Friday, June 9, 2017


I make no secret of it that I think Craggy Range is one of New Zealand’s best wine producers.  Starting from scratch in the late 1990s, planting vines then making wines, Steve Smith MW was the driving force behind the incredible progress the wines and brand made both domestically and overseas.  The first releases were ‘statement’ wines, about as big and bold as you could make them.  They were almost Californian in showiness.  But they were balanced and tasty, and you knew they would last. 

The production of Craggy Range is geared towards the Merlot-based ‘Sophia’ first and foremost, though there are proponents for ‘Le Sol’ Syrah and maybe ‘Les Beaux Cailloux’ Chardonnay as the best wine.  The latter wine is in a hiatus, as the original vines, affected by virus, were grubbed up.  Make no mistake about it, the majority of the production of the ‘Prestige Collection’ wines is ‘Sophia’.  Remarkably it isn’t as expensive as the other reds in the ‘Collection’.

Nowadays, the style of ‘Sophia’ is much more refined.  It isn’t a little wine by any means, and it is still very serious, very structured, and built to last, while developing great layers of flavours and indeed complexities.  The 2015 has just been released, so I can’t speak to it as I haven’t tasted it.  There’s a bottle in my ‘wait box’ though.  But the 2014 and 2013 were stunningly refined and rich, but in no way showed excesses.  Just how far the style has been adjusted and refined can be seen if one tastes the earlier wines.  It just so happens that I’ve drunk the 2009 and the 2001 recently.
The 2009 Craggy Range ‘Sophia’ ‘Gimblett Gravels Vineyard’ Hawke’s Bay Merlot/Cabernet came from a very warm and dry growing season.  The wines have generally turned out big, black, sweetly ripe and structured.  The wines had brightness and energy, and quite masculine.  The ‘Sophia’, though with a feminine name was exactly that on release.  It was a stunningly gorgeous and decadent wine, with great potential.  On this opening, it was still black-red in colour, near impenetrable, though the purple flush of youth had faded.  On nose and palate, the fruit was rich and sweetly ripe with dark plums, hints of liquorice, maybe a touch of currant and cassis, but in no way showing coolness.  What it did show surprisingly, was style and a sense of restraint.  Not quite refinement, but a composure and a nod toward possible elegance.  The tannins were considerable, but very ripe and fine-grained, and the acidity totally integrated.  Only the merest hint of some development emerged in the glass.  It was a glorious bottle to drink, and should have been decanted.  It you didn’t take a step back to appreciate it, you could have missed how it had become so stylish.
Then the 2001 Craggy Range ‘Sophia’ ‘Gimblett Gravels Vineyard’ Hawke’s Bay Merlot/Cabernet.  This was the first release.  It was a true showpiece wine.  It was as bold and gutsy, and marked by as much new oak smells and tastes as the Syrah and Cabernet-based wine.  Steve Smith and his winemaking team held nothing back to make it impenetrable and black-purple in colour, totally nostril and mouthfilling, coasting all the senses with decadence and opulence.  It is a giant among giants.  On opening 15 years down the track, it was still impenetrable in colour.  Only on the edge or when the glass got lower could you see garnet and brick to the black.  Again, massively ripe-fruited with black plums, now going down the Dutch liquorice path.  Layers of black fruits unfolding earth and undergrowth, laced with cedary oak.  The palate just simply overwhelming in flavour, yet so drinkable.  Still plenty of tannin extraction and grip, but this too was ripe and fine, beginning to resolve.  This was sipping and meditation material, not gulping and gusto wine.  It was a monster then.  It still is a monster, but a loveable one.  We were truly monstered.   

