But first, Spring: time to tune up on key floral notes in wine. And a good way to do that is illustrated.
Traditional English primroses (single-stemmed, not polyanthus): an exquisitely subtle floral note, as found in cool-climate pinot gris and sometimes pinot blanc, but only when not over-ripened. Near-impossible to characterise, but includes a trace of vanillin, much more subtle than aromatic riesling on the one hand, or stonefruit chardonnay on the other.
Violets: one of the gold-standard floral notes, 'sweet' yet midnight-deep, unique though other flowers can remind of violets, eg lilac. Characteristic of temperate-climate merlot when not over-ripened, and sometimes cabernet sauvignon, more rarely pinot noir, syrah, and nebbiolo (modern), all when not over-ripened.
This was an extraordinary tasting, presented by Matt Stafford, chief winemaker for Craggy Range. Off-hand I cannot recall a presentation by a winemaker where there was such an artless and convincing blending of science, technology, climate and soil, and as well a genuine feeling for taste and sensory parameters of the wine. Rarely have I taken so many notes, so much so it was hard to both taste and listen. Yet there was no feeling of being lectured, it was the most engaging give-and-take discussion throughout. You ended up feeling Craggy Range was in very good hands.
Matt reported that Craggy Range owner Terry Peabody's goal was to see Craggy Range become a world-class winery in his lifetime. Since the project started with the purchase of bare land in 1997, when Peabody was c.58 years of age (born September 1939), this is an ambitious goal. When high-profile New Zealand executive Rob Fyfe accepted appointment as strategic advisor to the Board of Craggy Range in 2014, he is reported as saying:
"The Peabodys have committed to creating new world classic wines that will extend New Zealand's reputation in to prestige varietals and blends at a scale that is competitive on the world stage. But more than that, they have recognised from the outset that to succeed and create the brand – the story and legacy they dream of – this must be an inter-generational project. Terry's dream is that he can create a 1,000 year brand with Craggy Range and that is our goal."
There is now a 1000-year trust to ensure that Craggy Range stays in the family, via a complex of nominated companies listed in Australia and Hong Kong, but all owned within the Peabody family. Turnover now is in the order of $30 million per annum. This year having purchased another 132 ha of land on Te Muna Road for $3.6 million, ShareChat financial newsletter reported that: "Craggy Range has previously invested more than $150 million in the New Zealand wine industry, planted more than 250 hectares of vines, and employs about 80 staff across the country.". There is the main 102-hectare vineyard at Gimblett Gravels in Hawkes Bay as well as holdings in Havelock North, Martinborough (the existing 95 ha) and Marlborough.
In 2017, the United States publication Wine & Spirits included Craggy Range in its Top 100 Global Wineries, and there have been other recent accolades. Even though such awards tend to be ephemeral and sometimes even whimsical, nonetheless they point to Craggy Range making significant progress in this difficult-for-New Zealand game of creating an international wine profile. New Zealand is fortunate to have attracted an Australian proprietor prepared to finance such an endeavour.
With Craggy Range Syrah Le Sol in particular as the standard-bearer, I would say the goal of international recognition is almost within grasp. In my estimation their often-underestimated standard Gimblett Gravels Syrah is their next-in-line to merit international recognition. The winery however would (I suspect) want a dutiful winewriter to cite Sophia Merlot / Cabernet Franc, their Saint-Emilion-style premium bordeaux blend, as their other international-standard wine. It is good, but thus far lacks authority, a consequence of dry extracts at Craggy Range still not being exemplary, to my assessment. I do not have dry extract data, however.
Craggy Range merit praise for the quality, detail and completeness of the information given about their wines, on their website. Like Te Mata Estate, they aim to give data for every wine they have produced, which immediately sets them apart from the majority of 'disrespectful to the customer / couldn't care less' New Zealand wineries. In addition they are also a little more forthcoming than Te Mata on harvesting and production details.
