Mick Craven and some of he and his wife’s wines
Several years ago I popped into the old Wind Gap winery out in Forestville – their previous location in West County Sonoma – to say hello during harvest and taste a few wines. In the midst of the visit I happened to meet South African winemaker Mick Craven who was there that year working harvest with Pax Mahle, Ryan Glaab, and Scott Schultz. Fast forward four years later and I’m sitting side by side with Mick at a Stellenbosch restaurant talking through his wines and how that time at Wind Gap influenced his winemaking. The wine world is awesome like that – totally tiny, globally interconnected, and fun.
Today, Mick and his wife Jeanine live and make wine in Stellenbosch sourcing fruit for their small production eponymous label, Craven, from choice, older vine sites in the Western Cape. Their label focuses entirely on single variety, single vineyard, single vintage wines. Rather than deciding in advance what they’d like to make, they instead keep an eye out for vineyards that inspire, then work with farmers to hone quality.
While Jeanine originates from South Africa, their choice to settle there was not obvious. The couple met a decade ago here in Sonoma at a 1960s-era hotel bar in the midst of harvest. Each was working alternate harvest from the Southern hemisphere with Mick visiting from his home in Australia. From that chance encounter the duo managed to not only start their lives together but also chase harvest in key wine regions around the planet, finally choosing to settle back in Stellenbosch in 2011.
With their first focus on the vineyard, the pair have collaborated with a local artist friend to create labels that celebrate each site. Each wine features a watercolor of the vineyard behind the wine painted by the artist who then also completes the label design. The result feels personable, charming and intriguing.
Together Mick and Jeanine keep a light touch in the cellar, minimizing fruit handling, while keeping winemaking clean, and relying on just enough SO2 for tasty stability. Over dinner we were able to taste their five current release Craven wines.
South Africa has become home to what seems more single-variety Clairette Blanche than I’ve seen anywhere else (not that wine store shelves there are dominated by it). While the variety is native to Southern France, it appears there almost entirely in blends of the Rhone, Languedoc, and Provence. (Though, incidentally, if you do want to hunt down examples from France of what is there called simply Clairette, two of the earliest designated appellations of the Languedoc are devoted entirely to the variety. Both Clairette de Bellegarde and Clairette du Languedoc are 100% Clairette based wines.)
Clairette gained its sea legs for transport to the Southern hemisphere in the 16th century thanks to its use in the then-popular usually-sweet wine Picardan. Picardan’s popularity in the Dutch Wine Trade made Clairette a necessary choice for distribution through the Dutch colonies. At its peak, Clairette Blanche was as widely planted in South Africa as it also was in France.
As the public palate shifted from sweet wines towards dry, Clairette Blanche was replaced in vineyards throughout Stellenbosch. The grape tends to drop acidity easily on the vine, and also to oxidize in the cellar so in earlier stages of winemaking knowledge for dry wines those conditions proved a disadvantage. At the same time, a rush of outside investors in Stellenbosch heralded in a vineyard replanting through the region just a couple decades ago. Then-lesser-known regions, like Swartland to the north, weren’t subject to the same outside investment and so also not to the rash of replantings. Outside Stellenbosch, then, more vineyards simply stayed as they were. As a result, it’s harder to find older vines today in Stellenbosch, and also older varieties like Clairette Blanche, than it is in some other parts of South African wine.(Swartland, for example, still includes more older vine Clairette Blanche.) What that means is that for Stellenbosch, Craven’s Clairette Blanche is a rarity. It’s also delicious.
Craven brings in the fruit relatively early maintaining a glowing acidity that keeps the palate watering, then splits it into two lots. The first goes straight to press with a focus on crispness and drive, while the remainder runs through the crusher and sits on skins for a few hours to bring greater aromatic and flavor concentration as well as palate satisfying texture. There are levels of flavor here showing notes of grapefruit pith, dusty desert accents, and just a hint of vitamin powder. I really love drinking this wine as its simultaneously playful and well-honed, friendly and intriguing, approachable and loaded with persistence.