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Cool Dude

Our friend Cool Pete is a cool dude.  He looks the part and plays it so well too.  You’d think that such folk with a bit of pretension might lack the sensitivities to appreciate life to the full, but we know he is far more complicated than that, thinking about the finer things in life and supporting those in need when push comes to shove.  Cool Pete was a lunch and he dug out a wine that reflected his personality perfectly.
It was a 1995 Te Mata ‘Coleraine’ Hawke’s Bay Cabernet/Merlot.  Who knows how long he had had it in his cellar, but there it was, in pristine condition.  Immaculate label and unmarked in any significant way.  Pretty much as Cool Pete was this day.  On opening the colour was good garnet red, and the aromas everything you expected of an aged, but ripe enough Bordeaux blend.  Lovely soft blackcurrants and dried herbs, a touch of undergrowth and cedar, some oak too.  Then on palate, incredibly elegant and light on its feet, like Cool Pete.  The flavours showed the cooler climate, but without and herbaceous stalky or leafy notes.  Bottle-aged for sure, the secondary and tertiary flavours prominent.  Cool Pete is like that too.  He’s moving along, but never moved out!  The wine still fresh, though not quite vigorous, but lively and reasonably animated.  The tannins were still there, but essentially well on the path of resolution.  Cool Pete has mellowed too, over the years   
If there could be any criticism, it came from Cool Peter: it was a bit lacking in concentration – but heck, SWMBO and I own up to that all the time!  For those vinously minded, it was a lovely growing seasoned marred by rain at the end resulting in dilution.  Hawke’s Bay got away lightly.  Other parts of the country got washed out.  We ended up drinking the bottle easily.  It was one of those easy to get-on with bottles, with plenty to talk about.  Sounds a bit like Cool Pete.   

Monday, June 5, 2017

The Original

Your first friends are often your best and most enduring.  SWMBO and I arranged a lunch with one of our original friends, with others who figured in our wine lives at an early stage.  There’s always lots to talk about – times long gone and times to come.  The endearing part of getting together is that they all seem ageless.  It’s probably our image of these people at their peak, and that’s how we want to remember them, always.
We took along for the lunch the 1982 Wynns ‘John Riddoch’ Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon.  This too was an original.  Although Wynns is steeped in history making the iconic ‘Black Label’ since the mid-1950s.  But it was timely they introduced the super premium ‘John Riddoch’ in 1982, made from the severest of selections.  The fruit showed much greater richness, concentration and depth, as well as lovely layers, including a whole heap more of new oak.  Many critics felt that the Coonawarra-ness was lost to winemaking artefact.  But those with faith could imagine what would happen with time.

Roll on 35 years, and we opened our bottle.  It was sensationally good.  It was very varietal with super ripe blackcurrants and cassis, without going into the blue fruit or raisiny spectrum.  And classical mintiness, the Coonawarra signature.  Lovely acid freshness, and just perfect tannin and structural balance keeping it all in line.  The oaking stood out a bit, but who doesn’t like a lick of expensive and exotic new oak?  All of the group, including some geeky winemakers enjoyed it.  The wine will continue to hold and maybe develop more detail and interest over the next 10+ years easily.  It’s always good to have the original than a copy.  You enjoy them just a whole lot more.

Sunday, May 28, 2017


Lovers of the zany will know of “Mini-Me” from Austin Powers.  He was a clone of Dr Evil, but one-eighth the size.  We often see similarities in our children, of course, and in positive and not so positive ways.  When it comes to wine, for most drinkers, it’s a matter of ‘the bigger the better’, and that smaller is certainly less.  But those with more experience will appreciate the toned-down nature and elegance that a smaller wine can bring. 
Corton-Charlemagne is one of the great white burgundies, grand cru no less.  It has majesty with its steeliness that is reminiscent of Chablis Grand Cru on a course of steroids.  Of course, a lesser version of Corton-Charlemagne will have deficiencies.  But the Egg-Man poured for us a 2009 Deux Montille Pernand-Vergelesses 1er Cru ‘Sous Fretille’.  This is from the sister and brother negociant firm and offshoot of the famous Domaine de Montille estate.  Pernand-Vergelesse is the village on the western foot of Corton-Charlemagne.  So it wasn’t a surprise this was a rather classy wine.  Softer, broader but lighter and more gentle than a Corton-Charlemagne, and clearly without the same nobility, it had a delicious accessibility.  The first sip to the last teased with its fruit and inputs, never putting a foot out of place.  A benign “Mini-Me”!

