Guide to sparkling wine and Champagne for Christmas 1992

How the bubblies are made

Consumers are set to win in 1992’s silly season battle of the bubbles. The guns are loaded and ready to fire as producers big and small jostle in a crowded, potentially lucrative market for two sometimes incompatible objectives: market share and profitability.

1992 sees perhaps the biggest armoury ever assembled of domestic bubblies from $2.99 bargains to $30-a-bottle deluxe blends capable of taking on even hallowed French originals. The French, of course, have big guns of their own to fire and plan on doing so.

Just a few weeks back I painted a rather gloomy view of French Champagne prices based on a lineal projection of prices ex-France and exchange rates in turmoil. It now looks as if the French are reacting to a dramatic collapse of export markets. Already Piper Heidsieck lands to retailers at about $14 a bottle less than I estimated the base French price to be. And I know of other Champagne Houses offerings big discounts to Australian distributors. So watch out for the French ‘fightback’.

At the other end of the market we’ll see the same old brands slugging it out, screaming for attention at $2.99 to $4.99 a bottle. Even this tiny price range offers considerable variation in quality and style. It embraces wines made by all three sparkling-winemaking methods and includes sweet, dry, whites, pinks and reds.

There’s been an enormous proliferation of brands, accompanied by a general but not universal leap in quality, in the $6 to $15 a bottle price range. And the super-duper Australian bubblies, selling for $15 to $30 a dozen seem more numerous than ever.

Just where the value lies in all these price ranges I’m about to explore (and report on) in a series of tastings of 100 odd wines.

With sparkling wines, as with still wines, quality comes back to the grapes. Just as you cannot make a silk purse from a sow’s ear, the most gifted Champagne maker on earth cannot make a top bubbly from second-class grapes. Thus, the high quality of Australia’s new generation of sparkling wines comes more from two decades of investment in vineyards than it does from winemaking skills.

But the latter is still important. There is probably more scope for a winemaker to influence the aroma and flavour of a sparkling wine than in any other wine style: the winemaker decides not only how the base wine is to be made and blended but chooses the method of adding bubbles; duration and conditions of maturation; and, finally in the case of bottle fermented sparkling wine, gets one last crack at its flavour in the addition of ‘liqueur’ prior to re-corking after the sediment of secondary fermentation is removed.

The cheapest bubblies are mainly cask quality wines injected with carbon dioxide. Under Australian law these must be labeled ‘carbonated wine’. Often as cheap, and virtually indistinguishable in quality, are the tank fermented (‘cuvee close’ or ‘Charmat’) wines which may be labeled as ‘sparkling wine’. Carbon dioxide gas, a natural by-product of fermentation, dissolves as the base wine undergoes an induced secondary fermentation in a sealed tank.

Largely, though, carbonation and bulk fermentation have given way in Australia to bottle fermentation. Any wine acquiring its bubble through a secondary fermentation in a bottle, provided it stays sealed in that bottle for a minimum of six months, may be called ‘champagne’.

A high degree of mechanisation sees millions of cases a year of ‘champagne’ pumped out in the $4 to $5 price range. In general, these wines are remarkably good for the money and should be seen as a major achievement by our winemakers.

We may call these bubblies champagne. But in Europe and an increasing number of export markets (including New Zealand) the name is reserved strictly for original Champagne from the 30,000 hectares of vines in the region of Reims and Epernay in Northern France.

French law embraces not just technical details such as minimum maturation periods, but more importantly specifies vineyard locations, grape varieties permitted, grape yields per hectare, and juice yields per kilogram of grapes. In other words, the things that really control the style of wine to expect under the name ‘Champagne’.

Laws controlling French Champagne production have, overall, given the consumer a high degree of reliability and consistency. But they have proven inadequate in recent years when production boomed just prior to the current slump. More on this and the widely misunderstood and complex topic of ‘yeast autolysis’ flavours in champagne next week.

October 25th, 1992

Champagne’s yeastiness – the great myth

Champagne’s so-called ‘yeastiness’, waffled on about by so many Australian wine writers, is a myth. Champagne contains no yeast. Its lovely, unique flavours derive almost entirely from grapes and bottle age. The tiny addition of flavour picked up from decaying yeast cells during bottle maturation are subtle, fragile, and detectable only by the most finely tuned noses and palates.

All this talk of ‘marmite’, ‘vegemite’ and ‘brioche’ aromas and flavours has nothing to do with yeast and everything to do with grapes.

Edmond Moudiere, winemaker at Champagne Mercier from 1949 to 1971 and Moet and Chandon from 1971 told me last year during a tasting at Moet’s Yarra Valley Domaine Chandon, “Pinot Meunier is essential to Champagne. It gives nose – what people call ‘yeasty’, ‘warm bread’ and ‘brioche’ aromas.” This observation, he said, was backed by research of scientists at Epernay’s CIVC, the body controlling Champagne production.

Moudiere’s words, backed by such depth of experience and research, echoed those of Douglas Lamb, one of Australia’s larger-than-life wine merchants and Champagne experts. Doug drew the same conclusion after countless trips to the Champagne region.

I’ll never forget Doug’s amazing Champagne palate revealed in a series of tastings here in Canberra during 1979, 80, and 81. Doug knows Champagne from the vineyard to the bottle and was quick to dismiss loose comments about ‘yeasty’ aromas. “No. It’s that damned Meunier” he’d say before deliberating on the nature of each of Champagne’s three grape varieties.

