Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir vie for attention as New Zealand’s Villa Maria seeks to popularise their offerings in India

Fourth on Drinks International Journal’s ‘world’s most respected wine brands’ list three years running, the wine of choice at the BAFTAs earlier this year, and a part of Queen Elizabeth’s 5,000-bottle cellar. When George Fistonich planted his first vineyards in Auckland, New Zealand, in 1961, and bottled the first Villa Maria vintage the following year, he hardly hoped that in just over five decades, his little venture would build a global presence.

Although Villa Maria’s biggest market is the UK, where they have had a presence for over 30 years, it is the Asia Pacific that is growing rapidly, says Michele Lam, Exports Market Manager for the wine brand. Visiting India in May for a five-city tour, she was on a mission to showcase the lesser-known varieties of the label.

Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc vs Pinot Noir: Villa Maria's Indian mission

At Hilton Chennai’s invite-only dinner, Lam had brought along a selection of four wines — Cellar Selection Sauvignon Blanc 2017, Private Bin Chardonnay 2017, Cellar Selection Pinot Noir 2016 and Private Bin Merlot and Cabernet 2015. As the evening progressed, I had enjoyed an open lasagna with confit duck that paired beautifully with the Pinot Noir, and the signature Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, served with crab tian on a bed of green cucumber jelly and baby arugula leaves stuck in my mind long after the meal was done. Not surprised, Lam had told me, “It is the wine varietal that put New Zealand wine on the map.”

Explaining the Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc’s popularity, especially in India where wine has a long way to go, writer and wine expert Ruma Singh says, “It was instantly regarded as pleasurable to drink, with its aromas of lush tropical fruit and hints of herbaceousness. It is nicely structured; the new wine drinker likes it as it gives the impression of being sweeter than it really is. It also pairs well with food.” Even now, it makes up about 85% of Villa Maria’s exports.

Pinot for all

Then came the Pinot Noir. When it was first planted in the Canterbury region over 40 years ago, it was an oddity; now it is the second largest variety of grape grown in the country. And over the past 10 years, export of the red wine variety from New Zealand has more than doubled (from 5.703 million litres in 2008 to 12.510 million litres in 2017). India’s first French-qualified sommelier, Magandeep Singh, attributes this to its versatility. “It’s fruity and friendly, so the débutantes can enjoy it, yet complex and earthy, with ageing potential, to appeal to the seasoned collector,” he says.

Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc vs Pinot Noir: Villa Maria's Indian mission

Lam agrees. “A lot of people enjoy our Pinot Noir because it is elegant and fruit forward, showcasing fresh, vibrant flavours. It is also not intimidating; it is an easy wine to enjoy and approach on its own.” But while it may seem like the latter has captured the imaginations of wine aficionados the world over, it has not caught up in terms of sales/exports, standing second to Sauvignon Blanc at about 10 to 12%. However, Lam feels the wines are not in competition; they have simply brought more awareness to the other offerings from the country.

Top of the heap

Although Villa Maria has a wide portfolio, Ruma says only a fraction is available in India. “We get some entry level Sauvignon Blancs, mid-range private bins and slightly higher priced cellar selections. But these are not available everywhere.” While New Zealand only contributes about 1% of the world’s total wine production, Villa Maria has consistently been in the top five brands in the world. “What’s fascinating about them is that they ride on the success of their current wines, but they also explore new, cutting-edge products,” she explains.

The brand tops the list of wines being imported to India from the island nation. Aman Dhall, executive director of Brindco (its distributors in the country) says, “Compared to other countries’ wines, like France, Italy, USA and Australia, New Zealand wines are about 17% of the market share. Consumers prefer the Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Pinot Noir and Syrah.” While Delhi and Mumbai are the top consumers, Pune, Bengaluru and Chennai are not far behind on the list.

Villa Maria’s biggest growing market is China, says Lam, followed by India. And, as with any international alcohol brand exporting to the country, the main challenges wine brands face are the varied regulations and tax structures across different cities. But, despite the red tape, social media is helping wines become more accessible. It is also helping brands know what what they should look out for, says Lam. “I’ll be talking to other wineries and bringing them back. For us, it is more about the New Zealand story than the brands,” she concludes.

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