(Courtesy Photo Finish - Celebrating Ultimate Style / james Geer)
For me, it’s the sparkling season – rather than the spring racing carnival – that kicks off when the horses burst out of the barriers on Caulfield Guineas Day.
If you back a winner this year and are thinking about celebrating with a bottle of Champagne, tuck into top-level Australian sparkling instead. Indeed, Australian sparkling can be, and often is, better and more interesting than moderately priced ($40-$60) non-vintage Champagne – and I have proof. Well, proof of sorts.
I recently conducted a Pepsi challenge-style experiment with my colleagues at TWR. I opened three bottles of decent Champagne and a bottle of late-disgorged Australian sparkling wine and watched their reactions.
The champers was pretty good, worth the $45-$65 the bottles were priced, but the wine that impressed most was a $55 bottle of 2000 Croser late-disgorged sparkling from the Adelaide Hills. Its combination of complexity, intensity and finesse was just a delight.
In Champagne, many of the best producers age their wines between five and 15 years in bottle and on yeast lees (a byproduct of the bottle fermentation process) to produce wines of incredible complexity and style. A handful of Australian producers, including Croser and the Yarra Valley’s Domaine Chandon, are following suit and producing some outstanding wines.
Each year Domaine Chandon puts aside 250 to 500 dozen of its best sparkling wines for long-term ageing on lees – its current-release late-disgorged is the 1996 Prestige Cuvée.
“We’re certainly not trying to make Champagne in Australia – that’s not at all the goal. We’re trying to make great Australian sparkling wine,” says Chandon’s Dan Buckle. “It’s another angle on what we can do with sparkling wine here.”
With late-disgorged wines the bead tends to be smaller and finer, while the mousse and texture have a creaminess that’s linked to the extended time the wine spends on lees.
“We’re always learning and long lees time gives us a new angle on the spectrum of autolysis (the slow chemical reaction that produces toast, nougat and grilled-nut characters) flavour as they age,” Buckle says. “It’s really complicated and, because wine is such a complex media, we’re still just scratching the surface.”
More Australian sparkling producers would, I’m sure, love to keep their wines on lees for so long, but the costs of storage and keeping so much potential revenue locked away makes late disgorgement almost impossible for most wineries to justify.
“The costs and the time involved are prohibitive to small producers, and I suppose with Australian sparkling it’s really hard to weigh up the investment and the inventory against the time you spend making it and the sales returns. A lot people just can’t afford to do it,” says Buckle.
Bottling the bubbles
The best Australian sparkling producers use Champagne’s méthode traditionelle technique, which means bottling the wine, then inducing a secondary fermentation in the bottle to create bubbles. The wine is then left to age in the bottle (usually 18 months to three years) with the fermentation’s spent yeast cells, known as lees, to develop complexity.
It is then disgorged to remove the yeast before being sealed with a cork and sent out into the world.
“You can’t make really great sparkling without going down the méthode traditionelle path,” says Domaine Chandon winemaker Dan Buckle. “I think there are flavour elements that come from the traditonelle method that are absolutely essential to make great sparkling drinks. When you think of the brioche-doughy-biscuity characters and, from a textural point of view to the way it makes the bead behave, you just can’t get that another way.”
Petaluma Croser Late Disgorged 2000
(Adelaide Hills) $55; 12.5%
It’s a 63/37 blend of pinot noir and chardonnay, which spent 10 years on lees in the bottle before being disgorged. Perfumed and pretty, it’s packed with fresh strawberry, cherry, brioche and honey aromas. Equally fresh on the palate, this has complex zesty lemon, berry, peach and almond nougat flavours that have a gentle intensity to them. A fine mousse floats across the tongue, providing elegance, while chalky acidity drives the delightful finish.
Food match \ Mackerel ceviche
Arras EJ Carr Late Disgorged 2000
(Tasmania) $190; 12.5%
The third release of this wine, which spends 10 years on lees, is a stunner. When I first tried an Arras EJ Carr, in a blind tasting that included grand marque Champagnes no less, it more than held its own. It’s fresh as a daisy, with bright, complex strawberry, stonefruit, citrus, almond biscuit and honey aromas. It’s a similar story on the intense but mellow palate, with lemon – juice and zest – a driving force. Superfine bead, gorgeous mouthfeel and a chalky grip; it’s all there to enjoy. Amazing length and the bottle was finished far too soon.
Food match \ A chunk of parmesan
Chandon Prestige Cuvée 1996
(Australia) $89; 12.5%
A 58/42 blend of chardonnay and pinot noir that’s sourced from cool-climate vineyards of Yarra Valley, Strathbogie Ranges, Macedon, King Valley and Tasmania. A striking gold colour in the glass shows the wine’s age. Delicate aromas of peach, Granny Smith apple, wax and honey are alluring. Similar flavours, with added lemon, have a rounded intensity. Smooth, creamy mousse and texture, its chalky lemon-flavoured acidity is still fresh and vibrant after all these years. There’s a rich, intense finish of lemon zest, grilled nuts and nougat that goes on and on.
Food match \ Tuna sashimi
Duperrey Premier Cru Brut NV
(Champagne) $44.99; 12%
It’s exclusive to Dan Murphy’s, where I recently saw it priced at $36.95. Bright stone fruit, cherry, yeast and lemon aromas have a fair amount of complexity. In the mouth there’s powerful flavours of lemon zest, grilled nuts and a bit of sweet honey biscuit flavour. A zippy wine that was my pick in the Duperrey range, which includes a NV rosé and a 2005 vintage release, it has a smooth mousse, grippy, chalky acidity and refreshing, lengthy finish.
Food match \ Smoked salmon blinis
Love a bargain?
Brown Brothers Pinot Noir Chardonnay Pinot Meunier NV
(King Valley) $23.90; 13.5%
It says non-vintage on the label, but the bottles that are starting to hit the shelves of your local are a blend of predominantly 2009 base wines from the King Valley. It spends two years on lees. Pretty aromas of apple, pear, strawberry, yeast and a lick of honey are complex and bright and the wine is fresh and lively on the palate. A vigorous mousse and smooth texture complements the refreshing, zippy acidity and light grip. Length is impressive, too.
Food match \ Freshly shucked oysters