The Landmark Tutorial 2010: sparkling wines – different but not necessarily inferior to Champagne

I’m off to Australia House today for a tasting of sparkling and fortified wines – bit of a minefield for the teeth with all that sugar and acid! Still, September’s Landmark Tutorial in the Yarra Valley may have been in the less flashy Yering Station barn (pictured), but we tasted some fine examples of both categories so at least my taste buds are buzzing with anticipation.

The session culminated with House of Arras EJ Carr Late Disgorged Chardonnay /Pinot Noir 1999 from Tasmania which, with 10 years on the lees and priced at a cool AUS $190 a pop, is Australia’s most ambitious sparkling wine to date.

Not for the first time, I was left shaken and stirred by the spirit of adventure and collaboration which explains why, though cool climate premium sparkling wines only emerged in the late 80s, Australia was capable of fielding such a sophisticated line up of sparkling wines at Landmark.  I particularly enjoyed the well judged combination of complexity and sheer drinkability characterised by the supple wines of House of Arras.  Also the persistence and weight of Brown Brothers flagship Patricia Sparkling from a King Valley vineyard whose location at 1000m accounts for its long, clean, crisp finish.

And it just might be Australia’s hour.  When I worked for Oddbins, Australian sparkling wines were between a rock and a hard place in the UK market, the rock being Champagne, the hard place Cava.  Now that Champagne prices have seen a relatively substantial hike and there’s less heavy discounting in this category, I reckon Australian sparkling wines are well worth another look.

And fizz is on the up Down Under.  Australia’s annual sparkling production now stands at 6.7 million cases (it’s the world’s number eight sparkling producer) and, in the last 30 years, consumption has doubled (Australia’s annual average consumption is 2.4 litres/head).  So what’s encouraged Australians to live the high life?  Dr Tony Jordan, who spent 21 years with the Moet Hennessy group, initially as Domaine Chandon’s Managing Director / Winemaker in 1987, outlined the backdrop to this phenomenon.  Together with Edd Carr, Constellation’s sparkling wine supremo, Jordan then talked us through the wines.

A brief history

Australia’s first sparkling wines emerged in South Australia in the 1840s (Hardys and Samuel Smith).  From the 1890s, when Hans Irvine employed Frenchman Charles Pierlot from Champagne to make sparkling wines using the “Methode Champenoise,” Seppelt in Victoria’s relatively cool Great Western region set the pace for Australian sparkling wine.

However, by the 1970s, the sparkling wine scene was dominated by wines from warm to hot climates made from less than likely suspects such as Pedro Ximinez, Trebbiano and Sultana using the tank method (second fermentation takes place in a tank, not in bottle).

The modern industry

The 1980s witnessed a varietal sea change linked to the exploration of cool climate regions, of which the genre has been a key beneficiary.  These days, Champagne varieties (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier) are de rigueur for premium sparkling wines.   For Carr, Pinot Noir is vital to structure, while Chardonnay’s mid-palate and gentle back palate flesh out Pinot Noir’s spine.

As for source of origin, top wines are likely to come from the Adelaide Hills, Macedon Ranges, Yarra Valley (especially the Upper Yarra, where ripening can occur a month later), Strathbogie Ranges, King Valley, Tumburumba, Orange and Tasmania. Unsurprisingly, both developments (varietal and regional) have resulted in a quantum leap in the quality of Australian sparkling wine.

While the tank method is still favoured for commercial, fruity styles, top wines undergo a more intense autolysis either via the traditional method (méthode champenoise) or “transfer method” (in which second fermentation takes place in bottle like Champagne, but the wine is disgorged into tank after it has completed its ageing on lees).  Both Jordan and Carr rank the transfer method on par with the traditional method.

House style

Aside from regional and varietal factors, as in Champagne, house style is dictated by a range of factors.  Edd Carr explained practices typically differ around harvest date (earlier or later/riper), protective or oxidative handling (the latter incorporating oak aged base wines/liqueur), fermentation yeast strains and malolactic fermentation.  Carr, who favours cork closures, expressed the opinion that “corks have a positive impact on style and are part of the winemaking technique.”  For Jordan, in this particularly image conscious category, in contrast to the table wine scene, cork remains unchallenged by screwcap in any event.

