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Wine of the Week for week ending 12 October 2003
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Villa Maria Reserve Merlot 2001
Hawkes Bay, New Zealand

Year after year on the New Zealand wine show scene there is one name that is always there when the results are announced. And that's Villa Maria. 'Show pony wines' some people call them, but at least Villa Maria enter their wines in the shows and subject them to the scrutiny of the judges - and in the face of some very stiff competition they continually win medals. It is undoubtably the quality of the wine as anyone who has ever sat down to drink one of the Villa Maria gold medal winners will know.

At the 2003 Liquorland Top 100 International Wine Competition Villa Maria was there again and the trend continued. Gold medals were awarded to Villa Maria Reserve Hawkes Bay Chardonnay 2002, Villa Maria Reserve Gisborne Chardonnay 2002, Villa Maria Reserve Marlborough Pinot Noir 2002 and Villa Maria Reserve Hawkes Bay Merlot 2001. Four gold medals for one brand, together with seven silver and nine bronze, also secured Villa Maria the trophy for Champion Winery of the Show. New Zealand should be very proud of Villa Maria. It is still 100% New Zealand owned.

I was lucky enough to taste the gold medal wines (although we didn't know they were gold medal then) at the Villa Maria Reserve Release tasting a couple of weeks ago. It was announced as the 'last' tasting to be held in Villa Maria headquarters of many years, at Kirkbride Road in the Auckland suburb of Mangere. By this time next year they will have moved to their new winery location, a couple of kilometres away.

The Villa Maria Reserve Range is rather stunning. There are two classy sauvignon blancs, the Reserve Wairau Valley and the Reserve Clifford Bay - neither of which were entered in this year's Liquorland Top 100 competition. Due to the lateness of the 2003 vintage, the wines were simply not ready.

Three Reserve Chardonnays, one each from Gisborne, Hawkes Bay and Marlborough - 2002 was a good vintage for Chardonnay right across the board so they decided to make the three reserve wines to reflect the individual characters of each region's fruit. The Gisborne and Hawkes Bay wines both won gold while the Marlborough wine - just a little tight at this stage - won silver.

The rather gorgeous Villa Maria Reserve Marlborough Pinot Noir 2002 also won gold. It was a good vintage for South Island pinot noir as reflected by the Liquorland Top 100 results - 7 golds in total, 3 to Marlborough, 3 to Central Otago and 1 to Canterbury - plus all 14 of the 2002 vintage silvers were South Island.

Last but not least, the 2001 vintage Hawkes Bay reds - a difficult frost-affected vintage in the Bay but small yields and the luxury of having several vineyard sites to choose from, probably accounted for the concentration in these Villa Maria wines. The tight and brooding Reserve Hawkes Bay Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot 2001 won a silver but the stunningly gorgeous Reserve Hawkes Bay Merlot 2001 won gold.

I was lucky enough to be on the judging panel of the Merlots at the Liquorland Top 100 competition and now know from my notes that my favourite wine in the class was the Villa Maria Reserve. It is an open class and wines of all vintages are judged together. Many of the wines were from the 2002 vintage - big wines, big tannins, wines with a little taming needed to bring the tannins into balance. Perhaps this is why the Villa Maria Reserve Hawkes Bay Merlot 2001, with its integration and impeccable balance was selected by the judges as the Champion Merlot and trophy winner when all the top Merlots came back for a second look. I also know that when I tasted the trophy winners side by side in the secret voting for Wine of the Show, that this is the wine that took my fancy. It was its terrific balance, its silky texture and fruit concentration that seduced me.

So it was great to taste it again in a non-hurried situation and to later enjoy with food. I was not disappointed - nor were people who tasted it at the awards evening on Friday last, I'm sure.

The Villa Maria Reserve Hawkes Bay Merlot 2001 is a dense black-red with deep ruby rims and intense aromatics with blackberry, black cherry, plum, lilac, smoky oak and just a hint of leather. It's a big wine, youthful and leathery right now with powerful fruit flavours balancing the dry, grainy tannin structure. Beautifully balanced, a little tarry, a touch of chocolate-coated coffee bean, a sweet vanillin oak character and then smoky berries and delicious, spicy, toasty oak lingering.

With its flavour and texture the wine is fleshy enough and more-ish enough to have on its own if you are daring or simply with a piece of bread and creamy cheddar but the tannin structure will marry so well to a piece of rare-cooked fillet of beef. Food writer Julie Buiso said she would love to serve this with a nugget of lamb cooked with currants and roasted olives.

The quality of wines like this will really establish New Zealand's place for world-class Merlot - even more so now that Villa Maria wines are available in Australia. It will be an eye-opener to our friendly rivals across the Tasman. What's more it is sealed with a screwcap wine seal, which will ensure consistency from bottle to bottle.

The fruit for this wine came from Villa Maria's Ngakirikri Vineyard in the Gimblett Gravels region of Hawkes Bay. Separate vineyard batches were hand-plunged in open fermenters and pressed into barrel to undergo malolactic fermentation. The wine was then racked into new French oak barrels for maturation. Kudos have to go to Michelle Richardson, who started the wine during her winemaking reign, and to Corey Ryan who finished the blending and assemblage. The finished wine is 86% Merlot and 14% Cabernet Sauvignon, carrying 14% alcohol by volume.

Expect to pay around $39.95 a bottle in New Zealand. Villa Maria export to almost everywhere, they are a great ambassador for New Zealand wine.

Find out more from the Villa Maria website.

© Sue Courtney
5 October 2003

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