The Alchemy of Time and Place

Barreling through Marlborough's Craggy Range  (all photos, courtesy of Craggy Range)

Barreling through Marlborough's Craggy Range  (all photos, courtesy of Craggy Range)

Spend enough time with wine and you learn the value of relativity. A young winery in France has been around only three generations. In the US, a young winery is still in its first generation. In New Zealand, a young winery is just a few years old.

Consider a case in point, Craggy Range. This family-owned winery is one of the iconic properties in New Zealand, a winery revered internationally as much as it is at home. I first encountered Craggy Range when I traveled for a week with Felton Road winemaker Blair Walter and asked him to bring along some wines he admired from another producer to show the dimension of winemaking in New Zealand. He didn’t hesitate a moment, but immediately suggested Craggy Range as an emblematic example of Kiwi winemaking. Craggy Range is iconic, yet was founded less than 20 years ago.

Steve Smith, M.W.

Steve Smith, M.W.

I related this story when I met Steve Smith, a Master of Wine and the wine and viticulture director of Craggy Range. I spent an eye- and palate-opening afternoon with Smith and chief winemaker Matt Stafford a few weeks ago that began with an insight that proved key to the rest of the experience. "The Maori language is the only language I know other than French that has a single word for 'terroir'," Smith said. That word (at least in my transcription) is kaitioke and it means "people and place." To Smith, that illustrates a sense of respect and stewardship to which all winemakers should be sensitive.

Craggy Range was founded in 1997 and is representative of the New Zealand wine industry itself, which Smith describes as having come, "in the space of a generation, from nowhere to somewhere very special." That voyage is the product of a dedicated band of winery pioneers who not only paid attention but paid homage, to the sense of people and place that is so powerful an influence on the Maori culture.

A New World Classic

Smith says he and his co-founders agreed they wanted to create a new classic, and began by asking what that really entails: what makes a classic?

"To my mind, to say something is classic implies three qualities: it has class, of course; it has a pedigree because of heritage, and it is timeless." Smith grins and adds, "Think of Chanel's little black dress and the 1965 Mustang – these have a refinement that is unique. These are classic." And in wine? "No question - Vega Sicilia, Jadot, Latour … these wines come from very specific places and from people that really know their regions. And most importantly for my sense of classic, the wines show their best with time and consideration."

A Question of Time

A classic is timeless.... we have to make wines that evolve, that last. Reds especially have to show beautiful expressions of their youth in maturity.
— Steve Smith, M.W.

This sense of time and consideration is the real crux of what it is to be classic –despite the marketing hype some properties generate, there is no such thing in wine (or anywhere else) as an "instant classic." In New Zealand, says Smith, "We have traditions to honor, and we have to make wines that evolve, that last." He gets a twinkle in his eye, the consummate speaker ready to deliver his punch line: "Reds especially have to show beautiful expressions of their youth in maturity."

Showing youth in maturity is certainly one aspect of timelessness. With that criteria in mind, the team at Craggy Range decided their maximum effort could not be in making sauvignon blanc - that would generate quick revenue (no aging means faster turn around) but not give much in the way of time (though, to be fair, Craggy Range makes two excellent sauvignon blancs - for an overview see the tasting notes on the Wines of New Zealand Master Class). Instead, they opted to go the lengthier route of creating a great red. "We decided red wine had to be a focus if we wanted to be taken seriously around the world. We found a great piece of land in Martinborough where we grow great pinot - it's the center point of the pinot revolution in New Zealand."

While Craggy Range's pinot noirs from Martinborough as well as Central Otago are benchmarks in New Zealand wine, and two of Smith's three examples of classic wines are from Burgundy (and thus, pinot noir), he seems to believe that Craggy Range’s exemplar of classic style will be a Bordeaux blend. Believing that New Zealand has a diversity of terroir to rival that of France (in variety, if not in size), Smith set about looking for the perfect spot where Bordeaux varietals could mature in the country’s generally cool climate.

Gimblett Gravels

Gimblett Gravels Vineyard in Autumn

Gimblett Gravels Vineyard in Autumn

"We found an amazing vineyard in Hawke’s Bay called Gimblett Gravels where everything just falls into place – soil, climate, exposure, it’s all there," says Smith, who claims the site has the best elements of Bordeaux, Western Australia’s Margaret River and California’s Napa Valley (it is, he says, warmer than Carneros and cooler than St. Helena). Perhaps most notably, it has the sort of gravelly soils that suit Bordeaux varietals so well.