Different but not necessarily inferior

And on the subject of image, Jordan observed that, inevitably, top Australian sparkling wines suffer from unfair comparison with Champagne.  Referring to its“stronger character”  (even if you pick at 10-10.5 baumé like Champagne, you get more fruit intensity than France),  Jordan was keen to emphasise that “it’s different, not necessarily inferior to Champagne.”  Still, whether fresh and aromatic or creamier in style, Australia’s leading sparkling wines are possessed of an extremely good structure – “palate structures are not fat or broad; they still retain vibrancy.”   So, like Australian table wine, Jordan maintains its sparkling wines should be enjoyed for their individual expression of origin.  I agree.  The tasting certainly demonstrated that source of origin – region and producer – is key to style and I enjoyed the diversity of style.

Brown Brothers Brut Chardonnay/Pinot Noir/Pinot Meunier NV (King Valley) – this hails from the Whitlands plateau at the cooler southern end of King Valley, not least since the plateau sits at 800 metres.  It shows a fine bead with nougat and marzipan hints on the nose.  In the mouth it combines the sweetness, richness and bite of lemon posset, in this case, not with shortbread, but there is a touch of toast.  A spine of acid makes for good persistence.  In terms of winemaking there’s an element of deliberate oxygenation (no sulphur dioxide is used pre-ferment plus 25-30% of the reserve wine was aged in 4-5 year old barrels); it undergoes 100% malolactic fermentation.

House of Arras Brut Elite Cuvee 401 Pinot Noir/Chardonnay NV (Tasmania) – principally based on the 2004 vintage and mostly comprised Pinot Noir, even on the nose this strikes one as drier, with a distinct savoury note which follows through on the palate, together with bruised apples.  In this case, the liqueur d’expedition has seen oak.  Otherwise, the base wine is unoaked and, as with all Carr’s sparkling wines, undergoes 100% malolactic fermentation which, for him is not just about acid reduction (he may still acidify the wine), but flavour and texture.  He says a long time on lees drives the wine – it’s certainly, long and savoury with a fine autolytic thread from start to finish, the acidity juicy.  My juiciness is Carr’s suppleness of structure, which he identifies as a signature note of Tasmanian fizz (whilst for say the King Valley, he reckons altitude produces a steelier, more angular backbone of acidity).  Carr also tends to pick later.

Domaine Chandon ZD Blanc de Blancs Chardonnay 2005 (Victoria) – a flinty, struck match nose which Jordan explains is very much the Chandon house style – he ascribes it to the tirage yeast Chandon have used for 25 years.  In the mouth it’s quite dry, lean and focused as you’d expect from a zero dosage wine with no liqueur d’expedition (hence the name, “ZD”), its finish pure lemon sherbet.  To underline the minimalist style of the wine, it was originally sealed under crown cap, but Jordan says this closure did not catch on.

House of Arras Blanc de Blancs Chardonnay 2001 (Tasmania) – the best Chardonnay is reserved for this cuvée which, compared with the (non-vintage) Brut Elite, is more finely wrought in bead and line.  The base wine sees oak which enhances palate structure. Focused and precise, there’s backbone and length to its mouthwatering fresh and bruised apple fruit.

Coldstream Hills Yarra Valley Chardonnay/Pinot Noir 2006 (Yarra Valley) – 60% Chardonnay and 40% Pinot Noir and aged for 25 months on the lees, this is quite different from the previous wines, weightier, with a nose of ripe fruit, strawberry and apple which follow through on the palate, which is quite muscular and dry.  For Carr, it has the most complexity, depth and structure – Coldstream have“maintained their nerve on the style,” which he explained is slightly oxidative, with low use of sulphur; only the Pinot undergoes the malo.

Yering Station Yarrabank Chardonnay/Pinot Noir 2005 (Yarra Valley) – Yarrabank’s tight and focused house style reflects the fact that they pick slightly leaner and wines don’t do the malo.  This has a tight and bright citrus nose and palate, with hints of white peach and lemon pips on the lipsmacking finish.  Relatively austere with its firm acid backbone.  Carr explained that Yering “go out of their way to preserve freshness, so it takes a long time to get where it’s going.”

