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

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

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

An Oak Barrel-less Barrel of Fun

Posted on by Arianna Armstrong in Arianna's Wine Tasting Notes | 2 Comments

wine-birthdayMy friend Anna just celebrated her [mumble mumble mumble] birthday. To honor her extra special day, I brought over three bottles of unoaked Chardonnay for celebration sampling.

As you may (or may not) remember from my last post about unwooded wines, there is a relatively new movement to age Chardonnay in steel. This trend is being seen mostly in New World wines (such as those from California and New Zealand), where the Chardonnay grapes produce a delicious wine without oak barrels and malo-lactic acid fermentation. This is in contrast to the Old World wines (like those from Burgundy), where the slightly less robust fruit needs some extra help to tone down unpalatable acidity.

After researching my article, I settled upon three wines to try: 2007 Toad Hollow Francine's Selection Unoaked Chardonnay (Mendocino, California), 2007 Morgan Metallico Un-oaked Chardonnay (from Monterey, California) and 2008 Kim Crawford Unoaked Chardonnay (from New Zealand, and one of the first mass-market unwooded Chardonnay producers). The Toad Hollow had received rave reviews in its price range on a number of wine sites. The Morgan was a recommendation from my favorite wine shop (The Wine House).

kim crawford unoaked chardonnay

We started with Kim Crawford, since this was one of the first, most popular of the original unwooded Chardonnay producers. On the nose, this gleaming buttery yellow wine was bright with grapefruit and lemon. It had a full mouth feel, with hints of grapefruit, lemon and lees on the tongue. It was slightly more acidic than I prefer. Other party guests described it as “silvery” and “flat.”

toad hollow francine's selection unoaked chardonnay

Next I poured the the Toad Hollow. It had a lovely pale yellow color, with a nose of melon and an alcohol kick from several inches away. It was strongly grapefruit on the tongue – with a similar citrus-type acid, as well. I found it strong, a little sweet, with a short finish but full mouth feel. Other party guests described it as “bitter”, “metallic”, “very empty” and “watered down.”

This tasting was clearly not as inspiring as I had hoped it would be…

However, the Morgan changed everything. With its lovely yellow color in the glass; a nose of sweet fruits and honey and a smooth, creamy mouth feel – packed with apricots and grapefruit – this was the winner by a landslide. All the guests topped off their glasses with the Morgan, mumbling about how yummy it is. Unlike the other two we tried, this one had almost no bite; it was just pure, fruity deliciousness. This also proved that an unwooded Chard can be excellent.

From the Morgan website:

The Vineyards

The 2007 Metallico is composed primarily of fruit from the Arroyo Seco appellation, and also includes fruit from the winery's Double L Vineyard, and its neighbor, the Lucia Highlands Vineyard, in the Sanmorgan_metallicota Lucia Highlands. The backbone of the wine is the Chardonnay Musque clone, chosen for its aromatic complexity and clear expression of Chardonnay fruit.

The Vintage
Although 2007 saw the typically cool, windy growing period of the Santa Lucia Highlands, this vintage retains a more intense flavor due to unusually high stress on the vines from a dry winter preceding a cold, wet spring.

Vinification & Aging
Metallico is cold-tank fermented to retain the essential bright fruit that cool climate Chardonnay offers. Whole cluster pressing produces a clean, high-quality must.  The wine does not go through malo-lactic fermentation, so it retains all of its natural crispness.

Aromas & Flavors
Pale yellow in the glass, the wine showcases aromas of apple, nectarine, ripe pear, & honeydew melon on the nose. The aromas resound on the palate, and the wine is soft and round with a crispness that keeps the finish fresh and inviting for matching seafood and other light fare.

It was a great night for wine – and for birthdays. Many happy returns, Anna!


How Much Wood Would A Good Wine Want?

