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Interview: Jeffrey Grosset

Jeffrey Grosset is the most celebrated Riesling producer in Australia. Andrew jefford meets a man whose focus is as intense as his wines

As with dogs, so with wines. The former, famously, resemble their owners; a companion must be congenial. Wines, meanwhile, are crafted not just from a variety and a terroir, but from a psyche, too. Wild, extravagant and unruly wines all exist.

Don’t, though, expect any wine with the name Grosset on the label to posture, shout or stamp. It will be focused, precise and pristine. Its conversation with you will be quiet but intense. It won’t fade quickly, but endure.

Needless to say, it will be (thanks to a lot of thought, technical analysis, and a screwcap) almost exactly what its maker intended. Jeffrey Grosset’s mind, I suspect, is one in which the word ‘surprise’ is rarely yoked to the adjective ‘welcome’.

I have seen photographs of Grosset with hair, but not for a decade or more. It’s the cloud-scraping cranium that does it, combined with the gentle delivery of complicated, multi-thought sentences: the arrows all point to a winemaking intellectual.

He’s made his name using Riesling, the most cerebral of grape varieties. Talk to him, though, and a different Grosset emerges. He claims to have only ever read nine books. He admits he’s not self-confident. He says he loses things all the time. His conversation is littered with little jokes, and the threads quickly become tangled, for which he is endearingly apologetic. I wouldn’t call him intellectual so much as thoughtful. And committed.

But let’s start at the beginning, with a man called Ray Molloy, an old milk depot, and a ‘lender of last resort’. Ray was an Adelaide friend (the head of the University School of Management) who had a weekend house in the Polish Hill River area of Clare, where he’d planted a bit of Riesling.

Grosset was already interested in Clare: he liked the ‘classicism’ of its Rieslings and the ‘strength and structure’ of its Cabernets and Cabernet blends. The old milk depot didn’t cost too much to turn into a winery, and the lender of last resort (and Grosset’s parents) helped pay. Grosset chose Watervale fruit, on Mick Knappstein’s advice (‘he said it was the most reliable part of Clare’), but he also made Ray’s Riesling, too. ‘When we were tasting it on the bench, it looked quite different to Watervale.

They didn’t look symbiotic at all. So I made a decision to bottle them separately. I thought Watervale was the classic and would be easily understood, whereas the Polish Hill might be a struggle.’ Wrong prediction; good decision. The two Grosset Rieslings (Polish Hill and Springvale) are now among the foremost examples of sub-regional differentiation in Australia. Not only that, but their focus, purity and consistency has made the Grosset name synonymous with Australian Riesling.

So how does the guardian of Australia’s dry Riesling flame view the recent return of off-dry versions? ‘It doesn’t concern me at all. I love the diversity of wine styles Riesling can produce. Bone dry to dessert: what other variety does that?’

He also points out that Riesling is now the fastest-expanding wine category in the US, and off-dry is very much part of that. ‘What matters is that the sweetness level is communicated clearly to the buyer.’

I wonder if he gets frustrated by the fact that everyone thinks of him as Riesling on legs, despite the fact that he’s a producer of Piccadilly Chardonnay (from the Adelaide Hills), Pinot Noir (ditto), a Semillon/Sauvignon Blanc (from Clare) and the Bordeaux blend Gaia, grown in Clare’s highest and loneliest vineyard. ‘It’s better to be known for something rather than nothing.

If you name a great Cabernet producer from Australia, you might say Cullen. And Riesling, maybe Grosset. That’s lovely. It would be a bit selfish to think that you might monopolise a couple of those categories.’ In my view, though, the Gaia is very much a Riesling-maker’s Cabernet: a wine of extreme and challenging linearity which I struggle to enjoy.

The Pinot, Chardonnay and Semillon-Sauvignon blend, by contrast, work more effectively within the Grosset aesthetic of purity, precision and edge. The finely chiselled Rieslings are justly acclaimed, as is the slightly lusher ‘mesh’ version he makes with Robert Hill Smith and Louisa Rose at Yalumba (from blended Clare and Eden fruit).

Grosset’s commitment has emerged repeatedly over his career, and is one of the reasons why he commands so much respect and affection among his peers. He fought Riesling’s corner at a time when Australia’s large producers, ludicrously enough, wanted to exclude it from Australia’s label integrity programme so that it could function as a portmanteau term for easy-going whites made from Sultana and PX; and he then became a vocal screwcap evangelist, and has the battle scars to prove it.

At present, he is much exercised by ‘the lost decade’ during which Australia drifted into the productivism which is now corroding its international image (‘I feel very strongly about that, so if an opportunity comes up to mention it, I will’).

The abandonment of Clare by the big companies saddens him, too: ‘It implies that Clare isn’t as valued by those companies as other regions. They’re not going to be part of the community; they’re not going to be on the ground to get feedback. I just think they need to be there to fully realise the potential of the place.’

Two of the nine authors he will admit to having read are the scientists James Lovelock and Tim Flannery, and environmental concerns are another campaigning battleground, intimately connected with Grosset’s own views as to the importance of terroir and the consonance of those ideas with aboriginal culture.

‘Flannery puts it most strongly. For aboriginals, the land is you. There’s no distinction. So if you damage the land, you damage yourself. What we are doing, he says, is a kind of self-mutilation.’ Having come to realise that he’s ‘not a generous person at all’, he resolved to create the Grosset Gaia Fund. Through investments in companies with a high level of sustainability, this will disburse funds to promote health and education for deprived children.

For outsiders, of course, one of the most intriguing aspects of Grosset is his relationship with Stephanie Toole and the fact that in [neighbouring winery] Mount Horrocks, she runs not just a separate company, but ostensibly a rival one. ‘She is fiercely independent,’ he says, although in fact the initial plan when Toole was expecting their first child was that she would help Grosset.

Then Mount Horrocks came on the market and though she was pregnant and had no winemaking training, she thought she’d have a go (‘Typical of her, taking on all these things at once’). Having seen both in action together, the relationship looks happier and more effective than for many who strive overtly to work as a team, and Toole has accumulated plenty of accolades of her own.

All the same, it must be tough for her on the dry Riesling front. ‘Yeah, that’s true. They always tell customers at Mount Horrocks’ cellar door that their Rieslings are not like Grosset Rieslings. They’re better.’ Their shared sense of humour provides glue in the relationship, as does the fact that they have complementary personal qualities: Toole never loses anything, according to Grosset, and is innately generous.

And the pair have finally amalgamated their personal wine cellars – over half of which is non-Australian (Italian reds are a favourite, as well as, less surprisingly, Rieslings from Germany and Austria, a little Bordeaux, and a lot of Burgundy). Either one would be an asset to any region. Clare is lucky to have both.

Written by Andrew Jefford

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