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One on One With Winemaker: Phil Rose of Wairau River, New Zealand

July 15, 2017 2 comments

It just happened to be that once again, we will be talking about New Zealand wines. Once again, we are going to visit Marlborough. And once again, we are going to meet with a pioneer.

Wairau River Vineyards

Source: Wairau River

Wairau River Wines‘ story started in 1978 when Phil and Chris Rose became grape growers (Phil was a farmer since the childhood, so the transition was not that dramatic). In 1991, they also became winemakers, producing their first wine. Today, Wairau River vineyards span 550 acres, making it one of the biggest family owned wineries in New Zealand. And it is all truly in the family, as Phil and Chris’ two sons and three daughters are all working at the winery.

Wairau River Wines produces two lines of wines. The Estate collection includes all of the usual suspects, such as Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Riesling, and Chardonnay, but you can also find some oddballs there, such as Albariño. The Reserve line also includes Syrah and Viognier, as well as late harvest botrytized Riesling.

I had an opportunity to sit down with Phil Rose (albeit, virtually), and inundate him with questions – here is what transpired.

[TaV]: You started growing grapes in 1978. Was there a pivotal moment which got you into the grape growing? Were grapes a long-time passion before you started, or was there an event which brought you into the world of the wine?

[WR]: The oil shock in the 1970’s meant we looked for an alternative away from the farming of beef and sheep plus the growing of Lucerne and other crops. However due to a rural council district scheme rule, grape growing was prohibited on land north of old Renwick road. 
We were required to apply for permission to establish a vineyard, which we did but the application received 56 objections and not one single vote of support. There were a number of reasons for the objections. Forestry owners were concerned they would no longer be able to use sprays like 2.4.5.t because of its impact if grapes were nearby. Local farmers were also concerned their normal farming methods would be threatened. There was also the moral opposition such that no one should be able to grow a product that could be turned in to alcohol. 
Unfortunately the council denied our application, so we appealed. But things moved even slower back then than they do now – and it took 18 months for the independent tribunal to take place. 18 months where we worked hard to try and convince the powers that be and our own neighbors that grape growing in the Rapaura area of Marlborough had huge merits. 
Finally in 1978 we got a unanimous decision from the tribunal which gave us the permission we needed to become contract grape growers. As a result, the council had to change the district plan and open the Rapaura area up to grape growing.

[TaV]: Can Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc age? What was the oldest Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc you ever tried? What is the oldest Sauvignon Blanc you have in your cellars?

[WR]: Of course the wine will age well although the wine takes on different characters with age as do all wines. Most sauvignon blanc now though is consumed in its youth as its fresh, crisp and lively style that have become hallmarks of our success. 1991 was our first vintage and we still have a few bottles of that in the cellar.

[TaV]: Did you ever experiment with cork versus Stelvin closures? Obviously, all your wines use the screw tops, but I wonder if you ever tried to create a control batch with the conventional corks and see how the wines would compare.

[WR]: We bottled our first wine in screwcaps in 2002. Prior to that we were 100% cork but never really happy with the closure. We felt that cork was tainting, oxidising and affecting the delicate aromas of sauvignon blanc in particular. 
Wairau River was part of the New Zealand screwcap initiative that was formed in 2001 and we did many trials in the early days – all of them showing that wine under screwcap was far better in terms of consistency and quality than corks. 
Today we are 100% screwcap for all of our wines.

[TaV]: It seems that Wairau River is truly a family operation top to bottom. Do you ever have any work conflicts? If yes, how do you resolve them?

[WR]: Yes we now have the whole family and some their partners involved in running the business across vineyards, winery, cellar door and restaurant. It is not often there are any issues but having a voice and opinion is important and so we all listen and work through this and will always achieve a result that works for everyone. We also have a board of directors which meets regularly which helps with accountability and offers independent advice.

[TaV]: The question I always like to ask: what was the worst vintage you remember at Wairau River and why? 

[WR]: I think 1995 will long be remembered as the toughest vintage we have had. It rained and rained

[TaV]: And the second question I always like to ask: what were your most favorite vintage years and why? 

[WR]: Actually there are many years we look back and think that was one of the best vintages however we never like to look backwards for too long. We are always striving to improve our wines each year so lately it seems every year we are getting better results across all varieties.

[TaV]: How would you differentiate Sauvignon Blanc from Wairau Valley and Awatere Valley? Are the pronounced differences there? Do you think Marlborough needs further subdivision?

