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Steve Smith of Craggy Range

© 2014 Tom Cannavan

Steve You could count the number of viticulturists who are also Masters of Wine on the fingers of one hand. Come to think of it, you could count them on the nails of one finger. But Craggy Range's Steve Smith MW is not your average viticulturist, just like Craggy Range is not your average New Zealand wine estate.

Having graduated in geography, Smith went on to be Dux of his course at New Zealand's top wine school, Lincoln University. He then won a scholarship to UC Davis in California where he spent eight years on research work in viticulture and wine. Smith remains absolutely devoted to farming, that is, the development of precision viticulture on potentially great terroirs, but it was clear that more expansive roles within the wine industry awaited such a talent. He joined Villa Maria in the late 80s as group viticulturist, but soon took on management roles and then winemaking roles too, with his academic credentials being cemented when he became a Master of Wine in 1996, passing the notoriously tough exams at the first attempt.

Sophia But it was in 1997 that the stars truly aligned for Steve Smith. He was approached by American-born industrialist Terry Peabody. For several years the Peabody family, with extensive business interests in Australia, had talked of establishing a wine estate. The USA, Australia and Europe were all on their radar, but when Steve Smith and Terry Peabody met in 1997 (Steve had just been named as "One of the 50 most influential people in the world of wine," by Decanter magazine), they realised that their goals were complementary: Smith had always harboured an ambition to plant his own vineyard and make site-specific, single vineyard wines that expressed some of his favourite terroirs in New Zealand, whilst the Peabodys had the will and the financial resources to establish a top quality estate that they wanted to be a long-term project, "An enduring heritage legacy." Craggy Range was born. (Above: Steve Smith and Terry Peabody in the 'Sophia' winery).

No one was better qualified to pick the sites for Craggy Range's vineyards than Steve Smith. At the time, working for Villa Maria and as a consultant, Smith was said to work with over 350 separate vineyard parcels across New Zealand. Hawkes Bay, and particularly its renowned Gimblett Gravels soils, was first on the agenda, and is where the Craggy Range winery was also based. But from the outset the operation sourced fruit from, and then planted, in other areas that they felt would give the ultimate expression for specific varieties. These include Pinot Noir in Martinborough and Central Otago and Sauvignon Blanc in Marlborough.

And the wines? Well Craggy Range is a mere 15 years old, yet in that time it has built a reputation for unerring quality. And not just quality, but typicity too. It's a broad-ranging portfolio, covering aromatic whites, Burgundian and Bordeaux varieties, and interesting special parcels including a homage to Alsatian 'Edelzwicker' (blending Riesling, Gewürz, Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc). At the top of the tree sit the wines of the 'Prestige Collection', an ambitious set of beautifully crafted wines from selected small parcels, all with the capacity of ageing and development.

Te Muna Road Meet the erudite Steve Smith, or even just learn about his career and history, and you will understand that perfectionism is one important aspect of his character. I have visited the Craggy Range vineyards in Gimblett Gravels and in Martinborough (right), and it's plain to see: these vineyards look as if they have been pruned with nail scissors and the ground tilled with fine-point needles. They are astonishingly beautiful and perfect, and that is just how Smith wants it. But he's also 100% Kiwi, a huge fan of Rugby, fishing and no mean golfer by all accounts.

I asked Steve on burning question that was on my mind: with his vast experience, highly-tuned knowledge of all aspects of viticulture, and belief in the effect of terroir on a wine, had he not considered farming the Craggy Range vineyards organically, or even biodynamically? "All of our vineyards are certified under the New Zealand Sustainable Winegrowing programme," he told me. "But I'm more interested in agroecology than organics - it has some of the ideas of biodynamics, but put under scientific scrutiny." He cites the work of Professor Steve Rattan in this field, and says that a system that blends organic and synthetic practices and products hold most interest for him. And that, in many ways, sums up Steve Smith, a carefully fermented blend of scientific precision and innate understanding of soil and nature. And he's making some fabulous wines with it.

the wines

Craggy Range's wines have good distribution in the UK, including The Wine Society, Majestic and Waitrose, with many wines in good independent merchants across the country.

