Villa Maria 60th Anniversary Lunch with Barry & Fitzwilliam

Over the years one of the perks of working in the wine trade was the “long lunch” where you would taste and enjoy a few really stunning iconic wines, served with a good meal, without any hard sell pressure.  Just good wine, good food, good company and a lot of laughter. Sadly, these days the long lunch is as rare as hen’s teeth, so I was delighted to accept an invitation from Michael Barry, to the Villa Maria 60th Anniversary lunch with the team from Barry & Fitzwilliam.  It seemed like just two minutes ago we were all in the Herbert Park Hotel for the 50th Anniversary lunch with Sir George Fistonich as the guest of honour and here we are, back again a decade and a bit later, post Covid, belatedly celebrating the 60th anniversary with another great lunch.

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Villa Maria Estate was founded by Sir George Fistonich in 1961; in 2021 he sold it to Indevin New Zealand and the purchase included Villa Maria’s Marlborough, Hawkes Bay and Auckland wineries, and vineyards, the flagship brand Villa Maria as well as Esk Valley, Vidal, Leftfield and Thornbury wineries.  A leader in sustainability, innovation and quality, Villa Maria is recognised as an icon in the NZ wine industry.  Villa Maria has created approachable food and friendly wines of premium quality from many of New Zealand’s key winegrowing regions.

So, with all changed at the top, this time around, we celebrated the 60th anniversary with Dave Roper, Villa Maria’s head wine maker and Natalie Walsh Villa Maria’s Market Manager for the UK and Ireland and although the ownership has changed, the sense of fun, and of course the fantastic wine has not.  Dave, who was on his first ever visit to Ireland told us that he started his winemaking career twenty years ago working for Villa Maria as a cellar hand, and since then he has never worked anywhere else.Today, he is the head winemaker at Villa Maria.  Dave introduced us all to a selection of their icon wines including the 2021 Seaspray Sauvignon Blanc a single vineyard SB from the Awatere in Marlborough.  From Hawke’s Bay we tried two vintages of Keltern Chardonnay the 2020 and 2007, both were world class, and the 2007 was SO Burgundian in style, you would be very hard pushed to identify where it was from in a blind tasting.

Then we moved on to the reds, the 2004 Taylors Pass Single Vineyard Pinot Noir, was for me the wine of the afternoon it had all the development and savoury character you would expect from an 18-year-old wine, and it has aged beautifully under screwcap.  We enjoyed this with grass-fed Hereford Beef fillet which, as a wine and food match, was hard to beat. Their other Icon served with the main course was the 2019 The Attorney Organic Pinot Noir. This is Pinot Noir from the Wairau Valley, where clay soils give the fruit a lot more structure. This was a totally different style of Pinot Noir, darker, heavier and obviously a much younger vintage but for sheer class it was hard to beat. We finished off lunch with a cheese board and another Icon the 2018 Villa Maria Ngakirikiri Hawkes Bay Cabernet Sauvignon a blend of 90% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Malbec and 5% Merlot.  This was still only a baby but the power and structure were very much in evidence and this is going to last a very long time.

Sitting around the table enjoying the lunch was Brad Burgess, the New Zealand Ambassador to Ireland.  Brad was joined by fellow Kiwi, Jess Murphy of Kai restaurant in Galway and her husband Dave who were enormous fun. The very knowledgeable Shiva Gautam from Monty’s of Kathmandu was asking all the right wine questions! The lovely Margaret Breski of La Cave Wine Bar had stories, as did John McGovern, general manager of the Baily Bar in Dublin and of course, the erudite Stuart Brechin of Morton’s in Ranelagh. Last but not least, wine and spirit writer Suzie Redmond whom I haven’t seen since before lockdown, was in fine form with great stories about her new son Tom.  It really was wonderful to catch up with so many old friends and especially the Barry & Fitzwilliam team, which included Kate Barry, who also had great stories about her new son Ben,  Pat Farrell, Niall Lawlor, and David Ward.  Barry & Fitzwilliam’s Chris Murphy and I talked about the development of the company since it was founded just over 40 years ago, and we both shared memories of, oh… a very long  time, working in the Irish wine trade and some of the wonderful people we have met along the way!.

Sean Mitchell

Author at Pynck

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