NZ’s rock star chardonnay winemaker

Nick Picone

Nick Picone (Photo: Villa Maria Estate)

Villa Maria’s Group Chief Winemaker, Nick Picone, is a rock-star winemaker. A few years ago I spent a day with Nick sight-seeing in New York. We didn’t talk much about wine, focusing instead on the sights around us. I was profoundly impressed by Nick. He has a quiet charisma that made him excellent company. He is deeply thoughtful, confident and very well-mannered.

I joined the New Zealand Sommeliers and Wine Professionals tasting at the Villa Maria Theatre in the newly opened ASB Waterfront Theatre for a regional tasting of 10 Villa Maria chardonnays led by Nick.

Villa Maria (tastings) practically own the chardonnay category if wine show results are anything to go by. The company won three out of 12 chardonnay golds at the recent Air New Zealand Wine awards and the Villa Maria Group (Villa Maria, Esk Valley and Vidal) earned 10 out of 26 golds at the NZ International Wine Show in September. That’s a fair chunk of the action.

Nick led us through the tasting of Cellar Selection, Reserve and Single Vineyard chardonnays from Marlborough, Hawke’s Bay, Gisborne and from the Villa Maria Ihumatao vineyard in Mangere near Auckland Airport.

Here are a few insights from my scrawled notes:


The diurnal (difference between high daytime and low night-time temperatures) range increases from north to south. Auckland, for example, has the warmest night temperatures and lowest diurnal range while Alexandra in Central Otago has the coolest night temperatures and highest diurnal range. Higher diurnal range generally helps grapes/wine retain good acidity levels. Diurnal differences also influence flavour profiles which at least partly explains why Marlborough chardonnay has a greater citrus and almond character than the tree fruit and peach aromas of Hawke’s Bay.

Acidity falls fast as chardonnay grapes ripen in the Ihumatao vineyard in Auckland and the grapes are usually picked at lower sugar levels, although they still have a good level of physiological ripeness.

Nick explained that the character of the site can override the character of the region in single vineyard wines. For example, their Gisborne vineyard is a very cool site by Gisborne standards and thus does not conform to the stereotypical Gisborne style.


There are good sulphides that give wine fragrant struck flint/mineral characters; and bad sulphides which can introduce rubbery, struck match aromas and palate hardness.

Fermentation with indigenous, as opposed to cultured, yeasts is more likely to result in the presence of sulphides. Villa Maria’s Cellar Selection Chardonnays tend to have a lower percentage (if any) of wild yeast fermentation and thus are likely to have lower levels of sulphides.

There is a strong link between wild yeast fermentation and quality in chardonnay. Generally, wild yeast fermentations produce a texture and character that makes the wine stand apart from selected yeast fermentations.

Some vineyards are more likely to produce sulphides in wine that others. Nick explained that the Villa Maria Keltern vineyard has low nutrient soils that tend to promote sulphides (when fermenting yeasts run low on nutrients they can produce hydrogen sulphide gas leading to high levels of sulphides – my comment). Villa Maria Keltern Chardonnay is well known as a “high sulphide” or reductive wine, although the 2013 vintage, perversely, had very little sulphide influence.

Nick explained that they achieve what they consider to be a desirable level of good sulphides by barrel selection and blending. An excessively sulphidic barrel of chardonnay might get blended in Cellar Selection or even Private Bin wines where it would make up such a tiny portion of the blend it would have little effect.

Hawke’s Bay rocks

Nick, who lives in Hawke’s Bay, declared that Hawke’s Bay makes his own favourite chardonnay. He planned to open a bottle of Villa Maria Library Release Hawke’s Bay Chardonnay and was clearly disappointed that the wine had not been included in the tasting. His enthusiasm for the wine has encouraged me to buy a bottle from the winery where it is available for $59.99.

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