NZ’s finest, by George

George Fistonich in the early days
George Fistonich in the early days
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Unlike many of the people who own large international companies, George Fistonich was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth. “There was only enough money to send my elder brother to university, so he became a lawyer. I was expected to have a trade so I started a five-year building apprenticeship. But I really didn’t like it’.

George Fistonich, or Sir George to give him his correct title, is the man behind one of New Zealand’s best wine names – Villa Maria. He has built this company from scratch and last week he looked back over the last 50 vintages.

“My parents didn’t think there was a future in the wine industry. In New Zealand at that time most men drank beer and ladies drank sherry and there was a Prohibition culture so you had to smuggle a bottle of wine into a restaurant under your coat and they would pour it into a teapot to serve at the table.”

Against that background, in 1961, a young George decided that there was more to life than the building trade and he leased five acres of land from his father, Andrija, to make wine.

“The main grape variety was called Albany Surprise and if you were careful you could make 10 different styles of wine from one grape, reds and whites,” said George with a smile when I sat down to chat with him at the 50th anniversary dinner in London.

Early wine labels are adorned with the typical names of that era – Hock, Claret, Burgundy and Chablis, but over time the vineyard holdings increased, the grape varieties expanded and the quality of wine improved dramatically. As early as 1963 Villa Maria wines were winning medals in the major wine shows and that has continued with a vast array of medals, trophies and even a Lifetime Achievement Award from The International Wine Challenge. Villa Maria has won more medals and awards than any other New Zealand winery.

The name of the company, Villa Maria, has no connection to anyone called Maria, nor even to a Villa, but George decided on it “because it had an international sound” and it has stayed.

It would be wrong to think that it has all been plain sailing over the 50 vintages. In the mid-1980s New Zealand had far too many old-style vineyards producing poor quality wine and the big companies dropped their prices to the point where George was on the brink of bankruptcy. By a stroke of luck that was the week that Villa Maria wines swept the board at a major wine competition.

Now Villa Maria is the largest privately-owned wine company in New Zealand, with sales of half a million cases in the UK alone and many more sold in 50 countries around the world. It was for his contribution to the wine industry that he became a “Sir” although to his friends and staff he is still known as George.

Quality has always been key at Villa Maria and that showed in the selection of wines lined up for a tasting, lead by Alastair Maling, Master of Wine and general manager in charge of winemaking and viticulture. A comparison of two Reserve Chardonnays from 2001 and 2005 showed a clear change in style towards fresher, citrus fruit and oak held well back under a crunchy minerality.

A flight of Sauvignons from the 2012 vintage demonstrated how quality increases up the scale. The widely available Private Bin (£9.99 Majestic) has bright, green herbaceous notes balanced with passionfruit and tropical notes. Cellar Selection Sauvignon 2012 (astonishingly, while on offer, less expensive at £8.99 on multibuy at Majestic) has more tomato leaf notes and complexity. Clifford Bay (around £15 at corking from the Awatere Valley region of Marlborough is a real step up in quality, with citrus and herbal notes while the tank sample of Graham Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2012 (difficult to find but often available on wine lists), is heading in a Sancerre direction, with more fruit but linear and crunchy.

There was the same kind of progression of flavours in the Pinot Noirs, ranging for the fresh juicy flavours of Private Bin (£12.49 Cairns and Hickey, Leeds) to the silky, complexity of Single Vineyard Seddon Vineyard Pinot.

New directions include Arneis, an aromatic grape variety more usually found in Piedmont, Italy, with Grüner Veltliner and Albariño under consideration too. There is an organic project, as well as a close regard for sustainability in the vineyards. “There is a lot more to New Zealand than Sauvignon Blanc,” said Alastair. With a new purchase of Te Awa vineyards about to be completed, Villa Maria is still growing. By chance I visited these vineyards on my last trip to New Zealand earlier this year, and this new acquisition makes Villa Maria the largest single holder of the famous Gimlett Gravels in Hawkes Bay, renowned for the quality of Syrah grapes.

So, at the age of 72, and with 50 vintages under his belt, is George ready to retire? The answer was provided by his wife, Gail, “I don’t think it is in his nature to retire, certainly not yet”.

Top value choices from Villa Maria

Private Bin Sauvignon Blanc 2011, 
(£9.99 Majestic and widely available) Reliable, crisp, herbaceous, fresh-tasting flavours.

Private Bin Gewurztraminer 2011, 
(£7.99 on multibuy at Majestic) a 
gloriously aromatic, spiced wine 
that is just perfect with any 
Asian dish.

Private Bin Cabernet Merlot 
2010, Hawkes Bay 
(£11.99 Majestic). 
Full of soft, lush blackcurrant 
and savoury fruit.