Gimblett Gravels is large - about 850 hectares (2,100 acres) of which Craggy Range obtained a prime chunk of 100 hectares. "In the first 10 years a vineyard changes and proves itself - you see if you've got the location right, practically vine by vine," says Smith. "We learned our places over the decade the vineyard was maturing. We also came to our own harmony on what wines we wanted to produce and how we wanted them to come together." Chief winemaker Matt Stafford adds that, "A vintner has options - from any vineyard you can make a lighter wine or a bigger wine. In addition to the place, you have to have a vision then take the time to see the reality. We used clones from Bordeaux and I think we are seeing our vision come to fruition now." 

Now means 2013, a year Smith says is a great vintage. Actually, "It’s the vintage of a generation and I don’t say that lightly – I’ve worked through a generation of vintages and I've never seen one like this." It is the perfect juxtaposition of influences, Smith says. "It is climate to be sure, but also the maturity of the vines. And, it was a year where the grapes gave a naturally moderate crop – this is much better than us doing a green harvest, holding back the yield to increase the intensity of the grapes." Stafford adds, "We didn't want to push ripeness or extraction, we were seeking a wine of balance and restraint."

Balance, Restraint and Complexity

Craggy Range Chief Winemaker Matt Stafford

Craggy Range Chief Winemaker Matt Stafford

"To make a New World classic, we really wanted to use Bordeaux as a template," says Stafford, and that meant being realistic about the demands of New Zealand’s relatively cool climate. For perspective, consider that New Zealand is further south (thus cooler) than South Africa and most growing areas in Chile, Argentina and Australia.

"We've focused on Merlot dominant wines," Stafford says. "In a very warm climate merlot makes a jammy fruit-sweet wine. That is one style, but not our style." In a cooler climate like Hawke’s Bay, merlot that is carefully grown produces a wine of great balance and finesse. "There is good density and softness in the merlot, but we want other elements there as well." That’s where the Bordeaux blend shows its strength. "We can use other varieties to add dimension," he says. "Cabernet sauvignon is the natural partner for merlot – it gives us tannic grip and at Gimblett Gravels we get great varietal purity." They also grow very good cabernet franc, and grow it carefully. "If you let it over ripen, you get a lot of juiciness and (cloying) jamminess but if you grow it right, you get great lift from it. And then there is petite verdot; one always wonders if it will ripen, but it's warm enough that we can get really great juice from this grape." Smith smiles and adds, "We only have four rows of petite verdot, which doesn't seem like much, but I can tell you it would be sorely missed if we didn't have that little bit to include. It adds a savory quality with the tannins that round out this wine beautifully."

By this point in our conversation I was eyeing the wine bottles and thinking, this is a lot like hearing a chef describe a great dish only to be handed a photograph of it. Thankfully Smith and Stafford brought all four varietals with them to illustrate their points, and then offered a fifth glass containing the finished blend. No spoiler alert is required to tell you the blend is phenomenal, but the real revelation is the insight it gives into the alchemy of wine, that mystical harnessing of time and place, of people and spirit, that forges a wine that tastes better than any of its components. 

Tasting the Wine(s)

2013 Craggy Range Gimblett Gravels Merlot Barrel Sample

Deep purple in color with the faintest of oak on the nose. Lovely herbal and blueberry notes on the nose and palate. This merlot is beautiful in its ripe fruit character, without a hint of greenness. Very ripe tannins give it chewiness without grit and bite and the finish is quite long and very balanced. Beautiful.

2013 Craggy Range Cabernet Sauvignon Barrel Sample

Craggy Range Winery

Craggy Range Winery

Deep purple, almost black, in color and very bright. The wine has a lovely cassis note on the nose with cedar and spice with a bit of smokiness from the fruit, not from barrel toast. There is quite a bit of tannin on the palate but it’s so ripe and well balanced it manages to be appealing and avoid astringency. This is really juicy and powerful with good acidity barely held in check by the fruit. The wine practically quivers in the glass.

2013 Craggy Range Gimblett Gravels Cabernet Franc Barrel Sample

Stunning crimson-purple color – this is just gorgeous to look at. On the nose, there is appealingly soft nuances of both stem and fruit in delicate balance. The texture is dazzling on the palate, a stunning wine almost oily in its viscosity. The wine has simply amazing length – this is one of the most appealing cab francs I've ever tasted. Dazzling.

