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Interview of “wine terroirist” Brian Croser

Written by Aksel Ritenis

 

Brian Croser has been an innovator in the Australian wine industry for 40 years and most of us know him for his fabulous Pelauma and Croser wines. ,. Educated at the University of Adelaide, (of which he was Deputy Chancellor for 8 years,) and at the University of California at Davis, Croser was involved in the establishment of the Charles Sturt Wine Science degree in Wagga Wagga and in the establishment of Australian wine industry institutions through the 1970’s and 80’s.Brian and Ann Croser began Petaluma in 1976, which is recognised as Australia’s leading exponent of terroir driven wines. Croser exactingly matched varieties to regions and meticulously managed the vines in Petaluma’s “distinguished site” vineyards in Clare, the Adelaide Hills and at Coonawarra for 27 years. Croser pioneered the development of the Adelaide Hills viticultural region, planting Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and establishing the Petaluma winery in the Piccadilly Valley from 1978 and Shiraz and Viognier at Mt Barker from the early 90’s. In the mid 80’s the purchase and renovation of the historic Bridgewater Mill provided a home for Croser, the eponymous premium sparkling wine made from fruit from the Piccadilly Valley, first released in 1987.The Croser family owns the original vineyard of the modern Adelaide Hills wine industry, the Tiers Vineyard, an Australian Chardonnay distinguished site now being progressively replanted on very close spacing with new Chardonnay clones on rootstocks.With Rollin Soles, Croser established Argyle winery in Oregon in 1985 and the Croser family are currently establishing Tunkalilla Vineyard, a Riesling and Pinot Noir vineyard in the Eola Hills just north of Salem in Oregon.Committed to the research and development of new “distinguished sites” for specific varieties, Croser and his family have developed a Pinot Noir Vineyard at the cool, foggy apex of the Fleurieu Peninsula at Parawa, 300 meters above and just 8 kilometres north of the Great Southern Ocean. 

1) You are undoubtedly famous and perhaps best known in Australia and internationally for pioneering viticulturein the cool climate terroir of the Adelaide Hills and the establishment of the iconic brands Petaluma and Croser. How did your interest in cool climate viticulture in the Adelaide Hills come about?

In my final year of Agricultural Science in 1970, I studied malic acid metabolism in grapes. From this research paper and the many references read it was obvious most Australian wine regions of the time were challenged by their hot climates and that potentially better and different wines would be made from cooler climates in Australia. It was also obvious that early ripening varieties such as Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Gewurztraminer actually required cool climates to achieve quality. These varieties were just becoming available in Australia at that time and there was much speculation about their market relevance and where they should be grown.

In 1972/73 I studied winemaking and viticulture at the University of California at Davis and my belief in cool climate superiority for fine wines was reinforced by the application of the Winkler regional temperature summation system and by the quality and style of the emerging wines from Sonoma, Carneros, Monterey and other cooler Californian sites.

On my return to Australia, my conviction that cool climates made better wines and especially from early ripening varieties was confirmed by the initial results my employer, Thomas Hardy and Sons, was achieving with Riesling, Cabernet and Shiraz in the new region of Padthaway and the continued success of Coonawarra reds at the wine shows. Rieslings from Eden Valley were much better than wines from the Barossa floor and McLaren Vale in the Siegersdorf winery where I made wine in the mid 1970’s.  

My motivation to pioneer the Piccadilly Valley as a genuine cool climate region was to find a climatic home for Chardonnay, where it could achieve its best expression as it does in Burgundy and cooler California.

Having assessed the possibility of growing Chardonnay in the Mount Macedon region of Victoria or finding a suitable location in Tasmania, I chose the Piccadilly Valley as the coolest and wettest subregion of the unplanted Adelaide Hills having the added advantage of being close to family and friends.This was a very good decision.

 

2) After the sale of Petaluma and Croser to NZ’s Lion Nathan  Group, have You continued to be involved in the project as a consultant or assisted in marketing Your old brands ? I understand that you share the  Winery facility for vinifying your own Tapanappa brand wines and You share the chardonnay fruit from the adjacent TIERS chardonnay vineyard with Petaluma?

