For years, the French have dominated when it came to the sparkling wines served at important celebrations. But things are changing in the glittering world of fine celebratory sparkling wine. As sparkling aficionados already know, there’s a whole world of fine sparkling wine out there … and Australian sparkling stars are shining brighter than ever…
The pop of a cork, the splash of foam, the bead of fine bubbles … nothing says celebration like a bottle of sparkling wine. And for a long time, the only kind that signified a very special occasion were the sparkling wines from Champagne. But things are changing. Prestige Australian sparkling wines from cool-climate, high-altitude regions are taking their place as the celebratory wine of choice for occasions both big and small. And not just celebratory occasions either. Australian sparkling wines of all shapes and styles are foaming into glasses at launches and lunches, dinners and drinks, picnics and parties, wine bars and wine lists everywhere. The biggest disruptor of all? Pét-nats … those effervescent, sometimes irridescent, irreverently-labelled and often even more irreverently-named vibrant natural sparklings that have taken the wine world by storm. Welcome to the Australian sparkling scene … circa 2017!
Sparkling Shiraz … an Australian red treasure
Australians have been drinking sparkling wine for many years. Indeed, as far back as 1881, Victoria was home to the ‘Victorian Champagne Company’. This was where French winemaker Auguste D’Argent made one of the first examples of Australian ‘sparkling burgundy’ (out of Shiraz). The Victorian Champagne Company didn’t last, but Hans Irvine at Great Western took up the sparkling burgundy baton and the trend continued under Seppelts with the legendary Colin Preece. His utterly delicious, headily rich, evocative, long-lived sparkling reds have inspired many other producers to create their own take on this incomparable Australian style – a style that is still sought out by connoisseurs today. Sparkling reds can be made from a range of varieties but Sparkling Shiraz is the predominant one. Rockford Black Shiraz, Seppelt Original Sparkling, Leasingham Classic Clare, Kay Brothers and Ashton Hills are a few delicious examples of this lavish and luscious style, though there are plenty more to discover.
Barossa Pearl … and other party fizzes
Great Western continued to make good quality sparkling wines of both the white and red varieties, but it wasn’t until the mid 1950s that sparkling really became a popular party piece. It started with Colin Gramp at the Barossa’s renowned Orlando winery. The Gramps were great innovators, always on the lookout for the next big thing. Colin had noted the phenomenal success of Perlwein in Germany, and decided to try it out in Australia. He enlisted the help of Günter Prass, a German sparkling specialist, to create ‘Barossa Pearl’. This was a light sparkling made from Eden Valley Riesling, Barossa Semillon and Muscat. (Muscatel and Frontignan juice were also used to kickstart the secondary fermentation rather than sugar, a technique that resulted in lower alcohol and sweeter flavours.) The result was a pretty, tutti-frutti warm-climate sparkling delight that thrilled a wine drinking public. A raft of imitators followed, including sparkling Rinegolde, Pearlette, Gala Spumante, Starwine, Porphyry Pearl and Mardi Gras.
Australians enjoyed these fruity, warm-climate sparkling wines for nearly 30 years. But eventually, the shift to cooler climate and higher quality sparkling wines of finesse and style occurred, led (not suprisingly) by the French themselves.
A shift in climate … and quality
In the 80s, Champagne producers Moët & Chandon started scouting for a location in Australia to start making their own fine Australian sparkling wine. They enlisted the help of wine expert Tony Jordan, who ran a wine consultancy business with Brian Croser (of Petaluma fame).
The French knew that cool climate and good soil was key, as did Tony Jordan, and they settled on Victoria’s beautiful Yarra Valley. It was a successful venture, and Domaine Chandon recently celebrated 30 years in Australia by winning the national trophy for Best Australian Sparkling Wine for their Chandon Prestige Cuvée 2005 at the 2016 Champagne and Sparkling Wine World Championships.
The success of Domaine Chandon (and the considerably higher prices they could command for their quality product) inspired other wine producers across Victoria and around Australia to explore other regions that could produce quality sparkling wine. By then it was clear that cool climate was king, and fine sparkling wines from smaller regions with high altitudes and chillier climes like Macedon, the King Valley, Adelaide Hills, Tumbarumba, Orange and Tasmania started to emerge.
Though prestige examples can be found all around Australia it is the stunningly elegant, nuanced, textured examples from Tasmania that are really impressing in the quality sparkling stakes. In tastings, ratings, Top 10 listings and competitions, Tasmanian sparkling wines are topping the charts. Indeed, Tasmanian sparkling wines are gaining such acclaim that the island once known as the Apple Isle may soon find that it’s known as the Sparkling Isle. (Or perhaps Pirie Isle, Jansz Isle, or Arras Isle – such is the success and fame of these three prestige Tasmanian sparklings – the only three sparklings to be rated 7 Stars by sparkling expert Tyson Stelzer in his 2016 Australian Sparkling Report.)
