Paling in Comparison

Brian Croser draws from their barrels three samples of 2011 pinot noir, all pale coloured but charming for their floral and cherry-like perfumes. Blend them and you’d have a very attractive but pale-coloured, light-bodied pinot noir. It would be the fifth vintage of what was hailed almost immediately as an outstanding pinot, the second and third-crop 2008 and 2009 wines winning widespread critical praise. But Croser has made his decision. There will be no $55 Tapanappa Foggy Hill Pinot Noir 2011. And no, it won’t be relegated to his second label, the $29 Tapanappa Fleurieu Peninsula Pinot Noir (tastings).

He will sell it off as bulk pinot, and it will reward his labours with a few measly dollars per litre. Bulk Yarra Valley pinot noir is worth something, but bulk Fleurieu Peninsula has no cachet; no value. And this, after a super-wet season of expensive viticulture, when it cost more than usual to grow Foggy Hill pinot grapes.

“I can’t afford to sell it as Foggy Hill or Fleurieu,” says a resigned Croser. “It will cost us a lot of money, but so be it. It’s a tough game.”

I suggest the wine could be acceptable under the cheaper label, but he’s unmoved. “There’s a lot of pinot in the market. If we sold it, we would get shot at. We can’t afford to risk that.

“I’m happy with the flavours and aromas but it’s too pale and too light.”

This is the lot of the genuine boutique winemaker. He has just 4 hectares of pinot noir vines on Foggy Hill (tastings), near the bottom of the Fleurieu Peninsula, which has no other vineyards within coo-ee and is mostly given over to forest, or cattle and sheep grazing. Croser came down here with grazing in mind too, and now, eight years down the track has two farms totalling 1,350 hectares on which he raises Tefrom sheep. The meat is sold under the Maylands Farm brand to a fine food supplier and the Rockpool Bar & Grill restaurants. The vines were an afterthought. Croser says it all started with the 1998 Lion Nathan acquisition of the company he founded, Petaluma. He wanted to get away from the pressures of running a public company (he lives right beside the Adelaide Hills winery) so bought land at Tunkalilla Beach, at the end of the Fleurieu Peninsula, on which he built a marvellous house in a wildly beautiful, splendidly remote place. A place he clearly loves, as he makes the 90-minute car trip from his Adelaide Hills home twice a week on average. He’d live there if he could.

Then one day his wife Ann caught him poring over maps and climate data. “You’re not thinking of planting another vineyard are you?” she asked.

“I think Ann felt a little betrayed at first,” he acknowledges, like a guilty boy who’s been keeping a pet lizard, unbeknown to his parents.

Soon, with three carefully-selected clones of pinot beautifully sited on a high (350 to 400 metres altitude), cool, north-west facing slope, a famous French viticulturist visited and declared “This could be Australia’s Chambertin!” And it could. The ’08, and especially ’09 and ’10 Foggy Hill pinots, are sensational. The gorgeous, ethereal 2010 will be released in April (tastings).

It looks very Burgundian, too, with low-trained vines placed 1.5 metres apart and a density of 5,444 vines per hectare. Croser, always impressively precise, reels off the statistics from the top of his head. The vines are trained 600 millimetres above the ground, cane pruned with two canes and 16 buds per vine. They yield five to six tonnes per hectare. The vines are grafted to phylloxera-resistant, devigorating rootstocks – which he needs with nearly a metre of rainfall a year. The soil is sandstone and ironstone: a warm, rocky soil which absorbs daytime heat and releases it at night.

This man Croser, who has been Decanter magazine’s Man of the Year, has an AO after his name, has founded two wine companies and numerous vineyards in Australia, and two wine companies in Oregon, is still going full-steam ahead. But he is in a good place now, doing what he really loves. “I don’t have to do this,” he says. “I could put my feet up if I want, but that’s not me. I’m doing what I’m doing because I’m motivated. I’m not looking to get others to come to the Fleurieu Peninsula and plant vines to get a critical mass or a GI (Geographical Indication), I just want to make a great world-class pinot noir, and I’m fairly sure I can do it there.”

He has obeyed the two main lessons he’s learnt from his 40-odd years in winemaking. “Never buy grapes: always grow your own. And avoid corrective winemaking. Amelioration is an admission that you didn’t get the first part right, which is site selection and vineyard design. And that’s the part that interests me the most.”

Croser has put his money where his mouth it.

“Finding a new site, putting your experience and knowledge into designing a vineyard, that’s innovation – not burying ceramic fermenters in the ground (or racking by the phases of the moon). That’s backward – it’s not innovation!”

First published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Good Living – 11 October 2011.


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