Villa Maria: A Taste of New Zealand

The origin of the name Villa Maria has been a curiosity to me since first I first read the wine bottle label and realized it was a New Zealand wine. The name never quite fit with its New Zealand origin. I remember several years ago searching the Villa Maria website for a clue as to its origin. The founder of the company isn’t Spanish, his family immigrated to New Zealand from Croatia. I couldn’t find anything on the website referring to a building or place in the winery’s past named Villa Maria. The origin of the name remained an unanswered question for me — until this past Tuesday evening when I participated in a Virtual Tasting hosted by Snooth with Villa Maria lead winemaker Helen Morrison.

The hour-long online discussion featured six Villa Maria wines, which we received as tasting samples, and a discussion with Helen Morrison moderated by Snooth‘s Mark Angelillo. Participants had the opportunity to taste and talk about the wines of Villa Maria. The discussion was wide-ranging and moved right along. These are a few of the highlights.

The Villa Maria Name

You know the first question I posed to Helen Morrison, right? Well, she had the answer to the origin of the Villa Maria name right on the tip of her tongue. When George Fistonich started making wine in 1961, he did so by leasing just 5 acres of land near Auckland from his father. Wine was an integral part of his family’s Croatian heritage, so George’s desire to make wine came naturally. The same was true of his fellow Croatians living in New Zealand, but not widely so for all New Zealanders. George thought he needed a name that sounded European to lend authenticity to his wines. He named his winery Villa Maria for that reason. As his winery grew it became impractical to change the name.

Knighthood for George Fistonich

This portion I know from reading about George Fistonich and his Villa Maria Winery and I think it’s really important. George Fistonich should now be more properly referred to as Sir George Fistonich. In 2009 he was the first New Zealander to receive knighthood for his contribution to the New Zealand wine industry. Since that first vintage in 1962 Sir George has worked to communicate his European sensibility of pairing wine and food to consumers and was the first to pay grape growers a bonus for quality grapes over quantity. Since 1995 Villa Maria has been a member of Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand (SWNZ) and in 2000 Villa Maria built a second winery in Blenheim in the Marlborough region of New Zealand’s South Island.

How to Say (and spell) Awatere

The spelling and pronunciation of this word has always been tricky for me. I’ve read about the Awatere Valley and its gravelly soils, hillside vineyards and windy climate BUT how the heck do you pronounce it? A water? No. Ata ware? NO! Finally, I heard Helen pronounce the word flawlessly enough times to finally understand the correct pronunciation: Aw-wah-tree. Now if I could only get the spelling down.

A Taste of Villa Maria Wines

We had the good fortune to sample six wines from Villa Maria during this tasting. They represent quite a range of wines, from a sparkling Sauvignon Blanc to a single-vineyard Chardonnay. Below I have included my Instagram posts of the tasting. I included just a brief observation from the discussion with Helen and Mark in each post.

My first bubbly Sauvignon Blanc! Technically its frizzante, lightly sparkling, meaning there is less pressure in the bottle than with traditionally-made sparkling wine. The Sauvignon Blanc is vinified and then injected with carbonation before bottling. It’s not Champagne or sparkling wine, but that’s OK. It’s pretty tasty and very refreshing. SRP $15.

This Sauvignon Blanc has generous gooseberry and tart citrusy flavors. It is bright and refreshing and is part of Villa Maria’s Private Bin range which are blended for consistency of flavor and style year-to-year. Find a wine you like in this range and you can be sure it will taste the same to you each vintage, a quality many consumers appreciate. SRP$13

I will drink this Rosé any day of the week. It has lots of berry flavor, nice acidity and interesting earthy backnotes. I tasted this wine without looking to see what grape variety or varieties were used to make it. I guessed Cabernet Sauvignon. Turns out it’s mostly Merlot. Grapes are sourced from Hawke’s Bay which is famous for the complex jumble of soils created by four rivers in the area. Cabernet, Merlot and Chardonnay are widely planted here. $14

Taylors Pass Vineyard is located along…wait for it…the Awatere River in Marlborough. This single-vineyard Chardonnay is 100% barrel fermented (in 25% new French oak) and spends 9 months on the lees. Wood aromas are evident up front, fruit flavors are generous along with a toasty finish. A complex and compelling Chardonnay. $45

Aromas and flavors of red and dark berry fruit, forest floor and dried herbs supported by smooth tannins make for a enjoyable Pinot Noir that is true to varietal character. Of the Cellar Selection range of wines, Villa Maria says, “Intensely flavoured, elegant, food-friendly wines.” I have to agree. SRP $26

Medium ruby in the glass with generous dark fruit and dried alfalfa aromas. Dark fruit flavors, hints of cedar spice, dried herbs and dusty earth flavors are supported by grippy tannins. I appreciate the savory, dried herb and fruit combination of flavors in this wine and love the structure. The blend varies by vintage, the 2013 is 69% Merlot, 22% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Malbec, 8% Cabernet Franc. SRP $20

Final Thoughts

Villa Maria represents solid quality wines to me. Choose your price and you are likely not to be disappointed. Villa Maria was among the first New Zealand producers to move away from cork closures to screw top closures in 2001. Pull That Cork is in the name of this blog and it’s what I like to do, but I’m OK with screw cap closures. I understand the need and the utility. So, I have no problem Twisting That Screw Top. I’m over it.

Thanks to the folks at Snooth for organizing this tasting and to Helen for sharing your knowledge with us. A video of the Villa Maria virtual tasting is available for viewing on the Smooth website.


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