WWC23 – Garry Crittenden, by Paul Sellars

A painting of Gary Crittenden by his grandson, Digby

In this entry to our 2023 wine writing competition, Australian journalist and wine lover Paul Sellars writes about Garry Crittenden of the Mornington Peninsula. See our WWC23 guide for more great wine writing.

Paul Sellars writes Paul Sellars is an Australian rural journalist, writer and communications professional based in Melbourne. He has a particular interest in the diversification of Australian wine as well as in agricultural sustainability and biodiversity protection. He’s also a qualified landscape architect, has a degree in modernist Italian poetry, completed language studies in Siena and has worked vintages in Tuscany and on the Bellarine Peninsula in Victoria. All of these experiences influence his approach to writing and his interest in wine

My favourite wine person is Garry Crittenden, founder of Crittenden Estate on the Mornington Peninsula, because of the many remarkable things he has done to catalyse seismic evolutionary events in Australian wine. I’m referring to things which we take for granted now but which were anything but mainstream or accepted at the time when he initiated them or played a leading part in doing so. They were future-shaping feats which required thinking of the lateral kind. They took courage and singlemindedness of epic proportions. And they have left Australian wine infinitely better off as a result.

This former horticultural researcher and plant nurseryman turned vigneron deserves to be recognised for helping to orchestrate the metamorphosis of Australian winemaking into its modern day, multifaceted face. He’s the definitive exemplar of how Australian wine has defied attempts to stereotype it as homogenous or typecast it as monodimensional. Of how it gets up after the hits it takes from the things that conspire to flatten it, dusts itself off and reincarnates itself in a richer and more resilient form. 

When I first met Garry in the late 1990s I was a youngish rural journalist writing about horticulture and viticulture. I’d heard and keenly felt the buzz about Italian grape varieties and their future here. There was an electrifying hint in the air of a big disruptor of the status quo. And when one drizzly winter morning I drove from Melbourne to the Mornington Peninsula to meet Garry at the vineyard he established nearly 20 years earlier, I discovered who was holding the lightning rod. He poured me a glass of a Nebbiolo he’d made, not from his own vineyard but from the Pizzini family in the King Valley in North East Victoria, and I couldn’t believe what I had just tasted.

There it was in the glass, in all its singular and captivating otherness, positively glowing with the seemingly unbounded potential the future held for Australian wine. It was everything that other Australian wines of the day were not, and it took hold of my imagination and completely uprooted my preconceived notions of what was possible. I looked at the clever labelling and listened to the compelling story its maker had built around it, and it felt like a moment of multiple light bulb activation reverberating into the future. The way I thought about wine was never the same after then. Not for me, not for the wine-loving friends who I introduced it to, and certainly not for the sommeliers I knew. And increasingly, not for producers the length and breadth of the country.

On the edge of this viticultural frontier there were various protagonists, all worthy of writing about, but it seemed Garry was chief agitator. Playing tip of the spear suited him. He was unafraid to tell journalists Australia had more places better suited to Italian varieties than to the French cepage that underpinned the entire sector. It was confrontational and iconoclastic but it was landing blows. His Italian varietals were grabbing headlines everywhere. Then 1999 saw the publication of Italian Winegrape Varieties in Australia, the monograph he co-authored with Alex McKay, Peter Dry and Jim Hardie of the Cooperative Research Centre for Viticulture. It was essentially a comparison of climatic indices in parts of Piedmont and Tuscany with dozens of Australian locations. It brought empirical rigour to bear on what until then had been, with the exception of some encouraging results from a small number of plantings, not much more than optimistic speculation. Suddenly the science was out there for all to see.

And yet by the time all of this was happening Garry had in many ways gone through it all before. He was no stranger to the effort and risk involved in convincing the market to recalibrate its perspective on what was possible. He’d already dived headlong into the unknown in 1982 when he established Dromana Estate (later to be called Crittenden Estate) at a time when viticulture was not even a fringe activity on the Mornington Peninsula. So negligible was the Peninsula’s viticultural past that on one weekend in September that year the Crittendens doubled the total acreage under vine in this particularly bucolic part of Australia when they planted their first five acres. Garry and his late wife Margaret then started the region’s first full-time cellar door, the first winery restaurant and later the first vineyard accommodation. Almost everything the Crittendens did at that time was different. Their vines were planted at far higher densities than Australian convention. Virtually no-one else, if anyone at all, was using vertical shoot trellising, inter-row cropping and regulated deficit irrigation. It's easy to take this for granted now; another thing altogether when you view it in the context of the times.

To be planting a vineyard on the Peninsula in those days you had to reconcile yourself with all of kinds of uncertainties. You had to be at ease on the frontier. Were your years of detailed meso-climate and soil studies to find the right site going to pay off? Were your grapes ever going to achieve physiological ripeness? And assuming they did was anyone going to be open-minded enough to consider buying wine from your terra incognita? The Crittendens took the risks, and they paid off. They helped unearth Mornington’s potential and showed what was possible, and the gravitational pull it created became inexorable. Nearly 2600 acres of vineyard, 200 growers and 50 wineries and an unrivalled status as mainland Australia’s pinot noir epicentre, with similar accolades for its chardonnay – all this is what the hopes and dreams, the adventurousness and risk appetite of those years led to.

