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Looking back at Australian Chardonnay

Author: 
Jancis Robinson
Source: 
Jancis Robinson
Review Date: 
May 2020

I think it was Xavier Bizot who had the idea of celebrating the fortieth anniversary of the planting of the Tiers vineyard in the Adelaide Hills in 1979.

He is the son-in-law of Brian Croser, who initially planted the vines for his nascent Petaluma wine operation. Much wine has flowed under the bridge since then, including the sale of Petaluma in 2001 to Asian brewers Lion Nathan and the establishment of the Croser family’s own Tapanappa label in the old Petaluma winery from 2015.

Ann and Brian Croser have always lived overlooking Tiers and the winery and she, a cytogeneticist, accountant and, most importantly, lawyer, was determined they would not have to move. Petaluma now have their own winery and restaurant in nearby Woodside and the Tiers vineyard is shared between Tapanappa and Petaluma, so each year you can buy two versions of the same wine. Further confusion: Petaluma own the sparkling wine known as Croser.

Xavier is married to Lucy Croser and is son of the late Christian Bizot of Bollinger champagne, Bollinger having invested in Tapanappa when it started up in 2003. Some might have waited until the fortieth anniversary of the first vintage of Tiers, in 2024, but perhaps Xavier is a young man in a hurry. A traditional-method sparkling wine made from Chardonnay in the Tapanappa winery, called Daosa, is his personal project.

In any case I was very glad that 2019 had been chosen for the celebratory tasting since it coincided with when I was in Australia to launch the new, eighth edition of "The World Atlas of Wine" and my wine glass. On a beautiful spring day at the end of October, 18 of us sat down in the Tapanappa cellar door overlooking the vineyard to taste selected vintages of Tiers Chardonnay, shown above. We were also treated to some other great Chardonnays from Burgundy and California carefully selected by Croser and, over lunch, a few more highlights from the Tapanappa stable and French counterparts. The particular vintages chosen were dictated partly by stock levels, and also by the fact that Tiers is not made every year.

Croser explained that in a typical year 500 cases of Tiers Chardonnay are made but that in 2020 they expected to produce only about 200 cases, thanks to frost in late September for the first time since 2007 that was likely to halve the yield. See his recent South Australia 2020 – unforgettable.

Chardonnay history
We revisited the story of how Chardonnay arrived in Australia. The first varietal Chardonnays in Australia were both made in 1971, one from Craigmore in Mudgee, an early hotspot for the variety, and the famous Vat 47 from Tyrrell’s in the Hunter Valley. John Truckstop, who would go on to be the gifted original viticulturist at Leeuwin Estate in Margaret River, planted it in Cowra, New South Wales, in 1970 or 1971. A Chardonnay was also supposedly planted as early as 1966 in the Gehrig vineyard in Rutherglen, Victoria – although James Halliday in his 1985 Australian Wine Compendium maintains it was eventually identified as Chenin Blanc.

At an event in London in September 2019 co-hosted by Yalumba, Bruce Tyrrell claimed that their bottling of Chardonnay known as HVD (standing for Hunter Valley Distillery), is based on a two-acre block of vines planted in 1908, which may represent ‘the oldest Chardonnay vines on the globe. Penfolds leased the vineyard and it was run by Brian McGuigan’s dad. We bought it on 27 December 1982. We made wine from it in the 1980s but got serious about what we call “the Penfold clone” from 2009 onwards.’ indumental deputy director general of New South Wales Agriculture, maintained that the plant material had actually been sourced, perhaps discreetly, in the HVD vineyard.

Chardonnay arrived in South Australia in 1968, the OF clone sent from the University of California at Davis. This was also known as FPS Chardonnay 2A and was the version of Chardonnay 1 that had been heat-treated (for virus) by Professor Harold Olmo – although Olmo decided 2A was virused too and eliminated it from the Davis nursery in 1969.

What is clear from all this complicated plant history is that Chardonnay was still quite a novel concept in 1979 when the Tiers vineyard was planted. ‘Back in 1979 we thought Chardonnay was Lebanese!’ remembered Croser.

He and Ann had returned to Australia from studies at Davis in California in 1972/73 having fallen in love with ‘mesmerising’ California Chardonnay with its ‘nearly unctuous texture and generous flavours’. Having listened to his UCD professors, some of whom called it Pinot Chardonnay then, Croser was sure ‘the variety demanded to be grown in the very coolest viticultural regions... In 1978 we purchased a ruined market garden in the middle of the Piccadilly Valley in the Adelaide Hills, the very epicentre of high rainfall and low temperature in South Australia, with 1,200 mm [47 in] of rain [in an average year] and a long-term heat summation of 1175 °C days.