THE WINES REVIEWED:
Colour lightest lemon. Bouquet is clean, still some SO2 to marry away, recognisably varietal in a saline way but far, far too young for commercial release, smelling raw, narrow and hard. Palate emphasises the technical purity of the wine, clean very faintly yellow-tinged and slightly mealy varietal fruit, but the whole wine stalky and short, high acid, and lacking elevation complexity. The idea for this cool coastal Te Awanga vineyard site is to produce a lighter, so-called chablis-style wine, but good chablis is ripe right through. So whereas the inland valleys such as Dartmoor for Rifleman's, and Woodthorpe for some of Te Mata's chardonnays, do produce beautiful cool-climate Hawkes Bay chardonnays, the salt in this coastal location exacerbates the stalkyness of the Kidnappers wine. Again, dutiful wine writers would call this 'mineral' – a near-meaningless wine buzz-word for adding gravitas to chardonnay (and other) reviews. But in the hands of far too many winewriters, all too often 'mineral' is merely a euphemism for reduction – whether recognised / identified or not. That is not the issue here. If the wine were richer, I would put it away for 10 years, and expect it to improve. As it stands, I don't think it is worth that bother. But still, don't look at it for five years, cellar to 15 years. GK 08/18
Fractionally deeper light lemon than the Kidnappers. This wine too is far too young to be released, also some SO2 to resolve. Like the Kidnappers it is beautifully clean, but it is also a little more clearly varietal, with more evidence of lees work and elevation complexity. But even here (though not so markedly) there is a thought of stalks, though somewhat better body and dry extract. There are light suggestions of yellow stonefruits, and some mealyness. It needs to be held for three years, and cellar 5 – 15 years. By and large, Craggy Range thus far has not shown much flair with chardonnay, though there was one beautiful wine (2011 Les Beaux Cailloux). The Gimblett Gravels are in many years too warm for the finest quality in chardonnay, and as implied for the Kidnappers wine, their coastal site is to my mind simply not suited. GK 08/18
Maturing pinot noir ruby, the lightest of the red wines. Bouquet is very clean, fragrant, but clearly on the leafy / stalky side of optimal ripeness for pinot noir, if Burgundy be the reference point. This is Savigny-les-Beaune, a minor appellation in the panoply of Burgundy, red currants and rhubarb in the red cherries. Palate follows logically, fresh and refreshing, varietal, but lacking complexity, ripeness and depth. The lack of palate weight is surprising, given the cropping rate listed – has the Aroha cropping rate been given in error for this wine ? Pleasant straightforward pinot, to cellar 3 – 8 years. GK 08/18
Good pinot noir ruby, both younger and deeper in appearance than the Te Muna Road label of the same year. Bouquet is quite different too, the wine smelling sweeter, floral rather than leafy / stalky, and more generally burgundian. These trends are confirmed on palate, much 'sweeter', riper, more appropriately varietal fruit, red cherry without doubt and a hint of strawberry, plus better mouth feel and dry extract. Unlike many Reserve New Zealand wines, the oak handling here is not overdone, being beautifully in ratio, lengthening and complexing the fruit admirably. Still not a big wine, but truly varietal. I do not consider Aroha has yet achieved a standing sufficient to justify its prestige price. Cellar 5 – 12 years. GK 08/18
Big pinot noir ruby, maybe too big – see how it smells. But sadly, bouquet is on the massive side, suggesting over-ripeness, inclining to the darkly plummy less-fragrant heavy style of pinot noir which Dry River managed to persuade a generation of gullible people and suggestible winewriters that it was 'the real thing'. It was not … again if Burgundy be the yardstick. But that said, this 2016 is exquisitely pure, and there is a faint suggestion of dusky florality trying to peep out. Palate again follows perfectly, nil or scarcely any black cherries, more darkly plummy, nearly a hint of uncooked prunes, nutmeg, still recognisably varietal but a weighty, non-fragrant style of over-ripe pinot noir. Regrettably this kind of pinot noir is still too much endorsed by a New Zealand wine-writing secretariat all too often insufficiently familiar with the better wines of Burgundy. It will cellar well, and may lighten up after 10 years. Cellar 8 – 18 years. GK 08/18
A lovely vibrant ruby and velvet, in the middle for depth, reflecting the thinner skins of merlot. And the bouquet reflects the beauty of merlot grown in a temperate climate, where retaining of floral qualities is optimal. This wine shows clear violets, and darker roses too, on fresh red and dark plum fruit, made even more fragrant by subtle oak. This bouquet reflects a very careful picking point. Palate and flavour likewise have Saint-Emilion styling to them, not the richness / dry extract of the better ones, but if anything greater purity, all attractively highlighting the varietal character of merlot, in that it is not as cassisy as cabernet sauvignon. This is a very pretty wine showing a degree of merlot varietal accuracy rare outside Bordeaux. Cellar 5 – 18 years. GK 08/18
100% de-stemmed; fermented in s/s; 17 months in French oak 18% new; fined and filtered; RS nil; www.craggyrange.com ]
