August 1st saw The WineSellar & Brasserie in San Diego holding a New Zealand Winemaker Dinner hosted by Steve Smith, M.W. (Master of Wine), Wine & Viticulture Director of Craggy Range Winery. I was interested in attending this gathering for several reasons. First, we see very little in the way of New Zealand wine in the USA, unless its Sauvignon Blanc. Second, with a trip planned for December of this year I’ve been cramming on New Zealand wine knowledge and with Steve Smith, MW as the host the evening seemed like it might yield a few gems of knowledge about the kiwi wine scene.
The Craggy Range Winery makes some 30 different wines, with the duties being split between three winemakers. The wines are primarily single varietal, single vineyard bottlings made from grapes grown on the company's own vineyards in the winegrowing districts of Hawkes Bay and Marlborough. Craggy Range is an investment of the Peabody family, originally from North America but residents of Australia for many years. Steve Smith, MW is both shareholder and General Manager. Craggy Range Winery is a very recent addition to the burgeoning New Zealand wine industry. Land was first purchased in 1998, and the first wines were made in the 1999 vintage from small parcels of mature vineyards in Marlborough and Hawkes Bay regions.
2005 Craggy Range Sauvignon Blanc, Te Muna Road Vineyard (13.1% alcohol)
Miranda and I arrived a little too late to take advantage of the nibbles served during the reception, but we did get a glass of the 2005 Te Muna Road Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc to sip as we wandered among the aisles of cases of wine that dominant the floor space of The WineSellar. The wine was making such a favorable impression as we were ushered upstairs to the Brasserie that we kept a tight grasp on our glasses, meaning that we had all the more to taste over our first course.
1st: Heirloom Tomato salad with Buffalo Mozzarella , creamy citrus vinaigrette
2005 Craggy Range Sauvignon Blanc, Te Muna Road Vineyard (13.1% alcohol)
Part of the Varietals Collection, the Te Muna Vineyard is in the Martinborough region, at the southern end of the North Island. Straw gold in color, this is a very attractively scented Sauvignon Blanc with obvious notes of pineapple, guava, and citrus. The palate is dominated by excellent, bright, crisp acidity and impeccable balance that leads to a bone dry, lengthy finish. One of the best Sauvignon Blancs I’ve had. 2, 2, 4.1, 10.1 = 18.2/20, 91/100.
I’m not a big fan of acidic, dry wines with the acidity of tomatoes and the sharpness of vinaigrette, and this first course was no exception. Pity, this wine deserved something a little less overpowering.
2nd: (Lightly) Pepper crusted line caught Ahi, seared rare, veal reduction with crushed cherries, parsnip puree
2004 Craggy Range Pinot, Te Muna Road Vineyard (14% alcohol)
Another in the Varietals Collections, the 2004 Te Muna Road Vineyard Pinot Noir was fermented in 50% new French oak barriques using a 100% spontaneous natural ferment (i.e. indigenous yeast). Light cherry in color with a faint orange/brown tinge to its edge it boasts concentrated pure Pinot spicey richness. The palate has prominent juicy acidity, silky tannins and excellent carry of flavors; the acidity perhaps little too aggressive at present. Still, it’s a nice wine that could do with a few years in the cellar. 2, 2, 4.2, 9.6 = 17.8/20, 89/100.
The Ahi was a much better pairing with the Pinot. The rare, oily flesh was just what the acidity of this Pinot needs at this stage of its life.
3rd: New Zealand lamb rack, red wine reduction, lightly herbed, sweet garlic mashed, mushroom, glazed turnips and Swiss chard
2002 Sophia, Craggy Range, Gimblett Gravels (14% alcohol)
Part of the Prestige Collection the 2002 Sophia is a blend of 63% Merlot, 27% Cabernet Franc,
5% Malbec and 5% Cabernet Sauvignon. The wine is a dense cherry red with a red edge, and is rich and concentrated with earthy aromas backed up by flavors of smoke and tar that developed into fruitcake with some air. Even though the entry onto the palate is soft, this is not a shy wine, its full bodied and mouth filling, with prominent mouth drying tannins. The structural foundation is solid, so give it at least five years in a cool dark place and it should be a beauty. 2, 2, 4.1, 10.3 = 18.4/20, 92/100.
I’ll eat rack of lamb with anything, but I never eat it this rare. Still this was what the Sophia was made for, all that blood and iron! But it really is still too young to be truly food friendly.
Finale: Valrhona chocolate Dessert Duo of flourless chocolate cake and bittersweet chocolate terrine, blueberry coulis and a rumor of crème anglaise
2002 Le Sol, Craggy Range, Gimblett Gravels (15.4% alcohol)
The Le Sol is another member of the Prestige Collection. Its 100% Syrah that sees new and seasoned French oak barriques, without racking. Densely colored it is made from 50% dimpled (i.e. late harvest) fruit. And unfortunately this shows in the intensely flavored bitumen, medicinal, and stewed fruit notes that override a faint aroma of mint. The palate is equally aggressive in its flavor profile, although the feel of the wine is pleasing and nicely balanced with bright acidity and firm tannins. I was expecting much more from this wine. 2, 2, 4.0, 10.0 = 18.0/20, 90/100.
Pairing the Le Sol with dessert was not a great idea, and the suggestion of Steve Smith to sip a little of the wine with the lamb was a much better suggestion. But again the Le Sol needs time to overcome its aggressive youth.
During his discussion on the wines Steve Smith noted that the reason for the inclusion of late harvested grapes in the Le Sol was due to a difference of opinion between himself and a younger winemaker. Unfortunately the younger man has since passed away and, as he had argued for the inclusion of the dimpled fruit, the wine will continue to be made in this style in his memory. While one can understand the emotional ties that bonded these individuals as people as well as winemakers, one must ask whether it is really sound judgment to restrict the winemaking in this way when the history of the wine is so young – only two vintages have been released to my knowledge.
Its also the youth of Craggy Range wines that raises another question. As Miranda and I sat over our food and wines I wondered what the future would hold for Craggy Range. They seemed to be doing the right thing in terms of promotion, sending their top winemaker and GM to spread the word to the biggest market in the world for fine wines. But what chance do these wines have to compete? Part of the answer was down stairs in The WineSellar. People were certainly buying the wine, a case of the Pinot went out the door as we made our way downstairs, and there were only two bottles of the Sophia left in the box that had been full when we arrived. I picked one up, $52.99USD, the Le Sol was $60.99USD. At those prices there is not a lot of value in either of those wines, especially give the lack of a track record. I had picked up a bottle of the Pinot previously for $33.99USD, that’s reasonable for Pinot, but not this pinot. I’ve seen the Sauvignon Blanc for around $20USD, which is expensive for New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.
At present the USA is awash in wine that sells for much less than the Craggy Range wines. Bringing wines into this market from overseas is currently fraught with problems, especially at the higher end of the market. Ric Einstein of TORBWine.com has recently discussed the problems facing Australian wines. The situation with New Zealand is likely to be worse, given the lack of exposure in the USA market. In addition, Bordeaux blends are common from the Napa Valley and elsewhere, excellent quality Syrah can be found by the dozens for much less that $60, Pinot is everywhere for $30. Plus excellent New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc sell for less than $20; although that Te Muna SB was tasty! I’m hoping that when we visit New Zealand in December I’ll find that the other Craggy Range wines are of the same quality. Whether I’ll find wines that are better value is a different question.