Jeffrey Grosset: Clare Valley's softly spoken man of steel

When Jeffrey Grosset came to present members with his wines at a dinner in London earlier this year, SocietyNews editor Joanna Goodman took him aside to find out more about one of Australia's most influential winemakers

Jeff Grosset Jeff Grosset

If you have ever had the pleasure of tasting Jeff Grosset's fine-tuned, understated, piercingly fresh and focused wines, it will probably come as no surprise to discover that these same descriptors could sum up the man behind them too. Jeff is the antithesis of the loud, ebullient stereotypical Aussie; he comes across as thoughtful and sensitive but all underpinned by a steely determination.

It is certainly not that easy to get Jeff to open up. He doesn't waste words, but it isn't because he is ungenerous, just extremely focused on getting his message across and also perhaps a little shy. I don't get the impression that anything he has done has been left to chance, but as it turns out, possibly the most significant decision behind his success did come about as a bit of a happy accident.

Jeff says that from the age of 15 he knew that he wanted to be a winemaker: 'Our parents used to share wine with us as kids and I was fascinated from an early age.' Rather than finish school, Jeff went straight to the famous Roseworthy Agricultural College in Adelaide to study oenology.

After graduating and gaining 10 vintages' worth of experience overseas and across Australia, Jeff found himself at just 26 the most senior winemaker and the oldest member of a team of six in charge of running the largest 'crush' in the southern hemisphere: 'A sign of just how fast things were moving in the wine industry at the time,' Jeff rather modestly explains.

Going it alone

But despite this stellar rise to a position of considerable responsibility in Australia's burgeoning wine industry, Jeff wanted to do his own thing: 'I wanted to demonstrate the potential for making premium wines here in Australia.'

He left his well-paid job and chose the Clare Valley to make his mark. Jeff's experience working for a large producer had given him intimate knowledge of differences in regional styles, and he already had his eye on the Clare Valley: 'I liked the classic style of the fruit; the rieslings were already pretty outstanding, and the cabernets.' But that Jeff ended up there, was, he reveals, a bit of an accident.

Jeff knew someone with some riesling vines in the Polish Hill area of Clare and when an old milk depot came up for sale, with the help of his parents and on a tight budget, he bought it and got started. This was in Auburn, a historic township in the southern tip of the Clare Valley 100 kilometres north of Adelaide; the year was 1981.

The beginnings of an icon

Polish Hill is what Jeff describes as a 'hard rock site…it's got the poorest soil, it's just rock, 500 million-year-old shale and the wines have these incredibly long, lingering flavours.' Jeff also chose to make wine from some Watervale fruit that first year, 'Watervale has much softer rock, the wines have more generosity, I thought that the wines would complement each other and my original intention was to blend the two together.'

The softer rock at Watervale gives more generosity to the wines

The softer rock at Watervale gives more generosity to the wines

A Testament to the Importance of Place

All very well on paper (or in Jeff's head), but in reality, when it came to the blending table they found that the sum of the constituent parts was not an improvement on the individual wines. 'It just didn't work, so we kept them separate. It's a testament to the importance of place. I didn't think that at the time, I just wanted to get the wines out there!' Jeff confessed.

In the beginning there was just Jeff and his dad (as chief cellarhand). That first year they made 800 cases. Today, they are still a relatively small outfit producing 11,000 cases predominantly from 20 hectares of estate vineyards. They have remained focused, producing just eight wines and employing nine staff. But Polish Hill Riesling has become the most collected white wine in Australia: 'We have a limited but dedicated following and it's a great acknowledgement of our work.' Jeff tells me.

'We were delighted with the results and in 2000 Australia led the way in convincing the rest of the world that screwcaps were the way to go. We didn't use marketing people, just winemakers.'

It is the success with riesling and the Polish Hill and Springvale wines (from the Watervale sub-region) in particular that have made the Grosset name synonymous with the variety. These wines are not just top-class examples of dry Australian riesling, they are among the finest in the world and demonstrate most eloquently the facility that this variety has to speak so volubly of differences of place.

Polish Hill is based on hard rock which gives wines with incredibly long, lingering flavours

Polish Hill is based on hard rock which gives wines with incredibly long, lingering flavours

Riesling's champion & screwcap campaigner

In fact, Jeff is seen as something of a saviour of dry riesling, standing up for the variety at the time when the large bulk producers were quite happy to have the name stand for generic blends made from other varieties such as sultana and pedro-ximinez: 'It seems almost crazy now that I had to campaign to institute the legal integrity of one of the world's foremost noble grape varieties,' says Jeff, going on to explain, 'in 1993 Australia brought in a new set of rules - in fact they were some of the most stringent in the world - so that if you stated that your wine was from a particular variety and a specific region, then it must be as advertised, but riesling wasn't included in the line-up of recognised varieties.' It took Jeff seven years to win this particular battle!