Ruby and velvet, clearly darker than the Gimblett Gravels Merlot, reflecting the cabernet content. One sniff and this is clearly Craggy Range's 'commercial' / more affordable bordeaux blend, loaded up with oak to appeal to that sector of the market which equates more oak with better wine. Below the fragrant cedary oak is good dark plummy berry. The 22% cabernets plus 2% malbec takes the winestyle more towards the Medoc than the cepage would have you believe. In mouth the oak reinforces that interpretation, the wine being reasonably firm. Length of berry flavour is good, nearly matching the oak, but fruit weight / dry extract is on the light side. Te Kahu has become a highly reliable and affordable label in the Craggy range, and serves them well as an ambassador. Cellar 5 – 18 years. GK 08/18
Ruby, carmine and velvet, just above midway in depth. Like the Gimblett Gravels Merlot, there is a purity and varietal accuracy to this wine which is a delight. There is more oak than the straight Merlot, so it is a bit harder to tease out the violets exactly, but it is deeply floral and highly varietal, on rich dark berry of bottled omega plum quality. Palate has a freshness to the fruit which is enchanting, the wine positively dancing on the tongue, with almost a hint of cassis complexity, the two cabernets being quite high this year. This wine shows classic Saint-Emilion styling, but with more oak and a New World brightness to it. Again, even though the cropping rate is moving in the right direction, there is not quite the concentration ideally desired, to measure up internationally. As with Aroha, I believe the pricing for Sophia (and more at the winery) is getting ahead of itself. Cellar 10 – 25 years. GK 08/18
Ruby and velvet, above midway in depth. Bouquet has a deep dusky merlot authority to it which is most attractive, the florals not quite as evident as the younger vintage of Sophia, but the complexity greater. Some signs of secondary bouquet characters are just starting to appear, on an amalgam of dark bottled plums and cedar. Flavour is also showing some increase in complexity, hints of darkest tobacco in the fragrant berry, lovely cedar, with attractive length and persistence. The cropping rate is higher here than for the 2016, and it does not taste quite as rich, however. Dry extract is a hard measure to taste for, it has to be said. Cellar 10 – 25 years. GK 08/18
Ruby, carmine and velvet, the second deepest wine. Bouquet is dramatically fine varietal syrah ripened to perfection, beautiful dusky florals hinting at carnations, sweet black pepper, fragrant cassis-oriented berry, and subtlest oak. It is the restraint in the oak that allows me to say the varietal quality is dramatic. In mouth, quality and charm continue unabated, with seemingly better concentration and dry extract than most of these wines, and near-perfect varietal expression. Worth noting that this level of oak matches many 'grand cru' bottlings from Cote Rotie and Hermitage. It is all too easy to be misled by the top Guigal wines, in the matter of syrah and oak. This is delightful wine, to be bought by the multiple case lot. It will give infinite pleasure with food for many years, whether as a young wine or a mature one. It shows exactly why the best Hawkes Bay syrah totally matches Hermitage and Cote Rotie, and far eclipses Crozes-Hermitage. Cellar 10 – 25 years. GK 08/18
Ruby, carmine and velvet, the third deepest wine. Because the 2016 Gimblett Gravels syrah has less oak, its hue is deeper, but it is damnably difficult to say which is the darker wine of the two. At this early stage, 2016 Le Sol is not quite so wonderfully eloquent and varietal as the Gimblett Gravels wine, but the purity, quality of varietal expression, complexity and potential are self-evident. There are dusky florals, and cassis-like berry, but the black pepper lift is hopelessly entwined with the cedary oak, hard to single out but wonderfully exciting. Palate continues the absolute purity seen on bouquet, with beautiful flavour, balance, persistence and length. As with all the Craggy Range wines, the purity and styling is exemplary, but here again I believe greater concentration and dry extract is needed, to have the wines fully match the standard-bearers from Hermitage and Cote Rotie, or indeed the now-hefty price. But that said, the dry extract here does seem closer to the goal of 30 g/L than 2016 Sophia, for example. Wine is an ever-learning occupation, so notwithstanding previous scores, I think this is the finest and subtlest Le Sol yet – note the alcohol. Cellar 10 – 25 years, maybe a little longer. GK 08/18
Ruby, carmine and velvet, the deepest wine. Bouquet lacks the vibrant varietal sparkle of the 2016s, being a bit more massive and oaky. It is still a big and recognisably syrah bouquet, but the oak is more evident than in the younger wine. Flavours follow pro rata, a more oaky rendering of cassisy and darkly plummy berry, black pepper varietal notes developing nicely in mouth, sufficient fruit weight for the wine to be quite long-flavoured, but the new oak is extending the impression of fruit concentration. This level of oak will appeal to many new world tasters, but is greater than nearly all highly-ranked Northern Rhone examples of syrah would show. Cellar 10 – 25 years. GK 08/18