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Brian Croser, Petaluma and Tapanappa 

I don't think Brian Croser needs much of an introduction. One of the most famous figures in the wine world, he rose to prominence in the mid 1970s, when he left his position as chief winemaker with Hardys to begin the celebrated wine science course at Riverina College in New South Wales. At this time he also founded an influential wine consultancy and his own winery, Petaluma. 

I was fortunate to spend two days with him at the end of September last year (2005), at his home in the Adelaide hills (next door to the Petaluma winery and the famed Tiers vineyard). 

We began with dinner on the Friday night. The Croser household had a bubbly air to it. As well as a strong representation from Brianís family (he's pictured here with his wife Ann), influential French critic Michel Bettane was over; heíd been a guest judge at the Adelaide show. This was good news for me, because it meant Brian had a strong incentive to dig deep into his cellar (Bettane himself is a total wine nut who has many thousands of bottles stashed away; like Robert Parker, Bettane made his reputation with the 1982 Bordeaux vintage, and the two are good friends). In a fun gesture, Brian had raised both the French and British flags on two poles outside his house in recognition of his international guests!

We began dinner with a historical wine: Petaluma Riesling Spštlese 1976 from a vineyard in the Clare. This was the first wine Brian made under the Petaluma label, and this particular bottle was the last one left. In the 1970s the modern Australian wine industry was in its infancy. Chardonnay was almost unheard of at this stage. So this wine is a bit of history.

Petaluma Rhine Riesling Spštlese 1976 Clare
Very deep yellow/orange colour. Unusual savoury nose with some waxy, herby notes. Savoury palate is chunky and savoury with some complex herby notes. Hard to rate Ė certainly quite interesting.  

Croser was at the time lecturing at Wagga Wagga in New South Wales (Riverina College of Advanced Education, now Charles Sturt University), along with Dr Tony Jordan (now heading up Domaine Chandon, Cape Mentelle and Cloudy Bay for LVMH). He started the wine science course here, and went on to establish an influential winemaking consultancy, Oenotec, along with Jordan. One of his contributions to the industry at the time was that he advocated the use of reductive wine making. By the use of stainless steel, inert gases and temperature control, the idea was to preserve fruit flavours in wine by protecting the must and evolving wine from oxygen exposure, especially important for making fresh whites. This is one of the reasons for the success of the Australian wine industry in the 1980s and 1990s. I've tried a couple of the wines made in the Riverina College cellars from the late 1970s, and they've held up well (pictured right is a 1977 Clare Rhine Riesling tasted in March 2006 - the text looks Croser-like, and I'm guessing that the grape source for this wine is the same as that of the 1976 Petaluma wine mentioned above). 

Michel Bettane

The second wine was met with a touch of disappointment: it was very fine, but more had been expected of it.

Drouhin ĎMarquis de Laguicheí Montrachet 1996 Burgundy
Really fantastic nose: toasty and minerally; full and rich, with plenty of complexity. Dense, savoury, mineralic palate with good acidity. Not great, but a very smart white Burgundy. Very good/excellent 94/100

This is probably a good time to recount the Petaluma story. Petaluma was Brianís baby, and although I donít dare to press, I get the impression that the hostile takeover by Lion Nathan in 2001 is still a source of deep regret to him. Yes, he stayed on as the figurehead of the group until last year (his last responsibility was finishing off the 2005s), but Petaluma was no longer his, and while heís now a relatively wealthy man (itís rude to ask someone about their financial details, but someone else suggested that the Petaluma sale had netted him in the region of A$20 million), one suspects that the money hasnít compensated for the disappointment and angst of losing control of oneís own venture.

The name Petaluma came from the town in California, where Brian had spent some time (he studied at UC Davis in the early 1970s). The two most famous wines are the Chardonnay (from the Piccadilly Valley; latterly there has been a separate bottling of the Tiers Vineyard Chardonnay) and the Coonawarra Cabernet-based red. Both are among the best of their type from Australia. Thereís also a smart Clare Riesling, and in more recent times extra wines have been added to the portfolio. [More on Petaluma later, including a mammoth vertical tasting.]

