Building upon 60 years of experience growing some of the best grapes in Aotearoa New Zealand and crafting some of the wines that helped make The Land of the Long White Cloud one of the world’s most famous wine producing countries, Villa Maria created the Single Vineyard and Icon ranges. These have set new benchmarks for quality, typicity and character across the different regions Villa Maria spans in New Zealand.
The spectacular growth, driven by innovation and relentless commitment to quality, which Villa Maria experienced since its humble beginnings, created a unique pool of expert knowledge on the many regions and terroirs of New Zealand. ‘There is significant experience within the Villa Maria viticulture and winemaking team and from that experience comes a deep understanding of our vineyard sites and what each of them deliver’ says Patrick Materman, Head of Winegrowing at Villa Maria. The acute awareness of the quality potential of specific plots was the motivation behind the creation of the Single Vineyard and Icon wines, highlighting the expressiveness of the fruit such vineyards yield and the fact that they express themselves above regional and varietal characteristics. ‘In selecting plots for the Single Vineyard range, we have focussed on sites which provide a true sense of place in the resulting wines and that deliver the highest quality,’ continues Materman.
Precision and attention
Each of the Single Vineyard and Icon wines showcases the attributes unique to their respective plot, delivering quality and character in equal measure. The specific conditions require, in turn, ‘attention to detail and a nuanced approach to how each of these blocks are managed,’ explains Materman. ‘Every vineyard has particular challenges, including spring frost risk, water availability, wind exposure, susceptibility to certain pests or diseases, yield and vine balance, unique soils or certain micro-climatic conditions.’ Again, experience and expertise are essential, with technical acumen playing a role alongside empirical knowledge and careful observation.
Balance, concentration and complexity are the primary goals. ‘Across all of the Single Vineyard blocks yields are managed through pruning and crop thinning to achieve the right number of shoots.’ Leaf plucking will reduce disease pressure and aid ripening, ultimately influencing the phenolic structure of the wines. Achieving the right vine balance through pruning, nutrient, water and yield management will help deliver clean, ripe fruit with a concentration of flavour. What is required to achieve this vine balance will be unique to each vineyard site and that’s where the experience, skill and passion of the team provides a great benefit.’
The work in the cellar is a mere continuum of the efforts in the vineyard: the focus of the Single Vineyard and Icon wines is expressing ‘where they are grown’ and, therefore, retaining that sense of place is key. Materman explains that ‘the winemaking is sympathetic to the fruit; the practices set out to showcase or enhance the vineyard traits, rather than shadow or detract from them.’ This philosophy impacts picking decisions, pressing regimes, yeast strain and fermentation decisions, oak selection and blending.
Challenges and opportunities
Mounting challenges in viticulture worldwide – and New Zealand is no exception – have raised concerns about the ongoing potential for balance and quality of some of the world’s most renowned vineyards. ‘Whilst New Zealand viticulture is still firmly classified as cool climate, we are mindful that through any climate change, retaining the vibrant fruit expression and juicy natural acidity that are synonymous with New Zealand wine is key,’ concedes Materman. ‘This may mean adapting our viticulture and winemaking practices accordingly; something we are acutely aware of. In general, we are seeing an earlier start to vintage with warmer seasons experienced, but fortunately few that are significantly warmer than the long-term average.’
Still, the New Zealand wine industry is already thinking ahead. The Bragato Research Institute and its partners have designed an accelerated seven-year research programme that will apply modern knowledge to promote diversity in Sauvignon Blanc plant material. As a Platinum grantor of the programme, Villa Maria has been hugely been supportive of this research and excited about the anticipated benefits. ‘ It will give us the opportunity to keep selecting new traits from the same gene pool; those we anticipate will help counter the effects of climate change. It also means we have a ‘library’ of adaptations to consider if other threats arrive.’
Although in recent years New Zealand has experienced some more extreme weather events, most of these have been during the winter months when vines are dormant. High rainfall has provided the benefit of replenishing aquifers, providing good early season soil moisture levels and allowing irrigation in the dry summer months ahead. However, very recently Cyclone Gabrielle has created significant flooding damage across the Hawkes Bay and Gisborne regions in the lead-in to the grape harvest. Materman reports that ‘whilst we are still assessing the extent of vineyard damage in those regions, we are very thankful that our teams there are all safe and well, and that our largest grape growing region, Marlborough, was untouched by the cyclone.’
The beauty of the Single Vineyard and Icon wines is also that, in their idiosyncrasy, they open conversation and invite the development of personal preferences. Among consumers as well as the winemakers themselves, not least because they evoke individual experiences and memories. ‘My personal favourite is the Villa Maria Single Vineyard Seaspray Sauvignon Blanc from our coastal vineyard in Marlborough’s Awatere Valley,’ confesses Materman.
‘This wine shows the effect of the vineyard’s coastal location where the wind is accelerated through the narrow channel between New Zealand’s North and South Islands. This site is cooler and drier than the rest of Marlborough leading to brighter acidity and a ripe-green pungency to the wine; characters such as lemongrass, jalapeño, capsicum and lime zest along with a saltiness to the palate. For many years I owned my own Sauvignon Blanc vineyard directly across the river from the Seaspray Vineyard and fell in love with this expression of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc.’
May you find your own favourite as well.
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