The Sydney Morning Herald’s wine critic Huon Hooke recently remarked that “with champagne prices plunging like an England cricket fan’s morale (yes, Australia is still in the lead!) you might think there is no contest for your festive season bubbly dollars.” (Swap toil, trouble for fizz and bubble, SMH 3 December 2013)
But, as Hooke goes on to say, Australia also produces high quality, great value sparkling wines using the traditional methode champenoise. Indeed, the number of boutique wineries making sparkling wine in Australia has grown dramatically over the past few decades. It’s a trend which has focused attention on identifying the best regions and sites to grow the classic Champagne varieties of pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot meunier.
Notably, northern Tasmania is proving to be one of the best regions in Australia for producing fine quality sparkling. It benefits from a cool climate and the maritime influence from Bass Strait creates just the right amount of humidity to allow the grapes to ripen slowly and retain the lingering acidity essential for making premium sparkling wine.
On the mainland Victoria’s Macedon Ranges and the Upper Yarra are also producing very good sparkling, and the cool climate regions of Tumbarumba and the Southern Highlands in NSW are showing great potential. The top five NV sparklings listed here are just representative examples of many good wines that are still priced very competitively against their French counterparts.
House of Arras Brut Elite Cuvée No. 401 NV RRP$55
Tasmania’s House of Arras is arguably Australia’s top sparkling house. Under Ed Carr’s exceptional leadership, wines like the House of Arras Ed Carr LD 2000, for example, have consistently won accolades typically reserved for top vintage Champagnes.
The entry level House of Arras Brut Elite Cuvée No. 401 NV is a blend of pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot meunier selected from a number of Tasmanian vineyards. It combines remarkable brightness of character with structural elegance. The Wine Front’s Campbell Mattinson gave it 94 points, calling it a new local benchmark. (The Wine Front, 24 October 2010)
Centennial Vineyards Blanc de Blancs RRP$38.99
Wine critic James Halliday scored the Southern Highlands’ Centennial Vineyards Blanc de Blancs 95 points, describing it as “a vital and intense blanc de blancs, long and focused; grapefruit, stone fruit and some almond/creamy yeast nuances; a long and even finish.”
Bowral-based Centennial is gaining quite a reputation for its sparkling range. The chardonnay grapes for the Blanc de Blancs NV are sourced exclusively from selected parcels of its vineyards. The wine is aged 42 months on lees.
Hanging Rock, Macendon NV Cuvée XIV RRP$50
Traditionally the top Champagne houses blend vintages to create a signature style and insure consistency from year to year – a practice that the Macedon Ranges’ Hanging Rock has taken to heart with the 14th release of its Macendon NV Cuvée XIV. Made up of 60% pinot noir and 40% chardonnay, the wine is a blend of vintages from from 2004 back to 1987 inclusive.
The base wines were aged on lees in old French oak barriques for an average of four years before blending and tirage. The wine then spent almost 8 years on yeast lees in the bottle before disgorgement in late 2012. The result is a richly flavoured, intense, complex wine with great length and a delightful mix of flavours such as spice, lemon, apple, nuts, stone fruit. The style has been compared to Bollinger!
Jansz Tasmania Cuvée NV RRP$19.99
Natalie Fryar has been winning lots of applause since taking over the winemaking reins at Jansz in 2001. She’s a great believer in the premise that the best wine is made in the vineyard. Just prior to pruning, for example, each vine is assessed to ensure that is ideally balanced for perfect, even ripening.
The Wine Front’s Gary Walsh described the Jansz Tasmania Cuvée NV as “pretty, tasty and fun but not without grace and refinement. It offers light lemon and strawberry flavours with a touch of earthiness and has balanced sweetness and good length of flavour. At the price point it’s just the ticket.” (Gary Walsh, The Wine Front, 2 January 2009)
Clover Hill Tasmanian Cuvée NV RRP$32
The release of Clover Hills’ first NV sparkling Tasmanian Cuvée in 2012 was widely anticipated, as over the past twenty years this Pipers River winery has gained an enviable following for its Classic Cuyée Vintage Brut, Cuvée Exceptionnelle Blanc de Blancs and Rosé.
This first release is a blend of the three classic sparkling varieties of pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot meunier from the 2008, 2007 and 2006 vintages.
It has a lively, persistent bead and a gentle, creamy mousse. Attractive, zesty lemon and citrus flavours are complemented by ripe melon and white peach flavours. The palate has a long acid line and soft, aged almond kernel and breadcrust characters to add fullness.
