Canada’s top wine writers and sommeliers gathered in the nation’s capital for a comprehensive tasting of Villa Maria wines from New Zealand.
Wine Writer, Ottawa Wine Guide
What an elaborate tasting!
We had the chance to have an amazing tasting with one of the viticulturists from Villa Maria– Ollie Powrie, who presented us with an insightful session of tasting over a dozen wines from one of the only New Zealand owned and family operated wineries.
Founded and owned by the venerated Sir George Fistonich, a real icon of the wine industry, who has been part of the NZ wine business for the last 55 years. He is known as a real innovator in the industry because his company has been able to adapt to the constantly changing trends in the industry and continually produce world-class wines.
As an example, they were one of the first to move into different regions of NZ, the first to employ a full-time viticulturist, and was the first winery to commit completely to the screw cap. Obviously, these decisions have worked out because they are now the biggest winery in NZ.
The most surprising fact that I learned from the tasting is that NZ, and especially Villa Maria, is capable of producing several delicious and unconventional varietals, outside the typical wines found on our shelves (i.e. Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir).
Villa Maria runs a rich research and development program that seems to be constantly pushing the boundaries and supporting the newest trends. This seems inherent from the culture that has been built by Sir George.
We tasted some very interesting Pinot Gris, Spanish varietal Albarino, and some sublime Syrah. Also, if you look on their website (http://www.villamaria.co.nz/wines) they dabble in varietals from around the world: Riesling, Viognier, Gewürztraminer, and Grenache. There are crisp dry wines and sparkling, rich reds to botrytis infected sweet wines. Very Impressive!
Villa Maria is NZ’s most awarded winery and for good reason, this has been their focus from the beginning- to concentrate on quality. We observed this as we went along the tasting with Ollie, from their entry level Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay to the 50th Anniversary Syrah from the Gimblett Gravels, in Hawkes Bay.
Beyond the quality is the astounding value that some of these wines represent for the consumer. The price point of their various levels of quality are almost all good value and well worth trying.
Wine & Travel Columnist, Outdoor Magazine
Villa Maria’s Secret to Success: Grapes, Terroir and People
Passion, determination and teamwork are the hallmarks of excellence underpinning the success of Villa Maria wines. No doubt these attributes are the legacy of the company’s founder, Sir George Fistonich, who started with just 5 acres of leased land upon which he could grow grapes and a roadside stand to sell his meager production.
From those humble beginnings a global brand emerged by never losing sight of those key elements that Sir George held dear.
Villa Maria has two key individuals who are responsible for delivering their founder’s vinous vision to the world. The Chief Winemaker (Nick Picone) and the viticulturist (Oliver Powrie) work in harmony to grow the best grapes and to inovatively transform the fruit into wines of character and distinction.
The character imparted by the careful selection of terroir and vinification techniques is obvious in their offerings. The distinction is evidenced by their numerous awards for their craft, having laid claim to being the most awarded winery in New Zealand for over 30 years.
The innovative approach to developing new grape varieties and production techniques has also garnered a special place for oenophiles everywhere.
Some of Ottawa’s notable wine writers were fortunate enough to be treated to a fabulous presentation by Ollie Powrie along with a flight wines from the recently released 2016 vintage. Since the antipodean seasons mirror the northern climes, the 2016 wines got their start during the cool of October, 2015.
This raised some concern for wine makers but the extended warm weather through the growing season prompted a sigh of relief as vineyard vigour flourished. New Zealand is fortunate to have a full six-month growing season so the wines can mature longer and withstand some brief aberrations in climate.
Harvest in the second quarter of 2016 saw lots of fruit readiness simultaneously and created logistical challenges for the crush. Ollie emphasized that the decision to pick isn’t made on the basis of a set target for sugar content.
While the brix levels are steadily monitored to ensure the fruit is sufficiently ripe, the real test is contingent upon the way the grapes taste in the field. The flavours of the flesh and the texture of the seeds all are important considerations in the decision about when to move the fruit from the vine to the winery.
The selection of small plates from Vittoria Trattoria restaurant provided a canvas for the wine pairings that were offered. Starting with New Zealand’s number one sparkling wine, the Lightly Sparkling Sauvignon Blanc, and finishing with a very special 50th anniversary Syrah from a single Gimblett Gravels plot, the wines all were solid performers and a number of them absolutely outstanding.
Notable favorites were from the Cellar Select series. The best being the Syrah from Hawkes bay, the Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir.
Villa Maria’s constant effort to find new ways to make wine and new varietals to develop have resulted in a number of “R&D” labels that are only sold at the cellar door (making a trip to New Zealand mandatory).
