Jurassic Island

Jeffrey Grosset’s relatively obscure Gaia cabernet is proving to be one of Australia’s greats. Andrew Calliard MW was there to celebrate 20 vintages of this extraordinary wine.

The three-hectare Gaia vineyard lies like a postage stamp on an envelope of land beneath Mount Horrocks. Elevated at 570 metres, it is the highest vineyard in the Clare Valley. It’s reached by a dirt road that ribbons up through rocky paddocks, and past stunted trees. It takes quite an age to drive up to this obscure outpost of vitis Vinifera. Our ute grunts and groans through the scrappy wilderness. At its wheel Jeffrey Grosset, who talks as though he’s on a racetrack. Thrill and excitement filter through his speech. It’s like it’s all new to him, although he planted the vineyard nearly a quarter of a century ago.

I have known Grosset for longer than that. I have observed and written parts of his story. His contribution to the ultra-fine Australian wine scene is immeasurable. He is one of Australia’s most significant winemakers of the last century. The fame of the Clare Valley riesling is hinged on his vision splendid, even though there are other significant pioneers including John Vickery – creator of the Leo Buring DW Rieslings of the 1970s, and Brian Croser – the founder of Petaluma. His support of the screwcap closures began a movement that now sees over 80 per cent of Australian wine bottled using this technology. His repertoire of all Polish Hill and Watervale/Springvale Rieslings sealed in this manner still live.

Grosset has enjoyed a longstanding reputation as Australia’s leading riesling producer. Enduring quality and sentiment play a huge part in the way ultra-fine wine is perceived. Track record, an elusive but meaningful measurement of achievement, is something that cannot be manufactured or manipulated; even after two decades.

His relatively obscure Gaia cabernet is an alter-vision that pre-dates the global insecurity of climate change. Named after James Lovelock’s theory about the balance of life on Earth, the Gaia vineyard is Grosset’s Jurassic island; a symbol of his own scientific enquiry and nature’s resilience. There is something madly idealistic and counter-intuitive about growing cabernet in the elevated wilderness, far from conventional agriculture and fully exposed to the forces of nature.

The closely planted Gaia vineyard, that is anchored on skeletal red-clay soils, was first established in 1986. Every post-hole was drilled into the bedrock; blowing the budget. Low-input and increasingly organic philosophies have led to a “complexity of species” in the vineyard. The vines, mostly cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc – a touch of merlot – have been producing fully mature, perfectly balanced fruit for many years now. Vinification in stainless steel, with regular auto-plunging, is followed by maturation in a combination of seasoned and new French oak for 16 months. Meticulous attention to detail is a Grosset hallmark.

At a recent vertical tasting, celebrating 20 vintages, we saw an incredible evolution of vineyard character, philosophy and style. Contrasted against the muscular and often beautiful cabernet wines of the Clare Valley floor, Gaia possesses a compelling perfume, clarity and purity of fruit. Typically the palate is medium concentrated with lovely richness and volume. A leafy freshness and al-dente texture adds delicious fruit complexity and vinosity. The wines become more substantial and percussive with vine age. Hence the wines begin to show their inherent class around 1994. The best vintages (all of which I scored 95+) are 1996, 1998, 1999, 2002, 2004 and 2006. The wines (post 2001 – the first under screwcap) are incredibly fresh and buoyant. 2008 (99 points) is the standout vintage. It possesses pure “to die for” cassis aromas with underlying savoury, roasted chestnut, vanilla and herb notes, superb richness of fruit and loose-knit, sweet, supple tannins. Even the lesser vintages show consistent vineyard character. I am convinced Gaia is emerging as one of Australia’s great single vineyards.


Andrew Caillard MW, Gourmet Traveller Wine,  August/September 2012