California made its reputation 60 years ago, at least in part by the then-innovative practice of labeling wine by the grape varietal from which it was made, rather than from where it came, as is the habit in Europe. This brilliant marketing move provided confused consumers with a simple designation they could hang on to and was subsequently adopted with similar success in Australia, New Zealand, and South America.
However, something important was lost along the way: By concentrating on single-varietal wines, the producers forgot that many grape types benefit from blending. When done well, each varietal contributes something different to the mix, with the final assemblage greater than the sum of its parts. There's more going on in the wine.
It was this thought that crossed my mind when I tasted this week's Wine of the Week, Craggy Range's Te Kahu 2007 ($22) from the Hawkes Bay region of New Zealand. It has an intriguing, layered complexity, rare in a wine of this price, which I attributed to its blend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Petit Verdot, the standard varietals of Bordeaux. But after a conversation with winemaker Steve Smith, it turns out that I was only partially correct. There's also that all-important ingredient, terroir, the term that refers to the earth in which the vines are grown.
As Steve points out: "I think that most of that depth and complexity you're getting out of that wine is probably due to this pretty special place—the Gimblett Gravels—and we've worked out our own way of expressing it, using those four varieties."
New Zealand's Sweet Spot for Bordeaux
He further explains: "The Gimblett Gravels winegrowing district is an old riverbed and it's the only area [in New Zealand] that's consistently warm enough to ripen the Bordeaux varietals." That is, it combines poor, stony soil with a climate that's just warm enough to makes the wine special.
The blending is important too, as Smith acknowledges. "All those Bordeaux varietals," he says, "by themselves need the other varieties to help them, and your philosophy of winemaking determines whether you chose Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon as your lead variety—and how much part the other varieties play. It's a very good way to put your own personality into it because you've got that palette of different varieties you can choose."
It also helps to keep the job interesting, playing with all the possible combinations and permutations. "Going through the 70-odd parcels of wine"—for Steve will choose from that many—"and working out what combinations you are going to use is a great experience," he says.
There's no a fixed recipe to be repeated year after year, explains Steve: "You'll see that Te Kahu—while it's always Merlot-dominated—some years it might be 85 percent Merlot, in others it might only be 55 percent, depending on the contributions of the other varieties. Yeah, it's fascinating. That's where the winemaker's art comes in."
Art it truly is.
When to Drink: Now, but it will improve for at least 10 years.
Breathing/Decanting: One hour's breathing is good, decanting even better.
Food Pairing: Roast meats, filet mignon, rack of lamb.
Grapes: Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Petit Verdot
Region: Hawkes Bay
Country: New Zealand
Web Site: www.craggyrange.com