But some of these experimental examples do make it to broader commercial availability and one of these was a delightfully different wine for the region. The Cellar Selection Albariño was a delightful surprise reminiscent of the Bay of Biscay namesake wines. Served with mussels in a white wine sauce this was a fabulous match.
Sir George should be proud of the accomplishments of his team. He is an originator and his resume is replete with “firsts” such as being the first to commit to Stelvin closures to greater ensure the enjoyability of their wines.
He manages to have one of the country’s largest wine companies but still behaves like it is a boutique. The obvious quality in every wine is the progeny of teamwork and a commitment to pushing the boundaries to improve the tasting experience of every wine consumer.
Wine Columnist, Ottawa Wedding Magazine
Wine tasting can be a terrific sensory adventure, enhanced by the circumstances and environment during the tasting.
On Nov. 15th, I had the great opportunity to taste several fine wines from New Zealand’s Villa Maria Estates Winery, along with their viticulturist Ollie Powrie, at Ottawa’s Trattoria Vittoria Restaurant.
Trattoria provided a quiet, spacious room and served delicious tapas and a leisurely lunch that perfectly suited the wines we were studying. Presto! We had a comfortable, hospitable environment, allowing us to focus on the wines and Ollie’s presentation.
Villa Maria was started in 1961 by George Fistonich, when he leased 5 acres of land from his father and planted one acre of vines. Today, after 50 years, his commitment and determination have built Villa Maria into New Zealand’s leading award-winning winery.
It operates as a boutique winery because they aim for quality production over quantity and work with the land and nature to produce premium wine quality while respecting the principles of sustainable viticulture.
Throughout the tasting, I noticed the great respect that Ollie shows for George. It was clear that part of the success of Villa Maria is the close teamwork of their staff and respect they have for one another, along with their respect for nature.
The attitude of dedication reminded me of a comment I recently read by noted wine journalist Marcelo Copello, who said that “wine is a liquid that connects us directly to nature, a place, origin, the people who produce it, and the culture of those people.”
Ollie shared a great deal of information about the wines and viticultural practices at Villa Maria as we tasted more than a dozen of their products, starting with Villa Maria’s Lightly Sparkling Sauvignon Blanc, which is New Zealand’s #1 selling sparkling wine.
We sampled crisp and flavourful Sauv Blanc’s, refreshing Pinot Gris, a unique Albariño, (unusual for New Zealand but already winning awards after only a few years on the market), a lush Chardonnay and a vibrant Rosé.
Reds were award-winning Pinot Noir, a Cab Sauv-Merlot blend as well as two Syrahs. For our final wine, we tasted the Anniversary Release Syrah from the standout vintage of 2011, developed to celebrate Villa Maria’s 50th Anniversary.
Commitment, respect, passion and skill; these are the key elements that have made Villa Maria Estates such a successful winery. It’s a winning combination. For our tasting team, this was a successful educational tasting experience and a great pleasure.
Sommelier & Blogger
I think the saying on Villa Maria’s website under “Our People” says it all.
Tasting through many of Villa Maria’s wines with Viticulturist Ollie (Oliver) Powrie really brought this home. His admiration and respect for owner and founder Sir George Fistonich was evident.
He called him a visionary, an innovative thinker and emphasized how his passion for winemaking was key to the success of Villa Maria. This passion was clearly shared by Ollie himself.
Ollie talked about how Sir George was the first to do many things when it came to winemaking in New Zealand. He was the first of the large companies to put his whole range of wines into screwcap; the first to encourage growers to focus on quality and not quantity; the first to employ female sales agents; and the first to employ a Viticulturist.
At wine awards, rather than go up to receive accolades and prizes himself, he would send up members of his team – something that was never done in the past.
The culture at Villa Maria is clearly one of teamwork, hard work and respect. Respect for the other team members as well as the vineyards.
Ollie stated that their goal is to “do what is right” and to “leave the vineyards better than found”. In 1999 they started growing organically and the goal is to be 50% organic by 2020.
The whole team works closely together – Ollie shares an office with Chief Winemaker Nick Picone and said that the winemakers spend just as much time in the vineyards as in the labs.
The diverse range of quality wines tasted with Ollie are a testament to the success of Villa Maria. Their goal is to operate as a Boutique Winery; even though they are one of the largest in New Zealand.