Craggy Range, Te Muna Road Riesling 2012, New Zealand
From the famous Martinborough property, this is fermented and matured for a short period in a combination of French oak barriques and stainless steel tanks. It has a beautiful nose, with fantastic waxy and apple aromatics, a touch of paraffin and gentle smokiness, but staying tight and very focused. Bone dry, shimmering, wonderfully tight and rounded, tight white fruit: lemon rind and barely-ripe apple. Gorgeous fruit and raciness in the basically dry finish, the 9.5g/l of residual sugar being consumed by the cut and freshness of 9.7g/l of total acidity. 90-91/100. Around £15.00, see all stockists on wine-searcher.

Craggy Range, Te Muna Road Sauvignon Blanc 2012, New Zealand
Twenty percent of whole bunches go into the tank here. It has a lovely green bean, streaking freshness, but really delightful bounce and depth, the 15% that was French oak barrel fermented adding richness and pithy lemon rind flavour and texture. Really delicious Sauvignon, and serious with texture, bite and lovely length and balance. 90/100. Around £12.00, see all stockists on wine-searcher.

Craggy Range, Te Muna Road Pinot Noir 2011, New Zealand
From soils of old decomposed rock from ancient, fast-flowing rivers, which Steve says is a unique soil in New Zealand: "The decomposed rocks and clay makes much more mineral available to the vines." Beautiful, pale ruby colour from 12 year old vines, 10% of the fruit whole bunch fermented and spending 11 months in French oak, 27% of which was new. Terrific rhubarb and beetroot character that is fragrant, the aromatic and floral notes seeming to continue onto the palate, where lovely orange acidity punches and steaks through to the finish giving lovely energy and balance. Beautiful smokiness and creaminess from the oak just underpins, in a delightful Pinot. 93/100. Around £22.00, see all stockists on wine-searcher.

Craggy Range, Gimblett Gravels Syrah 2010, New Zealand
Sixteen months in French oak for this cuvée, 25% of it new. There's also 3% Viognier in the blend. Fantastic rich juiciness and firmness that is deliciously poised and grippy, with a touch of herbaceous rosemary. Lots of lovely tang and black cherry, firm fruity notes, with brightness and spicy, tight flavour and bite. Long, savoury, and yet with abundant fruit depth. 91/100. Around £20.00, see all stockists on wine-searcher.

Craggy Range, Te Kahu 2010, New Zealand
Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec, basically the second wine of Sophia, from the same Gimblett Gravels soils. It sees 28% new oak and spends 13 months in barrel. Voluptuous, chocolate-rich stuff, delicious warmth and earthiness, but also superb sweet fruit and intensity. Smooth, effortlessly chocolaty tannins but just enough rustic charm, with really nice agility. 91-92/100. Around £22.00, see all stockists on wine-searcher.

Craggy Range, Sophia 2011, New Zealand
Similar Bordeaux blend of 60% Merlot, 24% Cabernet Sauvignon, 14% Cabernet Franc and 2% Petit Verdot from a warm 'El Niño' influenced vintage. 37% of the French oak is new and the wine stays 19 months in oak. Smoky, spicy, very nicely meaty and gamy, lots of quality, subtle French oak aroma and a certain gamy depth. A big, powerful wine, with a welter weight of tannin, dry and filling the mouth, but then the lovely fruit quality is there too, with masses of dry extract but not at all inky or over done - this has a life and persistent energy with the creaminess of the oak filling in the finish, lovely balance and very long, this is serious and delicious now, but obvious 10-year cellaring potential. 93-94/100. Around £35.00, see all stockists on wine-searcher.

UK Agent: Louis Latour, Tel: +44 (0)207 409 7276