Villa Maria Stays True to its Roots: New Zealand Winery Focuses on the Field

Villa Maria Winery Villa Maria

By Julia Kelada

Often, decanting a wine for an hour gives it time to breathe and reveal its true character. That was exactly the time I was fortunate to spend recently talking with Sir George Fistonich, founder and owner of Villa Maria Wines in New Zealand, who has been making wines for more than 50 years.

Sir-George-FistonichPrivate Bin Sauvignon Blanc 2014
Cellar Selection Sauvignon Blanc 2013
Private Bin Pinot Gris 2013
Private Bin Pinot Noir 2011
Cellar selection Pinot Noir 2010
Private Bin Merlot Cabernet Sauvignon 2012
Reserve Cabernet Merlot 2010

Although I had researched a long list of questions to ask Sir George, he made me so comfortable that it quickly became a more free-flowing conversation over a good glass of wine … or seven.

Sir George started making wine in 1961 on an acre of land that he leased from his Croatian born family. He soon began mixing his hybrid grapes to produce new styles of wine in a country that mainly drank Cherry Brandy, Port and beer at the time.

He started making dry reds and dry whites and by 1962, when his first vintage was ready, he entered the prestigious “Royal Easter Show” and won both 2nd and 3rd places for his dry reds.

During the 60’s, the process of wine making was still rather unsophisticated in New Zealand. Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinot Noir were fairly nonexistent.

Although these wines were made at the turn of the century, the outbreak of phylloxera during the second world war had all but wiped them out. In the 70’s, the grape varieties were replanted and the industry as a whole, and Villa Maria in particular, began to grow in earnest.

Villa Maria Tasting Wine

Julia: What was the reason for wanting to make good wines and not just accept the “Shed Wines” your family was making?

Sir George: My father made wines as a hobby and was selling them to neighbours. I wanted to be a professional and commercial winemaker. I loved blending wines and I seemed to have a good sense for flavours.

Julia: What was your favourite wine back when you started?

Sir George: Well funny enough, New Zealand had a bad reputation for wines so I was drinking French, German and South African wines…Australia was ahead of us as well.

Julia: At that time, what were the wines that influenced you?

Sir George: Well… German Riesling was of a superior quality, plus South Africa was making some good wines, but during the period of Apartheid, their wine quality went downhill. People stopped drinking their wine, but now its coming back.

VM ValleyJulia: How did you know how to taste a wine and detect its nuances?

Sir George: Well, there were no licensed restaurants back then, maybe only five in the whole country, two of them being in Auckland. If you took wine to a restaurant you would bring it in your jacket and hide it under the table.

If you knew the owner, he would take it into the kitchen and pour it into a tea pot and you would drink it at your table in a tea cup, there was no swirling, twirling and sniffing.

Gradually the law changed but tastings were done at home.

I was blending a lot. I won 2nd and 3rd place within my first year. I just have a natural affinity with making wine, mixing wine and tasting wine! But the best thing to do is look at the colour of the wine, smell the wine and just enjoy it.

Julia & Sir George Fistonich 2Julia: Out of all of the varieties that you grow, which was the first grape that truly put you on the map?

Sir George: Sauvignon Blancs are one of the biggest New Zealand exports, arriving around 35-40 years ago. They were first tried in London, UK, and people fell in love with the aromatics that burst out of the glass. That was the start of exports and Sauvignon Blanc was a catalyst.

The early Sauvignon Blancs were quite different from today, they were more green and grassy because they weren’t produced with the same experience and technology of viticulture as we have now.

Now there is more leaf plucking, more work in the vineyard and we are able to produce more vibrant fruit with more complexity, with vivacious gooseberry flavours, of course the vines have become more mature as well.

Julia: Do you feel like a chemist with today’s advanced technology? So many vintners have tricks and gadgets to achieve the desired results.

