50 Years of New Zealand History-Making: Villa Maria Wines

Whether you subscribe to the theory that humans have lived on the tiny island of New Zealand for 700 years or for 2,000, one can’t deny that in terms of human history, they haven’t been there for long.

Likewise, by the time the 1800s rolled around, most of the world’s major wine regions weren’t conquering new territory, they were playing large-scale games of Monopoly with land that had been planted for ages. By contrast, the first grape vines were planted in Kiwi country in 1819 – less than two hundred years ago.

In light of this, New Zealand’s own Villa Maria Estate and the current celebration of their 50th vintage, is kind of a big deal.

In 1961, when owner and managing director of Villa Maria, George Fistonich, first started the winery (with second-hand equipment, on land borrowed from his skeptical father), he wasn’t setting out to change New Zealand history, he was choosing a trade. Drinking wine was part of the Croatian culture Fistonich was born into, and it was also the family livelihood. Fistonich’s decision seemed as traditional as can be.

But that’s where doing the expected ended.

Sir George and His Barrels

Sir George and His Barrels

Back when New Zealanders were mostly drinking sherries, Fistonich deemed to drag the country in line with the European tastes of the time. He chose an international name that could be from anywhere, hired professional viticulturalists, identified different regional typicities around the country and encouraged his growers to let the terroir speak through the grapes. He’s also maintained a firm commitment to the planet; 100% of Villa Maria’s vineyards and contract vineyards are sustainable, and 30% are organic. Through these practices, Fistonich has helped guide his small country onto the world wine stage and able to compete with those other countries that started fermenting juice back when New Zealand was mostly uninhabited by humans.

Today, Villa Maria Estate produces close to twenty different wines, in four quality tiers (Villa Maria Reserve, Single Vineyard, Cellar Selection and Private Bin), from vineyards in Gisborne, Marlborough, Hawke’s Bay and Auckland. George also owns three additional wineries – Vidal, Esk Valley and Thornbury – which are much smaller than the 750,000 cases/year operation that is his original project.

Villa Maria’s large-scale production has not only helped New Zealand’s 5th largest winery reach all corners of the global market, it’s also enabled the company to keep a low quality-to-price ratio (QPR). In fact, I was amazed by how good these wines were for the cost – expecting them to be tens of dollars more expensive than the sticker price.

Of the wines I tried at a recent tasting, the “Private Bin” and “Cellar Selection” bottlings really stood out. The 2010 Villa Maria Private Bin Marlborough Pinot Noir is full of ripe cherry and raspberry, with hints of spice and soft tannin. The 2009 Private Bin Hawkes Bay

2008 Villa Maria Private Bin Marlborough Pinot Noir

2008 Villa Maria Private Bin Marlborough Pinot Noir

Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon blend leads from blueberry, blackberry, red raspberry and cassis on the nose to red raspberry, plum, blackberry, eucalyptus and chocolate on the palate. Both are less than $20.

The 2008 Villa Maria Cellar Selection Marlborough Pinot Noir has a nose of black cherry and baking spice, and flavors of big, ripe cherry and delicate tannin. This was my favorite of the day, even at around $25/bottle.

All ofthese wines – in fact, Villa Maria’s entire global production since 2003 – are bottled under screwcap, and they were the first winery of their size to embrace the technology. While stelvin closures are still slightly controversial, Fistonich wasn’t awarded the title of New Zealand’s Most Awarded Winemaker for nothing. In 2009, Fistonich was given knighthood for his contributions to the country’s wine industry. Today, Villa Maria Estate is consistently ranked among the world’s top 50 great wine producers.

I encourage you to join the modern era and taste New Zealand’s history-in-the-making. After all, Villa Maria has been around for a quarter of the country’s wine history. Clearly, that’s something worth toasting to.

2008 Villa Maria Cellar Selection Marlborough Pinot Noir

2008 Villa Maria Cellar Selection Marlborough Pinot Noir

Posted on by Arianna Armstrong in Arianna's Wine Tasting Notes, Great Wines Under $20, Wines from the Grocery Store

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