Wednesday, October 10, 2012

An Evening with Villa Maria's Winemaker Simon Fell

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending a Villa Maria Winemaker Tasting at Esquin Wine Merchants in Seattle. Esquin has a new, half-renovated event space where they have just started to hold events like this, and plan to have many, many more. The space is almost complete, and it is going to be lovely. You'll even be able to rent it for private events! Stay updated on all their events (and free wine tastings) with their event calendar.

Winemaker Nick Picone was supposed to be leading the evening, however his plane was delayed so Simon stepped in. Simon has been a winemaker at Villa Maria since 2006, and has almost 25 years of winemaking experience around the world. He'd been a winemaker in Bordeaux, Napa, Chile, Australia and New Zealand before joining the Villa Maria team. This is an overview of my wonderful evening with Simon & Villa Maria wines.

Literature provided by Villa Maria about Simon Fell. Click to enlarge.

The evening started with a few facts about Villa Maria:
  • Family owned (Owner/Founder: George Fistonich), celebrating their 50th Anniversary this year
  • The producer of one million cases of wine each year (that's a lot of wine!)
  • Most awarded winery in New Zealand
  • The first to introduce the screw cap, back in 2001
  • The location of New Zealand in proximity to the ocean gives New Zealand wines a Maritime influence, which helps bring out natural acidity, something Simon believes is a strength of NZ wine
Simon pointed out the differences in the style of wines that come from different regions. Marlborough (on the South Island) is responsible for 2/3 of New Zealand's Sauvignon Blanc production. Marlborough has a few main regions, two of which are the Wairau and Awatere Valleys. The Wairau Valley tends to bring out more passionfruit & herb notes, while the Awatere Valley is associated more with cooler, citrus & mineral notes. You will find a lot of wineries blend these two regions together because it creates a well-balanced, crisp, clean New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. (On a side note, the Wairau Valley is one of my most favorite wine producing areas in the WORLD!)

Someone asked Simon why he believes people have fallen in love with NZ Sauvignon Blanc. His answer was simple: it is pungent, aromatic & easy to drink. But he also pointed out that New Zealand is starting to gain popularity in other varietals, including Pinot Grigio. This lead us to start tasting.

Here is a quick overview of the wines we tried:

Ignore the "Nick Picone" at the top :) 

  • 2010 Cellar Selection Dry Riesling ($23) : a little bitter, not too sweet, pleasant, smooth, long finish, fermented in Stainless Steel with a little residual sugar, a combination of Awatere & Wairau Valley fruit
  • 2011 Private Bin Sauvignon Blanc ($17) : amazing tropical fruit nose, light, refreshing, no acidity, great flavor profile...this wine is known year to year for great quality at an affordable price
  • 2011 Cellar Selection Sauvignon Blanc ($23) : drinking side by side to the Private Bin, this is noticeably more spicy, with more mineral/herb/tree notes...I prefer the Private Bin comparatively
  • 2007 Single Vineyard Taylor Pass Pinot Noir ($50) : Very strong nose, sweet, deep oak notes, very powerful, taste was bitter towards the back of your throat, strong flavors, very unique profile, smooth finish after the first few sips
  • 2009 Cellar Selection Merlot-Cabernet ($23) : 60% Merlot, 30% Cab & 10% Malbec, sweet flavor, slight tannins, smooth finish but with notes of alcohol & warmth on the nose
  • 2008 Reserve Merlot-Cabernet ($40) : 30% Merlot, 70% Cab, caramel nose, strong tannins with berry notes, smooth, spicy/acidic notes at the back of the throat, a bit lighter than I expected for a dominant Cab blend, but great flavor!

Besides the standard Private Bin SB which you can buy just about anywhere, my two favorite wines from the evening were the 2009 Cellar Selection Hawkes Bay Merlot Cabernet Sauvignon blend and the 2008 Reserve Gimblett Gravels Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot blend. I bought six bottles between those two that night!

After the evening concluded, I pulled Simon aside to ask a few more questions about the general sales and perception of New Zealand wine in the States. He said he thought selling NZ wine to the States was definitely tough, as he compared it to "just a voice in a crowd." He emphasized the importance of education & tastings, which allow people to get their hands on the product & learn more about it. Sauvignon Blanc is well known, but the other varietals are a tougher sell.

He also said sales vary from state to state. Places like Washington, Oregon & California are much tougher because we are so well known for our own wines. The Midwest and Florida sell a lot. He said he thinks people are starting to view New Zealand wines as higher quality and reliably good at a reasonable price point.

Did you know Villa Maria is imported by Chateau Ste Michelle? A local Seattle connection!

Contacting Villa Maria:
Twitter: @villamaria_wine

A few more photos from my trip to Villa Maria Auckland last December (remember their December is our June...our seasons are flip flopped due to the different hemispheres!):

The front circle drive. The entrance, tasting room & outdoor patio are to the right.

The view from the entrance, looking out. The property is expansive, well manicured & sprawling with greenery.

The front entrance. To the left is the outdoor patio.

Me, sitting at the tasting room bar. Notice the amazing rows of wines behind me!!
(Note: This was the last day of my 2 week vacation! I was a bit tired & starting to get sick.)
It was a pleasure meeting Simon and I certainly agree that New Zealand is making a name for itself. My passion for this country, its people and its wine are forever a part of me, and I am so honored to be apart of this blog & allowed opportunities to continue to meet wonderful people from this wonderful country. Cheers!

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