Craggy Range made history this month by being the first New Zealand winery ever to be sold on the historic La Place de Bordeaux. This honour should come as no surprise, argues Robert Mason who shows how, in the 25 years since land was bought for the estate in Hawke’s Bay, Craggy Range has become an iconic New Zealand winery which has never lost sight of its sense of place or its family ties. Meeting up with head winemaker Julian Grounds, Mason gets an invaluable insight into the workings of the winery as well as gets to taste the new vintages of ‘Le Beaux Cailloux’ Chardonnay, ‘Aroha’ Pinot Noir, Le Sol Syrah and the Bordeaux blend Sophia.
“Vicariously through a combination of charitable foundations and a move to full organic viticulture, Craggy Range is taking a commendable lead towards a better future through best practice,” writes Robert Mason.
Great wines are the product of great terroirs, great know-how and great ambition. Craggy Range is no exception to this rule. From the iconic Gimblett Gravels of Hawkes Bay to the idyllic terraced vineyards of Te Muna Road in Martinborough, their well-crafted vineyards are located on exceptional sites which were hand-selected by, arguably, New Zealand’s finest Master of Wine Steve Smith with visionary founder and successful Australian businessman, Terry Peabody.
Following in the footsteps of fellow pioneering interloper and renowned godfather of North Island viticulture Romeo Bragato just 120 years ago, Peabody’s cutting-edge legacy will be forever marked on the Hawkes Bay landscape – he established a 1000-year trust, meaning that Craggy Range can never be sold. And, just as Bragato made significant leaps in viticulture, Craggy Range and head winemaker Julian Grounds are at the forefront of New Zealand’s wine evolution – dividing singular parcels to showcase each prestigious plot and leading to an “uncompromising approach to quality”*.
This resolute attitude has served Craggy Range well over the 25 years since it purchased land in 1997: the winery has been ranked in the top four of the ‘Top Wineries of New Zealand’ every year since the accolade was conceived; and most recently has been listed as the first New Zealand winery on the historic La Place de Bordeaux this very month.
The humble juxtaposition of top London gastropub The Red Lion & Sun in Highgate village provided the perfect location to taste these premium yet pious expressions of New Zealand’s finest.
The organic growth of Craggy Range
Lunch was an intimate and relaxed affair with true antipodean pacing. Julian Grounds talked of his own 150 year-old sourdough starter, homemade pasta and making kombucha whilst our little group assembled. It could be hard to see where he finds the time to make the wine.
Grounds’ pedigree of crafting outstanding wines was immediately evident in the first of the four bottles on the table. After training in Pouilly-Fuissé, Oregon and Margaret River, his credentials were destined to set him as head winemaker of Craggy Range nearly four years ago.
The single block, limited release ‘Le Beaux Cailloux’ Chardonnay 2020 is back on the UK market after over a 10-year absence due to the hazardous leafroll vine virus. Although only 130 cases have been made, with less than 30 bottles currently available for UK buyers, the £75 retail price still represents a bargain.
This single finite plot is home to perhaps one of the most unique soil types for Chardonnay production, situated as it is in the heart of the Gimblett Gravels G.I. on terroir more suited to France’s Southern Rhône varietals. Galets of large round pebbles smoothed by an ancient river retain the moderate daytime heat to ideally ripen the Chardonnay, making rounded wines with a minimal amount of intervention needed. Made with spontaneous wild ferment from a single Burgundy clone, the wine’s deft use of oak is evident on the palate.
Le Beaux Cailloux (aka beautiful stones) is pure, elegant and timeless. Aromas of reductive gunflint, nutty richness and crisp stone fruit blend sumptuously with very well integrated French oak. Aged for nine months in oak (30% new) and finished for three months in stainless steel to retain freshness, it is a wonderfully balanced and coherent wine for one so young. A bright, indulgent wine perfect for Jersey rock oysters.
A quick departure from the Gimblett Gravels took us to the Martinborough holdings at Te Muna Road for the ‘Aroha’ Pinot Noir to accompany the beautiful Basque-style baked Dorset crab and the fresh burrata with heritage tomatoes. It is clear to see this Pinot has been made with love, with a firm nod to the Côte d’Or and a foot rooted in Kiwi precision. Just six parcels have been selected from 35 hectares, with some situated on clay to bring an added dimension of brooding graphite and bitter dark chocolate. The Aroha is intense with concentrated wild berry fruits delicately balanced by refreshing acidity and a fine tannin structure. Classic, pure Martinborough Pinot Noir.
In a brief hiatus between courses, conversation turned towards more sobering topics. Part of Terry Peabody’s on-going legacy, is the promise of a one-thousand-year trust to ensure the land and winery cannot be sold and is there to protect the surrounding communities. A noble ethos of a sustainable and meaningful commitment to the land and livelihood of all those that benefit from the eco-system. Vicariously through a combination of charitable foundations and a move to full organic viticulture, Craggy Range is taking a commendable lead towards a better future through best practice.
Effortlessly returning to the Gimblett Gravels with a main dish of Tuscan vegetable ragù complementing the third wine perfectly. With its subtle rich undertones the iconic Le Sol Syrah can be considered unique in the Syrah spectrum. Quite unlike expressions from the Rhône, California, Australia or South Africa, this wine shows elegance, class and restraint. At just 13.5% abv and balanced extraction, it glides seamlessly over the palate with precision.
Evidence of the iconic reputation of this wine can be seen with the two Place de Bordeaux négociants requesting a repeat order of Craggy Range wines already. Nuanced floral tones, graphite, black pepper and silky ripe red fruit complement a beautiful backbone of minerality. Maybe it was the oysters repeating but I swear there was almost a hint of oyster shell on the nose!
As digestifs go, finishing with a Right Bank Bordeaux blend is uncouth yet uncompromisingly good. The ‘Sophia’ 2020 Merlot/Cabernet Franc/Cabernet Sauvignon blend is the jewel in the Craggy crown. The Sophia is made in a separate 50-ton winery of its own and each variety can be vinified separately. The 2020 comprises 62% Merlot, 26% Cabernet Franc and 12% Cabernet Sauvignon, left for 30 days on skins and aged for 17 months in French oak (40% new). To compare this wine to a St. Emilion or a Pomerol would be inappropriate. The finesse and precision is incredible: complex floral, hedgerow and mulberry fruits mingle harmoniously with plush, velvety tannins, cleansing acidity and a very well integrated 14% alcohol. A masterpiece.
What awaits the next 975 years?
Aside from planting experimental bush vine Syrah, using concrete amphora-shaped vessels and crimping weeds with biodiverse cover-crops, the future is focused. Precision and the uncompromising quality in crafting excellent wines with an identity and sense of place is something Terry, Julian and, indeed even, Romeo would rightly be proud of. The future is in safe hands.
*Bob Campbell MW
- The wines of Craggy Range are imported and sold in the UK by Bibendum, which is a supplier partner of The Buyer. To discover more about them click here.