Merrill Witt, Editor
In a recent article in Wine-Searcher, Try wines from these up and coming producers to get ahead of the curve, Tim Atkin’s singled out Agrapart & Fils Champagne as of his 10 favourite under-valued producers:
Pascal Agrapart is one of the rising stars of the Côte des Blancs, making (mostly) bone-dry, oak-fermented Blanc de Blancs from old-vine chardonnay. Look out for their Les 7 Crus, a blend of grapes from all seven villages in which the family owns vines.
I first discovered Agrapart & Fils Champagne a couple of years ago at the Vintage Cellars annual Champagne Gala hosted by the Double Bay store to showcase their very best Champagnes.
The labels were quite whimsical by Champagne standards (they have since been updated and now have a more traditional look), and the wines were superb and quite different in character to anything else I tried that night.
Agrapart is an artisan or “grower” Champagne House with an average production of only 6,00 cases a year. Chardonnay comprises almost 95% of the estates 10 hectares of plantings, and the focus is very much on creating blended wines that highlight the important, if often subtle, differences in the terroir of the estate’s Côte de Blancs’ mainly grand crus holdings in Avize, Oger, Cramant and Oiry.
Agrapart also has the advantage of owning some of the oldest vines in Champagne. The average age of its chardonnay vines is 40 years, with some being more than 65 years old – an impressive statistic for Champagne and a significant advantage for encouraging terroir expression, as it gives the roots a chance to dig deep and draw out the mineral characters in the soils.
Like a growing number of France’s top producers, proprietor Pascal Agrapart has found that the use of organic and biodynamic farming methods work best for releasing the life and energy in the soils. Wild yeast ferments, old oak barrel fermentations and extended ageing on lees prior to release are a few of the winemaking techniques used to enhance terroir expression.
Former Wine Advocate critic Antonio Galloni describes the NV Brut Blanc de Blancs 7 Crus as “beautiful, wiry and bursting with pure energy. Lemon, mint, white flowers and crushed rocks jump from the glass in a vibrant, crystalline Champagne endowed with striking purity. The style is all about focus and tension. In other words, this is pure Agrapart.” (eRobertParker.com #1112, November 2012)
With reviews like that, the Agrapart range is unlikely to stay under the radar for much longer!
Merrill Witt, Editor
Taittinger’s Australian distributor, McWilliam’s Wines, recently hosted a dinner to showcase the Taittinger Champagne range in the splendid dining room of the Sydney’s Pullman Quay Grand overlooking the Harbour Bridge. Champagne expert Tyson Stelzer was on hand to talk about the historic Champagne House – the 6th largest in Champagne and one of the few remaining independent, family-owned and managed estates.
Apart from the excellent selection of Taittinger non-vintage and vintage Champagnes, matched beautifully to a four course menu, Stelzer’s superb commentary on Taittinger and Champagne, in general, made for a truly memorable evening.
Stelzer’s most recent edition of The Champagne Guide 2014 – 2015 has been winning rave reviews. The Sydney Morning Herald’s wine critic Huon Hooke described it as perhaps “the most useful book ever written on France’s prestige sparkling wine, Champagne.” (Champagne tour de force: The best guide to Champagne ever written turns out to be the work of an Aussie from Brissie, Good Food, SMH, 15 October 2013.)
Here are a few reasons why, according to Stelzer, Taittinger deserves to be considered one of the very best Champagne houses in the world:
- Taittinger’s flagship wine, the Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs may not have the profile of illustrious peers like Moet et Chandon’s Dom Perignon or Veuve Cliquot’s La Grande Dame, but Champagne connoisseurs generally regard this 100% chardonnay wine as one of the best and most age worthy wines in Champagne. We were extremely fortunate to enjoy the spectacular 2002 vintage, sourced from the best grand crus vineyards in the Côte des Blanc and disgorged in February 2012 after more than a decade under lees in Taittinger’s vast cold Roman built chalk caves in Reims.
- The excellent value Taittinger Brut Reserve NV is essentially a vintage wine, and is only made in years when the vintage is deemed to be of sufficient quality. The most recent release, disgorged in December 2011, is a blend of chardonnay (40%), pinot noir (35%) and pinot meunier (25%). Seventy percent of the blend is from the bright and lively 2008 vintage with the balance from 2007, 2006 and 2005 in diminishing proportions.
- With Pierre Emmanuel Taittinger now at the helm of the family business after a fierce takeover battle in 2005, the House has renewed its focus on quality and according to Stelzer, “its non-vintage wines have never looked more refined.” In the vineyards Taittinger is committed to reducing the use of chemicals and using natural treatments whenever possible. Yields are limited to insure quality, and at the time of the family buy-back a decision was made to only work with the finest juices.
Merrill Witt, Editor
Photo Credit: Taittinger 4 kms of chalk caves, tripadvisor.com.au
The Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs 2002 and the Taittinger Brut Reserve are available on the Cellarit Wine Market.