Grape Expectations

Villa Maria is one of our most highly respected wine labels. For the fourth year in a row they were recognised as one of the world’s most admired wine brands – the highest ranking New Zealand winery. Since 1961, under the guidance of Sir George Fistonich, the brand has become one of our biggest wine exporters and is the most highly awarded winery in the country.

We asked one of the head winemakers at Villa Maria, Nick Picone, to give us an insight into the people behind the award winning wines and what makes the brand such an icon.

Where did your inspiration to become a winemaker come from? Was there an epiphany moment you can recall?

My first memory of wine is of a cousin and I sneaking a rare bottle out of my father’s wine cellar when I was eleven years old. Naturally there was some fall-out following this incident, but I have to say it has worked out pretty well!

What was the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

White wine before red wine, dry before sweet…

With Villa Maria producing wine from a range of winegrowing regions across New Zealand, what is your favourite winegrowing region?

I will get in trouble with some of my staff for answering this! I have made wine from all of New Zealand’s main regions but always envisioned myself coming back to Hawke’s Bay. It’s true that home is where the heart is, but in this case it is also where many of our country’s finest wines are made.

What wine varietal are you most passionate about and why?

I’m going to cheat and name a white (Chardonnay) and a red (Cabernet Sauvignon). They produce many of the world’s most intriguing, complex and textural wines and also happen to be what I enjoy drinking.

Which wines have you been most proud of?

Various vintages of our Villa Maria Keltern Single Vineyard Chardonnay and Villa Maria Reserve Gimblett Gravels Cabernet-Merlot, but more recently, our new super-premium ‘Ngakirikiri’ label, which is a Cabernet Sauvignon dominant red blend which will only be released in great vintages.

If you could choose any wine in the world, what particular bottle of wine (vintage/ varietal /region) would you cite as the benchmark – the gold standard – for all wines to be measured up to? The wine you’d like everyone to try at least once in a lifetime?

I’ve been lucky to try some of the world’s great wines (not too often mind you!) and regardless of the region or varietal, they leave a lasting impression. It’s a hard task to single one out, but perhaps the iconic Latour, from Pauillac Bordeaux, would be first on my wish list. Any of the great vintages with age will suffice. Let me know when you are pulling the cork!

What’s your winemaking philosophy?

Work with the grapes rather than against them. That’s going to come across as mumbojumbo but it relates to knowing how far to push things and when not to push at all to coax the best out of the vineyard and season. It’s important to think about your consumer and what they will be looking for, whether it’s complexity or freshness, structure or approachability, there are many different options the winemaker can take but not all of these will necessarily add value, so it’s important to get the details right.

What has been the most outstanding moment in your winemaking career to date?

It was a proud moment for me to become the first Kiwi to be crowned ‘Australasian Young Winemaker of the Year’ after 12 years of competition amongst the Aussies at a dinner event in Sydney 2012 with my father in attendance. I celebrate our achievements with my wider team and always acknowledge the contribution of our fantastic viticulturists.

What was the hardest moment in your winemaking career?

I was given an opportunity to trial for an Assistant Winemaker position in our Marlborough Winery near the start of my career in 2002 when I took the controls of a grape press and dumped 20 tonnes of Sauvignon Blanc on the winery floor… There was a long walk that followed to the head winemakers office. It must have given me enough time to get my speech ready as I still ended up with the job. Thanks George!

What is the next big thing for New Zealand wines?

It’s funny but if I said Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, there will be eyebrows raised. Of course Kiwis know how good many of these wines are but the fact remains that after Sauvignon Blanc, very little other New Zealand wine is appreciated internationally and often the perception is that Sauvignon Blanc is all we are capable of! I think organics has real potential and we are doing our part here. It’s slowly building in momentum and has potential to open up new markets.

Villa Maria is one of our largest exporters and producers of wine, yet the brand still seems to maintain a perception of being a boutique winery – why is that?

That would be due to the quality of our wines. The notion that larger wineries produce inferior wines is a fallacy – as proven time and time again in blind tastings.

What makes Villa Maria wines unique?

Sir George Fistonich. If there is someone more passionate about their company, I’m yet to meet them.

Describe an average day in winemaking …

Winemaking can have significant variety and a typical day really depends on the time of year. For me, December-January is a planning and preparation period for harvest. February- April is harvest which means plenty of time spent in our beautiful vineyards throughout the country and in the winery overseeing the winemaking process. May-August there are blending sessions to confirm bottlings from the current and previous vintage. September-October can include market work domestically and internationally. Throughout the year the constants are winemaking and blending, weekly meetings, PR, staff management and travel. Yes it’s a cliché but rarely is there a dull moment!

Tell us about your latest release?

By the time you read this our 2018 Villa Maria Private Bin Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc should be just starting to hit the shelf. This wine is massive for Villa Maria and it is loved all over the world for good reason. We are super pleased with it!