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Amongst the foremost international Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir styles anywhere in the world, there’s one from New Zealand. Known for its honest, mesmerising, and in-your-face varietal characters, there’s a surety and a liquid identity every bottle carries for its admirers. A brand in its own, any commendable wine-list stands incomplete without these neat wines from the island country. And amongst the most prestigious families carrying this brand forward is the Villa Maria Estate. Born in early 1960s, it proudly stands today as the most awarded New Zealand winery and the country’s most admired wine brand, straight fourth year in a row now. Having their presence in India, through Brindco Sales, for a decade already, a visit from the family was aptly due, marked by their very passionate and humble Export Manager, Michele Lam. With a MBA & Postgraduate Diploma in Wine Science from the revered University of Auckland, she has worked closely with the winery’s technical team and held local and international trade expansion roles. It was only fitting to meet with her during her Delhi sojourn for a rendezvous prior to the wine dinner she and Le Cave’s Madhulika Bhattacharya hosted at Shangri-La Hotel’s Asian restaurant, The Shang Palace. This was also her first visit to the country

What are your first impressions of the Indian market?

It’s a very exciting time to be in the growing Indian market. Even after very tight restrictions, regulations, and carries-to-entry, there’s ample scope for growth and experimentation, which can further be enhanced with innovations and through investments in education. 

What attracts Villa Maria to India?

India is opening up to new wines and the consumers are toying with global brands. We see a promise and scope for New Zealand wines as well. Our wines are distinctive and food-worthy, and given Indians’ passion towards their food, it could be a good marriage.

New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs and Pinot Noirs have become a brand in themselves. Is that good or bad for your business?

It definitely works well for the business. It puts us on the world map as serious winemakers, and creates an identity for our winemaking philosophy. It also opens doors for new markets through which we can showcase our other varietals, styles, and brands.

What other varietals from New Zealand do you see holding great promise?

There’s a ton of potential in Hawkes Bay’s French-styled Bordeaux Blends (Cabernet Sauvignon + Merlot). Their 2013 & 2014 vintages have been exceptional. New Zealand also produces outstanding Syrah, Malbec, Gewürztraminer, and Rieslings. Apart from these, we also have a self-owned nursery homing various varietals that we are experimenting with, like Arneis, Verdelho, Albarino, Grenache, Viognier, Semillon, Pinot Gris, and more. Villa Maria Estates is extremely passionate about Chardonnays and we have a wide range to offer. We see a great promise in them for the future.

What makes Villa Maria Estates’ wines different?

Villa Maria was founded by a 21 year old Croatian. He studied carpentry as a family business and grew up in Auckland. From having a humble beginning as a hobby winemaker in the garage, Villa Maria quickly grow into a recognised and admired international brand, reaching over 50 countries today. We are a formidable family-owned, quality-oriented, focused producer, with utmost regard for nature and sustainability.

India is a very price-sensitive market, and New Zealand has amongst the highest per-litre wine prices in the world. How does that play for you here?

It definitely is a challenge. It becomes our responsibility to educate the consumers why they’re paying extra for a brand. It’s the trust in our brand and quality of our family-owned wines that are not simply commercially churned. We may be a big brand now but our wines are still handmade, which is rare to find at this scale. Villa Maria is also New Zealand’s first ranked brand by value and volume in the biggest wine market – the UK. That speaks of our commitment in its own. People wish to support family businesses. Albeit Asia being a price-sensitive market, we sense the willingness of the consumer to pay a marginal premium and be associated with a valuable brand.

What is the support you seek from the Indian market and the New Zealand high Commission in promoting your produce?

Keep telling our story. We will tell the Indian story to the others and make it a two way street between the two nations. Much like our relationships in cricket and tourism, we must develop one for our wines too. Though our efforts in education, trade events, and glass tastings, and the imperative support of the New Zealand High Commission and the New Zealand Winegrowers Association, we’d like to create ambassadors for our wines and produce. 

What do you see as the future of wines in India?

It’s good to see the local industry grow. Consumers will move towards wines and will be then open to trying international wines. New Zealand wines, being fresh and easy, are amicable and approachable. Through this effort we will grow and become partners in the common cause of more and qualitative wine drinking.

Being your first visit to India, apart from wines, has it broken any myths for you?

It’s amazing to see a census for trees in the capital. I didn’t know you counted and numbered your trees with such seriousness. It’s also interesting to see the amount of animals on the streets and the regard commuters have for them. Delhi is unlike I thought it would be. There are beautiful buildings, malls, streets, and infrastructure. There are so many social groups coexisting amicably and the denizens are open and approachable. It is a great mix.

After this rather open and mutually educating conversation, we moved to the dinner table with fare from Chef Neeraj Tyagi’s kitchen and wines from Villa Maria’s offerings. It was interesting to see the two iconic ‘Cellar Selection’ Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc. They were delectable as always. However, their lesser seen wines from the ‘Private Bin’ range – Marlborough’s Riesling, Chardonnay from the East Coast, and Hawkes Bay’s Merlot Cabernet Sauvignon, were the stars of the evening. The personality-driven Riesling paired exquisitely well with the Asian dishes, and opened the evening with a pleathora of flavours. Chardonnay showed grace and potential, sitting poised between a playful and a serious profile, and the elegant Merlot Cabernet Sauvignon blend brought masculinity and substance to pair well with the meaty dishes. 

2017 Private Bin Riesling, Marlborough – INR2410, Le Cave, New Delhi

Spritzy, youthful, and refreshing palate with concentrated ripe fleshy white and yellow fruit flavours, balanced with ripe citrus acidity, and lemon candy sweetness. Floral and perfumed tones at the back with a delicate oily finish. Light and easy-drinkability. 

2017 Private Bin Chardonnay, East Coast – INR2410, Le Cave, New Delhi

Shy nose with initial oaky opening. Palate opens to a good mix of over-ripe stoned fruits, toasted oak, touch of spices, and a round buttery mouthfeel, delicately balanced with soft acidity. A commendable structure with a youthful palate, a good drinking wine with a serious appeal.

2015 Private Bin Merlot Cabernet Sauvignon, Hawkes Bay – INR2360, Le Cave, New Delhi

Plush fruit-forward wine with a mild oaky accent and soft tannins, adding to its elegant palate with a dusty grip. Touches of earthy, tobacco, meat, and leather displaying signs of maturation. Juicy and citrus finish makes it a very drinkable wine that pairs well with soft red meats. 

2016 Cellar Selection Pinot Noir – INR4200, Le Cave, New Delhi

Ripe cherry, plums, cranberries, and sweet red berries on the palate, an abundance of juicy fruitiness. A delicately handled serious-styled Pinot with very fine soft tannins, astute structure, and a luscious appeal. A gentleman of a wine, commanding regard at each sip.

2017 Cellar Selection Sauvignon Blanc – INR3630, Le Cave, New Delhi

Hauntingly beautiful aromas of eucalyptus, green olives, capsicum, and cut grass. Crisp acidity, touch dusty flinty earthiness, hints of oily texture at the back, and a grainy chewiness adding to the mouthfeel. An impressive, intelligently made, layered, humbling example.

First published in Spiritz Magazine in July, 2018

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