[WR]: There are quite big differences between the 2 valleys in terms of flavor profiles however strategically the Rose family have chosen to focus in the Wairau Valley and then within that a tight area surrounding our home vineyard and winery. 
Further sub regions like Rapaura or Dillons Point will develop with time however Marlborough as an overall region will still be the key to our success and the protection of that is paramount.

Wairau River Wines

[TaV]: It seems that your wine portfolio is very diverse and includes a wide variety of grapes as well as styles (white, rosé, red, dessert) – the only notable absence nowadays is Sparkling wine – do you plan to fix it?
[WR]: haha – always a good topic of conversation…..we are happy with what we are doing at the moment, however we have a rule of never saying no to anything so who knows what the future will bring – perhaps the next generations may want to make sparkling wine.

[TaV]: Sauvignon Blanc and then Pinot Noir squarely put New Zealand on the world wine map. Is there a next big white and/or red grape for the New Zealand?

[WR]: We consider Pinot Gris to be the next big thing especially from Marlborough. It has a certain style that resonates well with wide variety of cuisines and will help those drinkers that are looking for NZ wine and want to try an alternative to our Sauvignon Blanc.
In the reds perhaps the wines from Hawkes Bay may make a statement but this will also be limited by smaller production.

[TaV]: Outside of New Zealand and your own wines, do you have any other favorite producers or regions for Sauvignon Blanc?

[WR]: We are lucky enough to travel the world selling wines and meeting customers so we are exposed to a number of different wine areas and styles.
In all honesty I think we produce a world class Sauvignon Blanc that is hard to beat however I do quite enjoy wines from Sancerre in particular Domaine Vacheron.

[TaV]: Same question as before, but only for the Pinot Noir – any favorites outside of New  Zealand?
[WR]: Of course, we enjoy Jim Clendenen wines at Au Bon Climat.

[TaV]: What are your next big plans at Wairau River? Any exciting projects you have started or about to start? 

[WR]: We are comfortable with where we are at in terms of our vineyard ownership and winery capabilities – our challenge is to grow sales and return better margins in all markets as we have wines that are in high demand but with limited availability. 
Gaining recognition for our other varieties such as Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir will be a key focus. Ros sales have become very hot lately so this will also be a focus going forward.

[TaV]: Last question: as you run winery as a family, I’m sure you had some funny moments in your daily wine business. Anything you care to share?

[WR]: We work extremely hard throughout the year and don’t often come together as a whole family outside of the work environment. Although I can’t pick one particular moment we have a lot of fun with the family when we gather to celebrate Christmas in the Marlborough sounds with our 5 children, their partners and 12 grandchildren there is always something happening that creates some funny occasions and a great laugh.

I’m sure you are thirsty by now, so let’s taste some wine, shall we? Here are the notes for a few Wairau River wines I had an opportunity to taste:

2016 Wairau River Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough New Zealand (13% ABV)
C: white pearl, pale
N: intense, currant, touch of grass, bright, fresh
P: herbaceous, nicely restrained, fresh, bright, touch of grapefruit on the finish.
V: 7+/8-, an excellent example of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc

2015 Wairau River Pinot Gris Marlborough New Zealand (13.5% ABV)
C: light golden
N: medium intensity, minerality, limerock
P: white stone fruit, nice minerality, salinity, crisp, refreshing
V: 7+

2015 Wairau River Pinot Noir Marlborough New Zealand (13% ABV)
C: bright ruby
N: freshly crushed berries, cherry, plums
P: cherries, fresh fruit, plums, touch of smoke, medium body
V: 7+, nice, traditional Marlborough Pinot Noir

Passion and perseverance rule in the wine world – we all know that, but it is always fun to listen to the stories. Pour yourself another glass – you deserve it. Cheers!

Exploring Wines Of New Zealand – With Villa Maria on Snooth

July 8, 2017 6 comments

Wines of New Zealand need no introduction – for sure to the oenophiles. Winemaking started in New Zealand in the 1850s, but it really flourished in the second half of the 20th century, when jet travel allowed much easier access to the future winemakers to get educated and experienced in Europe. Since the 1990s, New Zealand greatly embraced sustainability and … screw tops. I’m definitely very happy about the first – sustainable farming always leads to the better wines and happier environment. The screw tops – they are fine, I’m not convinced though that they are the best for aging the wines properly. However, I don’t want to convert this post neither into a rant, nor into a debate, so let’s just move on.

Villa Maria WinesThe story of Villa Maria winery is easily an exemplary story of realizing the “American Dream” – only in this case, it is, of course, have to be called a “New Zealand dream” (I hope such a concept exists).

