The Contest
How do you fast-track the reputation of a prestigious new wine label? Simple. Serve it blind with a bunch of big-name wines to a group of six wine critics. Best scenario: it beats some of the big guns and receives extensive publicity. Worst scenario: it trails the field but still emerges with honour because it is the cheapest wine in the line-up. It is a win-win proposition. 

Villa Maria’s invitation for me to attend the launch of the second vintage of its most expensive wine was impossible to resist. “We’d love for you to join us for this tasting of the world’s top Bordeaux blends,” the invitation read. “We are confident Ngakirikiri commands a strong place among this line-up of global leaders – but we invite you to be the judge of that.” 

The tasting was originally planned to be at Villa Maria’s Hawke’s Bay winery but covid intervened, so we assembled at the Northern Club in Auckland. We knew the identity of the Villa Maria 2014 The Gravels Ngakirikiri Cabernet Sauvignon and all but one of the wines was from the 2014 vintage. 

The Wine
The 2014 vintage of the Villa Maria The Gravels Ngakirikiri Cabernet Sauvignon is described in promotional material as both an icon and a flagship. First produced in 2013, Ngakirikiri is a heavy-hitter from the Gimblett Gravels district of Hawke’s Bay (pictured above). It was the only wine in the line-up that was 100 percent cabernet sauvignon.  Like 2013, 2014 was a top vintage. Ngakirikiri has a handsome label and is reassuringly expensive at $150. It’s a powerhouse of a wine, with impressive weight and density. Very “New World”, with prominent cassis and black berry flavours and slightly pronounced spicy French oak. I picked it as Ngakirikiri and suspect that other critics did as well. Clearly a long-distance runner. 

The Competitors
In order of appearance:

2014 Altagracia Eisele Vineyard, Napa Valley, $300
The first bottle had a hint of cork taint. The second was better. Seductive wine with sweet fruit and fine-grained tannins. A great texture. I liked it a lot. 96 points.

2014 Château Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande, Pauillac, $460
My favourite wine. Clearly Bordeaux – vinous rather than fruity. Complex, savoury and well-structured wine that clearly needs bottle age. 97+ points. 

Almaviva, Puente Alto, Chile, $200
Youthful red that needs time. Bright, peppery tannins balanced by sweet fruit. Clearly New World, with intense fruit focus – I suspected it might be from California. I was wrong. 96 points.

2014 Vasse Felix Tom Cullity, Margaret River, $180
Fragrant, aromatic wine with a hint of floral/violets and fresh herbs. Medium-bodied red with a strong backbone of sappy tannins that should have given me a clue as to its origin. 94 points.

2014 Ao Yun, Yunnan, China, $475 
Owned by the French group LVMH, Ao Yun produces this cabernet sauvignon/cabernet franc blend from 314 plots totalling nearly 30 hectares. It makes only one wine, which has developed cult status in China. Evolved, drying out and rather clumsy. 92 points.

2014 Château Lafite Rothschild, Pauillac, $1500
Classic cabernet varietal flavours of cassis, black currant, cedar and black olive. Aromatic, youthful and slightly closed. Shows obvious cellaring potential. 96+ points.

The Result
The group score placed Château Lafite in first place, with Almaviva from Chile second and Villa Maria Ngakirikiri and Château Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande tied for third place. Vasse Felix was fifth and Ao Yun finished sixth, while the Napa Valley red brought up the rear. 

Villa Maria 2014 The Gravels Ngakirikiri performed with distinction. Job done.  

Bob's Top Picks
Investment Wine

Villa Maria 2013 The Gravels Ngakirikiri Cabernet Sauvignon, Hawke’s Bay, $150

Ngakirikiri means “the gravels”. This is a new flagship label that in my view justifies its exalted price tag. It’s quite an extraordinary wine, with dense berry, savoury/earth and spicy oak flavours. Long and linear, it has power and structure but the tannins are surprisingly soft and pliable. The wine really opened as it sat in the glass, revealing interesting coffee, malt/peat and toasty characters together with a suggestion of violet. Definitely worth decanting. Collectible age-worthy red. Limited production (6000 bottles). The first vintage, which makes it even more collectible. Available from Villa Maria’s cellar door near Auckland Airport. 

Weekend Wines
Top White

Nautilus 2019 Chardonnay, Marlborough, $39.95

Moderately intense chardonnay with a lovely creamy texture and flavours suggesting peach, brioche, lime, ginger, and nutty yeast lees characters with a hint of struck flint. Subtle fruit sweetness is underpinned by tangy acidity. Serious chardonnay with cellaring potential. To be released shortly. 

Top Red

Giesen 2014 Ridge Block Pinot Noir, Marlborough, $59.99

Aromatic pinot noir with fresh violet/floral notes that continue onto the palate, where they are joined by an array of exotic spices, cherry, liquorice and nutty oak. Attractive, seamless and quite complex wine that is drinking beautifully now, but no rush. Showing the benefit of bottle age. Great with duck confit.

Read more from Bob at