Sir George Fistonich, founder and owner of New Zealand’s Villa Maria Estate Winery, is a remarkable man whose drive and passion won him a knighthood in 2009 for his contribution to New Zealand’s wine industry. Born into a family of Croatian immigrants, he grew up around wine because of the Croatian tradition of making wine for entertaining. Many New Zealand wineries have a Croatian heritage, as immigrants from Croatia’s Dalmatian coast brought their winemaking knowledge to New Zealand in the 1800s.
In 1961 at the age of 21, Fistonich decided to pursue his love of wine, leased a small plot of land from his father and planted one acre to vines. His path to building Villa Maria into one of New Zealand’s five largest wineries has been a daunting one. One of his early challenges was that New Zealanders drank primarily fortified wines or imported table wines and the big breweries controlled the wine market. So Fistonich and his friends came up with the name ‘Villa Maria’ for his winery, to give it an international flare. He then set out single handedly to create a domestic market for his wines, travelling all over New Zealand and educating people about wine, eventually winning over local wholesalers. He turned to the export market while his domestic market was building. In 1985, aggressive price discounting by a competitor drove Villa Maria into receivership. Fistonich was forced to sell half of Villa Maria, but eventually managed to regain full control. No small wonder Fistonich is intent on keeping Villa Maria a private company.
Villa Maria is known for its commitment to quality wines. The grapes are sourced one-third from growers under long term contracts, one-third from Fistonich’s own vineyards and one-third from other local growers. Today, Villa Maria sells four tiers of wines from its two wineries near Auckland, New Zealand. Exports to over 40 countries account for half of its total sales. Villa Maria’s entry level ‘Private Bin’ wines start as low as $10 per bottle as Fistonich believes wine should be accessible to everyone. The other three tiers are “Cellar Selection”, “Reserve” and “Single Selection” wines. Villa Maria’s flagship varietal is Sauvignon Blanc, which Fistonich first planted in the 1960s, although it is also well recognized for its Shiraz, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot reds. Since 2000, all Villa Maria wines have been sold under screw cap.
Now in his mid-60s, Fistonich has no plans for retirement. His daughter Karen has been involved with the company for 20 years and is Chair of the board. His nephew is also on the board and is in charge of the winery’s infrastructure division. Reflecting Fistonich’s belief in strong relationships, he has been represented in the Canadian market for 20 years by Peter Mielzynski Agencies (PMA: 905 257-2116). As part of the winery’s 50th year anniversary celebration, Fistonich visited Toronto recently at a tasting staged by PMA in the beautiful wine cellar at Barberian’s Steakhouse (416 597-0335) in downtown Toronto. Each wine was paired with a delicious appetizer, carefully chosen to complement the wine’s unique flavor.
Villa Maria Private Bin Lightly Sparkling Sauvignon Blanc 2011 (13.0%), never before available in Canada, was poured that night to commemorate Villa Maria’s 50th anniversary this year. It has fine beads of perlage, with a pleasant hint of up front sweetness. Lemon and tropical fruit flavours follow through with gooseberry notes emerging in the crisp finish.
Villa Maria Private Bin Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2011 ($18.99; 13.0%) is a light bodied sipper that has a grassy aspect and subtle asparagus, gooseberry and lime notes, with good underlying acidity.
Villa Maria Cellar Selection Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2011 ($21.95; 13.0%, Vintages Sept. 15) has up front aromas of white grapefruit, citrus and lime, with subtle fresh peas and gooseberry notes and a lively acidic core.
Villa Maria Private Bin Marlborough Pinot Noir 2010 ($24.99; 13.5%) is a purple hued, medium depth wine. It has appealing aromas of cherries, cranberries, currants, raspberries and plums that follow through on the lush palate, with savoury notes, a streak of earth and cinnamon accents.
Villa Maria Cellar Selection Marborough Pinot Noir 2010 ($36.00; 14.0%; Vintages Sept. 15) showing purple hues in the glass, is a well balanced, integrated, medium bodied wine of moderate length. It has a full bouquet of Bing cherries and plums, with hints of black pepper, cinnamon, spice and cedar.
Villa Maria Reserve Marlborough Pinot Noir 2006 (14.0%; consignment) has aromas and flavours of Damson plums, sweet dark cherries and pomegranate. Adding complexity are nuances of cedar and vanilla, with a streak of earthiness in the lingering finish.
All scores are out of five apples.
Barbara D. Ritchie is a wine writer, lecturer and internationally accredited wine judge, who has travelled extensively throughout the main wine growing regions of the world. Her working knowledge of French, Italian, Spanish and German facilitates her in-depth winery profiles. A distinctive aspect to writing is her suggestions for food and wine pairings.