Everything about Craggy Range is precision and detail. Their philosophy of single-vineyard wines is an expression of site representation, and this requires great understanding, careful and efficient systems to ensure that each vineyard’s character is captured faithfully in the best and most harmonious way.
Even though I have followed and been enthused with Craggy Range from the very beginning and the first wines from the 2001 vintage, I had never visited the SH50 Gimblett Gravels winery. The winery is not visible from the main road, nor is it open to the public, but I made a request with Michael Henley, Craggy Range’s long-serving marketing manager for a quick visit, which he approved. The day before, I gauged the size of the winemaking complex from the top of Roy’s Hill, but on site, I was awe-struck by the sheer footprint of the buildings and associated concrete padding. The winery’s four main buildings are symmetrically arranged in a rectangle in the middle of the 100 ha site with vineyards. The capacity is a modest 2,000 tonnes, considering the imposing size, but everything is positioned in order and with plenty of room to move and it is clear that work motion and flow has been fully anticipated and designed for. The equipment is obviously high-tech and very modern, and it seems the staff lack for nothing. As can be expected, all the working surfaces are spotlessly clean. It is a winemaker’s dream winery for sure. Craggy Range also has the facilities of the 100 tonne capacity ‘Giants’ winery just out of Havelock North, on the road to Waimarama, where the cellar door and showcase ‘Terroir’ restaurant are located. Few wine operations have a back-up winery!
The 75 ha of vines are tended to the same high standards the winery is kept. At the time of visiting, the canopies were manicured to picture perfection and grape bunches exposed for maximum sunshine and aeration. Fruit had been dropped to enhance full ripening, according to careful formulae. Planting of the Gimblett Gravels site began in 1998 and 1999, and Craggy Range are still working on finding the best varietal fit to the various sub-sites in the vineyard. 60% of the plantings are in Merlot, followed by Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay, Viognier and Petit Verdot, the proportions indicating Craggy Range’s intent in Bordeaux-variety red style production as its focus. Syrah is on the up, and Chardonnay down, the ‘Les Beaux Cailloux’ Chardonnay block vines being removed recently due to virus and this will allow more plantings of the Bordeaux grapes. The ‘LBC’ Chardonnay will need to be made from fruit from a different block to satisfy its followers. I hope it will be from Gimblett Gravels fruit, as the area can produce stunning Chardonnay.
The recent news from Craggy Range is that chief winemaker Rod Easthope has resigned to establish his own winemaking services venture, and that his understudy Matt Stafford is taking his place. I’m privileged to know both these highly talented and articulate men, Rod from his days in Martinborough, and Matt when he first started judging at wine shows. Rod leaves his position after 7 years, but his future role as a consultant to Craggy Range has been contracted. Matt has been with the company 6 years, so the handover is sure to be seamless.
Winemakers Rod and Matt, and their chief Steve Smith took me through a tasting of unreleased wines. They were extraordinarily impressive. First was a trio of 2011 Chardonnays. The ‘Kidnappers’ Chardonnay 2011 is the most pure I’ve seen of this label to date, without any excessive flintiness. This has a touch of the seaside and very fine textures. It’s a beauty. The ‘Gimblett Gravels’ Chardonnay 2011 is another refined wine, fine featured, with riper citrus fruit flavours. A touch of class. The 2011 ‘Les Beaux Cailloux’ Chardonnay is the last from the original Chardonnay plantings, as the vines were grubbed up after this vintage. Much tighter, but with far greater intensity and concentration. The new oak is more noticeable too, but in tune with the richer fruit. This is excellent and will be a collectible for its quality as well as its provenance.
Four Pinot Noirs, also from 2011 were tasted next. The ‘Calvert’ Central Otago Pinot Noir 2011, lighter than other vintages, but with proportioned intensity, sweet fruit and very supple textures and tannins. Quite beautiful. The Martinborough Pinot Noirs were exceptional. The ‘Te Muna Road’ Pinot Noir 2011 has dark, savoury fruits with ripeness, allied to silky textures and smooth tannins. The 20% whole bunch component adds a layer of complexity for sure. Then an experimental 2011 Pinot Noir wine, yet to be named, from ‘Block 16′ in the ‘Te Muna Road’ site. It incorporates a wildly adventurous 100% whole bunch, which results in greater savoury interest and serious structure, with herbal and animal characters that will promote plenty of interest and discussion. The highlight was the ‘Aroha’ ‘Te Muna Road’ Pinot Noir 2011, made from the best parcels of fruit. Somewhat more conventional stylistically, but classical Martinborough with game nuances to the concentrated, fully-ripened fruit, great luscious richness allied to density and significant extract. The 2010 ‘Le Sol’ Syrah will not be shamed by the near-perfect 2009 vintage wine. The 2010 features incredible balance and already harmonious black fruits, liquorice, spices and pepper components, supported by refined, but significant tannins. Don’t miss out on this one.
We then headed off to one of the barrel halls where 2011 vintage reds were sampled. The ‘Gimblett Gravels’ Syrah 2011 is intense and concentrated with plums and spices and a long, dry, firm finish. The ‘Le Sol’ Syrah 2011 shy on bouquet in comparison, but with far greater concentration, intensity and finesse. At present backward and brooding. Matt Stafford then made up an approximation of the ‘Te Kahu’ 2011, as this wine is the clearest representation of the Bordeaux varieties in any given vintage. Ripe and full-flavoured, and with a delicious richness of black fruits, firmed up by fine flowery tannins, this is supple and drinkable now. For those who think 2011 will be a weaker vintage, these wines will change their minds. www.craggyrange.com