Bizot: I’m French and the best wine I have ever tasted was Australian

He is the great nephew of Lily Bollinger and the descendant of a Champagne dynasty, but Xavier Bizot, general manager of Brian Croser’s Tapanappa in the Adelaide Hills, says the best wine he has ever tasted was Australian.

Xavier Bizot at Tapanappa’s Wrattonbully vineyard

“Penfolds Bin 60A 1962,” said Bizot, speaking to the drinks business. “At the time I drank the bottle it was absolutely affordable but now it’s off the charts,” adding: “But there are other great wines that I have tasted that are French.”

It’s, perhaps, a bold statement for a Frenchman, but not entirely surprising, given Penfolds’ reputation, but also Bizot’s confidence in Australia’s ability to produce world class fine wines.

For some time now, this is the direction that the industry has been moving in, working to produce wines that speak of their terroir, often from cooler climate areas, and moving away from the typical “sunshine in a bottle” wines that while commercially very important, have somewhat dented Australia’s wider brand image, with deep discounting in supermarkets driving down its value, particularly in the UK market.

“Australia is a lucky country because it has the ability to produce massive amounts of good quality wines,” he said. “That’s the sunshine bottle. That’s the success and it’s always been there. Why? Because it’s very warm and dry. The best vintages in Bordeaux and Burgundy are warm and dry. But the problem that Burgundy has is in very warm and dry vintages it cannot water, whereas Australia can. So that’s our luck. We can make very good quality wine with volume, but that’s not to say that we don’t have vineyards that are in cool climate areas where we can make extraordinary wines.”

Bizot said he believed Australia had long suffered from an “inferiority complex” with the Old World, with winemakers too often trying to emulate its wines rather than trusting in their own vineyards, a trend he feel is now lessening. However this side of the industry is still “a boutique market”, with the vast volume of Australian wine driven by supermarket sales.

“The focus in Australia has been more on marketing and the commercial side,” said Bizot. “The vineyards were there but there was a lot of copying of style, whereas now there are a lot more different winemaking cultures, lots of more natural winemakers for example, and they are all great and they are all bringing something to the table.

“It’s a big investment to say I’m going to make the best wine from this vineyard if it’s not the wine that the customer wants at that time. It means you have to make the best wines from one vineyard and then sell it as it is, not as a commodity of something else or a style. That’s what I make from my own terroir and my own block of land.”

Winemaker Brian Croser in the vineyard

Tapanappa was founded by Australian winemaking legend Brian Croser in 2002 out of the ashes of Petaluma, which the Crosers founded in 1976 before it was taken over by Lion Nathan in 2001. Tapanappa was born out of a partnership with the Crosers, Bollinger of Champagne and the Cazes family of Lynch Bages in Pauillac. In 2014, the Croser family reached an agreement with Bollinger and the Cazes family to put Tapanappa wholly under the ownership of the Croser family.

Today, its three vineyards include Tiers in the Piccadilly Valley, planted with Chardonnay vines in 1979, Foggy Hill on the Fleurieu peninsula, planted with Pinot Noir in 2003, and Whalebone in Wrattonbully, named after the discovery of a 35 million whale skeleton that was found under the vineyard, planted with Cabernet in 1974.

Pinot Noir is a variety that Bizot believes has vast potential in Australia, citing Mornington Peninsula, Yarra Valley and Geelong, as well as Tapanappa’s vineyard in Fleurieu, (“I don’t think there’s a better vineyard for Pinot Noir in Australia”), as producing good examples.

“My gut feeling is that Pinot Noir in Australia will be about more than regionality, it will be about single vineyards,” said Bizot. “When you look at Burgundy it’s famous for its vineyards more than the region. People are buying Chambertin and so on. More than being regional it’s very specific and I think terroir and Pinot Noir are very much intertwined. Even Brian is fine tuning all the time and you need to have people looking after the block at all times to make the most if it.”

DOWN TO EARTH

Tapanappa’s 2015 Tiers Chardonnay, from its Piccadilly Valley vineyard in South Australia

In 2009 Bizot launched a new label with his wife Lucy, Terre à Terre, which presently produces three ranges: the Terre à Terre range, made from fruit exclusively sourced from its Crayères vineyard in Wrattonbully; the Down to Earth range, made from younger vines; and Daosa, a range of traditional method sparkling wines made from the Bizot vineyard in the Piccadilly Valley.

This year, the pair also produced a 100% botrytised Sauvignon Blanc called Serendipity, under the Terre à Terre label.

“Obviously our Sauvignon Blanc is riper than Bordeaux could ever dream of,” said Bizot. “We have grapes with high alcohol, acidity and good flavours and then they get botrytis. We have done it for a few years and it didn’t work, but this time it did. We had a lot of rain and then the whole vineyard was infected.”

Looking toward Australia’s prospects for fine wine, Bizot cites Penfolds as “the machine that drives fine wine from Australia”, but his opinion on the best way for the country as a whole to achieve a firmer fine wine standing continues to evolve.

“Everyday I wake up and I have a different view on it,” he said. “Three and a half months ago, I woke up and I was thinking about Penfolds and how their model is very much like Champagne. They work with growers that have no implication in the brand and try to make the best wines with the fruit from the region, which is South Australia as a whole, and they are playing around with different regions. What does Champagne do? Assemblage.

“Having bought the fruit they make the blend. When I woke up and had this idea I thought is that possibly the future of Australian wine, rather than terroir? And then I realised if that’s the case I’m going in the wrong direction, and I decided against it.”

Tapanappa is distributed by Mentzendorff in the UK, while Vagabond Wines imports Bizot’s Terre à Terre and Down to Earth ranges.

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