Not surprising then that Jeff is highly respected amongst his fellow winemakers; he is also highly influential. Committed to preserving the purity of his wines, he privately set up The Australian Closure Fund, one of the most important studies into the screwcap closure yet undertaken. 'For the first time in history we have the chance to make wine and not have faults caused by the closure; cork is still technically flawed,' Jeff tells me.

'We had test examples going back to 1975, it was a major breakthrough for us and nobody else has proven as effectively or done anything like as significant work into this area since our study. We were delighted with the results and in 2000 Australia led the way in convincing the rest of the world that screwcaps were the way to go. We didn't use marketing people, just winemakers.'

The results proved pretty conclusively that oxygen was not needed for the ageing of bottled wine. 'We had test examples going back to 1975, it was a major breakthrough for us and nobody else has proven as effectively or done anything like as significant work into this area since our study. We were delighted with the results and in 2000 Australia led the way in convincing the rest of the world that screwcaps were the way to go. We didn't use marketing people, just winemakers.'

An organic approach

With such an emphasis on purity and a highly focused approach to making wine, it comes as no surprise to learn that Grosset Wines is certified organic. On this front, Jeff was somewhat ahead of the curve too. 'In the 1980s I was really pushing to be more sustainable in all that we did. We had no direct vineyard neighbours so I knew it was possible. But you can't just stop what you're doing and change overnight, it's like coming off drugs. It's really quite a complex process, but the vineyards started from scratch, such as our Gaia vineyard which we planted in the 1986, we aimed from the outset to cultivate organically.'

The Gaia vineyard is five acres of cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc planted on top of a hill at 570 metres, 'it's high for us but you don't exactly need oxygen!' quips Jeff. But the soil structure suits these varieties and there is nothing else around: 'It's not even close to a road, it's a bit harsh, isolated and impractical. A bit like me!' Jeff jokes.

The Gaia theory

Reflecting the Grosset philosophy of taking care of your land, the vineyard is named after Englishman James Lovelock's Gaia Theory which states that, 'the Earth is a single organism, reliant on the complexity and diversity of its species to maintain ecological health.' Feeling that there was more that he could do to promote environmental and human sustainability outside of his immediate sphere of influence, in 2009 Jeff set up the Grosset Gaia Fund. Income generated from the Fund's investments is donated to charitable organisations supporting youth, the arts, research and the environment.

While the name of Jeff Grosset has become almost synonymous with Australian dry riesling, he could equally be known as one of Australia' finest producers of cabernet too, (for the record, he also produces a chardonnay, pinot noir, semillon-sauvignon blanc and a fiano).

Not just riesling

I'm curious as to how the same region can produce both steely riesling and ripe cabernet (something that apparently German winemakers question Jeff on). 'The thing about the Clare Valley is that yes, we get more sunshine [than Germany and Alsace], but the difference has more to do with the fact that the sun is higher in the sky and that the skies are very, very clear here, we get these gorgeous blue skies. The other important factor is the temperature drop at night and it is the combination of warmth and sun and this diurnal temperature variation which gives generous flavour but dry, balanced rieslings. In the Mosel, for example the high acidities of the grape have to be counterbalanced by adding sugar. The same conditions are ideal for making ripe cabernet too, but cabernets that are more elegant in style than you'd find in warmer sites.'

Jeff says that when Gaia was first released The Wine Society took a pallet, for which he was grateful, 'it's still going very well,' he says with a wry smile.

2015 marked Grosset's 35th anniversary and the wine dinner for members was partly in celebration of this milestone. The Wine Society was one of the first merchants to import Grosset wines into the UK and Jeff was keen to thank members for their support: 'I believe our relationship goes back more than 25 years and over that time, two themes have emerged, those of loyalty and trust.'

2015 marked Grosset's 35th anniversary and the wine dinner for members was partly in celebration of this milestone. The Wine Society was one of the first merchants to import Grosset wines into the UK and Jeff was keen to thank members for their support: 'I believe our relationship goes back more than 25 years and over that time, two themes have emerged, those of loyalty and trust.'

One thing is left in no doubt. We can trust Jeff to carry on producing the best wines that he possibly can from his 'patch of dirt' in the Clare Valley. Here's to the next 25 years!

January 2016

Joanna Goodman
News & Content Editor

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