After the takeover in 2001, I remained as Petaluma’s winemaker until after the 2005 vintage (my 30th Petaluma vintage). I resigned by choice as the potential conflicts between my role as winemaker for Tapanappa and for Petaluma became apparent to me.

In 2006 my family bought back the Petaluma winery facility at the Tiers vineyard site which we have owned and where we have lived since 1978. Initially we thought we would be leasing it back to Petaluma by agreement for just a few years while the built their new winery. A few years turned into 8 years as Lion Nathan dithered with the new winery project. By agreement, Tapanappa was able to make its wine at the winery under a contract winemaking arrangement. That has not worked as well as I would like and it will be a great relief to be back in control of the levers after December this year.

The Croser family and friends continue to lease vineyards and sell fruit in the Piccadilly Valley including from the Tiers Vineyard to Petaluma and that will remain the case after December.

 

3) You have long been a respected spokesman of the the Australian wine industry and You are currently championing the cause of“terroir driven wines”. Do you have any reservations about the Australian wine industries  direction and approach in promoting high volume commodity wines ,..to use your term,, and multi regional blended wine carrying the denomination S-E Australia such as Yellowtail to take an obvious example . Is this causing image problems for Australian wine and branding the product as high volume “generic” commodity wines at the expense of the fine wine sector?

High volume branded commodity wines have their very important place in global wine commerce and Australia is a high quality, reliable supplier of this wine type despite serious cost and regulatory disadvantages.

The problem for the Australian wine community is that the big producers who are the purveyors of these wines don’t want to differentiate in strategy or image projection between branded commodity and Australia’s very differentiated fine wine portfolio. This has pigeon holed the Australian wine industry as the industrial producers of wine from large irrigated vineyards in hot places.

This has cost the Australian fine wine community dearly because of the lack of recognition of Australia’s unique terroirs and the vintage variation that are the substance of the story of fine wine elsewhere

 

4) Is Australian wine in danger of being stereotyped as a cheap supermarket FMCG or can US or UK consumers distinguish between low priced wines for everyday consumption and the “fine wines” from designated terroirs also produced in Australia?

Consumers distinguish between cheap generic French wine for every day use and the fine wines of Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne for special occasion use. The same could be true for Australia with the right messaging.

 

5) Has “Brand Australia” been damaged in our key markets and if so what is the way forward ?

Brand Australia has passed its use by date a decade ago and should have been replaced by the story of Australia’s Unique Terroirs by 2000.

 

6) In a recently published article entitled “Apologia” published on the Langtons site, you state that “growing  wine to the best quality of the vineyard will naturally allow,…. is in philosophical conflict with the concept of making wine of the highest hedonic quality by whatever winemaking processing techniques are available to manipulate wine composition

Can we infer from this that You are critical of the much practised multi-regional blending  and over extraction so prevalent in Australian winemaking?

Standing by the Apologia quote, I have no problem with Grange and the like being fine wines in their own right even though they do not reflect a single terroir. Adding big amounts of tannin, acid, colour, oak and other amelioratives masks whatever natural balances the terroir provides and in the end leads to an hedonic sameness as Barossa Shiraz following the Grange model proves. It doesn’t matter that it is full of impact if every producer and vintage tastes the same it is the very antithesis of what the terroir/vintage story is about that defines the great wine regions of the world that we struggle to achieve any traction against. Over-ripeness and over-extraction are part of the hedonic formula and again mask terroir expression.

 

7) Many of Australia’s top brands -highly respected and popular iconic wines not least being Penfolds with its Bin ranges,…are made from multi regional blends,..so there is a major disconnect with the the European concepts of terroir,..Does this really matter in the modern world ,.where consumers are perhaps more concerned with the end result,.. and may not be concerned about European based notions of provenance and terroir? Incidentally top Champagne is also a blended wine,.. and we see significant improvements in the complexity of flavour and quality of other beverages such as  Coffee using this blending process. ?

Penfolds Bin wines are legitimate fine wines but are anomalies led by Grange in the global scheme of fine wine. They do express their varietal composition and reflect some of their broader origins (ie hot Barossa versus cool Coonawarra) but mostly they are stamped as Penfold wines.

