Exuberant and easy-going Sauvignon Blanc may have been New Zealand's calling card to wine drinkers around the world, but don't ignore their superb Pinot Noir - it may be the country's biggest surprise of all. I've enjoyed a few Pinot Noirs from New Zealand this year and the name Craggy Range kept popping up in conversations as one that I must try. Well, I finally had the chance to give Craggy Range a swirl with their chief winemaker Matt Stafford. Quite appropriately, lunch with Matt was hosted at The Musket Room - a Michelin starred restaurant in New York City that has been wowing critics and diners with culinary creations inspired by the spirit of New Zealand. Not a bad way to spend a steamy summer day in Manhattan!
Founded in 1997, Craggy Range is a relatively young winery but they have made quite an impression in New Zealand in beyond. A partnership between international businessman extraordinaire Terry Peabody and family, and Master of Wine Steve Smith (the only specialist viticulturist in the world to hold this prestigious title), Craggy Range was founded at the not-so-subtle suggestion of Terry's wife Mary and daughter Mary-Jeanne that a winery would fulfill their wish to have an enduring family legacy. Craggy Range exclusively crafts single-vineyard, terroir-driven wines and their consistent 90+ scores, vintage after vintage, have played a major role in bolstering New Zealand's winemaking reputation. Craggy Range was honored by Wine Enthusiast magazine as the 2014 New World Winery of the Year. The Peabody family legacy is off to an auspicious start.
Pinot Noir has its roots in Burgundy and while it may be easy to drink, growing it is a different story. Known as the heartbreak grape, famously fickle Pinot Noir is prone to mutation and extremely sensitive to temperature. Like a fairy-tale princess, everything has to be just right for Pinot Noir to thrive. But winemakers keep risking heartbreak because Pinot Noir has a poetic ability to express terroir. I definitely noticed some Burgundian finesse in Craggy Range's Pinot Noir but these wines are absolutely New Zealand and showcase the uniqueness of Craggy Range's vineyards.
Our guided tasting with Matt focused on Pinot Noir from Craggy Range's Te Muna Road vineyard in the cool-climate region of Martinborough at the southeastern tip of the North Island. Craggy Range also produces wine at their Gimblett Gravels vineyard in Hawke's Bay. Te Muna means "The Secret" in Maori and this name has special resonance for the founding family of the vineyard - "under the first vine of block one inside the gate of this beautiful young Martinborough vineyard, (established in 1999) Aunt Sally, an elderly and wise Maori woman buried a piece of the Peabody’s family silver as a good luck omen." Aunt Sally is clearly the vineyard whisperer because Terry Peabody says that "it is still the strongest vine in the vineyard."
2013 was described as a very good growing season at Craggy Range's Martinborough vineyard and this is apparent in the glass - Te Muna Road Vineyard Pinot Noir 2013 ($44.99) had an elegant earthiness that I absolutely adored. Flavors of tart cherry, hibiscus, rose petals, and rich earth are balanced by soft tannins. Subtle but sublime, this is a smart wine without pretension.
Meaning love or affection in Maori, wines bearing the Aroha label are lovingly crafted from two unique parcels of Pinot Noir from Te Muna Road, including the legendary Abel clone which can be traced back to one of Burgundy's finest vineyards. If you love Pinot Noir from Burgundy, you'll detect a certain Burgundian regalness and complexity in the Aroha wines. Aroha 2012 ($104.99) is a splurge but your taste buds will thank you - it envelops your palate in flavors of dark cherry with a touch of luscious plum that are balanced by a thread of dried herbs and subtle spices. Impeccably structured but lithe and graceful, Aroha is delightful now and will age beautifully. Pair with duck, lamb, pork, and game.
In addition to Pinot Noir, Craggy Range produces many other stellar varietals; including Sauvingon Blanc, Syrah, Chardonnay, Merlot, and Riesling. If you're planning a trip to New Zealand, visitors are welcome for tours and tastings at their Giant's Winery in Hawke's Bay. The complex and vineyard is also home to their award-winning Terrôir Restaurant and luxurious accommodations are available in Vineyard Cottages and The Lodge. Sounds like the perfect wine adventure - grab a bottle of Craggy Range and start planning your wine holiday!