Gimblett Gravels Estate (c)Craggy Range

Wine: Craggy’s Crackin’ 2011 Prestige Collection

It’s a tad bit later than when I ought to be writing this – Craggy Range’s Prestige Collection launch for 2011 was officially in June this year. However, there is no time like the present and indeed I believe just-launched wines of this sort do benefit from even a tiny bit more time in bottle to display their potential brilliance.

There is little doubt that Craggy Range is one of New Zealand’s most successful and well-known prestige wineries domestically and internationally, commanding premium prices for its flagship range. Craggy produces wine all over the country – Hawkes Bay is no doubt its HQ which houses both its awe-inspiring Giant Winery at the foot of Te Mata Peak and its comparatively industrial but incredibly functional Gimblett Gravels Winery in the heart of the Gravels. This is where the predominance of the company’s production comes from – Bordeaux varieties, Syrah and Chardonnay rule the roost here. For Pinot Noir Craggy ventures into the wine country of Martinborough and Central Otago, while Marlborough of course is home to its premium Sauvignon Blanc. It’s obvious they follow a regime of selecting the varieties that perform the best in each region and make premium quality wines from them. The Prestige Collection is reserved for Craggy’s Bordeaux blends, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Syrah.

Steve Smith MW (c)Craggy RangeWord on the street in Hawkes Bay was that 2011 was a ‘challenging’ vintage – this typically means it was both stressful and mentally exhausting. ‘Challenging’ means only those producers and wineries that are on to it will produce decent drops and Craggy was evidently prepared. The infamous La Nina weather pattern emerged “almost on cue,” as Founding Director Steve Smith MW (right, ©CraggyRange) explains. This pattern is typified in New Zealand by warm and rainy weather which can spell potential disaster for vineyards and winery staff that are not primed for such conditions. Steve compares the 2011 vintage to 2006 and notes they are quite similar, though 2011 was much more successful due to vine age, and the individuals at hand who bore more wisdom and experience to get the grapes in in great condition.

Of the 2011 Prestige Collection, I was most impressed with the Les Beaux Cailloux Chardonnay and the ‘Aroha’ Pinot Noir from Te Muna Road in Martinborough. What follows are my thoughts on the 2011 Collection.

Sadly it will be the last vintage of Craggy’s stellar Les Beaux Cailloux Chardonnay ($62.95). This is because the vines were uprooted post-2011 due to the effects of debilitating virus in the vineyard. Based on tasting this I certainly advise buying up a case or two of this iconic wine. Translated the name means ‘the beautiful pebbles’, playing homage to the stony Gimblett Gravels area in which the vines were planted. Craggy will be planting more Chardonnay vines in coming years, though it will take some time before they emanate the complex, multi-clonal Gimblett Gravels vineyard.

The 2011 LBC was 100% hand harvested and whole bunch pressed, spending 10 months in French oak barriques, 42% of which were new. The result is a wonderfully elegant Chardonnay with plenty of toasty complexity while primary fruit characters of white peach and lemon citrus are lifted from the glass alongside a delicate apple blossom note. The acidity ensures the wine remains fresh, keeping the judicious use of oak in balance. It’s one that will definitely age well. 13.4% abv. 93 points.

Flicking down the road to Martinborough, the vintage here in 2011 was also warm with not an unusual amount of rain but uncommonly high humidity. This encouraged ripe flavour development and a consequential whirlwind harvest – Pinot was hand-picked on the 1st April with good crops that had concentrated flavours.

The Aroha Pinot Noir ($99.95) symbolises the first vintage of the future for Craggy Range’s “grand vin” Pinot. This wine has been made since 2006 but past renditions have focused on the big, rich, dark characters often thought typical of the New World. A lot of Pinot made in this style uses high toast oak which regrettably fails when it comes to ageability – they end up just being non-descript red wine. Craggy’s stylistic change has seen an exciting movement toward a more ethereal, elegant Pinot that actually smells and tastes like Pinot should. This direction should be one that is embraced and supported by all New Zealand Pinot fans.

