The speed of change in New Zealand never fails to amaze me. These days Craggy Range is generally considered to be one of the leading producers of Hawke’s Bay and the sub-region of Gimblett Gravels, yet its first vintage was only in 1997.
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Smith was in London recently to substantiate his claim, which he did quite effectively. He explained that 2013 had enjoyed low cropping levels, as a repercussion of the cool 2012 vintage. A naturally low crop produces much better results than a similar crop level achieved with a green harvest. And the weather was just right, with warm but not excessively hot weather in the critical weeks after flowering, followed by a cooler period that helped retain the aromatics in the grapes. “The stars aligned!” he said.
Age of vines influence vintage quality
Another factor in the quality of the vintage is the age of the vines. Older vines give a much better expression of place. Craggy Range has Riesling vines that are 28 years old and Sauvignon vines that are 20 years old, which give quite different results than younger vines. Older vines also need less management, and they produce lower alcohol levels. This is something that is not yet fully understood but Craggy Range has observed that the grapes are ripe at a lower alcohol level, which translates into more elegant wine in the glass.
To illustrate his point, Smith started the tasting with Riesling from the Te Muna Road vineyard in Martinborough. This comes from a 2-hectare vineyard on old rocky soil, with a volcanic influence. In the past, New Zealand has planted German clones, but it now has access to Riesling clones from Alsace, which are giving even better results.
The Sauvignon, too, comes from Martinborough, and for a New Zealand Sauvignon was nicely understated, with mineral characters, firm fruit and a restrained finish.
The final white wine was a Chardonnay from Kidnapper’s Bay in Hawke’s Bay. Smith observed that if you put Chardonnay in a dramatic vineyard, it takes on the character of the place. He didn’t want this Chardonnay to be overtly fruity, but was looking for a sense of the ocean, a Chablis style. To this end he uses large oak barrels and indigenous yeast, and the wine certainly exhibited some of the oyster-shell character that you can find in good Chablis.
Next up were barrel samples, components of Craggy Range’s flagship Bordeaux blend from Gimblett Gravels. Gimblett Gravels is an 800-hectare plot of stony, gravelly soil from a riverbed that changed its course about 150 years ago. At a time when the value of agricultural land was measured by the number of sheep you could graze on it, Gimblett Gravels was deemed pretty worthless. But pioneers Alan Limner from Stonecroft and Chris Pask from C. J. Pask saw its potential for exceptional vineyard land, and planted the first crop in 1999. The drainage is excellent, which is an asset after heavy rainfall, but as Smith observed, getting enough water is the greatest challenge. The area enjoys a certain amount of humidity, thanks to the oceanic influence, and it is rare to get seriously warm days.
The various grape varieties showed their characteristics. The Merlot was rich and fleshy, with plummy fruit. The Cabernet Sauvignon was more restrained. Cabernet Franc was fresher, and Smith observed that there was a lot of clonal variation on Cabernet Franc. His Cabernet Sauvignon came from cuttings from Kim Goldwater’s estate on Waiheke Island. Petit Verdot, which accounts for 2% of the final blend, is “tricky to manage”: “It’s the oddest grape variety I have ever grown and it can look like a wild scientist!” This vat sample was rich and powerful, with acidity and tannin.
We finished with a sample of Sophia, a projected blend of the different components. Each variety would be matured separately until October, before blending and finally taken out of wood just before Christmas and bottled in February 2015. The proposed blend was rich and intense with blackcurrant fruit and some spicy oak and, despite its youth, was beautifully balanced, harmonious and complete. There was no doubt that it was more than the sum of the preceding parts, adding up to what might indeed be the vintage of a generation.
Main photo: Craggy Range’s Gimblett Gravels vineyard. Courtesy of Craggy Range