Sir George: Wine is really made in the field. We squeeze the juice onto a refractometer and it tells us when the grape is ready for harvest.

That really is the only tool that is needed. We gather a bucket full and do a mini pressing to check the acidity level. The grapes may still need a little longer.

VM man in foregroundJulia: How is this season starting out for you? We are in October so this must be your spring?

Sir George: Our season starts in January. We cut through the vine cane where the buds are and can tell the fertility.

We already know that 2015 will be a great harvest because we had great hot weather when the canes were maturing, with a 98% bud burst. There could be a 10% loss due to frost. We harvest 12-13 tons of grapes per hectare for a great concentrated flavours.

Julia: With all the technology, how do you stay hands on?

Sir George: We still hand harvest the grapes, but modern technology helps to reduce the dust and the solids allowing just the cleanest of berries to be picked producing a higher quality. Personally, because I’m a risk taker, I like to leave the berries to the last minute.

If you have a large vineyard, hand picking can take 3-4 days. Allowing for changes with Mother Nature, you might have to pick before they are really ready.

With machinery, you can leave it till the very last minute working day and night and getting the perfect maturity of the grape. Another benefit is bringing the grapes in at night keeps the grapes cooler allowing for a more aromatic juice and flavour.

Sir George Fistonich 2Julia: When you decided to go cork free, how did you feel about risking market sales with the screw top over the traditional cork?

Sir George: In New Zealand, we could statistically prove that 1 in 10 bottles of wine would be faulty due to the cork, which was just too big of a number.

Imagine if you were driving a car and your wheel could fall off because of faulty design … there’s no logic in tolerating that!

After 5 years, particularly in white wine like Chardonnay, there is 30% of oxygenation: the wines were getting oxidized and tasting tired.

We did a trial of 100 bottles in cork and 100 bottles with a screw cap. After 5 years, the wine in the screw cap was still a perfect colour and every bottle was identical.

The cork stopped wine was changing in colour from lemon to yellow to brown. With cork you can guarantee there will be a lot of variation you don’t want, so there just seems no logic to using it.

When I decided to go cork free everyone thought I was mad, mainly restaurants opposed it, but I’m an optimist, I wasn’t worried.

Through this period of transition, each and every morning, the mail would arrive with letters from consumers objecting to the new closure. We would reply to each one before anything else.

That letter became the game changer and got to the heart of the people. The combination of the words and the speedy response gained back their confidence. There just seemed no point in justifying loosing that amount of wine!VM Blue SkyJulia: There are two islands that make up New Zealand, the North Island and the South Island. Are your vine yards distributed equally on both?

Sir George: No, 75-80% of grapes are grown on the South Island, but 40 years ago 90% were grown on the North Island. Marlborough was virtually unknown for grape vines, but now it hosts 80% of the grape growing.

Julia: Is there a favourite vineyard that you have?

Sir George: We do have quite extraordinary vineyards. The original vineyards have all gone because they were all hybrids and those grape varieties have disappeared.

We have one vineyard in Hawkes Bay which is called Keltern Vineyard; it  produces such good Chardonnay over the last 10 years and has won 5 to 6 trophies.

In Marlborough, we win awards for Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. There are 80 hectares of different soil types. Marlborough is a cool climate.

What is unique are the very hot days and the cool nights with veritable soils. The vine roots are treated to a refreshing rest each evening!

Julia & Sir George FistonichJulia: What do you love most about making wine?

Sir George: The excitement for me is walking through a vineyard and tasting different grapes. It amazes me to pick up different flavours in different areas of the field. All of that diversity goes into the wines we make.

Seven Bottles of Wine

Julia Kelada

Julia Kelada is a Montreal-based wine consultant who grew up with wine on the table in the European tradition.

She has taken multiple courses on various aspects of wine, from tasting and sensory evaluation to food pairing and restaurant wine service.

In addition to posting reviews on this site, she also blogs at  Tipsyceliacdiva.com.

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