Petaluma — a retrospective tasting

Not the least of the pressures facing winemakers is the constant demand for capital. In an industry notorious for low or negative returns to investors — just ask any of the estimated forty per cent of Australia’s wineries currently losing money – this means a reliance on external funding.

That funding might come from the day jobs of the owners, through debt or though private or public equity raising.

Ambitious, expanding wineries in particular feel this pressure. But once a business moves from private funding to publicly listed equity, as Petaluma did, its fate all too easily slips from the control of its founders.

Brian Croser placed Petaluma in this position and, sure enough, in 2001 brewer Lion Nathan swallowed the enterprise he’d founded in 1976.

Croser initially stayed on under the new ownership but departed after the 2005 vintage.

Then, a few weeks back, the Petaluma team staged a three-decades of Petaluma tasting to mark the company’s thirtieth anniversary. Brian was conspicuously absent. So, too, was any statement of a future vision. But the wines – including the 2006 riesling, the first made entirely by new boss, Andrew Hardy – delivered their own testimonial.

And what did the testimonial say? To my palate, the message was that Petaluma remains amongst Australia’s best producers of riesling and cabernet; shows exciting potential with its recently introduced shiraz – and to a lesser extent viognier — from Mount Barker in the Adelaide Hills; makes outstanding chardonnay and sparkling wine, but not, perhaps, at the cutting edge as they once were.

From the earliest days, Croser’s vision was to match variety to region and, within regions, to select what he later called ‘distinguished’ sites. Riesling and cabernet sauvignon came first with the purchase of the established Hanlin Hill Vineyard in the Clare Valley and Evans Vineyard, Coonawarra (supplemented later by the Sharefarmer’s Vineyard).

To my palate these remain the stand out wines. At the thirty-year tasting, the six rieslings from 2001 to 2006 displayed a dazzling, consistent brightness of colour, aroma and flavour, thanks to the use of screw caps.

These showed notable vintage variation with all round quality best, to my taste, in 2002, 2005 and 2006. As well, an appealing ‘toasty’ aged character was apparent in the 2001 and subtly so in the sensational 2002.

The cork-sealed wines showed considerable bottle variation and distracting flaws. But even so, the 1999, 1998, 1991 and 1982 were delicious, but overshadowed by the beautifully fresh, but aged, 1979 and 1980.

What this says is that screw-cap sealed wines of the calibre of the 2005 and 2006, both still in the market, will provided extraordinary drinking for decades if well cellared.

The first two Petaluma Coonawarras, 1979 and 1980, made a statement of the era, the district and the blend. Both are blends of shiraz and cabernet made in the medium bodied style of the time. They’d travelled well through the years and still show that distinctive, appealing Coonawarra berry character.

The style changed with a switch from shiraz to merlot in the blend and in the late eighties displayed a little more body thanks to riper harvesting.

As a group they’d aged gracefully and retained terrific regional and varietal definition. To me highlights were 1986, 1990, 1991, 1992, 1995 and 1996 with a very special rating to the 2002 and 1998 vintages.

Petaluma Hanlin Hill Clare Valley Riesling 2006 $19-$23
Brian Croser fermented Petaluma’s first riesling – a 1976 from Mitchelton Vineyard, Nagambie – in a spent Maralinga rocket-fuel tank. From 1979, having acquired the Hanlin Hill vineyard, Clare Valley, he made the first of the single-vineyard Petaluma rieslings that’ve given the wine its well deserved blue-chip status. At a recent tasting of all the rieslings the oldest and youngest vintages stood out like bookends as if to say, young or old, this is a great wine. The 1979 and 1980 were both wonderfully fresh, albeit with the delicious patina of age. The 2005, the last made by Croser, is a classic. And 2006, Andrew Hardy’s first, is spectacularly aromatic and superb.

Petaluma Coonawarra 2002 $42-$58
2002 was one of the coolest seasons on record in much of eastern Australia. This boosted flavour intensity of reds in our warmer areas but in cool Coonawarra many vineyards seemed to struggle for ripeness – a character reflected in the leafy, not-quite-ripe character of many of the wines. Petaluma, however, achieved ripeness in its tiny crop to produce what to me is one of the finest since the first vintage in 1979. At a tasting of every vintage a few weeks back it appealed for its enormous flavour concentration in the elegant, firm, Coonawarra mould. It’s a classic, destined to give drinking pleasure for decades to come.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2006 & 2007