Villa Maria shows off vision for NZ wine

Sir George Fistonich recalled the early days of New Zealand “Hock” and “Sherry” as he presented Villa Maria’s newest styles to celebrate the winery’s 50th anniversary.

Sir George Fistonich

“My parents didn’t think there was a future in the wine industry,” said Fistonich, as he looked back to his first vintage in 1961. Having leased five hectares from his father, he broke away from the sweet, fortified wines that then dominated the New Zealand industry to produce a dry “Claret” and “Burgundy”.

Today, with a dozen grape varieties exported to more than 50 countries around the world and UK case sales of nearly half a million, Fistonich, db’s Man of the Year 2012, insisted: “We’ve all know we’re got to keep trying harder and harder to stay ahead of the game”

As a result, Fistonich and Alastair Maling MW, Villa Maria’s general manager for winemaking and viticulture, showed a range of wines to represent the company’s past, present and future.

These included a tank sample of Villa Maria’s first organic Sauvignon Blanc and the Villa Maria Private Bin Arneis 2011, which Maling suggested was “proving to do very well in New Zealand,” where the wine – not yet available in the UK – is now on its third vintage.

“Some might say we have an over-reliance on Sauvignon Blanc,” conceded Maling as he pointed to “a big effort to expand our knowledge base of other varieties.” In addition to its work with Arneis, Villa Maria is currently exploring the potential for Gewürztraminer, Verdelho and Chardonnay at its winery and vineyards near Auckland, which opened in 2005.

From the archives: a label from the early days of Villa Maria

Pointing to a growing interest among New Zealand producers in Albariño, Maling also revealed that one of Villa Maria’s growers has planted Grüner Veltliner. However, he indicated a focus on Arneis, saying: “I think Arneis has a real drinkability and a future to it.”

As for Syrah, which has been widely praised by many in the trade, Maling pointed to the limited region suitable for this variety as he suggested: “There’s a really exciting future for New Zealand Syrah, but it’s never going to be big.”

Villa Maria is already the largest owner within the Gimblett Gravels vineyard area, where New Zealand Syrah is building a particularly strong reputation. Fistonich recently increased his holdings there still further with the acquisition of the 250-hectare Te Awa estate, whose vineyards and brand will remain separate from Villa Maria.

Commenting on the stylistic evolution within Villa Maria’s more established styles, Maling highlighted a trend towards less oak and the quest for greater complexity.

For the Villa Maria Chardonnay Reserve, he noted: “There’s more natural fermentation and more time on the lees. We’re looking for more minerality and that matchstick character – what we call positive reduction.”

Maling also revealed that the team was picking earlier to achieve alcohol levels of around 13-13.5 abv. “I would say there’s more ageability in the wines now,” he remarked. “Less toastiness and more fruit.”

As for the Villa Maria Pinot Noir, Maling said: “We now leave all the malo[lactic fermentation] to Spring as we feel we’re getting more complexity by leaving it on the skins. We’ve also cut back on the oak.”

Highlighting the youth of many Pinot Noir vines in New Zealand – “the majority of our Pinot Noir vines are 12-15 years old” – Maling suggested: “As the vines age, we’ll get a lot more ageability in the next few years.”

Turning to Villa Maria’s Bordeaux-style blends, Maling pointed to a shift towards a greater proportion of Cabernet Sauvignon alongside the Merlot and the maturing Cabernet vines “get better and better”.

He also confirmed a move away from the house style in the early 2000s, admitting “we over-worked our reds a bit, but we’ve stepped back a little. They looked good at the time, but we’ve gone back to them and they’re a little bit hard for New Zealand. The fruit can do the talking.”

However, he suggested that New Zealand producers had damaged its reputation for this style by planting in the wrong places. “People planted all across New Zealand,” he recalled, “but not all places in New Zealand can ripen Merlot and Cabernet so a lot of the early Bordeaux blends had unripe tannins and were herbaceous.”

Patrick McGrath MW, managing director of Hatch Mansfield, which has been Villa Maria’s UK agent since 1988, laid out the reasons for Fistonich’s success in building the brand. Highlighting Fistonich’s “passion”, “attention to detail” and “amazing vision”, McGrath also emphasised his skills in people management.

“Ultimately George allows them to go on and do their job,” he summed up, adding: “He’s also extremely good at listening and that’s why styles have changed.”

Thanking Fistonich for his contribution to the New Zealand wine industry, the country’s High Commissioner to the UK, Derek Leask, remarked: “The New Zealand reputation for quality has been created as much by wine as anything else.”

One Response to “Villa Maria shows off vision for NZ wine”

  1. David Betts says:

    Great story. I had quite an involvement with Villa Maria in the early days with machinery supplies.

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