UNBELIEVABLY, the 2012 New Zealand wines now arriving here represent the 50th vintage for the Villa Maria operation.
It was in 1961 that a wine enthusiast of Croatian descent, George (now Sir George) Fistonich, started the business – in spite of his family’s wishes that he become a carpenter. Villa was chosen as part of the name to give a European slant (which was an upmarket feature in those days) but no one seems to know – or will admit – who Maria was.
Initially, everything was centred on Auckland but, once the world discovered New Zealand wines, things took off. Nowadays, turnover tops NZ$100 million, and several other producers have been absorbed into the group but operate with only a light hand on the tiller and an occasional strategic steer on things like innovations.
One such innovation was Villa Maria’s early conversion to screw-caps, but an ongoing development concerns grape varieties. As New Zealand explored the world beyond sauvignon blanc, so Villa Maria started to produce great pinot noir and became alive to the marvels that Gimblett Gravels at Hawkes Bay could offer. It also makes a pretty good fist of gewürztraminer and even has a place on the pinot grigio bandwagon. Its PG activity is interesting as it uses the multi-regional East Coast appellation (which covers both North and South Islands) to attain the consistency pinot grigio drinkers demand, yet the wine is much rounder and more serious than many European examples.
All this I discussed with Villa Maria’s chief winemaker, Alastair Maling MW. One interesting part of our chat was his enthusiasm for arneis – a little-known white grape variety from Piedmont. It used to be called white barolo there, because the Italians often used it to soften the nebbiolio in barolo, but in Maling’s hands it is creating a distinctive, approachable, fruit-driven white somewhere between riesling and pinot gris. Watch this space.
Villa Maria uses a four-level hierarchy for its wines (from the entry-point Private Bin to its top Single Vineyard, with Cellar Selection and Reserve between them). But of which is Maling most proud? The 2012 Villa Maria Private Bin Sauvignon Blanc (£6.65, down from £9.99 until Tuesday, Sainsbury’s) has a special place, and this new vintage seems to keep up the traditional standard. It has all the intense gooseberry flavours you expect but nicely enlivens them with touches of lime and a racy acidity. One rung up the ladder is the 2007 Villa Maria Cellar Selection Syrah (£13.95, www.nzhouseofwine.co.uk), with its juicy red plum and rich blaeberry flavours and contrasting pepper finish.
For his favourite son at the next level, Maling selected 2009 Villa Maria Reserve Pinot Noir (£17.90, www.slurp.co.uk). This has received minimal intervention from the winemaker, which maximises its sense of purity. It is a nicely layered pinot with perfumed cherry fruit and attractive hints of clove, derived from a carefully managed use of oak in its maturation.
Finally, to the 2007 Taylors Pass Single Vineyard Chardonnay (£19.99, Ellies Cellar). Here you have a delightfully delicate chardonnay with good fruit and an attractive lemon undercurrent but with a minerality that develops into something rather more smoky.
In the years since 1961, Villa Maria has been brilliant at reading trends to enhance its own wines. In fact, respected wine writer Tom Stevenson calls it “New Zealand’s best all-round wine producer”. What, I wonder, will the next half-century bring?
2011 Oveja Negra Sauvignon Blanc Carmènere Reserva Maule Valley, Chile, 13 per cent Yes, you did read that right, this white uses some juice from the red grape carmènere. The result is a wine with viscosity and greengage-style texture, although nothing compromises its fresh pink grapefruit and white peach flavours or its underlying softness. £7.75, Oddbins
2010 Cimarosa Cabernet Sauvignon Reserva Privada, Maule Valley, Chile, 14 per cent To complete a Maule Valley duo, try this intense red with concentrated cedar wood, bramble and black cherry fruit and a lingering finish that delivers chocolate, vanilla and spice without diminishing any of the wine’s appealing freshness. £5.99, Lidl