Champagne is blended within its own region and is much more a consumer brand driven by occasion/circumstance promotion than by terroir differentiation. Again Champagne is an anomaly within the world of fine wine.

 

8) Do You think that the fascination with concentrated highly extracted Parker style wines is in decline ?

Has Parkers influence had a deliterious impact on the Australian industry that can’t easily be reversed,..have You seen any signs of a move away from “massive highly extracted  red wines” even impacting on the “more subtle and complex” style of Bordeaux?

If so what are Connoisseurs of fine wine now looking for ?

Yes, I think educated discriminating consumers are looking for a greater range of wine style and personality than the hedonic wine (Parker) provides.

Parker famously said that Australia’s cooler climate wines were try hard copies of their European counterparts and that the only fine wines of significance form Australia were the Barossa and McLarenVale Shiraz’s. His influence made fortunes for the many producers that complied with his definition of worthy Australian fine wines.  He did a great disservice and immeasurable damage to those that didn’t. Thankfully producers and consumers are moving on from this narrow pigeon-hole.

Connoisseurs are increasingly looking for more complex wines demonstrating greater differentiation based on terroir, vintage and producer. The story of the points of difference is very important to the emerging wine cognoscent

 

9) You state  that “the vignerons highest ideal is to grow grapes that allow wine to be made that requires no winemaking

amelioration to fully express the quality potential and terroir of the vineyard”,…In view of Australia’s “high tech interventionist ” approach to winemaking is this not  a retreat from current prevailing industry vinification methods,  norms and practices?

Are You advocating a new approach to the elaboration of wine in Australia?

The statement stands and it is a wine making approach used all over the country now by those who treasure their terroirs. It is an evolution that has been going on for 30 years and talk about a bad wrap compounded by the inability of the big companies to move on from technology, Australian small fine wine producers are avid avoiders of high tech by and large.

 

10) I understand that You don’t submit Your wines to wine shows,.. and You don’t actively support the “wine show system”.. Has the awarding of so many gold medals in so many different shows eroded the credibility  of the show system,.. and is it becoming a little farcical and an inaccurate indicator of quality?

I have always been a supporter of the Australian wine show system and been judge and Chairman of judges at most of the capital city wine shows.

Wine shows have a place in the technical evolution of the industry but do not usually attract the small and more idiosyncratic producers. They are a force for uniformity of style at any moment, which in itself evolves over time. The hideously over-oaked big company wines of the 90’s which swept the medal pool is one misguided track wine shows illuminated. They have seen the error of their ways. Wine shows are just one facet of the multifaceted assessment of wine style and quality available to producers and consumers

 

11) How did Your current fascination for Pinot Noir come about? What are the greatest Pinots or Burgundies that have inspired You on your current quest?

Pinot Noir and Burgundy in the particular are the lightning rod for the attention of the modern connoisseur, because of its expressiveness in response to terroir, its delicacy and complexity and its overall aura of sophistication. I prefer great Burgundy to any other wine style except when I prefer German Riesling, Bordeaux and Barolo among many other wines of the moment. The wines of DRC and Armand Rousseau have been most influential in my appreciation of the greatness and the many facets of Pinot although Cristom in Oregon has also been defining.

 

12) How did the Tapanappa project in the Fleurieu Peninsula come about ?

The Foggy Hill Pinot Noir Vineyard is my very private passion because the unique maritime cool climate and ironstone soils of the southern Fleurieu Peninsula offer an opportunity to make world class Pinot Noir with its own very terroir driven personality and style.

The high rainfall and very cool maritime climate defined Maylands Farm as a prime lamb producing property, which we purchased in 2003. The same qualities define a unique Pinot Noir terroir.

 

13) In view of your new monika as the “Terroirist” of the Australian wine industry ,..how did You decide on the current locations of Your pinot noir vineyards (approximately half way between Victor Harbour and Cape Jarvis in the Fleurie Penisnsula) ,..I understand that the use of Geo surveys were extensively used and can pretty much determine the optimal sites …in term of both terroir and climate,…could you elaborate on this please?

