Villa Maria 50th Anniversary Gala Dinner – Fairmont Peace Hotel Dragon Phoenix Restaurant, May 23

The Wandering Palate Shanghai correspondent toasts Sir George Fistonich and Villa Maria, New Zealand, 50th Anniversary in style.

The Fairmont Peace Hotel from the rooftop looking out upon a most spectacular Spring night in Shanghai

Perspective is everything. The view from the rarely accessed rooftop of The Peace Hotel, sitting as it does on the most prominent site in Shanghai, has been lauded by every generation since the 1930’s when it played host to the bourgeois elite, and marked China’s great Bund landmark as a world iconic hotel.

Little has changed…yet so much has changed. Due to the 2007 renovation, the Fairmont Peace Hotel was restored faithfully to its deco glory, replete with Lalique glass, the iconic Jazz Bar, The Jasmine Lounge, and of course the magnificent Dragon Phoenix Restaurant. We conjure Sassoon’s vision from the rooftop looking out upon a most spectacular spring night in Shanghai.

Villa Maria Shanghia Peace Hotel view from the rooftop down the Bund

The occasion of Villa Maria’s 50th Anniversary Gala dinner drew an eclectic Shanghai crowd. We played Villa Maria casino, a cute version of the wine options game, laying our bets down on which wine we thought we tasted. Convivial, fun and not without it’s challenges, it was a genius way to build rapport among the 80 invited guests, and also showcase the breadth and depth of Villa Maria’s amazing portfolio.

Villa Maria 50th - 60s poster and a youthful Sir George

And then there is a 50-year perspective, in this case retrospective, the celebration of winemaking excellence on a scale that is quite unique.

Sir George Fistonich began making wine in New Zealand in 1961. You can see him in the photos dating from this era… a wide-eyed young man maybe unaware he is about to shape the New Zealand wine industry beyond recognition, and go on shaping it as I write.

The 50tth anniversary Gala dinner brought together a passionate guest list of wine and food lovers, and all enamored with Villa Maria and its story.

To the food and wine pairing

The degustation–style menu was a glorious way to showcase two things; the mastery of Dragon Phoenix’s fusion-like take on classics and the superb pairing of a select list of Villa Maria Reserve wines.

Five spiced duck foie gras terrine, sesame wrap of tofu vegetables, crispy pork belly, comfit of squash, asparagus and green onion

The first plate, a rich and diverse sampler of five spiced duck foie gras terrine, a sesame wrap of tofu vegetables, crispy pork belly and a stunning little comfit of squash, asparagus and green onion was paired beautifully with the broad textures of the Clifford Reserve single vineyard Sauvignon Blanc; coming from a world hell-bent on demonizing sauvignon blanc, this wine has the shoulders and chest to lift this dish to impressive heights.

The 2007 Reserve Marlborough Chardonnay went up a level, its densely textured, smoky oak balancing the meaty flesh of the New Zealand lobster, King crab and caviar in a wonderfully bitey sweet and sour vinaigrette of grapefruit and sherry. This chardonnay is showing at its best, with round, broad flavours of toast and an almost caramel-like twist on the end palate.

New Zealand lobster, King crab and caviar

I like comparing like and like, in this case pinot noir. The Villa Maria Cellar Selection 2009 Pinot Noir has a strawberry spice, nutmeg perfume, and is a relatively lightly weighted pinot, somewhat fleshy and fragrant. The wine was well matched to the consommé of wild shitake mushroom and red date. This intriguing dish was a welcome surprise, with the smoky, earthy flavor of the mushroom in harmony with this pinot.

But, I love black cod more. Seems every restaurant I visit has a version these days, and the Phoenix’s hoisin-inspired version is a cracking dish, replete with pancetta fragrant bok Choy. The wine that was served with this, the Taylor’s Pass 2007, was, for many on our table, the standout wine of the evening. Gloriously complex, long and sophisticated, a wine at such an early stage of development that it really does threaten to evolve for the next decade. The Taylor’s sits rightly alongside other iconic New Zealand Pinots, and to my way of thinking, is Sir George’s vision in a bottle.  Great wine: complex, round, balanced and with that real core of deep fruit so typical of Marlborough. By this stage, the superlatives are starting to wear thin.

Slow roasted lamb, in a creamy cardamom and cashew sauce on a turnip cake, with roasted beetroot

The change up came in the form of a gorgeous rack of slow roasted lamb, in a creamy cardamom and cashew sauce on a turnip cake, with roasted beetroot alongside. Beautifully pink and succulent, the lamb was again matched brilliantly by the 2007 Gimblett Gravel Cabernet Merlot, with its sweet core of merlot rounding out what I consider to be a rich, ripe and slightly herbaceous Cabernet. No green flavours here, just a wine in balance and drinking beautifully but again, with years ahead of it.  Lots of nods into glasses on this one.

And just when you think you have had enough, they bring out dessert. But first, to the wine.  Villa Maria does not, as we speak, export the Noble Riesling into China, so to be drinking the 2011 was a great treat. Unctuous, lightly golden hued and smelling of nectarine, toffee and marmalade, it matched our citrus and lemongrass crème brulee beautifully. A perfect end to a perfect night.

You know, sitting and talking to Sir George, having heard his stories of his humble beginnings, the trial and error, the growth of sauvignon blanc and pinot noir to rival (and supersede) the best the world has to offer, it was truly a special evening. In a city so alive with tradition, culture, romance and history, and what better way to marry the glorious world of the Peace Hotel with the equally glorious world of Villa Maria wines.

They say your 50th is the big one. The time to look back at the past achievements of 5 decades, perhaps take stock, hell, even rest, put your feet up. After all, that’s a long time in any profession. But I get the feeling Sir George and Villa Maria have no such intentions, and tonight we managed to peek a glimpse of the future.

This Villa Maria 50th Anniversary was all that the future holds; class, style, superior food and wine, and one of the iconic wine dinners Shanghai has seen.

And, as a footnote, you know that great wine overcomes all obstacles; although we didn’t speak a lot of the same language, my table partner on my left and I often tasted, looked at each other, nodded and smiled. And if that doesn’t define the language of wine, I don’t know what does.

Our man Mick Knuppel rubs shoulder with Sir George Fistonich

More on Villa Maria 50th celebrations

Villa Maria wines are represented by Summergate in mainland China, Hong Kong and Macau,

And available at Pudao wines, Tel: +86 021-63294433 ext 236, Office address: No.58 Yanan Dong Road, Huangpu District, Shop address: No.376 Wukang Road, Xuhui District,

Pudao have an amazingly rich and diverse range of wine from the globe, expert staff and a convivial, unique wine tasting and consuming service. Their terrace overlooking the French Concession, whilst one drinks a well-earned glass of your favourite, is legendary in Shanghai.

Villa Maria 50th - Fairmont Peace Hotel Shanghai menu and wines

Villa Maria bottle on the Bund


By Michael Knuppel | Buying Wine, Profiled Wineries | Related to: , , , | 1 comment

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One comment to Villa Maria 50th Anniversary Gala Dinner – Fairmont Peace Hotel Dragon Phoenix Restaurant, May 23 | Comments Feed

  • Michael

    Your article is such an impressive summmary. I am keeping a brief blog on Sir George’s Asia roadshow, but your account completely surpasses mine. With pictures to boot. Thank you for your kind praise. Look forward to seeing you at our next event somewhere in China!

    Best regards


    Villa Maria Asia Market Manager

    May 29, 2012
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