Petaluma’s Brian Croser joins Bollinger, Lynch-Bages in Tapanappa venture downunder

In 2001 brewer Lion Nathan acquired Petaluma, the upmarket wine company founded by Brian Croser in 1976. In January 2003, Croser — in partnership with, Jean-Michel Cazes of Château Lynch-Bages, Bordeaux, and Société Jacques Bollinger, the parent company of Champagne Bollinger — purchased the Koppamurra vineyard at Wrattonbully, near Coonawarra.

The partnership — Tapanappa Wines Pty Ltd — changed the property name from Koppamurra to Whalebone Vineyard and made it the centrepiece of a new enterprise focusing on wines from distinguished sites.

And just in case you’re wondering how a little known vineyard in little known Wrattonbully became distinguished, it’s worth understanding Wrattonbully first. We’ll move on to Whalebone Vineyard and Tapanappa Wines next week.

Wrattonbully, the biggest of several new wine regions on South Australia’s Limestone Coast, sprawls for forty kilometres along the Naracoorte Tableland, touching Padthaway to the north and Coonawarra to the south.

Hemmed in by these venerable winemaking neighbours, Wrattonbully exploded into existence in the nineties, the product of high hopes and a global red wine boom.

Deterred by rising land prices and a lack of suitable sites in Coonawarra, winemakers moved decisively to Wrattonbully in 1993, attracted by lower land prices, soils and climate similar to those of Coonawarra and clean underground water.

Where two vineyards, covering just 20 hectares, existed in 1993, scores of broad acre plantings, totalling about 2600 hectares, had been planted by 2003.

Wrattonbully’s impressive growth is perhaps best seen in the context of the Limestone Coast overall. This vast area, taking in all of South Australia west of Victoria and south of Lake Alexandrina, now wears the crown as Australia’s largest premium wine growing district.

The Limestone Coast’s combined 2004 grape output of 172 thousand tonnes easily outweighs the 87 thousand tonnes of the combined Barossa and Eden Valleys, the next largest premium area.
Within the Limestone Coast, Wrattonbully holds the greatest concentration of grapes after its older neighbours – Coonawarra, established in 1891 (62 thousand tonnes in 2004) and Padthaway, established in 1964 (51 thousand tonnes).

Like Padthaway, much of Wrattonbully’s output goes to high quality cross-regional blends. But many grape growers and winemakers, seeing the exceptional quality potential in Wrattonbully, won’t settle for anonymity.

Its soils and climate, the outstanding winemaking achievements of nearby, similar Coonawarra and Padthaway and even its own short winemaking history all support this belief.

As in Coonawarra, Wrattonbully’s vineyards tend to be located on shallow terra rossa soils over limestone. These soils are composed principally of weathered limestone but also contain wind-borne material.

Despite the similarities between the two regions, there are important differences, too. Wrattonbully lies to the north of Coonawarra on a tableland elevated about 50 metres above the plain and to the east of the Kanowinka fault.

According to geologist David Farmer, about 780 thousand years ago “the country to the west of the fault fell about 40 metres, perhaps under the sea. It was against this cliff face that the Southern Ocean deposited the dunes comprising the West Naracoorte Range” – near the western edge of today’s Wrattonbully. It was perhaps another 100 thousand years before what is now Coonawarra rose above sea level.

Meanwhile Wrattonbully remained high and dry to the east of the range, But, where Coonawarra grape growing commenced 1890, Wrattonbully’s wine story began only in 1969. Then, in 1974, John Greenshields and others planted Koppamurra Vineyard – the site acquired by Tapanappa in 2003.

Part 2

In last week’s column we looked at the emergence of Wrattonbully, Coonawarra’s neighbour on South Australia’s Limestone Coast, and of Brian Croser’s acquisition in 2003 of the pioneering Koppamurra vineyard, established in 1974.

It was the first acquisition by Tapanappa Wines Pty Ltd, a company founded by Croser in partnership with Jean-Michel Cazes of Château Lynch-Bages, Bordeaux, and Société Jacques Bollinger, the parent company of Champagne Bollinger.

This followed Lion Nathan’s earlier acquisition of Petaluma Wines, founded by Croser in 1976 and headed by him until 2005.

Petaluma had been built, with the encouragement of Croser’s great mentor, Len Evans, on the basis of regional specialisation. Thus the Petaluma portfolio included Coonawarra cabernet and merlot from the Evans and Sharefarmers vineyards; Clare Valley riesling from the Hanlin Hill vineyard; Piccadilly Valley chardonnay from a number of carefully selected sites; Piccadilly Valley sparkling wine from sub-plots of those vineyards and, later, shiraz and viognier from Mount Barker in the Adelaide Hills.

Losing control of Petaluma prompted Croser to establish Tapanappa along the same lines, though by now, almost thirty years after Petaluma’s birth, he had been articulating the merits of ‘distinguished vineyard’ sites, within specialised regions, for a decade or more.

Indeed, had Croser maintained control of Petaluma it’s almost certain that he would have added the thirty-year-old Koppamurra vineyard to its assets and produced a single vineyard wine from it.

Under Croser Petaluma had already acquired the Riddoch Vineyard, Wrattonbully’s oldest (established by Patrick and Susie Pender in 1969), and had begun to include a tiny quantity of excellent cabernet sauvignon from it as a legal out-of-district component of Petaluma Coonawarra – one of the region’s elite reds.

Croser also had some familiarity with wines from the Koppamurra Vineyard and had a particularly favourable impression of a 1980 cabernet he’d made for the Ashbourne label in conjunction with winemaking colleague Geoff Weaver.

Having acquired Koppamurra, Croser renamed it the Whalebone Vineyard — recognising the unique limestone geology of the region with its fossil rich caves and, in particular, the 35-million year old whale skeleton lying under the vineyard.

Croser made the first Tapanappa red from it in 2003 and in 2004 produced the shiraz cabernet blend reviewed last week and 2004 Merlot, due for release early next year.

And the Tapanappa line up now includes a Piccadilly Valley chardonnay 2005 from the Tiers vineyard, owned by Brian’s wife Ann. This was the first site planted to chardonnay by Croser in the Petaluma days and is well known, too, as source of Petaluma Tiers Chardonnay since 1996.

Tapanappa is also developing a pinot noir from a new vineyard at Parawa, described by Brian as “the coolest, wettest, windiest, lowest day time temperature place on Adelaide’s Fleurieu Peninsula. But that’s only if quality scrubs up to expectations.

What the Petaluma and Tapanappa wines share is an attempt to express and market terroir – the distinctive characteristics driven by the unique site of each vineyard.

Says Croser, “There’s an antipathy and resentment to the concept within the Australian wine establishment. But terroir is the dictionary around which the language of fine wine is written and talked about. If Australia doesn’t adopt it, we’ll be overtaken by Chile which has”.

Croser laments the commoditisation of Australian wine, evidenced by the collapse of our average export price from $4.77 per litre in 2002 to just $3.72 today. He knows that we have magnificent regional and single vineyard specialties. But the message is not getting out. That’s our new challenge.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2007