Croser crows a little

Brian Croser, Australian wine luminary well known for establishing and then selling Petaluma in the Adelaide Hills before setting up his own wine company Tapanappa, has just written this opinion piece, entitled A Small Boast. It serves as a fine herald of tomorrow's tasting article Trefethen triumphs in the end

Being in the fine-wine growing and making business is deeply personal. 

I have spent 40 years choosing distinguished vineyard sites, planting them with the right variety, refining the viticulture and the winemaking, and enduring the swings and roundabouts of the third-party critical assessment of the wines. Like any parent I take offence when my wines (aka my alternative children) don’t achieve the points and accolades I think they deserve. Like any good parent I know my children aren’t perfect but I have a better idea of where their strengths and weaknesses are than any external reviewer.

My children/wines are different. There are ponderous swings of the fashion pendulum in the Australian fine-wine endeavour. In the 1990s the massively over-oaked big-company red wines were the critics’ choice, and then in the early 2000s the over-ripe, dead-fruit wines of the Parker push took over the imagination of the critics.

Through all of that time Petaluma stuck to the low crop, open canopy, hand-pruned, hand-picked and subtly oaked model that best displayed the terroir characteristics of the Evans Vineyard and Coonawarra. This model inevitably involved the perfectly correct, slightly leafy genetic expression of Cabernet Sauvignon elicited by the Coonawarra climate. Because of the infatuation with over-ripe characters, any leafiness was condemned, except of course in great bordeaux, where it was excused as a regional character.

My Petaluma Coonawarra never achieved the secondary market values of the porty Shiraz wines that dominated the Langton’s hierarchy but they have outlasted them by a distance and they are still going. They will keep going way beyond their current 20-plus years. Vintages 1988, 1990, 1992, 1995 1998 and 2000 are some of the highlights and you can buy them at auction for less than current release price. That amazes me, especially whenever I open one of those old Petaluma bottles and my knowledgeable friends compare them to great aged bordeaux – indeed they are often better than the latter when compared side by side.

I can hear Ann say 'move on', so I will.

Australian Chardonnay has just undergone one of those ponderous fashion swings and ended up in a much better place [see, for example, Margaret River's superior Chardonnays – JR]. Again the over-ripe and over-oaked examples from warm vineyards of the penultimate two decades have given way to cool-climate Chardonnay in this decade. The pendulum of course over-swung, to the early-picked (aka green cucumber), artefact-laden (think struck match and flint), flavourless wines that dominated the reviews over the past decade and still receive some favour. Chardonnay is nothing without flavour and texture. That’s what separates it from all other white varieties making it arguably the greatest white variety of all with apologies to the delicate and noble Riesling variety.

Throughout the pendulum swings, it has been my life’s mission to make great Chardonnay to vie with the best from Burgundy, Sonoma Coast and wherever great Chardonnay is grown. That’s why we came to the Tiers Vineyard (pictured above in autumn) in the very cool and wet Piccadilly Valley in 1978 and planted the wonderful OF* clone of Chardonnay on close spacing with vertical, manicured canopy, unlike any other vineyard at that time.

My philosophy has always been to minimise winemaking impact to allow the vineyard terroir to best express itself through the variety to which it is ultimately suited. Part of that philosophy has been to make no sudden moves, to incrementally change things in the vineyard and winery over the years as experience provides a window to improvement. That has been a 40-year project.

So when one of my Wine Australia colleagues expressed amazement at how good the Tapanappa Tiers Chardonnay is and suggested that I must have changed the winemaking radically, I know he had not tasted Tapanappa Tiers Chardonnay often or recently. When I answered, ‘No, the winemaking has remained much the same through all of the iterations of Tapanappa Tiers Chardonnay’, I could hear the disbelief in his voice.

Which brings me to the big change in the profile of Tapanappa Tiers Chardonnay and to the substance of the title of this rant, A Small Boast.

Partly by accident and partly by design, Tapanappa has begun to enter selected wine competitions. It has been a well-known fact that I have resisted putting Petaluma and then Tapanappa in competitions and there are personal reasons for that that relate to my despair at the fashion swings that rule competitions.

Well, guess what? Tapanappa Tiers Chardonnay keeps winning the competitions across its vintages and different styles of judging. Below is a summary of the performance of Tapanappa Tiers Chardonnay across the very credible Drinks Business (UK) Masters Competition, the UK Sommeliers’ Competition and the Decanter World Wine Awards.

I couldn’t be prouder than to achieve the Best in Show of the 17,000-entry Decanter World Wine Awards against wines from all great Chardonnay regions of the globe. I have to remind myself of something the great head winemaker of Orlando, Gunther Prass, is reported to have said to his staff after Orlando had swept the competition at an Australian wine show. I paraphrase: ‘Beware that the height of your elation at these victories is the depth to which you will plunge when you inevitably fail at the next wine show.’

I am wary.

  • 2017 Drinks Business Masters – 2015 Tapanappa Tiers Chardonnay – Gold and Masters (best in show)
  • 2017 Drinks Business Asian Masters – 2015 Tapanappa Tiers Chardonnay – Gold
  • 2017 Decanter World Wine Awards – 2015 Tapanappa Tiers Chardonnay – Platinum and best Australian Chardonnay (runner-up for Best in Show)
  • 2018 Drinks Business Masters – 2016 Tapanappa Tiers Chardonnay – Gold
  • 2018 UK Sommeliers Awards – 2016 Tapanappa Tiers Chardonnay – Gold and Critics Choice (top wine)
  • 2018 Decanter World Wine Awards – 2016 Tapanappa Tiers Chardonnay – Platinum and Best in Show

I do hope you forgive the small boast and I remain ever hopeful Tapanappa Tiers Chardonnay will one day not be treated as was the prophet in his own land. 

* The OF clone of Chardonnay was imported into Australia in 1969 with the Mendoza clone from Davis. It is now, after virus cleansing, called FPS 02A. This FPS survey traces its history. I think it came from the Armstrong farm vineyard at Davis but how it got there is unclear although it’s probably from the Wente vineyard.

Image