Steve Smith MW - Decanter interview
- Friday 6 June 2008
Arch viticulturist and Craggy Range boss Steve Smith MW is a passionate crusader for New Zealand wine, says Sarah Jane Evans MW
Steve Smith MW may be a keen Bordeaux man, but his physical presence is definitely more extravagantly New World. He makes a striking figure in a multicoloured and embroidered striped shirt with a discreet floral trim under the collar. It’s a funky New World Pinot Noir style – fruity, with a dash of something wild. On formal outings he’s inclined to wear a suit and pink shirt. Surely these days pink is a little boring? Not at all: ‘New Zealand men never wear pink!’
Smith’s made a career out of being alternative. He’s a viticulturist by training and inclination, in a country that has created flying winemakers. He’s a Bordeaux fan in a Pinot Noir country. He has a vision for ‘the jewels’ – the best grape varieties – of New Zealand which goes well beyond Sauvignon Blanc and Marlborough. He’s a forthright speaker who regrets his countrymen’s lack of confidence. And he’s waving the flag for the future of New Zealand’s wine amid the gloom of global warming.
He’s also smart and ambitious. The top geography school student in New Zealand went on to be Dux of his course at Lincoln University. A scholarship took him to UC Davis in California, and he later became one of New Zealand’s first Masters of Wine, passsing the MW exams at the first attempt – a rare achievement. No wonder Decanter named him in 1997 as one of the 50 faces to watch in the new millennium. He’s focused, too. He had a name for the winery he dreamed of seven years before it came to fruition, even going so far as to register it. Was it worth the planning? Craggy Range winery, where he is managing director, is now almost a decade old. In 1999 it produced 1,500 cases; this year that will be nearer 70,000. On top of this Smith contributes energetically to his industry: Chair of the New Zealand Pinot Noir Conference 2007, he is now Chair of the Air New Zealand Wine Awards. Last November’s Awards only confirmed his view that New Zealand can ‘own the Aromatic White Wine category in the New World. In the long term it may be that our greatest white will be Riesling.’ Which style will prevail? ‘The most exciting are the low-alcohol models – they fit the modern style of food.’
Then he points to Pinot Blanc from Central Otago. But Smith is also confident that ‘we can be the home for New World Pinot Noir’. He takes a headmasterly tone about fellow producers: ‘people have to get off their arses and show real commitment’. He points to Ata Rangi, Dry River, Felton Road, Neudorf, Pegasus Bay and Peregrine as producers who have dedicated themselves successfully to Pinot. Success brings him back to viticulture: ‘in Central Otago, great vineyards stand out like the dog’s bollocks. The viticulture is impeccable.’ All of this needs confidence: ‘we have the land, the people, technical ability, the understanding’. With a broad laugh, he suggests: ‘Take some of the confidence out of Australia, and put it into New Zealand – it would do both countries good.’ Whence comes Smith’s confidence? In his youth, wine hadn’t been on the horizon. ‘In those days there was plenty of fortified wine made from sugar and water and the Albany Surprise grape, a
labrusca.’ By good fortune, the ‘single most influential person for NZ viticulture’ arrived in the country: consultant Richard Smart. Smith is full of admiration for the Australian viticulturist who taught NZ how to turn ‘sunlight into wine’ (the name of Smart’s influential book). Smith became Smart’s research assistant, travelling the country, learning the business. That’s clearly where he learned to spot a well-managed vineyard at 50 metres. He also discovered the point of it all when ‘one day we went to Matua Valley – Ross and Bill Spence had brought the first Sauvignon Blanc into New Zealand. I tasted it and it was one of those moments. The relationship between land and wine captivated me.’ After studying at UC Davis and working with Robert Mondavi ‘in his heyday’, Smith returned to NZ to work for the ‘incredibly influential’ George Fistonich at Villa Maria. ‘His vineyards were in terrible shape. My job was to expand plantings, and source varieties. Over time I assumed an ambassadorial role for Villa. I was stroppy, pushy, I wanted to be involved in blending, and I wanted to get out and tell people what was happening. But viticulture is the cornerstone of what I love.’ The viticulture guru was frustrated that winemakers got the glory. His solution was to take the Master of Wine exams. ‘It was the only way I could prove that I did know about wine. The MW taught me a lot about wine; and about making wine that is not about bigness. That’s carried through in all I do.’ He says it’s a natural progression – to begin by wanting to get the most out of vines and grapes, and then to learn to hold back. Not for nothing does the Craggy Range literature call him ‘a New World vigneron with an Old World philosophy’. After consulting in South Africa for Rustenberg and Hamilton Russell, Smith was approached by Terry Peabody. ‘Terry is a USborn Australian who has made his money in waste management. The last piece of the Gimblett Gravels in Hawkes Bay had come up for tender and he asked me to join as a partner.’ Today the project is the largest overseas private investment in NZ wine.
Smith, with his usual foresight, led the campaign to register the Gimblett Gravels, a specific zone ideal for Bordeaux varieties, Syrah and Chardonnay. He’s keen to see more sub-regions declare themselves: ‘Whether you can make it happen depends on whether people are brave enough. The last thing you want is a fight like they had in Coonawarra. It needs great leadership.’ He views with concern the extensive plantings in Marlborough.
Are they in good sites? ‘We don’t know – they haven’t produced wine yet’. He fears that the unique style of Marlborough may be diluted. Yet he is certain that to be seen as one of the great winemaking countries of the world, ‘New Zealand needs to make great red wines. We are beginning to see little jewels emerge’. This is all of a piece with Craggy Range’s slogan: ‘single vineyard, single minded’. ‘We want to produce great New Zealand wine from all parts of New Zealand – we’re based in Hawkes Bay and we’ll go anywhere.’
This currently means, travelling south from the Gimblett Gravels and vineyards in
Martinborough, Nelson, Marlborough, Waipara, the Waitaki Valley on the Canterbury/Otago border, and Bannockburn. But surely shipping fruit from one end of New Zealand to Hawkes Bay is at odds with quality, estate-based production? ‘In New Zealand we’re used to moving fresh produce quickly and efficiently. In Central Otago, for instance, they know how to transport apricots and cherries, and grapes for wine, to Auckland in better shape than ones delivered from the winery next door.’ Smith the scientist becomes lyrical for a moment: ‘there’s nowhere else on earth where the island is influenced by the sea, in this latitude, with no searing heat, and with young soils of such vitality.’ Ideal to cope with global warming? ‘Yes! If there’s one place you want to be, it’s New Zealand. If Marlborough gets too warm, there’s Canterbury, which is currently 2˚C too cool. We certainly won’t make jammy reds in the Gimblett Gravels. And we won’t have any issues with water as we’ll always have rain.’ Wet or dry, if it should get warmer there there’s one thing you can be sure of. The New World viticulturist with a passion for the Old will be wearing the right shirt for the climate.