In 1961, George Fistonich leased five acres from his father and began growing grapevines and making wine. Fifty years later, he is the largest private owner of wineries in New Zealand and Villa Maria is his flagship.
Along the way, Fistonich established new vineyard areas in New Zealand and changed the system of paying contracted growers from grape quantity to grape quality, and Villa Maria became the first major wine company in the world to switch all of its wines from cork to screwcap closures. The New Zealand government recognized his achievements with a Knighthood in 2009.
A few weeks ago, I tasted a sampling of Villa Maria’s extensive wine portfolio with Sir Fistonich and Alastair Maling, his general manager and chief winemaker.
We began with sauvignon blanc, the grape that brought New Zealand to the attention of the wine world. For those who find New Zealand’s intensely citric sauvignon blancs too palate-shocking, the 2009 Villa Maria Sauvignon Blanc Cellar Selection will be a soothing change.
Its soft fruit aromas and lush, rich fruit flavors are supported by balanced acidity. Where other New Zealand sauvignon blancs display aggressively tart grapefruit, lime or gooseberry aromas and flavors, this one delivers a controlled citrus flavor that is refreshing and a good mate to summer seafood salads.
Although not as widely recognized, New Zealand also makes delicious pinot noir wines. Villa Maria’s 2009 Reserve Pinot Noir is a blend of grapes from vineyards in the Wairau and Awatere valleys of the Marlborough region.
The wine begins with an eye-catching strawberry hue and continues with cherry and mild floral aromas. Tasty red plum and cherry flavors cross the palate with support from soft tannins and acidity. Limited aging in new oak barrels preserves the freshness.
The 2010 Villa Maria Taylor’s Pass Pinot Noir is from a single-vineyard along the north bank of the Awatere River. It too has rich red fruit flavor with an added dimension of a basil-like taste. Like the reserve pinot noir, the new oak aging was restrained, and the soft tannins and mild acidity make the Taylor’s Pass pinot noir immediately drinkable. Both pinot noirs will be delightful with grilled meats, salmon or bluefish.
In summer, I prefer New World pinot noirs served slightly chilled. The rich fruit flavors and soft tannins of Villa Maria’s pinot noirs will be refreshing on a hot day when the bottle is placed in a bucket of cold water with a small amount of ice.
The 2009 Villa Maria Sauvignon Blanc Cellar Selection retails for about $19; both pinot noirs are approximately $43.
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