‘The first task in 1978 was to build the Adelaide Hills’ first winery and have it ready for the 1979 vintage. [They vinified fruit from the Evans Vineyard in Coonawarra and Hanlin Hill vineyard in the Clare Valley where Brian was brought up.] The second, in 1979, was to clear the blackberries and plant the Tiers Vineyard with Chardonnay on radically close spacing and vertical canopy. In one of life’s coincidences I chose the OF clone of Chardonnay from the nursery of the three that were then available. Little did I know then, OF signifies Old Farm and refers to the University of California, Davis, origins of the clone from the first experimental vineyard on the Armstrong Vineyard before Harold Olmo began the new FPS vineyard in the 1950s.’

Because of the seminal role played by California Chardonnay in the genesis of the Tiers vineyard, Croser chose to include examples from Stony Hill, Hanzell, Mount Eden and Hyde de Villaine (in this case HDV rather than Tyrrell's HVD) in his celebratory tasting, all of them based on the famous Wente clone except for the Mount Eden Chardonnay, which is based on the original Paul Masson selections brought to the Santa Cruz Mountains from Burgundy in 1900. See The story of California Chardonnay – part 1 for more details of California Chardonnay clones.

Tiers of joy
Croser assured us that all of the Tiers Chardonnays had been made in exactly the same way, so the differences between them were the result only of vintage variation and age. The alcohol levels of all the vintages are remarkably similar because they pick simply on ripeness.
I’ve tasted Croser’s Tiers Chardonnay many a time over the years and have always found considerable tension in it – sometimes to the point of introversion when the wines are young. I wondered whether the deliberately suppressed malolactic conversion is a factor. He did admit there was a little bit of malo conversion in some of these wines, ‘but I’m not sure I really like malo character’. There is definitely no malo in the later vintages, apparently, in which the pH is consistently low. ‘We struggle for pHs of 3.' Acid additions were described as ‘rare’.

Spending a bit of time here reminded me just how cool the Adelaide Hills can be (despite the catastrophic bushfires in late 2019). Croser explained that the heat summation in that other source of fine Australian Chardonnay, Margaret River, is 1500 °C days whereas in the Adelaide Hills it is often below 1200 °C days. In view of this chilly climate, they have not adopted the fruit shading that is becoming increasingly popular in warmer wine regions, but are pruning ever harder. ‘Vines are cleverer than us', Xavier assured us.

They did replant the parcel of vineyard immediately below the house in 2003 to Dijon clones on rootstocks and reoriented the rows to north–south but apparently what we tasted was strictly the old OF clone.

A discussion as digestif
Those of us invited to the day-long celebration had been sent three questions to consider in advance, under the provocative title 'Vignerons' revenge'. Croser had much to get o# his chest about the dubious value of the 100-point scoring system for wine. In his first question he railed against 'the apparent compression of scores in the 96 to 100 range. What might replace it that can simply capture the attention of short-attention-span consumers but give them richer context for buying decisions?' Huon Hooke argued forcefully in favour of words rather than numbers, as is the wont of us writers. He agreed that there had been a distinct ratings creep upwards. Journalist Nick Ryan made the point that scores were a powerful monetiser. Wine writer Tyson Stelzer from Queensland felt that points were still relevant because there are so many consumers who find them useful, and Sydney wine buyer and MS Frank Moreau pointed out that many people simply look up a wine's score on their phones. Retailer Michael Andrewarthar of East End Cellars was firmly of the opinion that in the context of his operation, points matter.

So, little balm for Croser there. But the wines did their stuff, as you can see in Australian Rieslings, and Chardonnays compared.

Tapanappa, Tiers Vineyard Chardonnay vertical
On a glorious late-October spring day in the Adelaide Hills, overlooking the Tiers vineyard that had recently been quite severely frosted, as recounted in this South Australian 2020 vintage report, Brian Croser selected vintages of Tiers Chardonnay from 2018 back to 2005 to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of planting the Tiers vineyard in 1979. He also chose to serve various non-Australian Chardonnays that he saw as rivals or benchmarks, together with Leeuwin Estate 2016 for comparative purposes. These are described in the French and American Chardonnays group below.

See a full account of the event in Looking back at Australian Chardonnay. Although the Tiers 2016 was the obvious star of the line-up, and was considered Best in Show in the 2018 Decanter World Wine Awards, Croser maintains that it is the 2017 that represents the vineyard most eloquently.

