Established by Spanish immigrant Anthony Joseph Vidal in 1905, today Vidal is part of the Villa Maria stable of wineries that also includes the nearby Esk Valley. I met up with Vidal’s long established winemaker Hugh Crichton recently to taste the wines, and one of my first questions was about how the set-up works in practice: “Villa Maria owns the vineyards,” he told me, “but Vidal and each of the estates has its own vineyards or plots within vineyards which are exclusively theirs. So I effectively own my vineyards and do all the winemaking independently. The only thing that’s shared on the production side is bottling.”
In terms of the non-winemaking aspects of the business Hugh is enthusiastic about the arrangements: “The thing I love as a small producer is being able to offload the bureaucracy – health and safety and so on. Growing grapes and making wine is what I’m good at, and I don’t want to spend 30% of my time on paperwork.”
But being part of a collegiate group has other advantages. “George (Fistonich, Villa Maria’s owner) wants separation and integrity, so he gives Gordon Russell of Esk and me a lot of leeway: we buy the barrels, we make decisions, but then the group dynamic works well too – lots of talking. You get one shot at making wine per year, and each year is different, so its great to have an open forum for discussion and to learn from others’ experience.”
Vidal is synonymous with the Hawkes Bay region of New Zealand’s North Island, much celebrated as a red wine region for Syrah and Bordeaux varieties, but recently Hugh has placed a huge focus on Chardonnay too. “If I was forced to make only one wine from now on, it might be Chardonnay,” he says, stressing how much potential he believes Hawkes Bay has for the variety. “We are not bound by old appellation systems and history,” he says, “so you can ‘have a go’ at anything you want to, and that really encourages innovation. Wine making is science, and science is always changing, so wine should always be moving, and in New Zealand it is.
“Hawkes Bay is already making exceptional Chardonnay and we have a number of truly world class examples. It’s a large diverse region from coastal, to altitude, to cooler central areas, to the Gimblett Gravels. We can grow a lot of things really well, but that can be a confusing mixed message: that we don’t focus; we’re jacks of all trades, masters of none perhaps?”
As Hugh is on the board of their regional wine association he has been a big supporter of ‘more focus’. “In our big regional tastings we put on for press and the wine trade we used to show 24 wines trying to cover everything. Now we show eight Syrahs, eight Bordeaux Blends and eight Chardonnays. If people leave tasting eight truly great Chardonnays for example, it leaves much more of an impression than tasting eight different varieties.” Indeed Hugh’s 2012 Legacy Chardonnay won the Decanter trophy for best world Chardonnay.
George Fistonich purchased Vidal in 1976, and changes to legislation were required for him to open New Zealand’s first ever winery restaurant there in 1979. “That,” says Hugh, “means food and wine matching is not just a marketing tool for us, we really are all about making food wines.”
Vidal’s wines are imported by Hatch Mansfield Agencies.
(2017) Vidal sources its Sauvignon Blanc fruit from Marlborough, from both estate-owned and contracted vineyards, primarily in the Wairau Valley "with a little Awatere fruit to give a little more tropical spectrum," says Hugh. Delicious nose, with lots of punchy passion fruit and tropical, lychee notes, plenty of peachy ripeness, and then the palate shimmers with acidity and so much intensity of flavour.
(2017) The reserve has a higher percentage of Awatre fruit, and comes from the best vineyards, "and the same plots every year," according to Hugh. A rich, figgy character, with more orange and more of an asparagus lift, but a lovely racing palate, loads of lime and citrus Awatare purity and zip.
(2017) Hugh didn't bring this to our tasting, but was so keen that I should try it that he sent me a bottle within days of our meeting. And I can absolutely see why: it may not come from the Legacy 'Grand Cru' vineyards, but what a terrific Chardonnay, the nose glittering with Chablis-like gunflint minerality, a lime precision and ripe apple beneath. The palate has surprising squirt of tropical, mango-like fruit ripeness, very juicy grapefruit too, then the mineral acidity starts to kick in, and a little creamy component, to give this texture and mouth-feel, the finish long and tapering in a most elegant way.
(2017) Hugh describes this wine as coming from "In effect, our grand cru vineyards," the fruit from three distinct Legacy vineyards pressed straight to French oak barrel, a small proportion new, where it spends 10 months. The barrels are then blind tasted to ensure Legacy quality. In this year 16 barriques made it as Legacy, though some years as few as 12 qualify. It is made with natural yeasts, and is not inoculated for malolactic. Fine complex sulphide flintiness, the oak toasty, and the clean, apple fruit and the flint and salt minerality. The palate has a fine juiciness, lots of crunchy apple and citrus, this is really fine, the acid so crunchy and mineral salty, great length and vibrant, punchy and vivacious
(2017) From the range-topping Legacy line, this Gimblett Gravels Syrah spends 20 months in French oak, and only 10 barrels were produced. It has a savoury and intense, fairly brooding perfume, dark, liquoricy, with a hint of Morello cherry and delicate peppery lift. In the mouth the wine is firm and structured, again a rasp of plum-skin and liquorice bite, but there is just a hint of more ripe and fat berry fruit beneath, suggesting it's a wine that will need time. The oak is integrated and savoury, graphite and a touch of cedar, the firm, tight tannins and concentrated acid core running like steel to the finish.
(2017) Only five barrels of this were produced. All red wines from 'Reserve' level upward are from Gimblett Gravels fruit, in this case two specific vineyards. It spends 20 months in French oak and is “Made like a Pinot Noir,” according to Hugh, hand-plunged, with a fair bit of post-ferment maceration for up to 40 days in total before pressing. "That gives plenty of tannin, but finer," says Hugh. A rounded, quite plush and compact nose, tight black and blue fruits, there’s a rich damson and graphite nose, an earthiness, not peppery but has a little floral lift. The palate has a cloak of dustiness, a really savoury meaty character, the tannins soft but present and the acidity giving it a long, tapering finish.
(2017) Not all Gimblett Gravels fruit, so labelled 'Hawkes Bay'. The blend is 72% Merlot, 18% CS and "little bits of Malbec and Cabernet Franc." What a nice, attractive nose from an outstanding vintage, a “Vintage of a generation”, according to Hugh, that was "Phenomenally long, dry and warm, with no pressure" Lots of graphite, lots of light and gentle smokiness, medium-bodied, plenty of juicy cherry and orange, elegance and freshness and finesse into the long, textured finish.
(2017) The Legacy blend is 76% Cabernet Sauvignon and 24% Merlot, and this wine was the first release in the Legacy series (which was not made again until conditions where right in 2013). The blend changes, and some vintages have been 100% Cabernet. Only 13 barrels, produced, the wine spending 20 months in French oak, around 50% new. Big, rich nose, immediately more plummy, with plenty of spice and tobacco, a gentle earth and leather note, but not dry, the fruit is there and the chocolate depth and plum comes through. Fine tannins, soft and with a raspberry ripple edge of creaminess, but fine acids and balance. This should still age nicely for a few more years too.