September 28, 2005
By Clive Platman
©2005, The Birmingham Post
Now in his mid-50s, Brian Croser is regarded by many authorities as the greatest Australian winemaker of his generation. Nominated as Decanter 2004's "Man of the Year", Croser is the pioneer of Australian "terroir" by his insistence on marrying the vineyard site to the ideal grape variety.
Traditionally, Australians planted every conceivable variety in the same vineyard regardless, and then wondered why the quality was so ordinary. By contrast, Croser, whose ambitions have always been at the premium end of the market, introduced the idea of planting the most suitable variety. Under his Petaluma label, founded by him in 1976, Cabernet and Merlot were grown in the Terra Rossa soils in Coonawarra, Riesling in high-altitude Clare, and Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in the cooler Adelaide Hills.
Croser, a farmer's son, graduated in agricultural science at the University of Adelaide and oenology at Davis, California. He began his working life with Hardy's, and established his Petaluma winery in 1976. Over the years, he has spent time teaching as a viticultural oenologist, and he still retains that academic demeanour.
Petaluma expanded in the 1990s, acquiring a number of leading wineries, including Knappstein, Mitchelton and Stonier. Then, in 2001, Petaluma itself became the victim when it was bought out by the New Zealand brewing giant, Lion Nathan.
Although devastated at the time, Croser was retained as managing consultant, and allowed to continue with the running of the winery in a semi-autonomous fashion. Nevertheless, he is a man who is driven to pursue his own destiny, and maintain complete control over his winery and winemaking.
With this in mind, he acquired the interest of the Whalebone Vineyard at Wrattonbully, South Australia, in a joint venture with the Champagne House, Bollinger, and J. M. Cazes of Lynch-Bages. The wine is now sold under the name Tapanappa, which is Aboriginal for "stick to the path".
The fruit is sourced from a unique 8-hectare estate in an emerging region. It lies on a fault formed about 800,000 years ago, between the Great Southern Ocean and an ancient cliff face. Over time, the limestone cliff has eroded, leaving a bright red, Terra Rossa soil, overlying a cave system in which the remains of a prehistoric whale were discovered. In addition to the superb soils, climatically the site is one of the few areas where both Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz can achieve full ripeness.
The vines at the Whalebone were planted over 30 years ago, and Croser has had long associations with its previous owners. Indeed, he had tried to buy out the interests on more than one occasion, but as the growers approached retirement, the opportunity to acquire the vineyard presented itself.
Since buying the estate in 2002, Croser has retrellised the vines, and carried out extensive shoot and fruit-thinning to reduce the yields. The vineyard is now managed without irrigation.
As the main work is carried out in the vineyard to produce perfect fruit, following the harvest, there is minimal intervention in the winery. After fermentation, the wines are aged in French oak barriques for 20 months, and the 2003 vintage is a blend of 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Shiraz, and 10% Cabernet Franc. Only 950 cases have been released.
The wine has a rich, dense colour, with a bouquet of leather, cedar and spice. These aromas are present on the palate , where they mingle with plum and black fruit flavours. The texture is like velvet, the various components show harmony and the finish is long.
The wine is truly impressive and set to become a classic. In future years, Croser intends to include other varieties into the blend, such as Petit Verdot and Carmenere. The future looks bright and Croser is happy that his destiny is back in his own hands.
Priced at around £30, stockists include Upton Wines (01684.592668), Nectarous Wines, Cheltenham (01242 2245466) and Avery's (01275.811100). UK Agents: Mentzendorff, www.mentzendorff.co.uk.