Friday, May 26, 2017

Aged and Sturdy

As people, we tend to grow more frail with age.  The same with most wines.  They mellow out and become smoother.  Sometimes their character intensifies, but generally, they are lighter and more background wines that beg to be approached and investigated.  Occasionally they get a bit decrepit and show some nasty or ‘off’ habits.  The way wines do this with extended bottle maturation invariably intrigues most drinkers.
Scotty put on his special annual dinner, and pulled out a few oldies.  One was a ‘1950s’ McDonald Tara-dale Hawke’s Bay Cabernet.  Made by the legendary Tom McDonald, considered to be the father of modern red wine in Hawke’s Bay and indeed New Zealand.  Without a vintage date on the bottle, it was conjecture as to the actual vintage, but Scotty’s experience and collection of older wines indicated that this was the correct period.  On pouring, it had lost much of its colour, now quite pale.  On bouquet, green and leafy notes, along with berryfruit and a whack of aldehydes.  But no oxidation or grubbiness.  The alcohol behind the aromas came through with some force.  On palate a dry wine, the alcohol the driving force and structure behind it.  Some green curranty fruit still there, but faded in the glass.  Fortified wine-like notes remained, with the alcohol bite, and aldehyde plus rancio hints.  Though the varietal character had faded, the wine remained sturdy.  They built the wines like that on them old days.  Plenty of maceration and extraction, and not being afraid of a bit of alcohol to bolster it all up.  What an interesting wine to taste indeed. 

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Blowing it Better

Oxygen is touted the enemy of wine, its prolonged contact leading to oxidation and ruination.  But as with all things, a modicum of moderation has a better result.  This is no better illustrated by freshly released and youthful wines, especially aromatic whites.  A healthy dose of sulphur does all the protecting, and sure enough, with a bit of time, it disappears, getting blown away, or absorbed into the character and complexity of the wine.  The technocrats will tell you about free sulphur and bound sulphur, the latter never going, and only getting worse.
We has The Young One and Jo-Lo for dinner, and decided to serve the 2015 Ansgar Clusserath Trittenheimer Apotheke Riesling Spatlese.  Sure enough, on opening, it was a bit hard to appreciate the goodness, with an overlay of sulphur hiding the fruit.  I suppose some would call it minerality to a degree, but that’s being fanciful.  But as with many young German Rieslings, they tend to get better as the sulphur blows off with aeration.  In the glass, the poise and precision of cool site Mosel came through, and lovely notes of white florals, with true slate and minerals.  The palate softened up a degree, leaving zesty, pin-point acidity to counter the growing sweetness and richness.  By the time it all came together, shock-horror, the bottle was finished.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Triple Martinborough Pinot Noir Treat

The Martinborough Vineyard label is one of the oldest and most respected in the Wairarapa.  In our young industry, the Pinot Noir vines planted by the founders in 1980 count as being old.  And as these vines have matured, now well into their third decade, they give increasingly better fruit, partly because the yields will never be excessive, and the balance and health of the vines with the vineyard.  However, the brand suffered with declining market share exacerbated by the GFC.  It’s a common story to many producers around the world.  However, Foley Family Wines came charging in and took over the operation in 2014.  Bill Foley is a shrewd business man, knowing when to pick something good up, and here, he got a gem.  Martinborough Vineyards is smaller for sure, but better for it.
It was a treat to try the three latest Pinot Noirs from Martinborough Vineyard, the three at different tiers, aimed for different markets.  All three were from excellent vintages.  The first, the 2015 Martinborough Vineyard ‘Te Tera’ Martinborough Pinot Noir was dark with ripe, fleshy, succulently sweet fruit, showing dark berries and plums.  The flavours very up-front and backed by fine, supple tannins.  This was instantly mouthfilling and gave immediate pleasure.  The wine had no gaps in its presentation.  I could see this as a crowd-pleaser, and a wine show winner.  Made from vines up to 20 y.o.  Then came the 2014 Martinborough Vineyard ‘Home Block’ Martinborough Pinot Noir.  Less obviously fruity and more restrained in expression, but then with more layers of interest and savoury complexities.  Some dried herb, earth, maybe some cluster.  Seemingly light initially, the flavours grew in richness and depth.  And then very fine-grained tannins which also grew in presence.  Not a solid wine, but certainly more feminine.  And a classic expression of Martinborough with its savouriness and grip.  The third was the rare 2013 Martinborough Vineyard ‘Marie Zelie’ ‘Reserve’ Martinborough Pinot Noir.  About 100 dozen made.  A selection of five best barrels.  Noticeably lighter and a tad more garnet hued in colour.  This had the most beguiling and ethereal bouquet of a combination of savoury red fruits, lifted florals and complexing dried herb, undergrowth, game and cedar.  All the wine, the tannins extremely refined and providing that line of support.  Beautifully balanced acidity.  I made a mental note: “Musigny-like”.  This wine isn’t cheap, with a nominal retail price of $225.00.  So it’s a collectors’ item, or one for wine club members to band together to buy to taste.  Anyone buying any of these three is in for a treat.