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Viva La Villa

George Fistonich, owner and managing director of New Zealand's Villa Maria Estate, has stated that there have been only three days over the past 50 years when he has not had a glass of wine.

   "It is my passion," he said. "It is my life."

   That love for wine was easy to sense during his recent visit to Ontario - part of his first visit to Canada. The founder of the internationally-renown winery was happily discussing the rapid emergence of top-notch Syrah from Hawkes Bay, while marketing executives tried unsuccessfully to signal the end of a press tasting. He chatted amicably while his handlers hovered.

   Fistonich was late for an appointment in Toronto, but he still had some points to make. "Hawkes Bay is looking at Syrah as something it can do really well," he explained. "It could become that region's signature, the same as Marlborough and Sauvignon Blanc and Central Otago and Pinot Noir..." Some minutes later, the marketing folks finally had to intervene.

   A visionary vintner who was instrumental in establishing vineyards in the (now world famous) Gimblett Gravels appellation and an early advocate of screwcap closures (making his winery a cork-free zone in 2000), Fistonich has made wine quality his first priority since he founded Villa Maria in 1961. (The name was selected because it "sounded European.") His first vintage won two of the three awards handed out at the 1962 Royal Show. Countless more - from all corners of the world - have followed over the ensuing years.

   From the start, Fistonich focused on capturing the regional differences in grape quality and wine styles. To that end, Villa Maria operates two wineries, one in Auckland on New Zealand's North Island and one in Marlborough, on the South Island. The winery processes fruit from Hawkes Bay, Gisborne and Auckland in the North Island and Marlborough, Waipara and Central Otago in the South Island.

   The decision to switch his entire production over to screwcap eight years ago - ahead of the pack - resulted in lost international sales. American restaurants cancelled orders, worried that their customers would view a screwcap wine as inferior to a wine sealed with a cork.

   "Our mission is to make top quality wine and we knew that the only thing against screwcaps was marketing and public perception," Fistonich said. Today, those accounts have returned, he explained, and more than 90 percent of New Zealand wines are produced under screwcaps.

   His current innovation is the creation of Terra Vitae Vineyards, a publicly owned vineyard development venture. It's a way for the winery to expand its holding of exceptional vineyards without having to purchase them outright. Villa Maria is contracted to purchase the grapes from Terra Vitae.

   The true sign of greatness surrounding Villa Maria is that its quality focus runs the gamut from its large volume Private Bin series to the reserve-tier Cellar Selection and its top-of-the-line Reserve and Single Vineyard series. Every wine is imminently drinkable. Each step up the quality ladder gives greater depth of flavour and, ultimately, more finesse and complexity. There's a lesson here for winemakers all across the globe.
   
Wines of the Week:
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Villa Maria Estate 2008 Private Bin Sauvignon Blanc
Marlborough, New Zealand $16.30 (426601)
   The new vintage of Villa Maria's Private Bin Sauvignon Blanc is made expressedly in the house style, which is typically riper and a touch softer in texture than most Marlborough Sauvignon Blancs. The wine's juicy personality and crisp finish make it a great by-the-glass option. (LCBO General List)

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Villa Maria Estate 2006 Private Bin Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon
Hawkes Bay, New Zealand $17.95 (060038)
   The blend is Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Malbec, mostly estate-grown fruit from the Gimblett Gravels region. Great structure and rich flavours make this an impressive wine, especially for the price. (LCBO Vintages)

 
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