Tapanappa, Tiers Vineyard Chardonnay 2018 Piccadilly Valley 17.5

The second warmest vintage after 2016 with warm nights, moderate days and very dry. 1,503 °C days of heat. Picked 26 March. 6,900 bottles. Quite firm and positive. Kumquat-bright fruit. Still very young. Very emphatic and relatively bumptious. Big and bold. 13.5%
Drink 2020 – 2030

Tapanappa, Tiers Vineyard Chardonnay 2017 Piccadilly Valley 17.5

2017 started with a very cool spring. 1,303 °C days of heat. Their latest vintage ever, harvested 13 April. 4,200 bottles.
The least distinctive somehow. Very well balanced and embryonic. But it’s so well-mannered it almost shrinks into the background. Very sleek and beautifully balanced. 13%
Drink 2020 – 2030

Tapanappa, Tiers Vineyard Chardonnay 2016 Piccadilly Valley 18

2016 was the warmest ever vintage. 1,539 °C days of heat. Harvested 13 March, really early. 6,000 bottles.
Rich, chalky and creamy on the nose. Very tense and together. It may have been a warm year but this is far from a rich wine. Lovely balance of tension and richness. Richer than most vintages. 13.8%
Drink 2018 – 2028

Tapanappa, Tiers Vineyard Chardonnay 2016 Piccadilly Valley 18

Planted in 1979, OF clone, sent to South Australia from Davis in 1968, Harold Olmo’s heat-treated version of Chardonnay 1, called FPS Chardonnay 2A. It was eliminated in 1969 because of viruses. (See Chardonnay clones updated.) 6,000 bottles. Broad and palate pleasing. Complete. Full on. Big impact. Something to get your teeth into. Bright-fruited finish.
Drink 2019 – 2030
AU$90 RRP

Tapanappa, Tiers Vineyard Chardonnay 2015 Piccadilly Valley 17.5

2015 was the first vintage that Tapanappa was in control of the winery. It was a warm spring, very cool ripening months, 1,173 °C days of heat. Picked 17 March. 2,160 bottles. Leesy nose. Excellent acid grab on the palate. Real beginning, middle and end to this wine. Lime juice. Very youthful. 13.6%
Drink 2018 – 2028

Tapanappa, Tiers Vineyard 1.5m Chardonnay 2015 Piccadilly Valley 17.5++

Planted in 2003, Dijon clones 76 and 95 on rootstock. 4,444 vines/ha. 2,400 bottles. 1.5 m denotes close planting – very big on the label! First vintage. Concentrated version of Tiers! Greenish fruit. Very tense still. Chewy. Long.
Drink 2020 – 2032
AU$55 RRP

Tapanappa, Tiers Vineyard Chardonnay 2014 Piccadilly Valley 17.5

2014 was warm and then cool, 1,175 °C days of heat. It was a low crop, harvested 2 April. 1,620 bottles.
Greenish gold. Almost austere on the nose and then really chock-full of embryonic rich fruit on the palate. Lemon-mousse flavours. Good structure and palate impact. But still pretty. 13.5%
Drink 2020 – 2030

Tapanappa, Tiers Vineyard Chardonnay 2013 Piccadilly Valley 17

The 2013 vintage was warm with 1,317 °C days of heat and very dry, but with no heatwaves. Harvested 14 March. 3,600 bottles.
Pale gold. Vegy, slightly reductive nose. Lots of ripe, fresh fruit on the mid palate. Still quite youthful. 13.8%
Drink 2018 – 2028

Tapanappa, Tiers Vineyard Chardonnay 2008 Piccadilly Valley 17

2008 was warm with 1,227 °C days of heat and a 15-day heatwave beginning of March. Harvested 17 March. 9,000 bottles.
Mid bright copper colour. Immediately riper and fuller and more flattering to taste. Still lots of acidity but good undertow of fruit. A hint of lemon sherbet. Fresh finish. 13.9%
Drink 2011 – 2024

Tapanappa, Tiers Vineyard Chardonnay 2005 Piccadilly Valley 16

The 2005 vintage was very cool – 1,113 °C days of heat. Harvested 6 April. 5,400 bottles.
Bright mid greenish gold. Quite leesy nose. Lively and lime fruited. Lots of acidity. Bright fruit. More acid than fruit dominant on the mid palate. Crisp, but just a slight hole in the middle. 13.5%
Drink 2009 – 2020