Crittenden Estate is one of Mornington Peninsula’s oldest vineyards, with Garry Crittenden planting his first couple of hectares in the 80s, which doubled the region’s land under vine at the time. Today, while the regional strengths of chardonnay and pinot noir remain the same, much on the Peninsula has changed. And the Crittendens have changed too, with Garry and his son Rollo steering the viticulture down a sustainable route that has seen vast benefits for biodiversity and soil health, as well as wine quality. The estate vineyard produces a suite of wines – including two savagnin-based bottlings that pay homage to the wines of the Jura – which form the premium end of the Crittenden range. Top of that tree are the Cri de Coeur wines, and they’re wines that Rollo says would not have been possible without their farming revolution.
Garry Crittenden planted the estate’s first vines in Dromana back in 1982, helping to pioneer grapegrowing on the Mornington Peninsula at the time. Those first vines were pinot noir, chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon, with additional plantings and grafting occurring over the years, with the last additions in 2007. Today, the focus is firmly on pinot noir – across seven clones – and chardonnay, with a smattering of savagnin and a tiny plot of arneis. There are currently 4.45 hectares under vine.
While Garry’s son Rollo is now at the helm, steering the operations in both the winery and vineyard, the pair have worked closely over the years to reassess the viticulture practices. Noticing a drop in the quality of their fruit some 15 years ago, they began to push in a sustainable direction.
“We gradually learnt that 25 years of conventional farming had taken a toll on our soil health and ultimately our vines,” Rollo Crittenden says. “We are now on a quest to better understand the science of our actions so we can further refine our processes and ultimately improve wine quality.”
Those processes, which include apiaries to encourage pollination of both native species and vines, biodiversity corridors with a range of fruiting trees, the growth of interrow cover crops, an operation that produces 400 cubic metres of compost a year, and a near elimination of synthetic chemicals (with the end goal eradication) is firmly focused on building soil health.
The soil is no longer cultivated, as Crittenden believes that any perceived benefits of tilling are outweighed by the damage done to beneficial fungi and bacteria. The soil is now tested regularly for trace elements as well as microbial activity so they can effectively manage and encourage the mycorrhizal layer. The interrow crops are also crimped, rather than slashed, providing a protective layer to decrease soil temperature and retain water, before adding their nutrients back to the soil and increase organic matter.
“Our wines now seem to have an unforced quality about them, almost an energy. Their characters now go beyond the usual hallmarks of fruit, tannin and acid with a back-palate textural complexity that we haven’t seen before.”
“We are neither organic nor biodynamic,” Rollo says. “We selectively use positive aspects of both of these philosophies and combine them with other increasingly recognised findings… One of our current projects is to better understand the fungi and bacteria in our soil and their beneficial interaction with our vines. We are learning that every process we take in the vineyard will impact the mycorrhizal layer one way or another – both positively and negatively.”
While the Crittendens source fruit from across Victoria, their home vineyard is the source of their flagship wines under their ‘Cri de Coeur’ and ‘Zumma’ ranges, which include chardonnay and pinot noir expressions and a flor-aged savagnin in the style of the wines of the Jura. But without their investigation into restoring the balance in their soil and increasing biodiversity, Rollo believes some of these wines would never have been possible.
“Improved vineyard performance has resulted in an undeniable increase in wine quality,” Rollo says, “and allowed us to introduce a super-premium range of wines. Those wines have justified our investment in land management practices and encouraged us to put in place an ongoing program of vineyard improvement to underpin the future of our family operation for generations to come.”
Since re-evaluating their viticultural practices and working to restore the soil, Crittenden has seen an ever-increasing improvement not just in fruit quality, but also in the clarity of expression of site. “For many years now, and increasingly, I’ve felt our vineyard shows a unique character that can only be attributed to the patch of dirt where our vines are grown.
“For pinot noir in particular our wines show a fragrance and elegance – characters that appear to be amplifying as the vines grow older and we invest more heavily in the health our soils. These bright and generous fruit characters are supported consistently with almost chalky fine grain tannins and are evident year in year out – regardless of clone or the variable weather conditions we endure.”
Crittenden says the improvement in the pinot noir has given them the opportunity to harvest earlier with good ripeness of both flavours and grape and stalk tannin, resulting in the opportunity to employ more whole bunches in their ferments and reduce the use of new oak. “Increasingly, it’s our mantra to let our vineyard and its sense of place shine in our wines. The refinement of these processes has resulted in a cumulative improvement in our wines and allowed their true DNA to show through, rather than our hand as winemakers.”
“We are neither organic nor biodynamic. We selectively use positive aspects of both of these philosophies and combine them with other increasingly recognised findings… One of our current projects is to better understand the fungi and bacteria in our soil and their beneficial interaction with our vines. We are learning that every process we take in the vineyard will impact the mycorrhizal layer one way or another – both positively and negatively.”
The future success for Crittenden Estate is also linked to managing the impacts of climate change, which Crittenden says are unmistakably apparent over their long stewardship of the Dromana site.
“As a family with over 37 years’ experience tending to one site, we are acutely aware of the gradual impacts of climate change. While always playing our part to minimise our carbon footprint, we have witnessed firsthand the benefits our sustainable growing activities can have both in terms of minimising water usage and also maintaining vibrancy and energy in our wines. If we don’t want to change what we grow or where we grow, all we can do is change how we grow!”
Those sustainability initiatives include solar arrays on the winery, cellar door and office buildings to reduce reliance on the grid. An onsite water treatment plant has been established, and they manage a catchment for rainwater washing down from the winery, which is then diverted to their dam. If needed, external water used for irrigation is all recycled town wastewater, but better water-holding capacity of the soil and vine water retention is making that option less necessary.
“It’s abundantly clear to us that the work we have been doing in our vineyard over the past 15 years is having a cumulatively beneficial effect,” says Crittenden. “It almost seems cliched to say, but the more work we do in the vineyard, the less we need to do in the winery. Our wines now seem to have an unforced quality about them, almost an energy. Their characters now go beyond the usual hallmarks of fruit, tannin and acid with a back-palate textural complexity that we haven’t seen before.”
Those changes have consisted of myriad adjustments, both small and large, and though the vineyard is clearly healthier and more resilient, Crittenden says the proof is ultimately in the glass. “I feel that there really hasn’t been a light bulb moment to justify our work,” he says. “On occasion, though, when I open a wine like our 2015 ‘Cri de Coeur’ Pinot Noir, it’s obvious the hard work has been worth it. The complexity, texture and age-ability the wines we are now making is light years ahead of those from 15 years ago – a result entirely attributable to our change in viticultural philosophy.”