For an insight in to what those times were like, it’s worth browsing the clippings and articles that Margaret Crittenden spent years compiling into a three-volume collection known as The Big Red Book. One of the many details they illustrate is that much of the hopes and anticipation rested on Cabernet Sauvignon rather than Pinot Noir. The eventual demise of Cabernet at Crittenden Estate and across most of the Peninsula has already been well documented by Garry himself, but it is more than a sidenote that excellent Cabernet-dominant wines were produced under the Dromana Estate label and many of those vintages are still drinking exceptionally well after more than 30 years. The 1989 Dromana Estate Cabernet Merlot which I shared with Garry last year was easily the best aged wine from the Peninsula I have tasted and it would have outperformed many wines of similar age from far more illustrious cabernet producing regions.

For all the seemingly boundless energy that Garry has channelled into the Peninsula over the past four decades he also did much to accelerate the progress of viticulture in other regions. When LVMH commissioned the late Dr Tony Jordan to find a suitable location for an Australian arm of Domaine Chandon he turned to Garry, who found the eventual site in the Yarra Valley and designed and planted the vineyard. In 1986 the pair formed a partnership and bought 50 acres at Tea Tree in Tasmania’s Coal River Valley and a year later planted the initial 25 acres of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay of the Tolpuddle Vineyard. Now owned by cousins Martin Shaw and Michael Hill Smith of Shaw of Shaw and Smith fame Tolpuddle is now arguably the standard bearer for Tasmanian wine abroad.

It’s the Crittenden vineyard though that tells you the most about its creator; of how he shaped the sector and how it shaped him. Ever since I first saw it I always thought it was atypical, always thought it exemplified what others would one day wake up to. It used to make me think it was in the care of someone who never slept. Look at how this vineyard has evolved and you can see four decades of restless energy experimenting and refining it. In its original incarnation it was mainly Cabernet with some small amounts of Merlot, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. It was progressively enlarged with more Pinot and Chardonnay over time to reflect their meteoric rise on the Peninsula. When the market deserted Mornington Cabernet it was removed after 26 vintages to make way for yet more Pinot. In 1995 Arneis was added but replaced by more Chardonnay in 2018 for similar reasons. In 2006 the Crittendens and scores of other growers planted with exceedingly high expectations what they thought at the time to be the fashionable Albarino, only later to be told by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation it was actually Savagnin. Growers were aghast; the mood riotous. Yet somehow the Crittendens emerged even from that fiasco better off, having begun to age their Savagnin under flor à la Château-Chalon or L'Étoile in the Jura to create one of Australia’s most exciting new wines – the Cri de Couer Savagnin (Sous Voile).

But the biggest moment in this vineyard’s life came in 2007. The thought had been building for some time that its lifeforce was somehow diminishing. Sugar and acid levels, flavours and pH were not culminating in unison like they once did. The Crittendens would stare at the soil, pick it up in their hands and were left troubled by its fragility. So they abandoned artificial fertilisers. And beside the vineyard they began combining skins and stalks with hay, fine wood chips and horse manure into a 300 cubic metre formation of compost, turning it over every month for nearly a year to maintain on-going aerobic bacterial ferment before spreading it over the vineyard following the subsequent harvest. They also started lightly cultivating and harrowing the inter-row spaces before sowing a green manure crop which, once mature was rolled flat to form a dense, slowly decomposing mat. The results were emphatic, with substantially higher anthocyanin accumulation in the fruit and far greater equilibrium between sugar, acid, flavour and pH at the point of harvest. The Crittendens then built sustainability into all aspects of their operation. In 2020 they were overall winners of the Federation Internationale des Vins et Spiritueux’s International Sustainable Winegrowing Competition for the 2017 Crittenden Estate Cri de Coeur Pinot Noir they submitted in conjunction with their sustainability manifesto.

In 2022 Crittenden Estate marked its 40th anniversary and earlier this year Garry turned 80. Control has long since passed to his children Rollo and Zoe but every year he takes two tonnes of the family’s pinot noir for a side project with a different name, label and story each vintage. The six vintages of this project which Garry makes himself entirely by hand and feet are called respectively The Big Chair, Friends, Luminescence, Memories (in homage to Margaret), Forty Years On and Grumpy – the latest being his grandson’s term of affection for him. There’s also a Nero D’Avola called Catto whose label is based on a photo of a painting Garry found in an old family album belonging to Margaret strongly hinting at an Italian ancestry on her side.

It’s hard to overstate the significance of the complete reinvention of the way the Crittenden vineyard is managed. It may just be Garry’s most important achievement of the past four decades. But then I remember more than 20 years ago he poured me a glass of that Nebbiolo and I thought I had understood the future. And I still do. The future I saw has been materialising ever since. You may not see it in the varieties that dominate vineyard planting statistics. You won’t see it in the portfolios of the corporates. But you can see it on wine lists and on the shelves of your favourite merchant. You can hear it in the way people speak about wine from this country. And when you stand back and think about what the collective tapestry of Australian wine has become, you can’t deny it’s infinitely richer, and far more fulfilling to explore in detail, than it’s ever been. This, ultimately, may be the greatest Crittenden legacy of all.

The image – with the caption '"Grumpy", a portrait of his grandfather by ten year old Digby Crittenden' – was submitted by Garry Crittenden, with the following note: 'If [Paul Sellars'] story is chosen and warrants an image I would be forever indebted if you used the attached photo of an oil on canvas portrait of me that my 10 year old grandson Digby, Rollo’s boy, did last December and gave me for Christmas.'