One-Man Band Becomes Global Brand
New Zealand is a relative newcomer on the international wine scene. Located in the Pacific about 1,200 miles from Australia and far from any other landmass, its wine industry wasn’t firmly established until the 1970s. From there it took off like a rocket.
There are now more than 400 wineries in New Zealand and it has enjoyed 23 straight years of export growth. Its wine export sales now exceed countries like Germany and Argentina and totals more than $1.7 billion.
Villa Maria is one of the premier wineries in New Zealand and has amassed an exceptional number of honors for its wine, efforts in sustainability and business practices. Its growth parallels the success story of New Zealand wine.
The winery was begun in 1961 by George Fistonich when he leased five acres of land from his father. Throughout the 1960s it was a one-man show, with support from George’s wife Gail. From those humble beginnings the winery has grown to an enterprise that now exports to more than 50 countries worldwide.
A Focus On Sustainability
As an island nation, New Zealand has a focus on the environment. In tune with this, Villa Maria has been a pacesetter in the area of sustainability, being a member of Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand since its inception in 1995. The winery is also measuring and managing its carbon footprint as part of a national research program.
In February 2009, Villa Maria was the first major New Zealand winery to achieve BioGro organic certification for winery and bottling facilities in Auckland, enabling them to trace organic certification for our organic wines from grape to bottle. That’s an important designation, because wines “made with organic grapes” can be subject to all sorts of chemicals in the winemaking process, something many consumers don’t realize.
Villa Maria has about 500 sheep that control grass growth and provide natural fertilizer and about 70% of wine bottle packaging is made from recycled material. During a recent virtual tasting hosted by Snooth, we were able to taste through six Villa Maria current releases.
When thinking of New Zealand, our thoughts immediately zero in on Sauvignon Blanc. The New Zealand style is our favorite and the grape thrives in the country’s cool ocean breezes. Villa Maria, though, presents quite a balanced lineup. Some of the guests for our impromptu tasting party were surprised to see the diversity.
We first opened the 2017 Bubbly Sauvignon Blanc. This is 100% Sauvignon Blanc and made specifically for the US market. It was a perfect arrival wine. Like all Villa Maria wines, it has a screw closure. The bubbles are pleasantly spritzy. There is a kiss of sweetness. It’s a new wine and our group was enthusiastic about it. SRP is $15.
We don’t normally associate rosé with New Zealand, but perhaps we should. The 2017 Private Bin Rosé is from Hawkes Bay, the country’s top region for reds. It is a Merlot blend and salmon pink in the glass. The alcohol is a light 12%, making it a perfect mate for a wide variety of foods.
Taylors Pass: A Range Of Quality
Internationally, different labels produced by wineries are called ranges. We tasted two ranges, the Private Bin range and Taylors Pass. It was a captivating exercise: we had a Sauvignon Blanc and a Pinot Noir from each range, allowing us to compare and contrast.
The Private Bin range is a solid value. The 2017 Private Bin Sauvignon Blanc, for example, retails for $14 and delivers flowing cool-weather flavors with citrus and herbaceous notes and the right amount of acidity. It is the classic Marlborough style. Also from Marlborough is the 2017 Private Bin Pinot Noir. A tasty value at $18, this was a hit with our eight guests, each with different palates. It’s approachable with lush red fruit notes and went well with my famous blue-cheese-stuffed dates wrapped in prosciutto.
Taylors Pass sits on the northern bank of the Awatere River. The vineyard is warm, sheltered from the cool breezes that flow down the valley from the mountains. The soils are a patchwork of different types, each eliciting different flavors from the grapes. In Taylors Pass the people must be very happy, based on the wines we sipped.
While the majority of our tasting party favored the Private Bin Sauvignon Blanc, I was blown away by the 2016 Taylors Pass Sauvignon Blanc. It has complexity and herbal notes that make it a standout among Sauvignon Blancs. This is enhanced by four to six weeks on the lees. SRP is $26 and a good value at that.
The 2015 Taylors Pass Pinot Noir was the highlight of the tasting for me. This single vineyard Pinot spends 14 months in French oak (25% new) which yields oak notes that mingle pleasantly with cocoa and wild cherry flavors. The retail price is $42 and it is a nice value compared to a Willamette Valley or Russian River Valley Pinot of similar quality.
We’ve enjoyed a fair bit of Villa Maria wines over the years. Our latest tasting confirms our impressions – Villa Maria has a wide lineup of wines that are delicious and represent great values.
Full disclosure: This wine was received as a marketing sample.