From A to B & PG with Arras & Bay of Fires
Champagne absolutely dominated the market for fizz when I worked in retail. While first Cava, now Prosecco succeeded in providing a cheaper varietal and stylistic alternative, the going was super tough for traditional method (“MT”) sparklers made from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir (sometimes Pinot Meunier). But according to my sources in Tasmania and London, times are a-changin’. Demand has surged.
Says Liberty’s David Gleave MW, “[T]hanks in large part to the success of English MT fizz, we are finding other MT wines much easier to sell. Whether it be from Tasmania, Franciacorta or Central Otago, these wines are now judged on their quality. And if, like Arras, they taste better than Champagne at the same price, then there are certain customers who will take the plunge and list the wine….given that we have sold out so quickly each year, it would seem that there are more of these customers than there is wine available!”
I’ve been a fan of House of Arras sparkling wine – probably Australia’s top fizz – since its maker Ed Carr presented a masterclass showing off several examples of this Tasmanian beaut back in 2010. So I was delighted to catch up with his colleague, fellow winemaker Penny Jones last year to taste the latest top releases.
Tasmanian born Jones manages the Bay of Fires winery in Pipers River, which is home to both the Bay of Fires and House of Arras labels (which are owned by Accolade Wines). Two thirds of grapes processed there go to sparkling, the rest going to still wines. Over dinner with her team we also looked at Bay of Fires still wines and the new-to-me more fruit-forward label Eddystone Point, which was introduced in 2013 (and replaces the Tigress label).
It’s not the only new kid on the block. Jones packed me off home with a sample bottle of “Piggy Skins,” of which more below. But for now, Piggy Skins is not quite as feral as it sounds – it’s a Pinot Gris (PG) made with skin contact!
House of Arras Arras Grand Vintage 2007 (Tasmania)
Carr is, in Jones’ words, a stickler for commitment to ageing Arras for a long time on lies. This wine spent several years on lees prior to disgorgment. Lemony in hue and in flavour profile, it is incredibly fresh, youthful and pure with terrific precision, poise and persistence to its fine mousse. Think lemon posset with nuances of apple and spice and the shortest of shortbreads. Snappy in every sense of the word, which character is deftly balanced by its creamy lees. It is a blend of 77% Chardonnay and 23% Pinot Noir and, for now at least, the Chardonnay’s elegant lemony character and creaminess is much more prominent in the 2007 than the 2005 with which I celebrated the New Year. Delicious. £32.99 at Oz Wines
House of Arras Arras Ed Carr Late Disgorged 2002 (Tasmania)
The flagship cuvee spends 10 years on lees. This is only the fifth release and hails from a cool year. It is a blend of 58.4% Chardonnay and 41.6% Pinot Noir, a small portion of which was barrel fermented. The Pinot Noir produces the strawberry ice cream character which description Carr seared on my memory in the Landmark masterclass. Strawberries with a sweetness but in a glacial, cool, pure, precise expression – most apt for a wine which has aged at a glacial pace! A core of tightly wound grapefruit pushes out a long finish with toast, sea spray and mushroom notes. With time in glass, I even pick up an exotic hint of tangerine. Very good. Quite the powerhouse. 13.5% £53.99 at Oz Wines
Bay of Fires Riesling 2016 (Tasmania)
The Bay of Fires range is built to age, so I was glad that Jones had brought along an older vintage. In 2016 – Bay of Fires’ driest, hottest, earliest vintage to date – the fruit was sourced from Coal River and Derwent Valley. Despite these conditions, this wine is crisp, mineral and dry with fresh apple sauce and lemon verbena to nose and palate. Indeed, it is a measure of Tasmanian wine’s abundant natural acidity that this Riesling has a fair bit in common with its German counterpoints. It incorporates a dash of süssreserve (unfermented, therefore sweet grape must), pressings are added back to the free run and it undergoes lees stirring in tank to balance the acidity and add body. 4g/l residual sugar; 12.5% £12.61/£13.87 for the 2014/2015 vintage at GP Brands
Bay of Fires Riesling 2009 (Tasmania)
Gosh, this is still very youthful with floral lift to its sweet, honeyed apple palate (though the palate is dry). With a lively vein of acidity, the fruit dances long in the mouth. Lovely. One can imagine the 2016 going down a similar path, so worth holding it back I reckon. 12%
Eddystone Point Pinot Noir 2015 (Tasmania)
The team were extremely chuffed that this Pinot had scooped yet another award – the James Halliday Trophy for Best Pinot Noir at the Royal Melbourne Wine Awards. It is a barrel selection of Pinot drawn from across Tasmania – Derwent Valley, the East Coast and Coal River Valley and, in this vintage, I’m told features less MV6 clone than other years. So although it has quite a dark fruit spectrum with a lick of earthy beetroot and cheroot, it also features sweet glace cherry, fleshy strawberries and super supple tannins. Nice depth of flavour/richness whist remaining smooth and ultra approachable. 13.5% £16.99 currently reduced to £11.38 at Waitrose (2013 vintage).
Bay of Fires Pinot Noir 2013 (Tasmania)
With greater emphasis on structure, Bay of Fires Pinot typically features up to 20% whole bunch ferment. I liked the texture very much – a delicate spine of tannins, fleshed out by super supple fleshy dark berry and plum fruit. Savoury beetroot. an incipient mushroom earthiness and sweeter five spice lift add complexity and layer. A very well made blend, with each clone vinified separately in 5t and ½ ton open fermenters. Interestingly, to give it some reductive funk the grapes are basket pressed into barrel to finish the ferment and left on lees for as long as possible. Doubtless this explains the svelte palate too. All in all, an expressive, very user-friendly style with a bit more structure/oomph than the Eddystone Point (though I thought the 2009 looked a bit tired). 13.5% Inexplicably, this wine (2014 & 2015 vintages) appears to be cheaper than the Eddystone Point – £14.15/£13.78 at GP Brands which, though I have not tasted them, strikes me as a great buy.
Piggy Skins (sample) 2016 (Tasmania)
Made in tiny volumes and by hand, this is Jones’ second attempt at a skin contact Pinot Gris. She confessed that she freaked out with the 2015 and pressed it off skins earlier into barrel where it dried out. This year she persevered. Treated like a red wine, Piggy Skins was crushed in a tub, naturally fermented, punched down, aged on skins for 83 days then pressed and held in tank. No oak! Unsurprisingly it’s a distinctly pink hue, indeed could pass as a rosé. Indeed, it would appeal to lovers of dry, savoury styles of rosé with it spicy rub of skins/tannin and subtle backdrop of Pinot Noir-esque pretty pink fruit (a gentle sweetness), violets and more Gris-like apricot kernal and turkish delight nuances. I liked it very much, though my other half found it too neutral. For sure, even though Jones goes for a Gris (not Grigio) style, don’t expect the flesh or weight of an Alasation example. Rather, this wine rather brilliantly shows off Tasmania’s persistent, mineral acidity, which teases out this wine’s diffuse yet luminously intense flavours. Jones told me she is thinking about making a Pinot Noir rosé this year, perhaps fermented on Pinot Gris skins. Look forward to tasting it!