What would Brian Croser say to his younger self? “Be patient, and trust the vineyard. The mistakes I’ve made in winemaking, which are legion, are because I’ve lost faith in the vineyard and I’ve done things I’ve found later to be wrong.”
Croser is not known for losing his nerve, or indeed for changing his opinions, but the 20 years or so in which he lost Petaluma and then launched Tapanappa have seen him refine his approach, in particular to Chardonnay. And Chardonnay, in particular his Tiers vineyard, is his flagship, the wine that is most where he wants it to be. “It took time,” he says; “I’m a slow learner. Slower than the vines.”
If you want to understand his Chardonnay you have to see it in the context of Riesling. When he started making wine, in the 1970s, Riesling was Australia’s main white grape. When Croser went to study at Davis (he got Tom Hardy to hire him and then send him to UC Davis (you have to hand it to him for his powers of persuasion), where he met the Davis way of making Chardonnay. This he sums up now as good-enough but not great fruit, sculpted in the winery via juice oxidation, full malo and lees-stirring to make something resembling white Burgundy.
Most people at Davis did it that way, he says. “I followed the Riesling path of protecting the fruit, and making wine that reflected the fruit in the vineyard.” And, he adds, he focused on using great fruit, not just fruit that was merely good enough. “The nexus between the two approaches is part of my whole life in wine.”
So there you have it. He has just visited California again. “I had arguments with them in 1972-3, and I’m still having those arguments.’
But now he has moved conclusively away from that Davis approach, and the latest vintages of Tiers are wines of such purity and delicacy – what has changed?
Rather a lot, and not just in the cellar.
He lost Petaluma in 2002. “In that year I was a sad person. I didn’t think that I was sad, but Ann [Mrs Croser] did. I was 54 and I still had some working life left, but I’d lost the opportunity to take it to another level. Ann encouraged me to buy a farm on the Fleurieu Peninsula – a sheep farm, not to plant grapes.”
Croser likes sheep, so as therapy goes this was rather a good idea.
Six months later he planted his first vines there; surprise, surprise. This is the Foggy Hill vineyard, and it consists of three clones of Pinot Noir from Dijon: 114, 115 and 777, which all originally came from a Ponsot vineyard in Morey St Denis. The site is eight kilometres from the coast, 350 metres high, on a slope with its back to the ocean, which saves it from being blown away.
There is a ridge in the middle of the vineyard with thinner soil, where the grapes ripen earlier: in 2017 he decided to make this block separately, and the wine is called Definitus.
But we’re jumping ahead. In 2002 he also bought the Whalebone vineyard at Wrattonbully in a joint venture with Champagne Bollinger and Jean-Michel Cazes of Bordeaux. (It became fully Croserowned in 2014.) It’s named for a fossil whale discovered in a cave there; it’s about 20km north of Coonawarra and was originally planted, with Bordeaux varieties and Shiraz, by the town architect of Adelaide in 1974.
The soil looks the same as that of Coonawarra, he says, but actually it’s quite different: Coonawarra’s limestone is about a million years old, whereas at Wrattonbully a geological fault has pushed much older limestone, some 34m years old, up under the same terra rossa. The temperature is the same as at Coonawarra and so is the wind; but the wine is different. “I wanted to own it because the fruit was so good,” he says now.
So: one winery lost, two vineyards gained. The final part of the jigsaw was getting back the winery.
He first planted Tiers with Chardonnay in 1978. It’s in the cool, wet Piccadilly Valley, it was the first vineyard he had planted, and he believed it to be a great site. It’s on the slope just below his house.
In 2006 Petaluma (by then owned by Lion Nathan) sold him the winery back, but it took until 2015 for the Crosers (and he gives credit for this to Ann) to get complete control back.
“I’d been thinking about my way of making Chardonnay,” he says. “I was caught in the dichotomy between my Riesling approach and the Californian approach based on Burgundy.
“In 2015 I completely changed tack with Tiers. I eliminated the malo and all lees stirring, and I took the new oak down from 50 percent to 30 percent. I’d been doing that progressively since 2010, when it had been 50 percent new oak and 100 percent malo. And I couldn’t be happier. If you think these wines are too fruity, don’t tell me.”
You’d have to be fairly brave to do that, admittedly, and luckily there is no need. When Croser describes his wines as reflecting the primary fruit from the vineyard, don’t get the idea that these wines just taste of primary fruit. This is a remarkable vineyard, 40 years old now, and it gives remarkable flavours. There is smoke and salt and tension, even an ethereal quality, and great precision. Beautiful texture, too: this texture is what Croser reckons sets Tiers apart.
That vine age of course matters. “At 40 years old you get sclerotic vines [“like us”, interjects Ann] that give low crops. He believes in exposing the fruit to sun very early, so that it acclimatises to ultraviolet light. “They develop an immunity,” he says. “You can follow the chemical transition from chlorophyll to chemicals that absorb UV, and effectively detox.”
And Tiers has been helped in recent vintages by SAM. At the moment, Croser is quite pleased with SAM.
SAM is the Southern Annual Modulation, which moves around and gives highs and lows across Australia and the ocean. In 2019, he says, SAM was all extremes, and it picked up wind and heat as it went. “The whole of Australia was on fire from August 2019 until the end of January 2020. Then SAM changed and became positive in the middle of the growing season, and it became the coldest second half we’ve ever had. It canceled out the first half.”
SAM has stayed put, so far, and not moved up again. It brings up cold air from Antarctica: “I’m happy with SAM”. Particularly if it doesn’t bring rain: “Tiers won’t stand the rain,” he says, which sounds like the title of a song, if anyone felt like writing it.
“One of the great privileges of my life has been to take a piece of land where grapes have never been, and work out how to make wine, over 30 years. I’m getting there with Foggy Hill, and I’m there with Tiers.
“If the season is within the bounds of the terroir, it will deliver.” But Tiers, it seems, can fool him. In youth, it can seem less good; less good than the slightly earlier ripening Tiers 1.5M block, which itself can seem less good than the Piccadilly Valley blend. In time it changes, he says, but there was a moment when he lost faith in what he was getting from the vineyard.
It was in 2011, a cool year… “I decided, when I picked, that I would relegate it to Piccadilly Valley Chardonnay, and I did. But the vintage got black marks from the critics, and it was very difficult to sell. It was my worst decision.”
Which is why he says, trust the vineyard. And if there was just one variety he could grow, it would be Chardonnay. “It used to be Riesling, but that changed.”