When Brian and Ann Croser planted the first chardonnay vines on their Tiers Vineyard in the Adelaide Hills’ Piccadilly Valley in 1979, they had no idea that they were closing a loop. Completing a circle, might be a more apt phrase.
The cuttings they planted were directly related to the vines that produced the Californian chardonnay wines they’d fallen in love with during the two years they spent in the US state in 1972-3, while Brian was studying for a masters in viticulture and oenology at UC Davis. Ann worked as a biochemist to keep them fed.
“Northern California was a uniquely appealing place, especially the exquisite Bay area, the other-worldly redwood forests and the wine country,” Croser wrote later. “In the wine country we discovered chardonnay.”
It was a revelation to two young, wide-eyed Aussies who were only used to drinking unwooded, aromatic white wines such as steely, dry Australian riesling. The contrast couldn’t have been more stark. Californian chardonnay was brimful of exotic ripe fruit characters interwoven with charred oak influences, the texture was unctuous, voluptuous, the flavour ultra-generous. They were hooked.
Back in South Australia, they acquired a ‘ruined orchard’ in the Piccadilly Valley, the highest, coldest and wettest part of the Adelaide Hills. Croser had already realised that chardonnay ripened very early, and its best qualities could only be coaxed when it was grown in the very coolest viticultural regions.
There were only three clones of chardonnay available in Australian nurseries at the time. It was pure coincidence that Brian chose the OF clone, which he would later learn signified Old Farm, the name of the first experimental vineyard at UC Davis, before Croser’s mentor Professor Harold Olmo began its new vineyard in the 1950s.
California has had chardonnay since the late 1800s, but because Prohibition resulted in the destruction of so many vineyards in the 1930s, very few chardonnay vines remained by the time the table wine renaissance began in the 1950s.
When the table wine industry was being revived, the two main sources for chardonnay cuttings were the Wente Vineyard in the Livermore Valley, and the Paul Masson plantings in the Santa Cruz Mountains, both near San Francisco. In both cases, the vine material can be traced to imports from Burgundy between the 1880s and 1912, according to Croser.
So it was that on 29 October last year, during a celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Tiers Vineyard, Croser presented a tasting of recent-vintage Californian chardonnays with links to the Tiers vines.
These were 2016 Stony Hill (from Spring Mountain in Napa Valley, the vines sourced from the Wente Vineyard), 2016 Hanzell Ambassador’s 1953 Vineyard (which was planted with Wente selection vines from the Stony Hill Vineyard), 2017 Hyde De Villaine Comandante (from Carneros and Napa Valley-planted old Wente clone vines), 2017 Chalone Estate (from the Chalone AVA, which is near Wente Vineyard and planted to Wente clones) and 2017 Wente Nth Degree (from Karl and Herman Heritage Vineyards in the Livermore Valley, planted with descendants of Wente clones). There was also a 2016 Mount Eden Vineyards, planted to Paul Masson 1900 selections – the only wine not descended from the Wente vineyard, but of equally interesting heritage.
Croser summed up: “These are all different clonal selections, but they’re all relatives of the OF clone – except the Mount Eden.”
A selection of eight vintages of Tapanappa Tiers Vineyard Chardonnay was also served, and a 2017 Blain-Gagnard Le Montrachet for context. All the Tiers wines ranged from very good to exceptional, but the two finest wines came from the coolest seasons, 2015 and 2017, which confirmed Croser’s original premise: chardonnay needs very cool air to do its best work. Serendipity.