Domaine Chandon Yarra Valley Brut Pinot Noir/Chardonnay 2005 (Yarra Valley) – that house flinty style pronounced on the nose, less so on the palate which Jordan observes is fuller in style than the top cuvee on account of its 100% Yarra fruit.  Nonethless, it’s well structured, with good acid drive and line, the whole complexed by biscuit and nougat notes.

Brown Brothers Patricia Brut Pinot Noir/Chardonnay 2005 (King Valley) – this, Brown Brothers flagship sparkler, comes from an even higher vineyard than the first wine, at around 1000m.  It sees no sulphur prior to ferment which Carr points out produces a slightly aldehyldic style which appealed to me.  Lots of complexity here on nose and palate with lovely persistence and weight; a classy, very fine bead too.  Creamy/tangy through the mid palate (malo), with juicy nougat-edged bruised apple, its mouthwatering lemon and mineral undertow accounts for a long, clean, crisp finish.  Very good.

House of Arras Grand Vintage Chardonnay/Pinot Noir 2003 (Tasmania) – moving up the quality tier, Carr uses more Chardonnay (60% here) for ageworthiness. As with the Brut Elite, the liqueur d’expedition has seen oak.  Though the flavour profile is complex with an umami note to its creamy, applely fruit, the structure is supple and this well balanced wine slips down ever so easily.  Moreish.

Domaine Chandon Prestige Cuvee Chardonnay/Pinot Noir 2002 (Victoria & Tasmania) – though eight years old, this tautly structured wine has a very bright-fruited nose and palate, with creamy orchard fruit salad and succulent lychee to the mid-palate.  For Carr, this and the following wines illustrate how Australia’s sparkling wines are coming of age in terms of longevity.

Freycinet Radenti Chardonnay/Pinot Noir 2000 (Tasmania) – low cropped, this shows lots of depth and complexity, like the Coldstream Hills, quite (table)wine-like somehow, muscular, with bruised apple and hints of peach on a subtly creamy palate with ripe, citrussy acidity.

House of Arras EJ Carr Late Disgorged Chardonnay /Pinot Noir 1999 (Tasmania)– a finesse-ful tight nose, with toast and biscuit.  In the mouth this fine beaded 11 year old wine shows beautiful freshness, line and length, finishing super-long, dry and subtly textured with toast, hints of oyster sauce and an invigorating saline drive. This Chardonnay-driven exercise in precision and power comes from east coast fruit in southern Tasmanian which Carr finds has more elegance and structure than northern vineyards.

Stefano Lubiana Vintage Brut Pinot Noir/Chardonnay 1998 (Tasmania) – from a very cold site, this is a characterful wine, quite firmly structured, textured even, with ripe mandarin, toast, biscuit and strawberry to the finish.  Very much a food wine.

Domaine Chandon Vintage Brut Rosé 2006 (Victoria & Tasmania) – partridge eye in hue, it’s spicy and taut with a fine bead and hints of chocolate to its delicate dried cherry and strawberry fruit.

Kreglinger Brut Rosé 2003 (Tasmania) – 100% Pinot Noir a pretty, perfumed nose with strawberry and lychee, surprisingly powerful on the palate, brisk even, lots of push to this, an energetic bead drives a long finish – it hardly seems to touches the sides – needs time?

Sparkling Shiraz

Though this tasting focused on new wave Australian sparkling wines, Carr and Jordan touched on Australia’s unique contribution to the world of fizz, sparkling Shiraz.  First produced in the 1840s, it was called sparkling burgundy because of its relative softness.  Base wines are typically oaked for structure but oak use is moderate compared with table wines because the bead emphasises tannin/dryness.  Dosage is higher for reds in order to balance the tannins, anything between 15-40g/l of residual sugar.

And here’s a great example which I tasted earlier, shortly before I went to Australia with Treasury Wine Estates:

Seppelt Sparkling Shiraz 1987 – an intriguing nose shows spicy tiger balm and linseed oil which left me totally unprepared for the fresh and lively acidity and bead which animates this developed savoury Shiraz giving structure to its bloody, leathery, linseed and chocoalate edged cassis and blackberry fruit.   A fun palate tickling and teasing finale [to a portfolio tasting at Treasury Wine Estates reportedhere]! 

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