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Craggy Range (from "The Juice")

Tuesday, 31st July 2012 by Jay McInerney

New Zealand is still best known for Sauvignon Blanc, but I predict we will be hearing more and more about Kiwi reds in the near future. New Zealand pinots, particularly those from the far south Otago region, are starting to attract international attention.

Craggy Range, founded in 1997 by Terry Peabody, makes excellent examples of both; for years now their Te Muna Road Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc has been my favorite Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc. While they are based in Hawkes Bay on the Southern edge of the north island, the Craggy Range team has scoured both islands to find ideal vineyard sites for varietals we don’t normally associate with New Zealand, including Syrah, cabernet franc and merlot.

Winemaker Steve Smith, a founding partner in the venture, recently visited New York and shook up my perceptions with some blind tasting over a dinner at Jean Georges, the flagship of Jean George Vongericthten’s international empire.

Steve Smith MW, Director of Wine and Viticulture

I’ve known the towering and gregarious Smith for years and he has pretty much single-handedly convinced me that New Zealand is capable of producing superb red wines. The other night was the clincher, when he mixed his own wines in with some of the best from America, Australia and France. What was most surprising to me was that while I was usually able to identify the American and Aussie wines as New World and the French wines as Old World, I sometimes mistook the Craggy Range wines for their French counterparts.

We warmed up with the 09 Te Muna Sauvignon, as usual more restrained and nuanced than the typical Marlborough SB, then moved on to a flight of pinots. I wasn’t sure if the 08 Craggy Range Te Muna Pinot was New or Old World but I really liked it, much more so, at that moment, then I liked what turned out to be the ’06 Armand Rousseau Gevrey Chambertin Lavaux St. Jacques, which was very lean and austere, and at $170, very expensive. (Granted, it takes time for burgundy to come around.)

If I’d been told which wines were in the lineup I would have guessed that the ‘06 Au Bon Climat Isabel was the Rousseau. Craggy Range’s top bottling, the ‘06 Aroha, was still young and closed up, but unlike the Rousseau it had masses of fruit in reserve.

Smith is a firm believer that certain terroirs in New Zealand are ideal for Bordeaux varietals, with which he has been fascinated since he backpacked through Bordeaux in ’91. The experience of tasting 90 Latour out of the barrel was more less his road to Damascus moment.

Craggy Range’s Gimblett Gravels vineyard in the Hawkes Bay

The next flight pitted his ‘07 Sophia, a blend merlot and cab franc, from the right bank (sound familiar?) of the Ngaruroro River against the ’07 Vieux Chateau Certan, from the right bank of the Gironde, and the ‘06 Duckhorn “Three Palms” Merlot. Not surprisingly, the Duckhorn, one of the best California merlots, was the most open and opulent, being all merlot and having an extra year of age. The Sophia was much more restrained, but powerful and approachable, and I couldn’t make up my mind whether it was old or new world, whereas the Vieux Chateau Certan, which was wound up tighter than the inside of a golf ball, was definitely old world.

The last flight, of Syrah/Shiraz presented a real challenge; all the wines were superb, but it was tough to make the New/Old world calls, in part because the Rhone representative, the 2007 Chave Hermitage, came from a hot vintage and was uncharacteristically forward in style. The 2006 Torbreck Run Rig is a New World classic, much more balanced and refined than the big jam bombs; one of Australia’s greatest Shiraz’s.

Inside the state of the art Gimblett Gravels winery

Suffice it to say that 2007 Craggy Range, Le Sol Syrah was very much at home in this company, and it was tough to pick a winner. The Torbreck and the Chave both sell in the $200 range while the Craggy Range is $70. Steve Smith may have his work cut out selling a $70 New Zealand syrah in this market. But people would have said the same about a Barossa Shiraz twenty years ago. If you have your doubts, start with the Te Muna Sauvignon Blanc, an absolute steal at around $17.

The above excerpt from "The Juice" is reproduced here by kind permission of the author, Jay McInerney.


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