To achieve this specifically, Craggy have used high proportions of whole bunch fermentation (a practice common in Burgundy) in the best parcels of Pinot. Following 2010 the Craggy team began looking in detail at the differences in their Pinot Noir parcels growing at the Te Muna vineyard in Martinborough and discovered two consistently high performing ones. ‘Block 19’ produced complex savoury and sometimes sinewy fruit that could be described as quite masculine. This was primarily due to the Abel clone in this block. Their ‘Block 16’ comprised a selection of clones which produced lifted, aromatic wines that were fragrant and reminiscent of an earthy geosmin note. It is these two parcels that have whole bunch fermentation, which bring the total percentage in the wine up to 40%. The Pinot then had 10 months maturation in French oak barriques (35% new) and was coarsely filtered and not fined.

This is my kind of Pinot – a serious yet perfumed nose greets the airspace in and above the glass. There are notes of red plum and cherry, while violet florals intersperse with an attractive resinous stem note. I can see this will develop into a seriously sexy savoury note with time – think Vegemite, mushrooms and forest-floor undergrowth. The palate has a flush of beautiful fruit sweetness which is backed by fine-grained, elegant tannins. It is a true pleasure to drink, and has a balanced core of alcohol (13.7% abv) and acidity (5 g/l TA, pH 3.76). 95 points.

Moving back to the Hawkes Bay, Craggy’s iconic ‘Le Sol’ Syrah ($99.95), from the Gimblett Gravels from 2011 has real potential. The aromatics comprise dusty pencil shavings, graphite, blackberry and a hint of freshly cracked black pepper. I would like to see some whole bunch fermentation in the Le Sol (as in the Northern Rhone) now that Craggy have made the foray into this under-appreciated technique with Pinot Noir. It does wonders for aromatics in both these varieties, and if used correctly adds magic to aromatic profiles especially with age. Craggy’s Le Sol spends 18 months maturing, with 35% in new French barriques. 90 points.

The Quarry ($72.95) is one of Craggy Range’s classic Bordeaux blends, comprised of Cabernet Sauvignon (95%), Merlot (4%), and Cabernet Franc (1%). Low yields typify this vineyard whose namesake is due to a small group of local vignerons who saved it from becoming a gravel quarry. The wine is always predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon and this year is no exception. 100% hand harvested and destemmed fruit was matured for 19 months (50% new French oak). The wine I tasted seemed quite closed though this could be due to its youth, or frustratingly, cork. Cabernet tannins are definitely evident though they are nice, firm and fine-grained. The alcohol is very balanced – a low-ish 12.7% abv, like Claret used to be!

The inverse Bordeaux blend, Sophia ($72.95), is Craggy’s answer to the Right Bank – Merlot (60%), Cabernet Sauvignon (24%), Cabernet Franc (14%), and Petit Verdot (2%) are from a single vineyard on the (coincidentally enough) right bank of the Ngaruroro River in the Gimblett Gravels. This is more full-bodied than The Quarry I tasted, with gorgeous spice and Merlot fruit – plum, red berries, and cassis – on the nose. There is a touch of cocoa and firm, well-structured tannins which signify it will go a long way in bottle. 37% new French oak barriques were used, and again the fruit was hand harvested and 100% destemmed. A good alcohol level of 13.3% and clean acid backbone delivers a balanced, satisfying palate experience. 89 points.

The 2011 Prestige Collection is a first-rate effort considering the demanding vintage conditions experienced in the Bay. There are some exciting stylistic changes in the air at Craggy and I await with begrudging patience for the next Prestige Collection. I may be waiting a while however, particularly for the wines of Gimblett Gravels as the vineyards failed to bear a high enough standard of fruit in 2012. It’s not all bad news however, as the lower tier Craggy wines will have benefited from these flagship vineyards. These premium New Zealand wines would give any wine lover an ecstatic surprise for Christmas.

CR Prestige Collection