Head for the hills

  • Sunday 1 September 2002

When he created Petaluma Wines in the 1970s, Brian Croser put the Adelaide Hills firmly on the Aussie winemaking map. And the region is set to stay there, says GERALD D BOYD

When he created Petaluma Wines in the 1970s, Brian Croser put the Adelaide Hills firmly on the Aussie winemaking map. And the region is set to stay there, says GERALD D BOYD

In the early 1970s, a young Australian winemaker started a consulting company called Petaluma, named after a town in Northern California where he and his wife had spent some time. 'It's a great name,' recalls Brian Croser, now director of Petaluma Wines in the Adelaide Hills of South Australia. 'And when we made our first wine, it somehow just flowed onto the label.' While at Adelaide University, Croser had written a thesis on where in Australia to grow Chardonnay in order to retain acid and achieve the cool-climate effect on flavour. 'In 1969, Chardonnay was almost unknown in Australia,' he explains. 'I chose the Piccadilly Valley in the Adelaide Hills as the coolest and winter wettest place in South Australia, with great free-draining soils on north-facing slopes.' It was that decision which established Croser as the founder of modern winemaking in the Adelaide Hills. It also set the wheels in motion, establishing the Hills as one of the most promising cool-climate regions in Australia.

It wasn't the first time that wine had been made in the region. Wine grapes were first planted in the Adelaide Hills in the 1840s, with an 1845 Hock from Echunga sent to England as a gift to Queen Victoria. By 1905, though, grape growing and winemaking petered out in the Hills and didn't re-emerge until 1971, with plantings at Lower Hermitage followed by Croser's first vineyard in 1978. ' In 1971, prior to leaving for the University of California, Davis, to enter a Masters program in oenology and viticulture, I planted vines in Piccadilly Valley, but the sheep ate those while I was at Davis, so I had to replant,' he says.

Today, there are more than 1,800ha (hectares) of vines in the Adelaide Hills appellation, defined by the Geographical Indications Register as 'that part of the Mount Lofty Ranges which has an altitude of 400 metres or more'. The Barossa Valley lies to the north, McLaren Vale is to the west, and Adelaide is only a few miles away.

A gently sloping landscape and the highest rainfall in South Australia make the region ideal for growing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. But it is a collection of microclimates, small havens where other varieties such as Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier and Pinot Noir thrive. At the centre, the Piccadilly Valley is coolest and wettest, while there are drier and warmer growing conditions to the north around Gumeracha and to the east at Woodside.

Adelaide Hills grapes have attracted the attention of wineries in other regions. Penfolds, Yalumba and Mildara Blass have vineyards in the Hills, mainly planted to white varieties, while keeping their eye on red grapes like Pinot Noir and Merlot. Piccadilly Valley is best suited to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir; Balhannah, Woodside and Lenswood are ideal sites for Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot; while Cabernet Sauvignon does best in the warmer sites around Mount Pleasant and Mount Barker and Clarendon for Viognier. Because most of the water for nearby Adelaide comes from the Adelaide Hills, water catchment issues control the number of working wineries in the Hills and how many hectares are planted to vines. At present, there are 35 wine brands carrying the Adelaide Hills appellation but only a few wineries, including Petaluma and Nepenthe, that make the wines for everyone else. Driving through the Adelaide Hills – with its narrow winding roads, switchbacks and minimal signage – can be an adventure. The area is a broad mix of weekend retreats, small towns and villages that have retained much of their rural charm, surviving orchards and a growing number of vineyards and wineries. Yet, despite the bucolic look of the area, grape growing is not easy. 'We planted vineyards here for the potential and the challenge,' says Tim Knappstein, who started the Lenswood winery and vineyard after retiring from his successful operation in Clare Valley. He says that if he had it to do again, he wouldn't plant Bordeaux varieties: 'We are right on the edge of being too cool for Semillon.'

Chardonnay styles from the Adelaide Hills tend to be lean, with higher acidity and a mouthwatering mineral/citrus character. Lighter Chardonnays of note include unwooded versions from Chain of Ponds, Nepenthe and Shaw & Smith. Chardonnays of medium weight include those from Knappstein Lenswood, Beringer Blass and Yalumba. More full-blown textural 'winemakers' Chardonnays include Paracombe, Geoff Weaver, Chain of Ponds Corkscrew Road, Shaw & Smith M3 Vineyard, Penfolds Thomas Hyland and Yattarna, as well as Petaluma Piccadilly Valley and Tiers.

Adelaide Hills Sauvignon Blanc emphasises bright citrus-mineral flavours, with a hint of passion fruit, supported by ample brisk acidity. Wines to look for include those from Geoff Weaver, Knappstein Lenswood, Paracombe, Petaluma Bridgewater Mill, Shaw & Smith, Beringer Blass, Nepenthe and Chain of Ponds.

In the Piccadilly Valley, Petaluma set the standard and encouraged the planting of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Croser and company continue to produce noteworthy white wines from Adelaide Hills grapes, including the Tiers Chardonnay, considered one of the best in Australia. Geoff Weaver, who makes his wines at Petaluma, concentrates on the textural nuances he extracts from grapes grown on his vineyards around Lenswood, as does Peter Leske, winemaker for Nepenthe, with 50ha of vines around Charleston in the Adelaide Hills, including one of Australia's few plantings of Zinfandel.

Martin Shaw and his cousin Michael Hill Smith own one of the Hills' most attractive and modern wineries. Shaw & Smith Sauvignon Blanc is turning heads, and the Unoaked and the M3 Vineyard Chardonnays are clearly set to challenge the likes of Giaconda, Penfolds Yattarna, Petaluma Tiers and Leeuwin Estate. The owners are very keen to establish Shaw & Smith as one of the top three Chardonnay producers in Australia. With Neville Falkenberg, former chief white-winemaker for Penfolds, on board at Chain of Ponds, the Gumeracha winery is attracting attention for its white wines, especially Chardonnays from two vineyards adjacent to the winery – Nether Hill and Corkscrew Road. While at Paracombe, Paul and Kathy Drogemuller produce lightly oaked, stylish Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.

Three of the Barossa Valley's largest producers, Mildara Blass, Yalumba and Penfolds, have been tempted in to the HIlls by the quality of the fruit. Penfolds' top-of-the-line Yattarna Chardonnay is mostly Adelaide Hills grapes, while the newly released 2001 Thomas Hyland Chardonnay carries an Adelaide Hills appellation. According to chief winemaker Brian Walsh, Yalumba went to the Adelaide Hills to give its sales people an alternative to the richer Barossa style of Chardonnay. Mildara Blass, meanwhile, has released a 2000 Adelaide Hills Chardonnay and 2001 Adelaide Hills Sauvignon Blanc.

With water conservation and overdevelopment still hot issues in the region, the Adelaide Hills wine community remains small and focused on producing some of Australia's most exciting Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. As the demand for the wines grows around the world, these issues will be resolved and the Adelaide Hills will come into their own.

Gerald D Boyd is a freelance writer based in the US.

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