Meet the Crittendens

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They were instrumental in turning the Mornington Pensinula into what it is today: a home of truly exceptional Pinot Noir. And as Paul Sellars reports, constant innovation in the vineyard and winery is driving the Crittenden family’s wines to yet higher levels of excellence.

Mornington Peninsula winemaker Rollo Crittenden siphons wine from a barrel inside his family’s winery and distributes it into glasses for tasting.

The wine is textural, multi-layered and captivating. To the uninitiated, it’s not immediately familiar, but what’s overwhelmingly apparent is it’s something pretty special. Something as exciting to drink as it clearly was to make.

The wine is called OGGI – the Italian word meaning today. It’s an adventurous and inspired blend of three white varieties  – Friulano, Arneis and Savagnin – and when it was made, the skins of the grapes were included in the ferment, a technique usually reserved for reds. OGGI is just the latest in a very long line of winemaking innovations and experiments for which the Crittenden family is justly renowned.

Thirty years ago Rollo’s father Garry was one of a small group of vignerons who literally built the Peninsula’s wine industry from the ground up.

Viticulture was virtually non-existent when Garry and his wife Margaret doubled the amount of area under vines in the region by planting five acres at their newly purchased property at Dromana in 1982.

Garry was a founding member of the Australian Wine Export Council, the Victorian Wineries Tourism Council and the Mornington Peninsula Vignerons Association, was founding chair of the Mornington Peninsula Tourism Council and co-authored the book “Italian Wine Grape Varieties in Australia,” which helped to guide significant plantings of Italian varieties in climates it identified as suitable for them.

This, together with a litany of other achievements, helps explain why Garry was made a Living Legend by the Melbourne Food and Wine Tourism Festival committee last year.

As if all this was not enough, Garry established a completely new business, Crittenden Estate, after parting ways with Dromana Estate three years after it listed on the stock exchange in 2000.

Creating a new brand all over again after 20 years devoted to the wine company he founded could have been a daunting prospect. But the Crittendens had distinct advantages.

Firstly, the original property at Dromana had remained in the family’s hands, providing continuity of access to some of the Peninsula’s oldest vines.

And in 2007, after several years making wine at Dromana Estate, Rollo returned to the family business as winemaker, joining his father as director and sister Zoe as marketing manager.

The same restless intellect and drive to chart unexplored territory that has defined Garry’s 30-year involvement in winemaking underpins the next generation’s approach to the growing of grapes and making and marketing of wine at Crittenden Estate.

While their father helped introduce scores of wine drinkers to the fascination of Italian varietals thanks to the “i” range, in 2008 Rollo and Zoe launched their own range of wines, from Spanish grape varieties this time, under the Los Hermanos (Spanish for The Siblings) brand. There are four wines under the range and each breaks new ground for Australian palates.

Despite this constant urge to break new ground with new varieties and styles, the Crittendens have not lost sight of the importance of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay to the Peninsula and for the region’s inherent affinity with those varieties.

As time has passed and the Dromana vineyard has matured, their wines, particularly the Pinot Noirs, have continually grown in stature, achieving a structure, balance and complexity that places them among the Peninsula’s highest echelon.

This continual improvement has been given new impetus in recent years through significant changes in the vineyard – firstly by moving to what the Crittendens refer to as biological soil practices that focus on soil health, with the use of large amounts of organic compost and a dramatically reduced reliance on fungicides, herbicides, pesticides and artificial fertilisers.

“As a family we have embraced a far more holistic understanding of what’s going on in our vineyard,” says Zoe.

“We regularly analyse the microbial properties in the soil and there is no doubt that since we changed our management practices it is far more full of life than it used to be.”
In recent years the Crittendens have also planted or grafted the best new clones of Pinot Noir as well as retrellising large sections of their vineyard.

“The results are really starting to flow through with more balanced and complete wines that really show a sense of place,” says Rollo, who was voted Young Gun Australian Winemaker of the Year in 2010.

“Working so closely with the fruit from this vineyard you become very attuned to the subtlety of each clone and parcel, which lead to wines showing really nice structure, poise and elegance.”

Rollo aims to make “Oggi” each year but only during the course of the vintage will a decision by made on varietal composition and winemaking techniques.

“The concept behind Oggi is that it will be very much a wine of the moment inspired by the nature of the vintage and the grapes we have to play with. Next year Oggi may even be a red wine, it could consist of one, or two, or three varieties, who knows?”

The pinot noirs that Rollo made from the 2012 vintage are emphatically among the best ever from Crittenden Estate, and barrel samples of separate parcels  from 2013 are to this writer particularly striking.

Delicate yet intensely fragrant, structured but beguilingly silken and complex, they are true expressions of pinot noir and its capacity to convey a sense of place.

“We really enjoy playing with a broad spectrum of grape varieties and styles,” says Rollo. “Some of them are well understood and known and others are obscure, but all of them are fulfilling and enriching to work with – and to drink.”

 

Paul Sellars

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