We get to know Villa Maria’s Chief Winemaker, Nick Picone.
How long have you been Group Chief Winemaker for Villa Maria?
I have been with Villa Maria for 22 years and Group Chief Winemaker since 2015.
What inspired your passion for wines?
My father started his own business conducting winery tours in the Hawkes Bay region of New Zealand 30 years ago, and would regularly open wine with dinner. The first wine he opened that really caught my attention was a Merlot made by Esk Valley Estate, coincidentally a brand that is part of the Villa Maria family. I was 17 years old in my last year of high school and the following year I completed a tertiary winemaking course to start my career. The rest, as they say, is history!
Describe the Villa Maria vineyards and the unique characteristics they lend to your wines.
Villa Maria vineyards are geographically diverse and span the majority of New Zealand’s key winegrowing regions. We source from sites we both own and manage, as well as from long-term contract growers. Each site is unique to an extent, but one thing they share is the influence of meticulous and sustainable management practices, aligned to provide our winemakers with exceptional quality fruit from which to produce our wines.
How do you incorporate sustainable practices into your winemaking?
100% of the vineyards from which we source are Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand accredited. In addition, approximately 30% of our company-owned vineyards are managed organically, making Villa Maria one of New Zealand’s most prominent organic wine producers. We have won several awards for our sustainability initiatives and were New Zealand’s first CEMARS accredited winery. Sustainability is a core belief and feature of our long-term strategic plan, so the desire to leave our land in the best possible shape for future generations is firmly embedded in our culture.
How many grape varietals do you grow?
At last count, 24 different varietals! However, some are blended, and of course Sauvignon Blanc is dominant, accounting for approximately 75% of our total production. We believe in thinking ahead, so we continue to experiment with niche varietals such as Albarino, which we think has an exciting future ahead of it.
Which are your biggest selling wines?
Sauvignon Blanc continues to be the dominant varietal from New Zealand, and for good reason — the wine is unique with distinctly expressive and vibrant fruit characters that overflow from the glass. Our Private Bin Label Sauvignon Blanc is by far our biggest selling wine, and is enjoyed all around the world. Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir are in high demand with strong support from Chardonnay, the quality of which is one of New Zealand’s best-kept secrets.
What’s your personal favourite, and why?
I tend to have ‘seasonal’ favourites but, of course, the occasion and food can also influence wine choice. My main ‘summer sipper’ is our Wairau Valley Reserve Sauvignon Blanc, which you can smell as soon as you twist the screw-cap off the bottle. It’s a particularly concentrated and powerful expression of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc and can tolerate being well chilled. Winter sees me heading for one of our Reserve and Single Vineyard Chardonnays or Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot red blends; the bold rich flavours found in these wines are perfect for colder evenings and hearty fare — or for calming ones nerves when our beloved All Blacks face off against the Irish!
Do you have any tips for pairing wines with summer meals?
With the warmer weather comes outdoor dining and often lighter fare, so I tend to choose aromatic whites (like Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling or Albarino), rosés and lighter bodied reds (such as Pinot Noir) to accompany summer meals. These wines rely more on fruit and freshness rather than alcohol and oak, allowing them to pair fantastically with food. They respond well to chilling and are generally easier to consume and enjoy in warmer weather.
If I were having people over for a barbecue, what wines would you recommend I buy to please the crowd?
It’s very hard to pass on our Private Bin Sauvignon Blanc. The goal with producing this wine is to appeal to a wide audience so it’s a perfect candidate. A lighter bodied red wine such as the Private Bin Pinot Noir offers huge versatility with food matching. Finish with a fuller bodied red wine to handle those hearty cuts off the grill.
Any tips for keeping wines at optimal temperatures for outdoor parties?
This can be a challenge, and certain wine styles respond better to chilling than others. In very warm temperatures, despite your best efforts, the wine can warm up quickly on the table, so maintaining a perfect serving temperature takes some management. There are a few options, including alternating wines in and out of ice buckets, but I like to use a bottle-chilling sleeve to maintain the wine at a more consistent serving temperature. Red wine will also benefit from gentle chilling in warm weather to display more freshness and fruit character, and will generally show at its best at around 18˚C. If the ambient temperature is much warmer than this, placing it into the fridge for 20 minutes prior to serving can make all the difference.