New Zealand is certainly a land of surprises. A relatively compact landmass, it 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 really 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 the upper Rhone Valley (minus some annual moisture), 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.
While the number of wineries in the region continue to grow, few have approached the stature and accomplishment of Craggy Range.
Far from the oldest wine producer in the region (it was founded in 1997), Craggy Range is certainly the most 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 (a garantuan 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 is a class act from start to finish.
Of course, there are vanity wineries all over the world into which their owners pour unlimited funds without ever yielding wines of distinction. 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. The vineyards, and indeed the whole site of the winery itself perfectly typify the youth and the dynamism of the modern New Zealand wine industry. The deep gravel plateau on which the winery sits was literally created less than 150 years ago, during the floods of 1876, when the Ngaruroro river burst through its banks and deposited an outwash of river gravel several meters thick along the backside of Te Mata peak.
After this literally earth shaking event, the area was fit only for a gravel quarry according to most farmers in the area, but decades later a sharp eyed winegrower realized that the newly minted land might be perfect for growing grapes.
Winemaking at Craggy Range has shifted over the years. Originally the winery had two separate winemakers, one for its series of white wines, another for its reds. But now all winemaking happens under the direction of the young Matt Stafford, who collaborates closely with Smith, whose fingerprints continue to mark every vineyard and every bottling.
Grapes are hand harvested and sorted in stages into the custom designed, gravity fed winery, 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, ranging from 10 months in 40% new oak for the Syrah, to 21 months in 100% new oak for this wine, which was considered the winery’s flagship when it was produced, and until the winery rearranged its portfolio of wines in 2007 into three tiers that have consistent naming and branding.
This particular wine was a blend of 81% Cabernet Sauvignon, 14% Merlot, and 5% Cabernet Franc, harvested from what was a cool, dry vintage, and aged for 21 months in 100% new French oak. Weighing in at merely 13.4% alcohol, few would be able to identify this regal wine as having come from the New World. The wine was made from 100% destemmed fruit, which was inoculated with commercial yeast and fermented in closed-top oak tanks. The wine was fined with egg whites and filtered before bottling.
This bottle was the last of a few that I hand carried back with me from my first trip to the island, and while I’m glad to have enjoyed it with family over the holidays, I’m somewhat sad that I won’t have a chance to see the wine develop for another 10 years (over which it certainly would have continued to improve), nor will I get a chance to buy more vintages since it has been discontinued.
But should you manage to find a bottle wherever you are (much more likely in Australia or New Zealand, where it was primarily distributed), I highly recommend it as one of the best wines ever made in New Zealand.
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells mysteriously of cocoa powder, black cherry fruit and finely ground sawdust. In the mouth deep, dark black cherry fruit is welded to an equal amount of wet earth and graphite, giving a deep, cool and stony impression on the palate, like an underground cavern carved by rushing water. Notes of leather emerge later in the wine, as fine-grained, furry tannins coat the mouth and add sleek muscle to the wine. Excellent acidity, balance and poise. I could drink this wine all night long. Stunning. 13.4% alcohol.
I drank this wine with pan fried pork short-ribs, but it frankly eclipsed the food and demanded to be appreciated on its own terms. Perhaps a perfectly cooked rib-eye would have been a more proper match, but honestly, this is a wine worth contemplating on its own.
Overall Score: around 9.5
How Much?: approximartely $125