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Visiting New Zealand's wine regions 
Part 8: Craggy Range and Steve Smith

The view from behind the winery/visitor centre at Craggy range, showing the Te Mata peak

It’s hard not to be impressed by Craggy Range, which is emerging as one of the new world’s great wineries. Every aspect of what they do has the stamp of seriousness about it, not least the amazing cellar door/winery/restaurant complex in Havelock North, just under the shadow of the Te Mata peak. However, just one wine is made here (the ‘Sophia’) in the rather photogenic but sparse winery. Most of the winemaking is carried out a few miles up the road in a rather less photogenic, but more practical, industrial-looking winery.

Rod Easthope in the Gimblett Gravels Vineyard

I arrived at the latter, to be greeted by Rod Easthope, one of the two senior winemakers. Rod’s responsibility is Syrah, Bordeaux reds, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Viognier. His counterpart Adrian Baker is in charge of Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir. In overall command operations is Steve Smith MW, who is joint MD of Craggy Range and a partner in the business. Steve was busy with a board meeting for Pinot Noir 2010 which was being held at Craggy, but I was to catch up with him and the other board members for their dinner that evening, which I was kindly invited to crash, as well as joining him for breakfast the following day.

Small open-top fermenters in the winery 

I visited the Gimblett Gravels vineyards with Rod, and then we looked at the winery, which is set up to deal with small batches. Craggy are unusual in that they are a reasonably big operation, but they focus almost entirely on making relatively small runs of high-end, single vineyard wines, with grapes from several carefully chosen vineyards across most of New Zealand’s key winegrowing areas. There are no ‘entry level’ Craggy wines, although there is a quite separate brand, Wild Rock, which is devoted to more affordable, but still quite high-end wines. It’s a smart strategy keeping the two separate: it means that the Craggy branding isn’t diminished by more commercial wines; it also means that should Craggy ever want to, they can sell Wild Rock as a separate entity.

Steve Smith MW, MD of Craggy Range

We then did a fairly extensive tasting, focusing on Craggy’s Rieslings, Pinot Noirs, Syrahs and Bordeaux Blends. In my tasting notes (which will be published in a couple of days as a separate article) I also include some notes taken at a couple of other recent tastings, bringing in Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. My verdict? Quality is amazingly high, almost across the board. How do they manage this? ‘People say it’s because we have the money’, says Steve Smith. ‘It’s not. You can do what we do in the vineyard and the winery even if you only choose to do it on a single acre.’

Referring to the approach of concentrating just on relatively small volumes of many single vineyard wines, Smith adds that, ‘We’re lucky, in a way, in that we do have the opportunity to develop a market for these wines, whereas it’s harder for the little guys’.

Perhaps what leaps out of tasting through these wines is the quality of the reds, not traditionally New Zealand’s strong point. It has been an important mission for Craggy to show that New Zealand isn’t just about white wines. ‘If you are going to be a great wine nation you have to show that you are great at producing reds’, says Smith. He reckons that New Zealand has three opportunities to produce great red wines. First, with Pinot Noir, then Syrah, then Merlot/Cabernet Franc blends. The latter he sees coming from the Gimblett Gravels only, and while Syrah performs well in the gravels, it is more forgiving of cooler areas than the Bordeaux varieties.

‘I would love to come to the UK with a dozen New Zealand reds’, says Smith, anxious to tell the world of what is going on here. But he hasn’t always been such a fan. ‘I’ve had to be convinced by New Zealand reds’, he admits, ‘Ten years ago there were some good wines and a hint of greatness from a few. Five years ago I began to take more notice. Then all of a sudden there was a hint balance and beauty in the wines. From 2003–2006 there was the most remarkable improvement in quality of any wine style in the world.’ The Craggy Bordeaux blends, Syrahs and Pinot Noirs are superbly good, although I wouldn't want to see them drift any further along the ripeness spectrum, perhaps losing their definition and freshness.

