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Steve Smith's Salon

Steve Smith, co-owner and winemaker at New Zealand’s Craggy Range, makes some of the world’s most-delicious wines.  But he is also such a fascinating thinker that when you leave a tasting he’s conducted, it’s not easy to say whether the wine or the conversation was more enjoyable.

I have known Smith for almost 10 years now, been to quite a few of his events in New York and elsewhere and spent a few days at Craggy’s properties in Martinborough and Hawke’s Bay.  Once or twice a year, I send him e-mails asking his opinion or assistance for some article I’m doing.  He always gives me more than I ask for.

My latest Smith encounter of the best kind was late this spring at Bar Boulud in New York for a vertical tasting of the first 10 years of Craggy Range’s Te Muna Road Martinborough Pinot Noir.  Such is the respect for Smith that at least four editors I write for showed up, a rarity in one room.  Perhaps there were more, as some editors I’ve not yet glimpsed.

Smith began with a review of NZ’s last two vintages – “Forget the 2012.  We declassified it.  But 2013 was the vintage of the century, although the further you go south [in New Zealand], the less good it is.”

Then he turned to the Pinot Noir vertical.  “We started from scratch in Te Muna,” he says, “and we decided to take a long-term look at everything.  The benchmark was 10 years.  By then, you should get a sign of what the place is like.”  At Te Muna, Smith separated the vineyard into 60 different parcels using about 10 different clones and rootstocks, fermenting the yields separately, then blending. 

I’ve always been a fan of Martinborough’s Pinots, preferring them to the South Island’s Marlborough and even Central Otago.  So is Smith.  “The climate in Martinborough is as close as you’ll get in New Zealand to Burgundy.”  Smith had a go at Cental Otago before abandoning it, and he tossed out a good line about the differences between the two areas – “Central Otago are extroverts, both the people and the wines. At Martinborough, we are introverts.”

There was also a certain history to the tasting.  “You see the most changes in a vineyard in its first 10 years,” he said.  “So we will not see this range again in the life of this vineyard.”  Then he added the human element, which he considers part of terroir: “Vines don’t only need to get older; so do people.”

During the tasting – starting with 2011 and working our way back to the initial 2002 vintage – it became clear that Smith preferred the younger vintages, as would be expected, adjusting for the differences in age, of course.  Several of us, I believe, liked the older ones better.  As I’ve tasted Te Muna samples over the years, I have thought the younger wines, while perhaps more elegant, lacked the complexity and depth of the earlier vintages.  “I think you’re not giving the 2005 enough credit,” said one editor to a comment Smith made about it.  Others of us jumped in to agree, not just being nice to deflect a winemaker’s self-criticism, but defending a wine we preferred.

Smith is an MW, and his tasting and winemaking skills are impeccable.  Still, I thought of a comment Robert Mondavi made at his winery in the early 1980s.  “We’ve cut back somewhat on filtering our reds because we decided we were ripping the guts out of the wines,” he said.

Of course, it’s a matter of preferences – elegance versus character. All good wines have both.  It’s just the proportion that we argue about.  Even with the emergence of more-savory, less-manipulated “natural” wines, the fine wine world in general is going Smith’s way, which I define as more-subtle and less-overt.  OMG, don’t get too much alcohol or too much Parker fruit in that wine!  Would Peterson dare launch his “No Wimpy Wines” campaign today?

Yet Smith also talked about the savory nature of wine – a character I write about often and favorably (although I still want fruit in front to go with savory in the finish).  Savory flavors, he noted, although enticing, were historically a warning to our ancestors that something might be toxic.  Fruity was OK.  Said another way, best tastes are often on the edge of being bad.

So let’s not forget complexity and character – guts – when we look at a wine’s pretty face.

Sorry, Steve.  You shouldn’t get us thinking so much.

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