I could go on about the mouth-watering Sauvignon Blanc, the creamy Private Bin Chardonnay, and my favourite, the juicy Cellar Selection Pinot Noir; along with many other wines we tasted with Ollie. But instead, invite you to visit the reviews on this site, and read about my, Natalie’s and my peers’, in-depth reviews instead.
That – and next time you are in the LCBO – head to the New Zealand section and pick up a bottle of Villa Maria for yourself!!
Lynn van der Linde
Certified Sommelier and Event Planner
I had the pleasure of participating in an informative and entertaining afternoon spent with Ollie Powrie, Viticulturist for Villa Maria Winery.
The afternoon opened with a preview of holiday celebrations as we sipped the 2015 Lightly Sparkling Sauvignon Blanc. This best-selling bottle of bubbles retains its classic Sauvignon Blanc zest, while transforming on the palate to develop a luscious finish. The slight fizz accentuates both the nose and mouth feel, for an experience that can best be described as festive.
As we moved to the more classic expressions of Sauvignon Blanc, I learned that viticulturists in New Zealand rarely employ leaf cutting prior to harvest in order to prevent the UV sun rays from damaging the purity of the fruit. This is especially noted in the pure bouquet and flavours of the Reserve Clifford Bay Sauvignon Blanc.
I was also pleasantly surprised to hear that many of the Villa Maria Sauvignon Blanc productions include an influence of lees, where the must will sit on the lees for a period of time to promote a fuller, almost oaky character to the wine.
A trailblazer on many fronts, Villa Maria founder George Fistonich continues to reinvent not only his wines, but what the world has come to know and love about New Zealand wine. In 1961, at the age of twenty-one, George decided to go against his father’s wishes to become a carpenter, leased five acres of the family plot to plant grapevines and started Villa Maria Winery, creating his first vintage in 1962.
By the early 1980s, he rallied for grape growers to be paid based on quality production versus quantity, and by the end of the 80s he was exporting Villa Maria wines around the globe. He was also the first wine owner to employ women as wine sale reps in an almost exclusive male dominated industry, and in 2001 he made the bold decision to become the first cork-free winery and move to one hundred percent Stelvin closures, or screw caps.
And while George has grown his business to be one of New Zealand’s largest wineries, with a brand that’s now recognized around the world, he still ensures that it operates like a boutique shop – from getting to know everyone who works for the winery, to managing the highest quality production.
George ploughed the path for New Zealand winemakers and viticulturists to constantly reinvent themselves and the wines they produce, and has built a superb team of experts to keep the legacy going.
Congratulations Villa Maria on creating such beautifully distinct New Zealand wines for the world to enjoy!
Wine & Food Blogger
A few hours spent discovering and tasting new wines is always rather enjoyable and informative. At Vittoria Trattoria we met Villa Maria’s viticulturalist, Ollie Powrie, and sampled a number of wines from a cross-section of their portfolio.
Villa Maria is the second largest wine producer in New Zealand, with vineyards, grape growers and wineries in four of the main wine-growing regions of NZ.
The family-owned company was founded in 1961 by a young George Fistonich, who is, by all accounts, quite an innovator and visionary. Among his notable “firsts”: conversion in 2001 to the use of screw caps (at great risk to sales!), employer of New Zealand’s first viticulturalist, and also an early planter of Pinot Gris in NZ (approximately 15 years ago).
The Villa Maria wines we tasted are consistently well-crafted and appealing across the range. The structure, balance and individuality found in the wines results from the close integration of vineyard management and winemaking and from dedication to quality.
According to Ollie, this quest for quality sometimes leads to friendly competition amongst vineyard managers and winemakers!
There is always something new and interesting to learn and in this case, not surprisingly, much was about viticulture. For instance, Sauvignon Blanc is notorious for growth/fruit production variation year to year.
So vineyard management is crucial – too much fruit in one year and the vines struggle to retain carbohydrates for the next growing season. For this reason, as much as 40% of the crop may be removed before ripening (green harvest).
We also tasted a fabulous Albarino (very small production ~ 250 cases), an oddity for NZ. Vines were imported and planted in 2009 by a grower couple who were quite taken with the wines they drank on a trip to Spain.
A small portion of some wines, particularly Chardonnay, are allowed to ferment naturally on wild yeasts. Different vineyards have different naturally-occurring yeast strains, leading to desirable variation in the resulting wines.
There were some “surprise” bottles that showed up at this tasting, including a spectacular 2011 “50th Anniversary” Syrah. Sadly, a rarity and difficult (maybe impossible?) to find over here.
On the whole, the New Zealand wines, with their fruitiness and great acidity, went well with the Italian appetizers and small plates, a fun cross-cultural mash-up! No doubt they would pair well with a variety of cuisines – bring on the Greeks!