There is one grape variety where Craggy have come in for some criticism, and that’s with their Sauvignon Blanc. ‘In big tastings the Craggys hardly ever get medals’, says Smith. ‘They have textural components and are not so enamouring on the nose, and the textural component is the thing that gets overlooked when people are assessing wines.’ He’s frustrated that just one style of Sauvignon gets all the attention. ‘Many gatekeepers show a preference for a single style of Sauvignon Blanc, which is not a true reflection of what New Zealand can do’. This style is the intensely ripe style, with lots of passion fruit and gooseberry. ‘New Zealand is not a simple place’, says Steve. ‘It’s the world’s youngest place and you never know what to expect around the corner. So why do we have a monotone of Sauvignon Blanc style?’ He thinks there are at least three other legitimate Sauvignon Blanc styles: the fine nettly version, the beautiful lime and flowers style with minerality, and the softer talcum powder textured style.

Smith tells me of an innovation in the Gimblett Gravel vineyard that he’s particularly pleased by. He’s been thinking about the gravelly soils in Bordeaux, and the way they aren’t uniform in colour, with darker shades that warm up the soil, and then some quartz like elements that reflect light back up into the canopy. ‘Dark heat and reflective light is a special quality of Bordeaux soils’, he says. The Gimblett soils (above) are all grey and don’t reflect much, although they do warm up nicely. The benefit of reflecting light into the canopy is that it aids phenolic ripening, so that the grapes are fully ripe at lower potential alcohol levels. For this reason Smith considered using artificial reflective cloth under the vines, but this has the potential to cool the soils down and is also a rather artificial way to maintain the environment. So instead he adopted an idea that he’d seen used by Tim Finn at Neudorf, who used mussel shells as a white mulch over a Pinot Noir vineyard. Smith obtained oyster shells, a waste product from an oyster farm, and crushed them before applying them to the vineyard, to cover half the surface area. The reflected light had an impact on the wines, and in particular in making the tannins more velvety. The shells are also full of calcium, which should help balance the potassium in the soil which is released by irrigation. This project has now been extended to cover 8 hectares.

We turn to more general issues concerning the New Zealand wine industry as a whole. One concern about viticulture in New Zealand is how long the vines will last. ‘The biggest issue is leaf roll virus, which is a major problem in our vineyards,’ says Smith. ‘As Sauvignon Blanc vines hit 15 years old (when you get serious texture in the wines) it’s starting to affect them.’ This virus remains latent for 5–10 years, and is spread by a sap-sucking insect called the mealy bug. In recent years mealy bugs have spread as far south as Hawkes Bay. The ants prevalent in stony soils and these ants farm the mealy bugs, feeding on the honey dew they secrete.

‘As a country, New Zealand should be viewed as the boutique farmers of the world, because of our size and remoteness.’ Smith adds that a cornerstone of winegrowing in New Zealand is sustainablility, because ‘we need to be good custodians of the land’. He cites four management KPIs for New Zealand growers:

(1) Nil residue wines (this is most important for people interested in organics); (2) improving soil health by not using residual herbicides (interestingly, he says he’s heard that it’s possible for mycorrhizae to absorb glyphosate and pass this on to the plant); (3) reduced hydrocarbon use; and (4) better wine.

‘New Zealand realistically could be the first carbon neutral wine industry in the world’, claims Smith. ‘There are smart ways that carbon dioxide production can be offset. It should be done because it is right for us: it allows us to have a better business.’ He also thinks that the definition of ‘sustainable’ could be improved. ‘To be audited sustainable there are things that you cannot do, but there is no difference between those who score low and high on the scale’, says Smith. He suggests that way forward might be to have, for example, ‘pure silver’ and ‘pure gold’ levels of accreditation for wineries that have journeyed further on the road of sustainability. 

Finally, Smith lists three things that New Zealand can own.

(1)  It can be the best producer of aromatic white varieties in the New World, and here he includes Sauvignon Blanc with the likes of Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer.

(2)  It can be the best New World Pinot Noir producer.

(3)  It can be the only home of rich yet finely tuned red wines.

It’s a brave vision, but when you see what producers like Craggy Range are achieving, such a vision looks even probable.    

To come: Tasting notes of Craggy Range's wines

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