What To Drink Now: Villa Maria and 50 Years of Fabulous New Zealand Wine

New Zealand is considered to be a young wine region, they really only got started making wine in the 1950’s, preferring at the time to drink beer, tea, sherry and port instead of still, dry wine.  They did, however, have a massive farming and ranching industry, particularly with cattle and sheep (there are 4 million people in New Zealand, 30 million sheep.)  Early winemakers knew that the land was fertile, the nights were cool and the days were hot, and the maritime climate on the coast of New Zealand was conducive to growing wine grapes that could eventually produce interesting wine with acidity, freshness and distinct character.  Villa Maria Estate was one of those wineries.  Villa Maria founder Sir George Fistonich and General Manager Winemaking and Viticulture, Alastair Maling, MW, were in Dallas yesterday to hold a 50th anniversary tasting and luncheon at the Warwick Melrose.  I was an invited guest to the celebration.

Started in 1961, with their first vintage in 1962, Villa Maria started out of the passion and desire of Sir George to do something different and branch out of the ordinary in his life.  He had just completed his training to go into the carpentry field, as working in a trade was what was expected out of the middle child in a family with strong Croatian roots in those days, but wanted to do something different, something more with his life.  He had developed a loved for the taste and flavors found in wine since he was a young man growing up in a Croatian household that enjoyed wine often.  He also knew he wanted to make quality wine unlike anything that was currently being produced in New Zealand, and if the quality of the wine was there he could convince people to try it.

Sir George Fistonich, Founder of Villa Maria Estate

Starting small he planted various varietals to see what would work on the 5 acres of land Sir George leased from his father, eventually gravitating towards the production of Sauvignon Blanc, a popular choice as 75% of all wine grown in New Zealand today is Sauvignon Blanc.  Sir George didn’t simply want to bottle Sauvignon Blanc though, he wanted to bottle the best, and eventually started working with the various growers and vineyard owners they bought grapes from on their quality, changing contracts around to give a better price for lower quantity, but better quality fruit. They also began to expand, opening the first winery restaurant in the Hawke’s Bay region to pair wine with food; buying the Hawkes Bay Winery in a warmer part of the country which allowed them to begin making Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay; and began to employ viticulturists to help with the quality of their vineyards, one of the first wineries in New Zealand to do this.

Though not always easy, careful focus and unyielding determination has led Villa Maria to become one of the 50 great wine producers in the world, as noted by Wine Spectator in 2004; New World Winery of the Year in 2007 by Wine Enthusiast and multiple top wine producer awards for New Zealand by various publications, even with every bottle of wine coming out of the winery enclosed with a screwcap. And their acclaim is well earned, Villa Maria wines have character, texture and balance with good acidity, a velvety palate and intense flavors.

Tomato Gazpacho Shooter with Rock Shrimp with a 2011 Villa Maria Cellar Selection Sauvignon Blanc

Tasting through the selections the first thing became very obvious, not all Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough is the same.  Just like you wouldn’t call all Cabernet from Napa the same, the various districts within the Marlborough region give different characteristics and flavors to the wine.  We tried four different Sauvignon Blanc wines from Marlborough, each quite different, starting with their introductory level 2011 Private Bin Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc.  I liked this wine, filled with balanced citrus and tropical fruit notes.  The majority of Sauvignon Blanc fruit comes from the Wairau Valley of Marlbrorough, which is slightly warmer than other parts of the valley, helping the fruit get very ripe and juicy before picking. An easy drinking wine great for sipping on its own. Their second tier Cellar Selection Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc has the majority of fruit coming from Awatere Valley, in a slightly cooler, more southern part of Marlborough, giving greener, more herbaceous and mineral notes to the wine, with layers of gooseberry and passionfruit and racy acidity.  My favorite of the Sauvignon Blancs we tasted was the 2009 Reserve Wairau Sauvignon Blanc.  I do like a wine with a little age on it, and though no oak is used in the wine, a few years of bottle aging added depth and texture to the wine filled with herbal, slightly earthy aromas and flavors of citrus, gooseberry and melon.

Though still relatively new on the scene in New Zealand (within the past 20-30 years) Pinot Noir is making its mark as the next best thing to come from the country, with Pinot Noir as the second most planted grape, predominantly found in the southern party of the country throughout Marlborough, Waipara Valley and Central Otago.  Villa Maria’s grapes are coming from vines which are about 20 years old, so they are still young and still need time to develop to their full potential, but they are producing solid, approachable and very drinkable Pinot Noir now.  Their 2010 Private Bin Marlborough Pinot Noir is a good introductory Pinot Noir, with tart cherry, cola and spice notes and good acidity.  The 2009 Reserve Marlborough Pinot Noir had a similar profile, but with slightly more structure and velvety texture with a hint of wild flowers and violet notes.  The 2010 Taylors Pass Marlborough Pinot Noir was the stand out, though still a little young and tight right now, with a little age this wine will reveal elegance and the true character of New Zealand Pinot Noir with herbal, floral and fruit notes with layers of spice, balaced acidity and texture.

Alastair Maling, MW, leading guests through the tasting

We tried a few of the Bordeaux varietals wines they are making in Hawkes Bay. In the early days of New Zealand grape growing many areas were trying to grow Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, etc.  Over time Hawkes Bay has become the best place for these grapes to thrive, as the heat of long summer days allows the fruit to ripen fully, while maintaining freshness and acidity.  The 2009 Cellar Selection Merlot Cabernet Hawkes Bay  blends predominantly Merlot with Cabernet Sauvignon and a touch of Cabernet Franc.  A food friendly wine with good structure, and fresh fruit flavors of cherry, cassis and plum.  The 2009 Reserve Hawkes Bay Gimblett Gravels Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot blends 75% Cabernet Sauvignon with 25% Merlot.  A much richer wine with texture, balanced fruit and earth notes, along with hints of leather, dried tobacco and minerality.  Berries and black cherries fill the palate finishing with touches of chocolate and espresso.

Today the average production of Villa Maria is around 750,000 cases a year, the only large production winery to be family owned in New Zealand, with Sir George still the acting Managing Director. About 2 years ago they entered into a relationship with Chateau St. Michelle Wine Estates for their National Distribution, which Sir George notes has been a wonderful relationship.

I asked him what the next phase will bring. With a glimmer in his eye after taking a long sip of his vibrant and delicious 2009 Taylors Pass Chardonnay, he says he is excited and looks forward the next 50 years, especially as he has 6 grandchildren that will hopefully get involved in this family business when they are old enough.  I will assume it will include much more wine, especially as there have only been 3 days in the past 50 years Sir George has not enjoyed a glass of wine.