Last week I had the privilege of having lunch with the owner and founder of Villa Maria – the most awarded wine company in New Zealand.
At the age of only 21, Sir George Fistonich founded the company back in 1961, when the wine industry in New Zealand was in its infancy.
Starting his working life as a carpenter, his Croatian background soon led him to a passion for wine, and his skills as a tradesman helped him to build his first winery.
The quietly spoken, unassuming nature of Sir George, belies the utter determination, passion and ingenuity of a man who believes that quality counts far more than increased profit. Now No 1 in NZ and the fourth most admired wine brand in the world, Villa Maria is a leader in innovation, with a passionate team of people making exceptional wines, proudly pursuing the visions and ambitions of the company’s founder.
In the first years, George was on his own, but his success led to taking on staff in the 1970s and first exports were achieved in 1988. George has undoubtedly been instrumental in helping the global success of New Zealand wines, and was knighted in 2009 for services to the wine industry – the first award of its kind.
With nerves of steel, he has always pushed the boundaries in the pursuit of excellence. Experiments with different grape varieties and different techniques both in the vineyard and in the winery, continue to this day, with Albariño and Verdelho having particularly good results, apart from the iconic Sauvignon Blanc in all its manifestations. Sometimes these innovations have expansions have been problematic and the company has had its troubled times in the past. A recent experimental planting was eventually abandoned after some years.
The company currently exports to more than 50 countries world-wide, with the majority of the grapes coming from Marlborough in the South Island and Hawkes Bay in the North.
I personally have always been a great fan of Villa Maria wines and from their very wide selection, I have yet to find one not to my liking. During the lunch at 67 Pall Mall, London, we were treated to some very special wines, some of which are only available at the cellar door. A trip to New Zealand beckons! Sir George now undertakes the role of Global Brand Ambassador, a task no-one on Earth could perform better.
But without the need for a trip down under, Villa Maria wines are widely available in the UK. Two of my favourites are the Reserve Sauvignon Blanc from Clifford Bay (Sainsbury’s £15.95) and the Cellar Selection Pinot Noir 2016 (Majestic £12.99 at the mix six price). The Sauvignon Blanc 2017 comes from the Awatere Valley in Marlborough is powerful, with aromas of wild flowers and fresh lime, complementing the tropical flavours on the palate. The Pinot Noir is also from Marlborough, medium bodied with delicious red berry fruit and subtle, integrated oak. Fine tannins, with a long finish and great finesse.
Wines you can trust from one of New Zealand’s undisputed wine pioneers.
Richard Esling BSc DipWSET is an experienced wine consultant, agent, writer and educator. An erstwhile wine importer, he runs a wine agency and consultancy company called WineWyse, is founder and principal of the Sussex Wine Academy, chairman of Arundel Wine Society and is an International Wine Judge. Twitter @richardwje. Visit www.winewyse.com.
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