Given their overall impressiveness, it would be nice to see more of Villa Maria’s wines available in the LCBO, particularly their mid- and higher-end ranges.
Thanks to Vittoria Trattoria for a smashing job with the food and service!
Wine Blogger & Sommelier Judge
It was a beautiful November day in the Byward Market of Ottawa where we visited Vittoria Trattoria for a “Family Style” Winemaker luncheon. This time, it was the award-winning Viticulturist, Olvier Powrie who made the trek to Canada, just days prior to the New Zealand earthquakes that we learned about earlier in the week.
Ollie had already been briefed on some of the assessed damage to certain vineyards and was awaiting more information as it unraveled. We were pleased to hear that his family was unharmed.
First and foremost, it was immediately evident that Ollie was a people person – he was warm and engaging. We witnessed a very passionate and knowledgeable team that could not be more proud to travel the word and talk about these wines and the journey to the finished product; coupled with their obvious dedication and respect for the Villa Maria Estate and founder.
Sir George Fistonich – who is the owner of Villa Maria Estate founded the company in 1961 – bringing him to a celebrated 55 years of wine making – which I may add, is part of his DNA. He is so passionate about this accomplishment with his team and sees a strong connection between viticulture (Oliver Powrie) and winemaking (Nick Picone) – “they go hand in hand”.
A pioneer in his field, Sir George is widely admired for his “grassroots” story – from the early days of setting up a retail cart adjacent to his tiny vineyard trying to attract buyers on the side of the road – to vast landscapes of multiple vineyards spanning regions – it is a true success story.
What I enjoyed hearing most from Ollie is that Sir George is a people person and that his “vision” has not wavered over the decades. Villa Maria upholds “a commitment to quality and innovation”.
He understands the crucial contribution from all members of his team and works tirelessly to build on their strengths. He places a strong emphasis on teamwork and cooperation, noting them as pillars for the company’s success.
It was evident, as Ollie spoke so fondly of Sir George, that it likely resonates across the Estate back in NZ.
The wines we tried ranged from Pinot Gris to SB, Chardonnay to Rose, and Pinot Noir to Syrah. One of the most interesting wines to taste for me was the Albarino.
From a winemaking perspective, Albarino was something new to try in NZ, with the vines imported from Spain. It was a risk, replanting the vines in the hopes of it translating into a well received final product.
I can appreciate the immense thought process and efforts that would have gone into this – from start to finish. I will also note that the 2014 Cellar Selection Syrah was definitely a personal favorite – what a Vintage!
Another point of interest was, undoubtedly, learning that Villa Maria was the first winery in NZ to employ women as wine reps, and also the first winery to employ and recognize the invaluable asset of a Viticulturist on the team. (Congrats Ollie – celebrating his 10th harvest!)
I also enjoyed the part of the discussion where Ollie shared some innovative facts about production, noting the company’s leadership role in switching to all screw cap and also the decision to have all bottle production occur in Auckland – where they also purchase most of the bottles.
Again, this was a clear demonstration that the product knowledge extends beyond just what is in the bottle and that the entire team works well together sharing ideas, experience and skill which undeniably has led to these greater overall achievements.
Natalie, thank you for the invite, and Ollie thank you for sharing your knowledge and passion!
I definitely walked away with an an elevated level of respect for the well deserved successes of Sir George & Family, Ollie, Nick and the entire crew of Villa Maria Estate.
Sir George Fistonich founded the Villa Maria Estate in Auckland, New Zealand in 1961. He wasn’t knighted in those days and he sure did not have any servants to cultivate the vines for him either. In fact, in those days, he was a tenant of a small parcel of land and planted his first vines himself.
He eventually established a make shift winery on the side of the road and, as the wine business caught on, he gradually acquired parcels of his own land. Today, Villa Maria Wineries has become one of New Zealand’s big three producers.
They own four wineries throughout New Zealand. It won many wine awards and accolades over the years. It now exports wines in all major world markets.
Sir Fistonich’s single minded pursuit of excellence in wine growing and winemaking is well-known and his influence on the New Zealand wine industry is equally respected. Yet, fifty-five years later, the down to earth character of the man remains evident to those around him.
Even to us, the members of the Natalie MacLean’s wine review team, who participated in a workshop at the Vittoria Trattoria Restaurant in Ottawa on November 15, 2016, lead by Ollie Powrie, the head viticulturalist at Villa Maria, who was touring Canada to introduce the wineries’ 2016 vintage.
