NZ’s most-awarded winery

New Zealand’s most-awarded winery focuses on producing great wine, and the awards tend to follow. For publication in the week starting 3 December 2018.

Villa Maria has won more awards for its wines than any estate in New Zealand. Founder George Fistonich was the first person in the country’s wine industry to be knighted, becoming Sir George in 2009. He more than deserves the honour.

Sir George argues that the secret to Villa Maria’s success lies not in chasing awards but on focusing on making quality wine that consumers can enjoy. “Get this right and the awards naturally follow.” He is right, and the results show.

In 2016 Villa Maria was named New Zealand’s wine company of the year – for the fifteenth time in 19 years. In 2004 Wine Spectator magazine named Villa Maria as “one of the world’s 50 great wine producers”. Wine Magazine in China named the company New Zealand Winery of the Year in 2012.

It was not always like this. The company started small – just Sir George. In 1961 when Sir George was only 21 he leased five acres (two hectares) of land from his father in Mangere near Auckland, New Zealand’s biggest city. He started with about half a hectare of vines. Villa Maria’s first vintage appeared in 1962.

Over time Sir George sourced grapes from the greater Auckland region. In the early 1970s he started hiring staff and the company began to expand. Today Villa Maria employs more than 250 permanent staff, has vines in most of the major wine regions, and exports to more than 50 countries.

Sir George has focused on innovation. In the early 1980s Villa Maria instigated the first grape growers’ bonus in the country – where grapes were purchased based on quality rather than quantity. In 2001, to avoid problems with cork taint, Sir George moved the entire production to screw-cap and he has continued the use of this technology.

Villa Maria is famous for its “cellar door lunches” where people can taste wines that are only available at the winery. The site has the advantage of being close to Auckland airport, and a relatively short drive from the country’s biggest city.

George Fistonich.jpgOne of those lunches was recreated in London late last month for a small group of wine writers. It was a superb event, from the delightful 2014 traditional method sparkling to start, followed by a pair of wines with each of the four courses.

Highlight was the new release of the 2014 Ngakirikiri, only the second made so far (the 2013 was the first and current release). Sir George (shown left at the lunch) described it as his “flagship wine” because it represents the pinnacle of the company’s achievements. Ngakirikiri means “the gravels” in Maori, and is from the Hawkes Bay area in the upper-mid north of the North Island. Ngakirikiri is an awesome wine, a mass of rich black fruit with a host of nuanced aromas that seem to change with each sip. The 2013 is mostly Cabernet Sauvignon with a touch (3 per cent) of Merlot. The 2014 is all Cabernet Sauvignon. Vines were planted in 1991.

What impresses is the supreme elegance of the wine and the relatively soft tannins. The quality of the fruit comes from low yields of 2.5 tonnes a hectare, from vines that are in their prime. This wine retails for £102 in London and is as good or better – these issues are entirely subjective – than Napa Cabernet Sauvignon at more than twice the price discussed in a column last month.

Another superb wine was the 2016 Keltern Chardonnay. It is part of a group of single site wines chosen to highlight the unique terroir in New Zealand. Keltern is located on red soils in an ancient river bed east of the Maraekakaho region in Hawkes Bay. The vineyard sits on deep loam soils sprinkled with large free-draining gravel rocks.

The Keltern region is considered one of New Zealand’s premier sites for Chardonnay. Villa Maria’s Keltern is probably the most awarded white in New Zealand.

Villa Maria started embracing organic and bio-dynamic practices “before it became fashionable”, Sir George said. About 20 per cent of the range of properties Villa Maria manages are organic. “We might get to 100 per cent organic in the next 20 years,” he said with a smile.

Four of the wines available only at the cellar door were tasted at the London lunch: the sparkling to start, the 2014 Ihumatao Verdelho, the 2015 Single Vineyard Attorney Pinot Noir and the 2016 Reserve Shiraz. Each was a revelation, from the zingy sparkling to the plump and appealing Verdelho, to the pristine and charming Pinot Noir and finally a beautiful Shiraz, full of brooding dark fruit and spices.

Shiraz grown in New Zealand is very different from the same grape grown in Australia, even in the cool regions in the south-east of Australia. New Zealand is further south, on the same latitude as Tasmania, and tends to have deeper fruit flavours and finer texture.

Grapes for the Shiraz also come from Hawkes Bay. It is almost inky purple in colour with a perfumed nose of liquorice and graphite, mixed with notes of violets and cocoa. The tannins are soft and refined, and encase the fruit in a silky embrace.

Sir George said the Shiraz vines were planted 25 years ago and were “starting to perform now they’re a quarter century old”. Villa Maria has access to vineyards in most of the best regions in the country, especially Hawkes Bay which is noted for the quality of its Chardonnay and Shiraz.

The quote from Sir George featured on the company’s web site is both revealing and celebratory: “No great wine ever came from a spreadsheet. Winemaking is an art, not a numbers game and our winemakers and viticulturists understand this. They pick our grapes based on flavour and ripeness, not on achieving a certain yield.

“It’s a luxury we have from being family-owned which means everything we do is for the good of what’s in the glass. For us it’s simple: our wine is far more important than how many zeros are on our balance sheet.”

Bravo Sir George. The world needs more winemaker/owners like you.

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