2013 Craggy Range Gimblett Gravels Petite Verdot Barrel Sample

Brooding, inky violet color. In the glass, the wine shows brilliant intensity and depth with a bit of mint and cassis spreading out on the broad palate. It turns just a bit tart and slightly green on the long finish with very soft tannins giving a lush feeling on the close

With these four components (the fifth Bordeaux varietal, malbec, is also planted in Gimblett Gravels but not used in this blend), Stafford and Smith crafted a wine called Sophia, a word meaning wisdom, referring to the wisdom of ages and of tradition. After aging the components separately for a short time, they made their blend (62% Merlot, 19% Cabernet Sauvignon, 18% Cabernet Franc, 1% Petite Verdot) and are now allowing it to age in barrel for about 18 months. (The sample I tried had been in barrel 11 months when it was drawn for the tasting.) This would be an extraordinary wine in any case, but coming from New Zealand, where we have seen very little in the past to prepare us for a Bordeaux blend of such power and finesse, Sophia is simply magical.

2013 Craggy Range Sophia Barrel Sample  (Gimblett Gravels Vineyard, Hawke’s Bay)

Crimson purple with a stunning elevated nose – there are aromatic layers here that truly speak of alchemy, of individual parts transmuted into a shimmering whole. Aromas of soft red and black fruit rise from the glass, and in the mouth, the lush texture is propelled by velvet tannins and expands on the palate with marvelous blueberry, blackberry and violet fruit. There is an appealingly spicy resin note wafting through the background. If this is what 1% petite verdot can accomplish in adding a hint of spice and knitting together such a formidable texture, we have many treats in store in future vintages. The wine manages to be rich without being heavy, sweet and fruity without being cloying and deep without sacrificing charm. I can't wait for this to come on the market.

Barrel Points

Sophia has been made at Craggy Range since 2004 but 2013 is "the vintage of a generation."

Sophia has been made at Craggy Range since 2004 but 2013 is "the vintage of a generation."

After tasting the wines, I asked Smith and Stafford about the geeky details. To their credit, they didn't really want to talk about this, not because it’s a trade secret but because they want to keep the focus on what’s in the glass, not how it got there. And yet….

…Yeah, we wine nuts still love talking about the geeky stuff. So just for the record here are some comments from the Craggy duo that I found particularly interesting:

  • Stafford: The big question for us is how long to leave the wines on the skins. We have temperature control but only to give a slight bump (of warmth) to start fermentation and a bit of cooling to slow fermentation of the end.  We think high temperature extracts too much tannin so we prefer a longer, cooler fermentation to keep the complexity we worked so hard in the vineyard to achieve.
  • Smith: When the fruit comes in from the vineyard, the tannin leaches out very quickly so we have to be careful - we don't want the tannins coming out late and we don't want to extract too much. We work hard to keep a balance.
  • Stafford: We pump over three times a day and while it’s exhausting, the best results are from doing it by hand. We have tried high tech tricks but we like the results much better from manually working the wine in tanks.
  • Stafford: The oak I like to use is from a core group of coopers. Tarranceau is the main one we use. We ask first for fine grain and are only secondarily concerned about what forest the wood comes from. Fine grain gives us aromatic finesse.
  • Smith: We don't want heavy toast - our style is more elegant than that. I prefer older barrels to newer barrels. Oak is a seasoning to us, not a flavor.
  • Stafford: We age with very little sulphur. We think post-malo (malolactic fermentation) bacteria helps with the oxidation and using too much sulphur inhibits that. Temperature control is important to hold back growth of brett (brettanomyces, a type of wild yeast contamination often found in wine) and cleanliness is especially important when you don't use much sulphur.  

Stafford plans to bottle the 2013 Craggy Range Sophia in January, 2015, and to release it for retail sale a few months after that. Of course, one might reasonably ask the point of tasting a wine months before it is available; after all, the 2013 Sophia will change some with more time in barrel and then in bottle. In a sense, the great point of this tasting is not Sophia but the insight it gives into the philosophy of Craggy Range. I came away from my meeting with Steve Smith and Matthew Stafford wanting to go back and taste every wine Craggy Range has on the market – the sauvignon blancs (a more international style than the heavily citrus peel influence one finds in many Kiwi sauvignons), the chardonnay, the bright and addictively herbal pinot noir and other wines. The spirit of these men and of this winery is captivating and infectious. And most of all, inspirational. 

Besides, how can you not love an winery that names its loyalty program “The Deep Purple Club?” Want to know more? Craggy Range has a wonderful website with a wealth of information.