I’m inclined to say that it is absurdly easy to drink good Chenin Blanc in South Africa but I don’t want that to lessen the point that Craven is making a good one. With their focus on single vineyard wines, Mick and Jeanine waited to locate a site they felt really showcased the variety before jumping into such a known category. The search brought them to the Polkadraai Hills of Stellenbosch where granitic soils bring nerviness to 35 year old vines. As the Cravens don’t like adding acidity to their wines they wanted a cooler site that more readily preserves its freshness.
Savory mineral character drives this wine nose through finish with tons of energy lifting first waft from the glass. On the palate, the wine turns subtle, almost lacy, while still energizing and persistent. The flavors build towards the finish, returning again to the savory mineral elements that open the nose. There is a deft, light touch here I find pleasing, and that inspires me to return again to the glass for another sip.
One of the things I love about traveling wine is the way I get to close loops all over the world. I’m constantly accumulating histories of producers, of varieties, or regions, and then finding linkages to information and stories I’ve previously gathered elsewhere. The Craven Pinot Gris proves another example.
During Mick’s and Jeanine’s time at Wind Gap, Pax Mahle, Ryan Glaab, and Scott Schultz were each making different versions of skin contact whites. Between them, the technique was being used on Trousseau Gris, Pinot Gris, and Ribolla Gialla. As Mick explains, he and Jeanine found the approach intriguing and upon launching Craven, decided to make one of their own. As a result, in order to bring out more phenolic frame and its palate stimulating qualities, the Craven Pinot Gris sits on skins for around a week. As recognizable as the skin contact whites style is for many of us, it’s a semi-controversial wine in South Africa.
South African wine exports and even local wine sales are regulated by a technical board through which all commercially released wines must be tasted. The board screens wines for not only what they deem to be wine faults but also recognizable wine styles. Skin contact whites are being made today in wine regions around the planet, and they also have a long standing history in Georgian wine culture, and decades old history in Italy. For South Africa though, the approach being still a niche category means such wines fall outside typical standards. While Craven has been making their skin contact Pinot Gris since 2014, they have had to submit an appeal each year to the technical board and argue for its legitimacy as a sound wine. So far their appeals have been successful while still costing extensive time and research on their part to gain permission to label the wine with its variety.
The 2016 hosts a lovely savory element throughout with that same dusty desert quality found in each of the Craven wines, notes of Turkish delight accented by dried rose petal and leaf, and just a hint of candy powder. The lightly tactile tannin and accompanying acidity make it perfect for the table as together they create a nice, building persistence through the palate.
Older vineyards in the Western Cape tend to host low to the ground head-trained vines there called bush vines. The Cravens’ Cinsault site centers around such vines planted between 20 and 30 years ago in granitic soils. With the subtle flavors of Cinsault, they choose to fully de-stem the variety also avoiding over extraction in the cellar.
The wine opens snug and focused with the lighter side of a medium body and bursting flavors of mixed red-violet fruits spun through with savory herbs and dusty earth. The wine is palate stimulating and persistent and is a perfect red to enjoy with a slight chill.
Made with 100% whole bunch inclusion, The Firs Vineyard Syrah from Craven receives light foot stomping with the goal to allow some whole berry fermentation. It’s left around a week and a half on skins before being pressed to finish fermentation. The approach delivers a wine with firm structural drive without angularity or aggressiveness. Instead, it carries layers of aroma and flavor with a mix of herbal, earthy, and savory notes including palate bursting flavors and just enough animal-inducing bloody iodine. Let this wine have a bit of air upon opening and make sure you’ve got some meat to rip chunks out of as you drink it. It’s delicious.
To read more about Craven wines, check out their own website here: http://cravenwines.com/
Or, that of their U.S. importers, Vine Street Imports, here: http://www.vsimports.com/winery.php?id=175
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