Wine Columnist, Ottawa Family Living Magazine
Perhaps no other winery in New Zealand could recite a legacy like Villa Maria. In case you haven’t heard, this all started over 50 years ago by one man making wine out of his roadside shed in Mangere, near Auckland.
He made dry red and white wines from grapes he planted on five acres of land leased from his dad. Can you just imagine having a neighbour like George Fistonich – principal and original winemaker for Villa Maria – coming over to your place to offer you his “shed-made wine”?
Back then it probably didn’t seem like anything to be excited about, but today, his iconic wines are sold worldwide. His company employs over 250 full-time staff, his direction for innovation continues to soar, and his emphasis on sustainability is paramount to his company.
Reflecting on the Villa Maria journey, I have learned that, for about a decade, Villa Maria was a one-man show. Aside from the support of his wife Gail, George had no staff until the early 1970s.
Business bloomed since then because, in 1988, Villa Maria started to export their wine. Today, they export to over 50 countries!
In 2001, Villa Maria boldly determined that they would be moving towards screwcap bottling for all their wines. They were one of the first wineries to embrace this practice and it created quite the impact on fellow Kiwi wine producers because, in one decade, cork enclosures were virtually eradicated from the New Zealand wine industry.
In 2009, all the passion, the focus, and the grit that is George Fistonich culminated into him receiving the honour of his country’s first Knighthood.
Villa Maria recently celebrated their 50th anniversary with a very special release of their Gimblett Gravels Hawkes Bay 100% Syrah. This cool climate Syrah boasted delightful notes of fresh berries, violets, and mild baking spice. The palate is rich with young tannins, a balanced acidity, and long cassis note.
It is going to be a tough wine to find due to its prestige and warranted respect. However, it shows how far George has come in producing diverse quality wines in New Zealand.
His innovation continues to inspire as the demands of New Zealand Pinot Noir rise, as Pinot Gris becomes the fastest growing white wine category behind Sauvignon Blanc, and as new varietals like New Zealand Albariño become introduced to our palates.
Indeed, we learned that Sir George, as his staff affectionately call their big boss, tries to meet everyone that works for Villa Maria and gets to know them personally. It seems he never forgot his humble roots in Croatia, nor the need to share his passion for wines, innovation, and excellence.
This is evidenced today, as we learned from Powrie of Villa Maria’s commitment to sustainable vineyard management and winery practices, to minimizing their environmental footprint, and to adapting the winemaking to best reflect the terroir through minimal intervention, by using wild ferments, or by seeking grape varietals that best adapted to individual vineyard or sites.
This commitment to innovation keeps the winery moving in new directions, like diversifying their production of international varieties of Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir, which have become somewhat iconic of New Zealand, to making single vineyard bottlings of the same varieties or to experimenting with the production of a spicy and textured Pinot Gris or of a briny Albariño.
The latter was by far the most pleasant discovery in the line up of twelve Villa Maria wines presented by Powrie — that along with a silky 2011 vintage of Villa Maria Pinot Noir which was served in a commemorative bottle especially molded for the winery’s 50th Anniversary.
Villa Maria Private Bin Sparkling Sauvignon Blanc 2015
Marlborough, New Zealand
Villa Maria Estate Private Bin Sauvignon Blanc 2016
Marlborough, New Zealand
Villa Maria Estate Cellar Selection Sauvignon Blanc 2016
Marlborough, South Island, New Zealand
Villa Maria Estate Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2016
Clifford Bay, Marlborough, New Zealand
Villa Maria Estate Single Vineyard 2016
Southern Clays, Marlborough, New Zealand
Villa Maria Estate East Coast Pinot Gris 2016
Hawkes Bay, North Island, New Zealand
Villa Maria Cellar Selection Pinot Gris 2016
Marlborough, South Island, New Zealand
Villa Maria Estate Cellar Selection Albarino 2015
Gisborne, New Zealand
Villa Maria Estate Private Bin Chardonnay 2015
Gisborne, New Zealand
Villa Maria Estate Cellar Selection Chardonnay 2015
Hawkes Bay, Marlborough, New Zealand
Villa Maria Estate Private Bin Rosé 2016
Marlborough, New Zealand
Villa Maria Estates Cellar Selection Pinot Noir 2014
Marlborough, South Island, New Zealand
Villa Maria Estate Cellar Selection Merlot Cabernet Sauvignon 2014
Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
Villa Maria Estate Cellar Selection Syrah 2014
Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
Villa Maria Estate Syrah 2011
Gimlet Gravels, Hawkes Bay, New Zealand