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Charlotte Read of NZ Villa Maria

Posted: Saturday, 01 December 2012 12:54

Passing By: Charlotte Read of NZ Villa Maria

December 01: Charlotte Read, Shanghai-based Export Manager-Asia and Middle East for Villa Maria, the biggest family run winery in New Zealand was here this week on her annual pilgrimage to India to meet the trade when she met Subhash Arora for a chat and shared her views about the winery, their wines and the market.

Based in Shanghai and looking after a 16-country market, spread from Dubai in Middle East to Japan in Asia she is very fond of India. She had come to re-launch Villa Maria in 2007 after Villa Maria had a divorce with Sonarys and started a fresh alliance with Brindco and has been to India for the sixth time, visiting every year. ‘From my personal selfish perspective I love to come to India as I can freely talk to people here.’ Like most expats stationed in China, the marketing Eldorado because of its huge perceived potential, she does not speak Chinese as comfortably as her mother tongue and she finds communications a lot easier in India. Delhi and Mumbai are of course the focus of her visits but she went to Pune last year and plans to add Chennai next.

Chinese market is important enough for Villa Maria to station her in Shanghai where they work through Summergate as their importer. ‘Ours was their first label when they started imports around a decade ago. China has a closed market (70%) and open market (30%).’ The closed market includes government and corporates where the marketing routes are not clearly visible. It works basically on the system of Guanxi (relationship) and is practically closed to most western import wine companies like Summergate and ASC who work only in the open market including on-trade and off-trade. Reflecting on the latest trends in China she highlighted that the ‘gifting’ market which has been a huge segment is decreasing with the slowdown in economy and the recent reported corruption cases. Chinese love New Zealand wines and those with good pedigree, putting Villa Maria on a good wicket. Although they drink mostly red wines, the younger generation and women are imbibing white wines which continue to increase their market share which is very small at present, she adds.

Villa Maria is owned by Sir George Fistonich (the first and only knighted wine personality in New Zealand) who started his winery in 1961 by buying 5 acres of land from his father who was already producing wines after migrating to New Zealand. He released his first vintage in 1962. Going by the advice given at the time, he started with wines that had been popular then- like Albany Surprise, Baco 22A, Müller Thurgau. But later, he realised the potential of international grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Shiraz and Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay and added them to his portfolio. Thanks to his ambition and zeal, Villa Maria is today not only the biggest family owned wine estate but also most awarded wine in New Zealand, says Charlotte.

A native of Hawke’s Bay, Nes Zealand’s oldest wine producing region, she has been in the wine industry since 2003. She started working for Villa Maria as their UK/European market manager in 2005 after doing the WSET Diploma there. After 5 years, Charlotte took up the challenge of the fast growing Asian markets and become Asia Middle East Market manager in 2010. Initially she was based in NZ for this role, but has moved to Asia subsequently to be closer to the markets. She was an MW student from 2007 to 2011, but the heavy travel demands put her wine studies on ice for the moment. Villa Maria started in Auckland, but the main winery is in Marlborough, she says. The company exports 55% of the production with Asia contributing only 2%. But the challenging region and the opportunities keep her on her toes. She had taken George to visit China this year during the 50 year celebrations of Villa Maria

So what does she think of the Indian market? ‘We were really excited about it in 2007 when we re-launched it with Brindco. George visited India the next year and was quite optimistic too. We have been slightly disappointed with the growth of the NZ wines here due to high taxes. But we are delighted with our importer who has captured over 40% of the 5000-case market for NZ wines, which is too small frankly. Our share declined 5% last year although we had an overall growth of 15% but we are sure of increasing our sales in double digits this year with the range of wines we have.’

What is the style of their wine? ‘Villa Maria Sauvignon is a richer wine since we leave our grapes two more weeks to get the tropical flavours that make one want to have 2-3 glasses rather than the highly aromatic wines which get boring after a glass’, she says. There are 4 categories – Private Bin, Cellar Selection, Reserve and Single Vineyard wines.  For Villa Maria’s Sauvignon Blanc, its Reserve range is made from a selection of 3 top vineyards whereas the Cellar Selection range is from 10 vineyards. 'Single vineyard wines are made from select fruit from our top vineyards and in good years only'.

The ubiquitous Private Bin range which one finds in the Indian market and Delhi duty free shops is a good value NZ Sauvignon Blanc (as also the Pinot Noir) and is made from the blend of 50 parcels, she explains. She emphasizes that ‘our Marlborough winemaking team work on the blend to aim to keep the wine as consistent as possible every vintage and bring out the best it has to offer. We sell currently Private Bin and Cellar Selection in India though we hope to add the other two top labels in future for on-trade,’ she adds.

In 2012, the New Zealand wine industry has seen a drop of 20% production due to a challenging vintage. But this vintage is expected to produce wines of great depth and complexity.
I could not taste their Reserve and Single Vineyard wines scheduled at Hotel Oberoi as I was laid up with bad back but it was nice of her to drop in at my residence where we could chat.  There would be opportunity next year as she is sure to visit us in India.

Subhash Arora


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