The Master Winemaker 100: Brian Croser [Tapanappa Wines]

Author: Arabella Mileham
Source: The Drinks Business
Review Date: Aug 2020

Earlier this year, The drinks business published a guide celebrating the talent of the winemakers who have scooped the highest accolade of our Global Masters tasting series, which is judged almost exclusively by MWs. Each week we profile the winemakers behind these medal winning wines – the creatives, scientists, mavericks and dreamers who are at the pinnacle of winemaking.

Brian Croser began as a winemaker with Thomas Hardy and Sons in 1969, later attending The University of California at Davis and establishing the Wine Science program at Charles Sturt. By 1976 he had established Petaluma, followed by Argyle winery in Oregon in 1986. Tapanappa was established in 2002 in partnership with Bollinger and the Cazes family of Lynch Bages in Pauillac, and in 2014, the Petaluma winery.

What or who inspired you to become a winemaker?
I grew up on a sheep farm straddling the Brown Hill Range in the Clare Valley and bordering the vineyards at White Hut. I loved farm life and having an aptitude for maths and science decided at primary school age that I would be an agricultural scientist. At boarding school, my headmaster was Charles Fisher, an Englishman and son of the Archbishop of Canterbury who loved Australian wine. He influenced me to become a winemaker as it is where the geographical and biological worlds meet, ranging from geology, soils and climate to plant physiology, microbiology, biochemistry and finally sensory appreciation.

What’s your favourite part of the job?
Sampling my vineyards leading up to harvest; assessing the crop level, condition and exposure of the fruit and canopy condition against the background of the season’s rainfall and heat accumulation. Tasting flavour and balance in the grapes and deciding when to harvest as perfect fruit as the season allows, informs the winemaking process and paints a minds eye picture of the finished wine. It’s the moment the vintage is made or broken.

What’s the hardest part?
The equal hardest part of the job is to see a vintage lost or severely compromised by weather conditions as happened in 1981, 1983, 1989 and thankfully not since. A year’s work lost!

What’s your go-to drink at the end of a long day?
At the end of a long day the reward and reviver is a glass of Riesling, it doesn’t matter whether Australian, Alsatian, German or Oregonian as long as it has a balanced to finish dry and is aromatically pure and flavoursome.

What advice would you give your younger self advice?
Choose your favoured variety and wine style and select the most suited site, plant intelligently, grow your own grapes, make and bottle your own wine to reflect the synergy between variety and site. Ignore the varietal and regional fashion of the day and the critics’ favoured wine styles. Let the site determine the quality, style and nuances of the wines produced over many vintages and try to enhance its unique attributes. Don’t reach for the ameliorative chemical palette. Be very patient, for 20 years plus.

What was your greatest winemaking mistake?
In 1984 and 1985 cash flow considerations forced me to make wine from Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grapes grown at the Evans Vineyard in Coonawarra after a radical vine retraining and grafting program. The wines were overly herbaceous, thin and predictably didn’t last. Parker didn’t like them. I wish I hadn’t succumbed to the financial pressures.

What wine-related achievement are you most proud of?
The winemaking achievement of which I am most proud is choosing the Tiers Vineyard in the Piccadilly Valley to grow Chardonnay in 1978, the first vineyard in the Adelaide Hills. This unique site and I have communicated now for 40 years and we still spring surprises on one another on the incremental journey to ultimate quality. Not far behind in the pride stakes is the choice of the very isolated Foggy Hill Vineyard on the Fleurieu Peninsula for Pinot Noir a work in progress since 2003.

Who is your inspiration in the wine world today?
I have had many inspirational mentors over the years: Dr. Bryan Coombe, Tom Hardy, [wine writer] Len Evans and Christian Bizot, to name a few. I was privileged to work with Amerine, Singleton, Ough, Kunkee, Olmo and Winkler at Davis and to befriend Andre Tchelistcheff, but the man I most admire at the moment is Jean-Michel Cazes of Lynch Bages. He is a great custodian of the traditions of Pauillac, but is a perfectionist informed by sound science and reason in an age when myth and spirituality resonate irrationally.

Where would your fantasy vineyard be?
My fantasy vineyards are where they are. They started as fantasies. I have no desire to own a proven Grand Cru vineyard in Burgundy, Bordeaux or wherever. I would not swap the journey with my own selected varieties and sites in South Australia.
If you weren’t a winemaker, what would you be doing and why?
I would be a geologist or an architect. Understanding the structure of the earth as a geologist and the marriage of aesthetics and functionality of the architectural endeavour have long fascinated me.

Which wine (grape/style) do you find it impossible to get along with
A variety I have never been tempted to grow or make is Grenache. Again this is heretical in this age of rebellion and rediscovery where Grenache has become a minor hero. The confection aromas and flavours and lack of profundity as a single variety are barriers to taking it to heart.

How has your taste in wine changed over your career?
My taste in wine has changed with my ability to afford the great wines of the world. I did begin my winemaking career in the late 1960’s when it was still possible to afford and drink the great wines from great vintages, aided and abetted by Len Evans et al. Many of those Grand Cru are beyond ordinary budgets now but I still carefully buy my share being canny about vintage and vineyard. Great Burgundy and great Bordeaux vie nearly equally in my cellar.

What type of wine do you drink most regularly?
I mostly drink Chardonnay and Pinot Noir when I am not drinking Riesling, Cabernet or Shiraz.

What wine would you most like to drink, and who would you share it with?
The greatest wine in my memory was 1961 Palmer. I would most like to share it with [wine writer] Len Evans and its maker Peter Sichel, both unfortunately deceased.

Master medals
Tapanappa Tiers Vineyard Chardonnay 2013 (Chardonnay Masters 2015)
Fleurieu Peninsula Pinot Noir (Pinot Noir Masters 2017)…

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