Jansz was another French venture into sparkling wine, this one by Louis Roederer, partnering with Heemskerk Vineyards. Now owned by the Hill Smith Family of Yalumba fame, it enjoys a reputation as one of the finest sparkling houses in Australia. They’re also taking on the sparkling lexicon, calling their style ‘Méthode Tasmanoise’ … as opposed to the more usual ‘Méthode Traditionelle’. (The Méthode Champenoise term is, of course, reserved for Champagne.)
Pirie Tasmania honours the immense contribution of Dr Andrew Pirie, founder of the famous Pipers Brook label. Pirie put Tasmania on the world wine map and has been awarded a Member of the Order of Australia for services to the Tasmanian wine industry. Pirie Tasmania (now owned by Brown Brothers) also enjoys a hallowed reputation for its outstanding sparklings … the Pirie NV recently received 96 points at the 2016 Decanter World Wine Awards, as well as taking out two Trophies at the 2016 Tasmanian Wine Show.
The third in the triumvirate of iconic Aussie Sparklers is, of course, The House of Arras, headed up by winemaker Ed Carr. Arras has only been established since 1988, but its sublime sparkling wines are truly legendary. Their philosophy is simple: to create world class sparkling wines. Of course, where the philosophy is simple, the practice is usually anything but! The incredible patience and careful craftsmanship practised at Arras has seen Ed garner more than 100 trophies in Australian wine shows including 21 consecutive ‘Best Sparkling White Wine of the Show’ awards.
Other prestige producers impressing with their fine Tasmanian sparkling, include Stefano Lubiana, Josef Chromy, Kreglinger and Clover Hill – just to name a few. As Tyson Stelzer says:
‘…the calibre of Australian sparkling wine today is higher than I have ever seen before, thanks to the resilience and sheer determination of a small set of extremely skilful hands in Australia’s sparkling vineyards and wineries’
Clearly, celebratory sparklings are no longer the province of the French!
From the sublime to the fascinating
The prestige sparkling wines of Australia are – on the whole – made from the classic varieties, planted on ancient soils, in high-altitude, cool-climate regions, crafted in the time-honoured, time-consuming and labour-intensive ‘Méthode Traditionelle’ style. They’re refined, elegant and can be extraordinarily long-lived. But there’s a new (or old) style of sparkling that’s making a big splash on the wine scene, and taking the wine bars and restaurants by storm: the ‘smashable’ natural ‘pét-nats’ (short for pétillant naturel).
Proudly cloudy, textural, and funky, these ‘natural’ sparkling wines are made using the ancestral method or ‘méthode ancestrale’ of fermentation. There are no rules as to how a pét-nat is made (that’s part of the fun) but in general, the wine is bottled before the primary fermentation is finished, and without the addition of any secondary yeasts or sugars. The style is often referred to as being similar to a cloudy cider or beer, but with the intense, exciting, natural flavours of the grape. And texture. Loads of texture. Each bottle is an adventure in expressive winemaking … and its winemakers are taking the wine world by storm.
Bryan Martin at Ravensworth in the Canberra District’s icy cold Murrumbateman region is one such stormrunner. He doesn’t have his own winery – he uses a corner of the iconic Clonakilla winery (where he is assistant winemaker) to make his astonishing natural, textural, structural wines. His work at Ravensworth is a blend of experience, experimentation and exploration, using a range of old and new techniques. His intensely flavoured, textured, riesling pét-nat was whole bunch pressed into two ceramic eggs then ‘left to its own devices, and encouraged with positive thoughts’. Each bottle, says Brian, should be seen as an individual and not judged. A very pét-nat philosophy!
Jauma in McLaren Vale is another colourful outfit renowned for their natural and adventurous winemaking. ‘Team Jauma’ (winemakers James Erskine and Mark Warner, and viticulturist Fiona Wood) create ‘wild, creative, expressive, living wines’ from organic, hand-picked grapes with no added yeast, enzyme, tannins or acid. There’s no filtration either. They describe their pét-nat Chenin Blanc as ‘slightly fizzy’ with ‘swooshy, cleansing acids, apples and pears and a lace of minerality’. For red lovers, there’s a Jauma Peek-a-Boo Grenache pét-nat: ‘Take a trip to the wild side with this lightly sparkling, grapefruit fruitbox like juice. Crazy pink/magenta and oozing with flavour…’
Another winemaker pushing the pét-nat boundaries is Brendon Keys at BK Wines in the Adelaide Hills. BK Wines believe in ‘Quality and Creativity not Conformity’ … a premise that is definitely played out in their 2016 pét-nat Chardonnay: ‘Roiling foam and an effervescent tickle are the opening salvo. Biscuit and nutmeg notes with a tart Pink Lady acid crunch resemble a dish of apple crumble and lemon curd. Sour sherbet with a sweet candy mid-centre. Well worth the furrowed, worried brow this tricky winemaking style can induce in the winery…’
The only problem for lovers of these artisan, ‘smashable’ pét-nats is that their drink-right-now nature, coupled with the tiny quantities made, means they’re hard to get hold of. General consensus? If you see one, grab it … and keep a look out for new season releases.
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