The use of BOM information on rainfall and temperature and the geology and soil maps of Australia and South Australia from CSIRO and PIRSA all help narrow down the suitable sites for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir to the coolest parts of the Adelaide Hills and The Fleurieu Peninsula.

The surprising thing not immediately evident, is the positive effect on Pinot style and quality of the narrow diurnal range of Foggy Hill (8.5°C) compared to the greater but still moderate diurnal range of the Piccadilly Valley (11.7°C).

In both cases, Piccadilly Valley in the Adelaide Hills and Parawa on the Fleurieu Peninsula, I selectively chose north facing slopes in the highest, wettest and coolest part of the region.

 

14) I understand that You have innovated changes to vineyard design in term of both spacing and density of vine plantings …Can You explain these precepts to our readers please?

I start from the point of balance, the number of growing points/hectare  (buds/shoots) that maintains a balance between crop level and vegetative growth. Every terroir has its own balance and for Foggy Hill it is about 75,000 buds/hectare. For Tiers it is 90,000buds/hectare.

Reverting to Foggy Hill how do I spread the 75,000 buds out to achieve the optimal space between buds to allow quality inducing light penetration and ventilation of 7.5 to 10cms. The answer is to plant more rows of vines by close spacing between rows. Between vines in the row is almost irrelevant.

For Foggy Hill 1.5mX1.5m spacing is 4,444 vines/hectare or 17 buds/ vine. One vine is 1.5m so the distance between buds is 1.5/17=8.8cms well in the ideal range. The vines are only 0.5m off the ground so they get the benefit to composition of night ground warmth allowing production of tannins, colour and flavour.

 

15) What are the Pinot Noir clones that You selected and can You tell us a little about the viticulture employed in the vineyard?

We have used Professor Raymond Bernard’s Dijon clones, 114, 115 and 777 all on devigorating Teleki 5C, 101-14 and Riparia Gloire rootstocks.

The viticulture is very simple minimal spray is required because of the small vine open canopy the vine balance is such that fruit thinning is rarely required and standard crop level is 5.5 tonnes/hectare.  The vineyard is obviously hand pruned to very exact standards and is hand harvested.

 

16) Can You please describe in laymens terms the winemaking or elaboration methods employed in the production of your wines?

Winemaking is also simple in 0.9 tonne tubs, which are hand plunged daily after a 5-day a cold maceration. Additions are rarely required as the vineyard naturally produces moderate sugars (moderate alcohol) and adequate natural acid at low pH.

After fermentation the wine is left on skins for a week then pressed directly to barrique about one third new for malo-lactic fermentation. Racked off full lees at the end of MLF SO2 is added and the wine matures on lees until racking in January after 10 months in barrique.

The wine is bottled without filtration after racking from barrique.

 

17) How is the 2014 vintage shaping up for You?

I attach the 2014 vintage report.

 

18) What is the style You are seeking to produce ,..it has been suggested in some quarters ,..that Australians are a little confused about Pinot Noir ,..with many big over-extracted Pinots available in  Australia  and NZ –what is the quintessential Pinot like? ,…what should Connoisseurs expect from a great Pinot in term of flavour and texture?

I am seeking a direct reflection of the terroir without overbearing influence of oak, over-extraction or the addition of amelioratives.

I would hope Foggy Hill has the hallmarks of great Pinot, which are beguiling fruit, complexity with delicacy, silky mid palate and fine but evident tannins. The unique spice and floral of the Pinot variety is often called the peacock’s tail and it is expressed differently in the different communes of Burgundy, in Oregon, California, New Zealand and the Yarra and Mornington. Foggy Hill Pinot is different again but has the recognisable peacocks tail including ripe spicy black berry characters. The mid palate is rich and the tannins are firm and fine

 

19) Which French Pinots or Bourgognes do you particularly enjoy,.. and are there any good ones available in the Australian  market?

I really enjoy wines from the communes of Chambolle Musigny (Comte de Vogue-Musigny) and from Chambertin (Rousseau-Clos de Beze and Chambertin). DRC wines from Vosne Romanee are at the pinacle of Pinot perfection.

BJC 29/5/2014.

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Aksel Ritenis

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