Tasting a single vintage, of Craggy Range Le Sol Syrah is like taking a snapshot. It captures one wine in one moment. A vertical tasting reveals so much more – the evolution of a style, vintage variation and ability to age. I didn’t hesitate to accept an invitation from Air New Zealand to taste every one of Craggy Range Le Sol’s vintages, from the first produced in 2001 to the most recent release from 2016 (the vines were damaged by frost in 2003 and 2012).
Le Sol started life as a wine made from a 4.9-hectare vineyard in the Gimblett Gravels subregion of Hawke’s Bay. The vineyard was planted with the heritage clone of syrah brought to New Zealand in the 1830s by James Busby. The most recent vintage is from an expanded planting in the same area that covers 22 hectares and includes 14 clone and rootstock combinations.
Le Sol is Craggy Range’s signature wine. It receives a lot of attention from the company viticulturists and winemakers. They’ve identified that the best grapes come from areas with lower vigour and more surface stones that seem to drive the vine roots deeper into soils of relatively low fertility. Grapes are picked when they are just ripe.
Accepting the inevitable vintage variation, Le Sol has become more elegant with less emphasis on dark berry fruits and a greater focus on floral and spice, particularly pepper characters.
I recall tasting the first vintage from 2001 at a lavish function at the winery. I was sitting next to James Halliday and recall his remark when he took his first sip. His distinctive eyebrows arched dramatically and he exclaimed, “This is good shiraz!”
According to my tasting notes, Le Sol has got even better. My top wine was 2014 Craggy Range Le Sol – a near-perfect 99 points. It’s a terrific wine with elegance and impressive power, perfumed with violet, berry, plum, spices and nutty oak. It’s wonderfully harmonious and clearly a long-distance runner. I look forward to tasting it after eight to 10 years in bottle.
In second place were the wines from the 2013 and 2016 vintages. 2013 was hailed by many winemakers as the best-ever vintage from Hawke’s Bay. It produced opulent and accessible reds generally – Le Sol was no exception. It’s a seductive wine that should age well but can be enjoyed now without feeling too guilty.
In 2016 the winemakers used a portion (20%) of whole-bunch berries in the fermentation for the first time. It’s an elegant, high-energy syrah with a wonderfully perfumed aroma, powerful yet subtle with real complexity. It should develop very well.
Three wines scored 97 points, for different reasons. The 2006 Craggy Range Le Sol Syrah is a remarkable wine from a warm vintage that didn’t produce a lot of great wines. It shows good bottle development but should continue to benefit from bottle age.
2009 and 2010 were good vintages. Winemakers are divided about which was best, but in this case it was a dead heat. The 2009 is richer and more structured with graphite tannins; the 2010 is more elegant and restrained with a greater emphasis on floral and spice characters. Bottle age will benefit both.
Four wines earned a score of 96 points. I slightly favoured 2002 because it tasted remarkably youthful with a silken texture and ripe berry flavours. On the other hand it’s a little bit too oaky. 2005, a very good vintage, features lavender, pepper and spice with the sort of structure that could see it continue to develop for another decade; it was the only wine sealed with a screwcap
2008 was another good vintage; it delivered a blockbuster style which impressed me as much on first release as now. 2015 is a slimmed-down version of earlier versions with brighter acidity and obvious cellaring potential. Definitely a keeper.
Two wines rated 95 points. I slightly preferred the 2004, partly because it still showed bright primary fruit flavours with a silken smooth texture and good balance of fruit and oak. Good now, but no rush. 2007 was a long, dry, cool vintage yielding some notable wines, although I found this example a little dull and wondered if it might not have been the victim of a slightly dodgy cork.
This leaves the 2011 Le Sol Syrah, a perfumed and quite floral wine with a distinctly herbal influence (94 points) and the inaugural 2001 vintage (93 points), an intense and clearly developed wine with quite stewed fruit flavours and a curious gunpowder character. When wines are sealed with cork there is no such thing as great wines, only great bottles.