Those in the know tend to talk about Old World wines with the sort of reverence and longing mostly seen in the 80’s, by teenage boys who had just watched the latest Madonna video. Words like Bordeaux and Barolo, Burgundy and Riesling Kabinett Prädikatswein send proverbial shivers down the spine. But while old is gold, there are plenty of reasons to make room for the new – especially when the ‘new’ we’re talking about is New Zealand.
New Zealand is, in fact, new. It’s the youngest country on earth, the last to come out of the ocean – approximately 50 million years ago. It was also the last country to be settled by humans. We didn’t make our way to the tiny island until somewhere around 1300AD. Compare this to the 800,000th anniversary of human habitation in Brittany.
All this newness translates to a virtually untouched landscape of clear water and green hills, of lush rainforests, and a rich soil vitality owed to all those years of not being depleted by human domestic agriculture. In a word, New Zealand is a rockin’ place to grow things.
I learned all of this recently, when I was invited to lunch at Providence Restaurant by Craggy Range Winery. Steve Smith, (the world’s only MW winemaker and viticulturalist), has been making Craggy Range wine since the company started in 1997. Over glasses of their 2009 Te Muna Sauvignon Blanc (which he calls “Sauvignon Blanc for grown-ups,”), he described his country’s people and history.
While talking over tasting notes for the 2008 Craggy Range Te Kahu, (a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Malbec), Steve discussed the history of his country and his company.
We learned about New Zealand’s passion for preservation of the land and bio-dynamic wine growing. Steve talked about the brief history of oenology in New Zealand and how the entire industry has gone from nowhere to somewhere in less than a generation. We did this while sampling a vertical of the 2005, 2006 and 2008 Craggy Range Les Beaux Cailloux. Every vintage had its own story; the personality of the grapes – crème brulee, almond, mineral, flowers, oak – shows through in each bottle. The wines are still young, but – much like New Zealand and her wine industry – they are absolutely beautiful now, and are positioned to just get better over time.
But the Craggy Range story isn’t just New Zealand or its lovely wine. Back in 2000, Craggy Range hired a talented young winemaker named Doug Wisor. Doug was a wunderkind from Napa Valley, who was excited to bring his love of French varietals – Pinot Noir, in particular – to Craggy Range. Doug was also an experienced kite surfer. But in October 2004 he suffered a freak and fatal kite surfing accident that ended his life at 31 years young. In honor of Doug, Craggy Range created the Doug Wisor Memorial Scholarship; the program brings an American winemaker to intern in New Zealand for one vintage per year.
There is magic in the Old World. The wine is complex, layered, sophisticated. But it’s time to make way for the youngsters; they are a force of positive change in the world of wine and deserving of a place at the table.