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10.16.2009

2007 Craggy Range "Zebra Vineyard" Pinot Noir, Central Otago, New Zealand

A relatively compact landmass, New Zealand nonetheless seems to possess every possible topography and climate. Tropical rainforests, glaciers, arid plains, high deserts, rich low country farmlands, coastal beaches, and alpine foothills, to name just a few. While the country may perhaps be known best for its cool-climate winegrowing, it should zebra_07.jpgreally come as no surprise that its winegrowing regions mirror the diversity of its larger geography. The fact that the country has a growing region with a climate like Bordeaux or Rioja, however, still remains somewhat under the radar for most wine lovers.

The Hawke's Bay region of the Northern Island fans out around and away from the spectacular crescent-shaped natural bay carved into the eastern side of the island. Sheltered from most cool seaborne weather and winds by mountains to the west, north, and south, this area sucks up enough sunshine to allow solar-hungry varietals like Cabernet and Merlot to ripen and thrive. Situated at roughly the same latitude as Madrid, Spain, the Hawkes Bay region, and in particular a sub-region known as The Gimblett Gravels, has become a bit of a Southern Bordeaux.

Far from the oldest wine producer in the region (it was founded in 1997), Craggy Range has quickly asserted itself as one of the most prestigious and ambitious. In the style of the great houses of Bordeaux, the winery seemingly spares no expense and overlooks no detail in attempting to produce not only the country's greatest wines but wines that compete with some of the best wines in the world (an ambitious goal to be sure). From a stunningly situated winery, beautifully architected with well-manicured grounds, to the bottles themselves, heavy with the priciest glass, labels, and corks, Craggy Range definitely has an image it's looking to project. But far from being all shine and no substance, Craggy Range not only produces wines worthy of the exquisite packaging and facilities that hold them, it seems well on its way to achieving the goals and vision of its founders.

Started by Terry Peabody, an international businessman, and Steve Smith, an extremely accomplished viticulturalist, Craggy Range Winery has been built in a fashion that few could afford, but to which any ambitious winemaker would aspire. Peabody and Smith sought out (and sometimes waited patiently for) only the best vineyard parcels in most of New Zealand's wine regions with the goal of making only single-vineyard wines that expressed the best of each place. In addition to geological and agricultural sleuthing skills and sharp real-estate dealings, this required painstaking matching of rootstocks and grape varieties to specific blocks within each site.

Craggy Range's winery facility is located adjacent to their Hawkes Bay vineyards, snuggled in a small valley between the rocky fins of Te Mata peak and the chain of small mountains from which the winery takes its name. But the winery's winemaking and winegrowing activities aren't confined to the Gimblett Gravels.

Craggy Range makes two series of wines, both of which are single vineyard designates from their estate vineyards and other selected vineyards throughout the country. The Prestige Collection is a group of wines which are each given names, and which are made only in the best years. These include a couple of red Bordeaux blends, a Syrah, a Chardonnay, and a dessert wine. The Vineyard Designate series of wines include mostly single varietal wines from sources spread out across both the North and South islands of the country and almost every one of New Zealand's wine regions.

Winemaking for Pinot Noirs, Pinot Gris, and Sauvignon Blanc at Craggy Range is handled by Adrian Baker (another winemaker Rod Easthope focuses on the warmer climate Bordeaux wines and Chardonnay).

Grapes are hand harvested and sorted in stages, with individual vineyard blocks often vinified separately. When possible indigenous yeasts are used for fermentation which takes place in either steel tanks or oak barrels depending on the wine. Many of the wines are bottled unfined or unfiltered or both, though the winery doesn't have a strict policy on these methods, preferring instead to do what they feel is required by the vintage. With the exception of the whites, most of the wines spend time in French Oak barrels often a mix of old and new.

This particular wine is from the Bendigo sub-appellation in the Central Otago winegrowing region on New Zealand's South Island. One of the most visually stunning winegrowing landscape's I've had the chance to personally visit, Otago is a wide ranging appellation that offers many different microclimates. Bendigo is one of the warmer and more arid sections of the region, and benefits from a terraced landscape of old river gravels which provide good sun exposure and rapidly draining soils.

2007 represents the inaugural vintage for this particular wine. The vineyard itself, owned by a winemaking family from Napa, oddly enough, was planted in 2003. As the first usable fruit from this vineyard, the wine is simply tremendous.

Full disclosure: I received this wine as a press sample.

Tasting Notes:
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cherry, wet wood, and wet earth with an herbal aspect that emerges over time. In the mouth it bursts with sour cherry and plum flavors that are quite pleasing, bright with acidity and nicely textured. The tart juicy quality lingers in the finish, leaving my cheeks tight and my mouth watering.

Food Pairing:
I'd love to drink this wine with a perfectly crispy Peking duck.

Overall Score: 9

How Much?: $30

This wine can be difficult to find on the internet, but keep an eye out for it.

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