live in California, I am not a fan of the “sweet cherry cola” style of pinot noir. Thankfully, this is not that style. This wine shows dark, ripe fruit flavors, such as black cherry, cranberry, and plum. A hint of spiciness from the mix of new and seasoned French oak, along with some mouthwatering acidity and black tea-like tannins, complete the package. This wine was lovely accompaniment to a baked chicken thigh I had for lunch, so I am sure it would pair with other poultry as well.

Villa Maria’s First Sip of Summer

The Villa Maria Logo (photo courtesy of Villa Maria)
The Villa Maria Logo (photo courtesy of Villa Maria)

As some of you know, I am a relatively new wine geek after a pivotal wine moment in 2008 that led me to taste and learn more about wine, eventually landing me in Napa, California with a new career in the wine business. This website and many virtual tastings, including five with Villa Maria (@villamaria_wine in NZ and @villamaria_usa in the US), were instrumental in my journey to where I am today.

On May 22, 2012, I described my first tasting experience with a wine from New Zealand, the 2011 Villa Maria Sauvignon Blanc Private Bin. Four years and four website posts later, I am still a fan of Villa Maria wines because they are delicious and accessible. I have had the opportunity to taste and review many recent vintages from Villa Maria including: 2012 Villa Maria Private Bin Sauvignon Blanc and the 2011 Villa Maria Private Bin Pinot Noir, 2014 Villa Maria Sauvignon Blanc Private Bin and 2013 Villa Maria Sauvignon Blanc Cellar Selection, 2015 Villa Maria Sauvignon Blanc Private Bin (which just received 90 points from Wine Spectator!) and 2014 Villa Maria Sauvignon Blanc Cellar Selection, and 2014 Villa Maria Pinot Noir Private Bin and 2013 Villa Maria Pinot Noir Cellar Selection.

Villa Maria's Sauvignon Blanc Label ((photo courtesy of Villa Maria)
Villa Maria’s Sauvignon Blanc Label ((photo courtesy of Villa Maria)

Therefore, you can imagine how thrilled I was to find out that I will be participating in Villa Maria’s First Sip of Summer (Twitter hashtag #FirstSipNZ) on Wednesday, June 15 at 5:00 p.m. Pacific Time/8:00 p.m. Eastern Time.

For those of you who may be unfamiliar with the brand, Villa Maria was founded in 1961 by George Fistonich. The winery is New Zealand’s most awarded winery over the course of the past 50+ years, including being named one of the World’s 50 Great Wine Producers by Wine Spectator, New Zealand Wine Producer of the Year twice by International Wine & Spirits Challenge UK, and New World Winery of the Year by Wine Enthusiast. George Fistonich has been recognized as one of the most prominent figures in the wine industry by Wine International Magazine UK and earned the title of Distinguished Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merits (making him an official knight, that’s Sir George Fistonich to you and me), for his commitment to winemaking. (Source: https://www.smwe.com/estates/details/villa_maria_new_zealand). Once a one-man operation, Villa Maria, known for its adoption of 100% screw-cap closures in 2000 and sustainable winemaking practices, now produces wine in Auckland and Marlborough, employs more than 250 staff, and exports its wines to more than 60 countries. Villa Maria’s current winemaking team includes chief winemaker Nick Picone (@PiconeNick) and Marlborough winemaker Helen Morrison (@helen_wine), who will be participating on June 15.

Villa Maria Sauvignon Blanc Private Bin (photo courtesy of Villa Maria)
Villa Maria Sauvignon Blanc Private Bin (photo courtesy of Villa Maria)

During the tasting, we will be the first to taste the 2016 Villa Maria Private Bin Sauvignon Blanc (SRP $14.99), available in the United States around August, and the 2015 Villa Maria Private Bin Bubbly Sauvignon Blanc (SRP $14.99), available now in the following markets: CA, FL, IL, MA, NY, and TX. What I’ve discovered through the years is that the Villa Maria Private Bin Sauvignon Blanc has consistently proven itself to be a great example of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc and a great value, perfect for everyday drinking and summer parties. I am especially intrigued by the bubbly Sauvignon Blanc as it will be my first. It’s made in the frizzante style similar to Moscato d’Asti and Vinho Verde, which means that while it is less effervescent than Champagne, spumante, and other sparkling wines, but it still shows fine, refreshing bubbles. The combination of light effervescence and the zingy acidity of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc should prove to be a fantastic and affordable alternative to traditional method sparkling wines.

Villa Maria Bubbly Sauvignon Blanc (photo courtesy of Villa Maria)
Villa Maria Bubbly Sauvignon Blanc (photo courtesy of Villa Maria)

In addition to tasting and sharing these new wines, participants during the June 15 tasting will have a chance to win some nice prizes, like a Bamboo Picnic Wine Table, GoVino Shatterproof Wine Glasses, a picnic blanket, and copies of The Winemaker: George Fistonich and the Villa Maria Story. There will also be a chance to win a trip to New Zealand and a visit to Villa Maria (entries will be accepted between June 1 and August 31, 2016). I hope you will make your plans now to join the Villa Maria team, some fabulous wine writers, and me for a delightful evening of Villa Maria Sauvignon Blanc.

Villa Maria’s First Sip of Summer
Twitter hashtag #FirstSipNZ
Wednesday, June 15
5:00 p.m. Pacific Time/8:00 p.m. Eastern Time

To find Villa Maria Sauvignon Blanc in your area, visit this link for where to purchase.

See you online for #FirstSipNZ!
Beth
@travelwinechick