As a pioneer of Australian cool-climate viticulture, Brian Croser was the first to plant Chardonnay in the Adelaide Hills – now his latest vintage is out.
Few people can claim pioneer status in the 21st century but Brian Croser can: he was the first to plant vines in South Australia’s Adelaide Hills in 1979 – in the Tiers Vineyard in the Piccadilly Valley. Today it is an established wine region famed for Chardonnay as well as Pinot Noir with a total of 3,957ha/9,778 acres of vines.
Shaping the industry
While Croser nurtured his vines, made wines and honed his style – the Australian wine industry evolved with him. He took a leading role in shaping the country’s transformation, teaching and mentoring countless winemakers via his consultancies and stints at the University of Adelaide and Charles Sturt University.
Croser had fallen in love with Chardonnay as a student at UC Davis in California in the late 1970s. “Chardonnay was virtually unknown and unplanted in Australia at the time. We became enamoured of the best Californian examples from the cooler areas of Sonoma, Carneros and the Santa Cruz Mountains. I learnt a lot about Chardonnay from my professors at Davis, who emphasised that it was an early ripening variety and its best qualities could only be elicited from a cool climate, ” Croser says.
“Chardonnay was the first white wine we had tasted that combined the aromaticity and acid of fine white wine and a level of texture and complexity normally only seen in fine red wine.”
“When we returned from Davis to Adelaide, we identified the Piccadilly Valley as the coolest and wettest location in South Australia, and therefore highly suitable for growing great Chardonnay. In 1978 we purchased The Tiers Vineyard site and progressively planted it to Chardonnay between 1979 and 1982. The early crops were used in Croser sparkling wine and it wasn’t until 1990 that Petaluma Chardonnay was 100% from the Piccadilly Valley. In 1995 we released the first Tiers single vineyard wine.”
A real shift
Croser also reflects on the changes in Australian viticulture in those past 40 years: “In the 1970s and 80s, Australia was still a warm to hot climate viticultural nation. Shiraz, Cabernet and Riesling were the dominant quality varieties, most of the national crop still went to brandy and fortified wine production. It was a land of wide rowed sprawling vineyards, big tractors and hot dry viticulture environments.” But he had other ideas: “It was my contention that Australia’s best wines would be produced from cooler wetter regions, many of them yet to be discovered. I was told by viticulturists from the warmer drier areas that we couldn’t ripen grapes properly in the Piccadilly Valley. My observations and learnings from California told me otherwise and that closer spacing of vines, vertical canopies and fastidious management in the cooler regions would produce Australia’s best wines, a point now proven.”
Croser is credited with driving site-specific viticulture forward in Australia, saying: “I learnt not all vineyard sites are created equal, some are better than others. No vintage is the same, but the great sites retain their identity, uniqueness and quality no matter the vintage, hot and dry or cold and wet.”
We tasted three wines: the 2020 vintage of the Tapanappa Piccadilly Valley Chardonnay from vines planted 15-30 years ago as a tune-in to the region. This was followed by the Tapanappa Tiers Vineyard 1.5m Chardonnay: so-called because the vines were planted with close spacing of 1.5 by1.5m – which is dense for Australia. This section of the Tiers Vineyard was planted to French Clones in 2003 – the first vintage of this wine was in 2015. Last but certainly not least came the wine from the original block planted in 1979: the 2019 vintage of the then exactly 40-year-old Tiers Vineyard. Just 2,700 bottles were made which have already sold out in Australia – with small allocations in international markets.
The comparison was beautiful – and what became apparent was the sleekness and balance of the Tiers Vineyard. Croser says: “Very young wines are often confusing and I used to worry that the Piccadilly Valley Chardonnay would turn out to be better than Tiers. Then I learned to ‘trust the vineyard’ and that however shy it was at the beginning Tiers would always be the most expressive, and best textured, simply the best in the end.”
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