The Villa Maria Estate winery is the last thing you would expect to see in the middle of a greyscale industrial area minutes from the Auckland Airport, but that first surprise introduction as uninspiring warehouses give way to the green and gold of the vineyards is merely a taste of the sensory feast to come. I was recently treated to a long and luxurious lunch at the Villa Maria Cafe and Cellar Door and, while the hints of rose petals from the Gewurztraminer have worn off, a pleasant aftertaste of fragrant grapes and perfectly cooked salmon remains.
Last year marked the 50th anniversary of the first Villa Maria vintage, grown and bottled by then 22-year-old George Fistonich on his one acre vineyard. Today, there are four sites across New Zealand in Malborough, Hawkes Bay, Auckland and Gisbourne, producing a variety of grapes that are crafted into premium wines and exported to over 50 countries worldwide.
The prestigious label takes the crown as New Zealand's most awarded winery, holding onto this status for a whopping 30 years. Among its long list of accolades, Villa Maria has been named one of the World's 50 Great Wine Producers by Wine Spectator Magazine, with estate owner and entrepreneur Fistonich knighted by the New Zealand government for his services to the industry.
Despite the depth of honours and heritage, a visit to Auckland's cellar door is an intimate experience. Oenophiles (wine aficionados, for those not familiar with the vino vernacular) can swirl, sniff, sip and savour with a guided wine tasting. Even if you don't know your Chardonnays from your Rieslings (like me) the whole experience is enlightening and arms you with a few choice anecdotes to whip out at your next dinner party. Did you know that out of 11,000 Australasian wines, Villa Maria's 2010 Hawkes Bay Merlot was rated top five in its class? I did.
If you wish to further enhance your wine enthusiast repute, why not take a tour of the winery and experience the winemaking process firsthand? One of the best things about the Auckland division of Villa Maria is its accessibility, located an easy 30 minutes outside the city centre. Auckland's volcanic soil and coastal climate are ideal for the Gewurztraminer, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Verdelho grapes you will see growing on the horizon as you settle in for a leisurely lunch on the Vineyard Cafe terrace.
I left Villa Maria sufficiently stuffed from a three-course lunch of antipasto, pan seared Marlborough Sounds salmon that melted at the gentle prod of a fork and, the piece de resistance, warm chocolate pudding swathed in speckled vanilla bean ice cream. While the wines are clearly the star of the show, what is premier wine without first class food to match? The ideal setting for a white wedding, corporate function or a quick stopover before boarding your plane home, the Villa Maria Estate is one of Auckland's hidden gems and a guaranteed palate pleaser.