Recently I had a wonderful wine experience. I was working at the Decanter Fine Wine Experience and Sir George Fistonich was there. Now George, if you do not know is one of the great figures in the world of wine.
He founded Villa Maria, the famous New Zealand wine producer, in 1961 and owns it to this day. His achievements are amazing and from humble beginnings Villa Maria is now the largest privately owned winery in New Zealand, indeed it is the largest New Zealand owned winery in the country.
I have been involved with Villa Maria either directly or indirectly since 1987 and the wines are never less than good and frequently very good indeed. As a whole the range is very impressive and it is easy to see why it one of Drinks International’s Most Admired Wine Brands in the world. In addition George also owns the Vidal, Esk Valley and Te Awa estates in Hawke’s Bay as well as the Thornbury range, whose Central Otago Pinot Noir is one of New Zealand’s best value wines.
What I especially admire about Villa Maria is that they make wines that people really love and that have huge recognition among consumers, but are still keen to innovate and try new styles of wine and new ways of working. George led the charge on the move to screw cap seals for instance. That seems a long time ago now, but it was only 2004 in fact. Among much else they have also experimented, very successfully, with Albariño, Orange Wine and a new wine called Ngakirikiri, a super premium release is a Cabernet Sauvignon dominated blend from the Gimblett Gravels growing area in Hawkes Bay and it is a magnificent wine.
I was chatting away to George and commented that I had found an old bottle of Villa Maria wine in my cellar and asked if he was around the next day to try it with me. Well he was and so I brought the bottle in on the tube.
It was my last bottle of 1994 Villa Maria Reserve Chardonnay from Marlborough. I hadn’t kept it deliberately, but it was left over from a tasting about 20 years ago and I simply never got around to doing anything with it. The level looked pretty good, but the colour slightly worried me. It looked quite dark, although it was hard to tell through the green bottle.
Opening an old bottle of wine is always nerve wracking. How old is too old? I was certainly nervous about this one. Would it be oxidised and just too far gone to drink. Frankly at 23 years old it could well have been.
I opened it very slowly and very carefully, but even so the bottom quarter of the cork broke off and I couldn’t retrieve it, so it was rather un-stylishly bobbing about in the wine. However the rest of the cork was nice and damp and smelled clean, which made me more optimistic that all would be well.
I poured some into George’s glass before mine and together we inspected the colour and then sniffed the wine before taking a sip. First I felt a sense of relief that it was still alive after all this time, then a sense of joy that it was actually still quite fresh and bright, then feeling of exuberance because it was actually rather fabulous.
One great thing about this bottle is that the back label is wonderfully detailed, unlike the current labels. So, I actually know a great deal about how this wine was made. It is a blend of 70% Waldron Vineyard and 30% Fletcher Vineyard fruit. The two vineyards are very close to each other in the Rapaura district of the Wairau Plains, the ‘Golden Triangle’. Waldron is a warm, stony site that produces full flavoured, richly concentrated fruit that makes for vividly fruity wines. Fletcher, farmed by Colin, Chris and Michelle Fletcher, is on especially low vigour stony soils.
According to the fabulously informative back label just 17% of the wine went through malolactic fermentation, which made sense once I tasted it and noticed the high acidity. The wine was aged for just 5 months in oak barriques (225 litre barrels).
The colour was a beautiful bright yellow, light toffee, slightly orange and peach skin sort of colour. The nose was good, yes there was a slight touch of oxidation, but also real honeyed richness of peach and pineapple with something fresh, stony and mineral together with a light touch of caramel and butterscotch.
The real surprise though came with the palate. It was overwhelmingly fresh with lively acidity making it seem positively youthful and playful. Those flourishes of richness, pineapple and caramel mainly were in the background with something nutty and spicy from the oak, while the stony fresh acidity was to the fore making the wine seem pure and mineral.
23 years in bottle had not dimmed the wine in any way. I remember it as being a very good wine at the time, but now, all those years later, it has developed into something that brought all the different strands of Chardonnay together perfectly – ripe fruit richness, judicial use of oak, cleansing acidity and minerality. It had become a great wine and tasting it was a wonderful experience.
So you see, Chardonnay is a great grape variety – indeed personally I think that New Zealand should enjoy a higher reputation for its Chardonnays than its Sauvignon Blancs – and Villa Maria makes wines that age brilliantly – even for a long time in the less than perfect conditions of my “cellar” – into something complex and extraordinary.
There are many things to enjoy about wine, the freshness, the fruit, the direct pleasure are all important, but sometimes the complexity of an aged wine is more beguiling and fascinating, while the shared pleasure of a rare wine can be a truly memorable experience.