Posted on by Arianna Armstrong in Arianna's Wine Tasting Notes | 1 Comment

steel-barrelsFast on the heels of Jessyca's wedding wine recommendation request from Twitter, in this episode – dear readers – I thought I would take you on a journey to the land of Unoaked Chardonnay. Grab a glass, kick back and enjoy the ride!

My education on unoaked Chard started when Jess and I went to SummerTASTE at the Grove a few weeks ago. This LearnAboutWine event was co-sponsored by The Whisper Restaurant and Lounge, and focused – specifically – on unoaked wines. Naturally, most of the wines offered were white and fruity. I have to admit that a lot of them were also not my preference.

Then I wandered over to the Sweeney Canyon tasting table.

I was first poured a taste of 2008 Sweeney Canyon Chardonnay in order to contrast against future pours. This wine was presented only for sweeney-canyon-chardonnay1contrast, and it was made clear that what I was drinking was not even available for purchase. Good thing! As the pourer promised, this wine was undrinkable: sour and harsh and unpalatable. The 2007 was worlds better. It was smoother and sweeter, with a fuller and richer – although oily – mouthfeel. The 2001 was, in my opinion, the best of the bunch. The 2000 I was poured last just did not match up with the quality of the 2001.

But here is what really got me: None of the Chardonnay at this table had ever touched wood. Nor had it undergone malolactic fermentation (MLF).

What I didn't realize at the time is that this method of producing Chardonnay has been around for awhile, although most people are still familiar with the big, lush and buttery Chardonnays that are aged in oak barrels.

Let's look at why this is:

Some of the world's most renowned Chardonnay-based table wines come from the Burgundy region in France. Burgundy whites have a reputation for being complex and delicious…and aged in oak barrels, using malolactic fermentation. But Burgundy is Old World, with a cooler climate which makes it more difficult to bring the fruit to full ripening. These cool-weather grapes don't see a lot of sun and are low in sugar and high in acid. French oak helps to round out the wine, making it more complex and balanced. The addition of  lactic acid bacteria (usually Oenococcus oeni or various species of Lactobacillus and Pediococcus) de-acidifies the wine, creating a much smoother, richer and buttery mouthfeel. Considering the amount of acid the grapes produce, malolactic conversion is almost a necessity in order to produce a palatable wine.

As more and more Americans developed a vigor for vino in the 1980s and early 1990s, they became enamored with the woody vanilla flavors of oaked whites – like those from Burgundy. To meet demand, New World producers began to age their Chardonnay in oak – typically American oak – which by nature tends to impart a stronger woodiness than the tight-grained French barrels. Considering New World Chardonnay grapes are already ripe and lush and packed with sugar (but little acid), the result of barrel-aging is a big wine which tends to overpower the taste of the fruit. The low acid levels leaves very little for the MLF to work with, and thins the structure of the wine. In the end, American-oaked New World Chardonnay is unlike Chardonnay from Bordeaux.

nooakbarrelBy the mid-1990s, people had begun to develop a new appreciation for less bulky whites, preferring instead crisp, fruit-forward wines like Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc. This led to an ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) backlash, and new buzzwords like steel tanked, un-oaked, unwooded and acero (Spanish for “steel”).

New Zealand, like many of the New World wine regions, produces large amounts of Chardonnay grapes, and they were the first region to embrace production of un-oaked Chard on a grand-scale. The trend took off, and here we are – more than a decade later – and the movement is growing more and more popular.

Big, rich, oaky Chardonnays are unlikely to disappear. But for those who are looking for the crisp acidity and liveliness of the Chardonnay grape – front and center – unwooded Chardonnay is the way to go.

And stay tuned! Next up – Arianna reviews three different unoaked Chardonnays: 2008 Kim Crawford Unoaked Chardonnay (from New Zealand, and one of the first mass-market unwooded Chardonnay producers), 2007 Toad Hollow Francine's Selection Unoaked Chardonnay (Mendocino, California), and a 2007 Morgan Metallico Unoaked Chardonnay (from Monterey, California). Yum!