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Looking Beyond Sauvignon Blanc in New Zealand

Craggy Range, the country's best all-around producer, is broadening the field with Riesling, Syrah and Merlot-based blends

Daniel Sogg
Posted: July 25, 2007

It's fair to say that New Zealand has evolved into a two-trick pony. Whereas once it was all about Sauvignon Blanc, the emergence of Pinot Noir has expanded the country's repertoire. And while there are occasional other highlights, mostly with Chardonnay, winemakers in this South Pacific nation do not often excel with other grapes.

So I was intrigued when Steve Smith, the managing director at Craggy Range winery, came by the Wine Spectator San Francisco office in June. The surprise was that he brought bottles of Riesling, Syrah and Merlot-based blends, varieties with which New Zealand hasn't had big successes in the U.S. market. Smith has experience in South Africa, France and California, so he gets the big picture. I think that global perspective is one reason Craggy Range is clearly the best all-around producer in New Zealand today; no one else makes such a diverse array of outstanding wines. It piqued my curiosity that Smith played away from the winery's strength, which has in recent vintages been Pinot Noir.

 
Craggy Range's Steve Smith MW is showing New Zealand's potential with several wine varieties.
Smith brought three Rieslings from three regions: Waipara, on the eastern coast of the South Island; Marlborough, on the northeastern tip of the South Island; and Martinborough, at the southern tip of the North Island. Riesling, a variety that I love, has been a problem child in New Zealand. Although it's relatively popular (of white grapes, only Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris, respectively, account for more acreage), vintners have struggled to achieve outstanding concentration, and rough-edged acidity often hasn't harmonized with the fruit.

Inexperience is part of the problem. As of this year, New Zealand has 2,100 acres of producing Riesling vineyards, almost a three-fold increase since 1996. Smith also acknowledges that Riesling hasn't been lavished with the attention devoted to higher-profile and more profitable varieties, such as Pinot Noir. But he hopes that by focusing on single-vineyard grape sources, Craggy Range can hone its viticultural and winemaking techniques.

The Waipara Glasnevin Gravels Vineyard 2006 is off-dry (with 10 percent alcohol) and shows peach, lime and stone flavors, reminiscent of a drier style Mosel Riesling. The Marlborough Fletcher Family Vineyard 2006 has pronounced acidity, more alcohol heft and flavors of tart lemon skin and wet stones. The Martinborough Te Muna Road Vineyard 2006 is floral, with heady jasmine scents, a fleshy midpalate and tart lime skin and chalk notes shaping the finish. The wines were good to very good, but not outstanding. Still, the pronounced differences in style suggest opportunity for improvement. (None of these wines, nor any of the following, were tasted blind).

The red wines, from Craggy Range's 222-acre vineyard in Hawkes Bay, were better. The property is in the Gimblett Gravels, an area considered by many New Zealand vintners to be the country's finest site for Bordeaux red grapes and Syrah. Soils in the best vineyards here are stony and well-drained, and the weather is warmer than in Marlborough and Martinborough.

 
The Gimblett Gravels area of Hawkes Bay is the country's best bet for Bordeaux-style reds.
New Zealand Syrah has to date earned a grade of "promising but incomplete." Few wines come to the United States; I've only seen 18 bottles for review in the last 12 months. But in 2004, a cool year with large crops, four producers (all from Hawkes Bay)-Bridge Pa, Craggy Range, Te Mata and Vidal-made outstanding Syrah bottlings.

The two Craggy Range Syrahs offered a contrast in style, as well as a lesson about the impact of different viticultural practices. The Single Vineyard Block 14 Hawkes Bay Gimblett Gravels 2005, which will retail for $40 upon release later this year, was intense and streamlined, with violet, green peppercorn and blueberry flavors wrapped in firm, herb-edged tannins. The Le Sol Gimblett Gravels Hawkes Bay 2005, which will retail for $65, featured riper, richer fruit and outstanding length and intensity. The vineyard blocks used for Le Sol carry less crop (about 3 tons per acre, rather than closer to 4 tons per acre in Block 14). Le Sol grapes also remained on the vine 10 days to two weeks longer, which softened the tannins and increased fruit concentration.

"There's been a massive change [in Hawkes Bay]," said Smith. "Ten years ago there was an enormous number of poor wines and now you start to see the rise of Syrah, which may be our best hope."

Even though Craggy Range has produced some outstanding Bordeaux red blends, these varieties have been mediocre in New Zealand as a broad category. Growers simply have not achieved consistent ripeness. Some of that is due to the cool climate, but there's also a vicious circle at play in developing regions: wines don't command prices that make it financially viable to significantly reduce crops (and maximize ripeness), but vintners won't get the prices until they make better wines.

The best Hawkes Bay vintage to date was 1998, which was unusually warm. But 2005 was also quite warm, as were 2006 and 2007. Smith opened two Merlot blends from 2005 that will be sold in the United States, and both were potentially outstanding. The Te Kahu Gimblett Gravels Hawkes Bay ($30), which contains 79 percent Merlot and 21 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, features suave, stylish tannins and intense black currant flavors accented by savory minerality. The Sophia Gimblett Gravels ($55) contains 62 percent Merlot, 34 percent Cabernet Franc and 4 percent Cabernet Sauvignon. The Merlot for the Sophia comes from especially stony soil, which reduces yields, while the Cabernet Franc is planted in the warmest part of the vineyard to facilitate ripening. It's an impressive effort, with lead pencil and iodine nuances accenting ripe, streamlined fruit and fine-grained tannins.

Over the last few years, I have wondered why Hawkes Bay wineries persist with Bordeaux reds. But the 2005s from Craggy Range show the potential here. Now the question is whether other Hawkes Bay producers can follow suit.

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