George Fistonich started in 1961, at the age of 21, with one acre of vines in Auckland. In 1962, he harvested the grapes and produced the wines under the name of Villa Maria. That was the beginning of the journey of one man, who had the passion, vision, perseverance and enough obsession to make it. Villa Maria was a one man operation through the 60s, hiring its first staff in the early 70s, and now employing 250 people and exporting their wines to the 50 countries. As a perfect proof of making it, George Fistonich became Sir George Fistonich, receiving the first knighthood in the country for the services to New Zealand’s wine industry.

Villa Maria today has vineyards located in Auckland, Gisborne, Hawkes Bay and Marlborough regions. The grapes range from the New Zealand’s staples such as Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir to such an obscure varietals as Arneis and Verdelho. Villa Maria became a cork-free zone in 2001. And I can tell you, they really treat sustainability seriously – the Villa Maria bottles were some of the lightest wine bottles I ever came across, which I’m sure greatly affects the carbon footprint.

A week or so ago, I was a part of the big group of winelovers tasting Villa Maria wines together in the virtual tasting organized by Snooth (no worries, the wines were real). Here are my notes from tasting and also, re-tasting of the wines.

First, two of the Sauvignon Blanc wines. First one was called “bubbly” as it was lightly carbonated – and it was definitely a fun wine, perfect for a summer picnic, fresh and delightful. And the Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc was simply a classic New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, done with a perfect restraint:

2016 Villa Maria Bubbly Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough (12.5% ABV, $15)
C: literally non-existent
N: touch of grass and currant, a classic SB, restrained.
P: nice, touch of bubbles, touch of sweetness, black currant, nice and round, refreshing.
V: 8-/8, definitely nice

2016 Villa Maria Private Bin Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough (12.5% ABV, $13)
C: straw pale
N: pure cassis, beautiful, freshly cut grass, classic
P: excellent balance, acidity, currant and a touch of grass. Nice and pleasant.
V: 8, I can drink this at any time, excellent wine

Now, the Rosé and then Chardonnay. The Villa Maria Rosé is predominantly Merlot. It is light and simple, but it has enough finesse to pass one of my personal tests – I particularly like the white and Rosé wines which are well drinkable when they are a bit warm – it is annoying to maintain the wines at the ice cold level (at home, for sure). The Rosé was delicious and drinkable even at the room temperature, so it definitely passed that test. And as for the Chardonnay – I know that I will be in the tiny minority from our tasting group, but I found it to be just okay. It had all the classic Chardonnay traits, but, somehow, didn’t hit the home run for me…

2016 Villa Maria Private Bin Rosé Hawkes Bay (12.5% ABV, $14)
C: Pink
N: strawberries and strawberry leaves, round and pleasant
P: strawberries, touch of sweetness, could use a touch more acidity, but still, nice and delicate
V: 8-, definitely improved the next day, more delicate, better balance

2015 Villa Maria Single Vineyard Taylors Pass Chardonnay Marlborough (13.5% ABV, $45)
C: straw pale
N: creamy, vanilla, freshly baked brioche buns with a touch of butter on them
P: Granny Smith apples smothered in butter, good acidity, excellent midpalate weight, nicely plump, but clean. Nice cleansing acidity on the finish.
V: 7+, needs food.

Now, the reds. Pinot Noir was unusual compared to what I typically expect from the Marlboro Pinot Noir. It was heavier than I expected, and on the day 3, it became a lot closer to the powerful Oregonian Pinot (which is a good deal at $26, right? ). The Merlot blend was an enigma. It opened up beautifully as I just opened the bottle, but then it went back into its shell and never came out of it, even on the day 3 …

2014 Villa Maria Cellar Selection Pinot Noir Marlborough (13.5% ABV, $26)
C: bright ruby
N: touch of sweet cherries, violet
P: tart cherries, tart acidity, touch of tobacco
V: 7, 7+ on the day 3 – showed a lot more fruit on the palate, Oregonian notes of dark power, espresso, mocha, with sweet core of cherries and plums.

2013 Villa Maria Cellar Selection Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon Hawkes Bay (13.5% ABV, $20, 70% Merlot, 23% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Malbec)
C: dark garnet, almost black
N: medium intensity, baking powder, vanilla, sweet mocha
P: black currant, ripe and sweet, touch of espresso, tar, dark fruit, dry, tannic finish
V: 7, unusual experience …

Have you had any of these wines? What are your thoughts? Cheers!