Now Brian is no longer involved with Petaluma, his energies are focused on a new venture, called Tapanappa. The first wine to be released is the 2003 Whalebone vineyard Cabernet Shiraz, a seductive, smoothly fruited red of real poise. There will be other single-vineyard wines in the stable, including a Chardonnay from the Tiers vineyard in Piccadilly, next to Brianís house (below). Heís also growing Pinot Noir on the Fleurieu Peninsula, where itís foggy, cool and humid. Tapanappe is a joint venture between Croser, Jean Michel Cazes and the Bollinger family.

The Whalebone vineyard is just outside the Coonawarra appellation, in Wrattonbully. Brian first made a wine from this vineyard, which was then known as Koppamurra in 1980 for Geoff Weaver, and was so impressed by it that heís been trying to buy the vineyard ever since. This pursuit took 22 years.  

The vineyard now has 30 year old vines, with yields of a ton an acre (15 hl/ha). The soil is 800 000 years old. Thereís a cave under the vineyard which contains the skeleton of a Eubalena australis, the southern right whale, hence the name.

The next two reds were blind, and there was a connection. First, the wine that led Croser to pursue this vineyard, still looking very smart after 25 years, and then the modern day rendition of this terroir.

Geoff Weaver Ashbourne Cabernet Sauvignon 1980 Coonawarra
From 5 year old vines. Lovely mature, leafy, minerally red showing plenty of evolution. Savoury and expressive with good acid. Full and fresh; it's impressive for a 25 year old wine. Very good/excellent 92/100

Tapanappa Whalebone Vineyard Cabernet Shiraz 2003 Wratonbully
Very smooth textured with some fruit sweetness, and nice creamy, spicy notes. The striking aspect is the smooth, silky, tannic structure. Itís really elegant, and it will be interesting to see how this wine evolves. It isn't an obviously Australian wine, while at the same time you wouldn't place it in Europe. Smooth and elegant is how I'd describe it. Very good/excellent 92/100

We followed up with an elderly Petaluma red, from a vineyard 10 km away from the Whalebone vineyard. Coonawarra is on a plain, while Whalebone is on the hills. Both have deep red earth over limestone, but Whalebone has more clay. Whalebone is slightly warmer than Coonawarra, but not by a great deal.

Petaluma Coonawarra 1979
Lovely savoury, earthy nose: spicy and quite perfumed. Evolved, but with lots of life still. The palate shows mature, savoury red fruits together with a nice minerality. Rich, complex and delicious. Very good/excellent 92/100

Three more wines followed, including a fantastic claret and a remarkable sweet wine.

Ch‚teau Cheval Blanc 1986
Beautifully perfumed nose: aromatic, with nice spicy, smooth fruit and an elegant leafy edge. The palate is savoury and elegant with lovely spicy structure. Really nicely poised. Excellent 95/100

Petaluma Merlot 1992 Coonawarra
Quite firm, rich and structured, but with a minerally edge. Savoury and tight with good acid. A serious, tight-wound savoury style of wine. Very good/excellent 90/100

Petaluma 1985 Botrytis Riesling Essence, Coonawarra
From a vineyard in Coonawarra that no longer exists. This was 63% sugar when harvested, some three times the normal level. Itís now 45% residual sugar, with 11 g/litre acidity and 9% alcohol. Deep orange/brown colour. Massively sweet and intense. Slightly raisiny with lovely tangy lemony acid. Deliciously intense.  

Part two will focus on a vertical tasting of Petaluma wines, and then I'll report on the 2004 releases from Tapanappa, plus a lunch washed down with some old Australian classics

See also: A review (2010) of the wines of Tapanappa

Wines tasted 09/05
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