In the Champagne region many makers simply scratch their heads in wonder at talk of yeast. Vineyards, grapes, blending and bottle age are what they see as important. “Non!” said Louis Marc d’Harcourt, descendent of the Monsieur Werle in Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin Werle. “There is no flavour of yeast or yeast autolysis in Champagne. The crucial point in the success of this form of cellaring is that wine is left undisturbed and there is less contact of the wine with air.”

Remi Krug believes “what some wine writers call ‘yeasty’ is simply an inaccurate description of a good characteristic of the wine derived from fruit, not yeast. There is some interchange between the lees in a bottle and the wine, but that flavour is subtle.” Interestingly, Krug is one of the few deluxe Champagnes using Pinot Meunier in the blend. Moet’s Dom Perignon, Bollinger’s Tradition RD, and Veuve Clicquot’s La Grande Dame, for example, all claim to use only Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

The CIVC’s Chief Oenologist told me yeast autolysis (enzymatic breakdown of dead yeast cells following bottle fermentation) makes important but subtle differences to champagne. He expressed the view that the most intense uptake of flavour from the process occurred in the first six to eight months after bottling. But this view was contradicted by another oenologist, Monsieur Feuillat of Dijon. In his view flavour uptake did not start until after eight or nine months in bottle.

How a Burgundian came wading into the Champagne argument I’m not sure. But we can have no qualms about comments made by Warren Randall in Canberra last week. Warren, now with Andrew Garrett as Chief Winemaker probably has more experience with sparkling wine than any other maker in Australia.

He worked with the legendary Norm Walker at Seaview Champagne cellars before taking on, at only 25 years of age, Australia’s plum sparkling winemaking job at Seppelts Great Western Cellars in 1982.

Warren, like Moet’s Edmond Moudiere, sees Pinot Meunier as the ‘yeast’ in wine writers’ vocabularies. He cites the case of a Drumborg Pinot Meunier 1984, dubbed by Petaluma’s Brian Croser ‘Australia’s greatest educational wine.’ One week after secondary fermentation finished, before autolysis could have begun, it displayed all of the so-called ‘yeasty’ characteristics of French Non Vintage Champagne…a characteristic that showed clearly also in the show champion, Seppelts Great Western Vintage Brut 1984, into which most of the 1984 Pinot Meunier went. Randall says that when he left Seppelts…and his supply of Pinot Meunier…he lost one of his sparkling winemaking aces.

Randall believes yeast autolysis plays an important role in Champagne but, like the CIVC’s oenologist, sees the aromas and flavours it adds as subtle, delicate and fragile. He believes the flavours peak after 2 to 3 years in bottle. He also believes the flavour contribution comes not so much from autolysis, but from slow chemical changes to short chain fatty acids and amino acids exsorbed from the dead yeast cells during autolysis.

Despite the chemical intricacies of making good bubbly, the search for quality goes nowhere without the right grapes. And as we’ll see next week, that search is pushing further south to cooler climes.

November 1st, 1992

A form guide to what’s in the bubbly market

The good news from tasting a hundred or so Australasian sparkling wines over the past few weeks was the overall high quality. At all price points there is value to be found for the consumer. Where only ten years ago tastings of mid and high priced sparklings produced more disappointments than delights, there is now a wide correlation between price and quality.

The standard of top shelf methode champenoise, all employing the classic Champagne grape varieties pinot noir and chardonnay, has leapt. It now breaks into two broad categories, though: big, sparkling white burgundy styles from warmer areas, and fine, delicate wines from cooler areas (southern Victoria, Tasmania, and New Zealand).

Wine drinkers love variety, so I imagine there will always be room for both styles. But for the purists seeking the delicate, elegant, exquisite flavours characteristic of the French originals, it will be the southern wines winning favour.

France’s Champagne region is at the northern limits of viticulture, at a latitude of 50 degrees. There you can pick a grape high in acid and with an alcohol potential of just 9 per cent, and it will be packed with intense, ripe flavours. This combination of high acidity with flavour is the heart of Champagne.

Grow the same grape variety in even our so-called cool-climate areas like Coonawarra or Padthaway, and the flavour’s just not there when acidity is high. Thus, early experiments at making delicate ‘champagnes from these areas simply produced thin, acidic wines with little flavour.

Some winemakers, like Brian Croser of Petaluma, headed for the hills, rather than go south in the search for cooler growing conditions. While Croser’s vineyards sit at an altitude of 500 metres at Mount Lofty, near Adelaide, I well remember a dinner party conversation with him in 1979. He saw then that Tasmania was the place to go for bubblies, but isolation made it impracticable at the time.

In my tasting of 20 top shelf bubblies, as it turned out, Croser 1990 topped my selection of bigger styles, and Jansz 1990 (Tasmania) the delicate styles. Croser shows the amazing fruit richness of the 1990 vintage. Its only shortcoming, mentioned here a few months back, is that it needs another year or two of bottle maturation.

Jansz 1990 has tremendous appeal. The colour’s very pale; the bubble’s small and persistent; the aroma is gently fragrant; and the flavour’s quite intense, yet delicate and fine, and with the steely structure of high, natural acidity. Here we’re seeing the benefits of true cool-climate grape growing.

Other cool-climate styles that appealed to me were Domaine Chandon 89-1 Brut (Victoria), Taltarni Blanc de Blanc (Victoria, but next release contains Tasmanian material), and Deutz Marlborough Cuvee NV (New Zealand). Scoring was very tight amongst this group, with slightly different ratings from judge to judge.

The surprise of the line up, and my second choice amongst the big style wines, was Rosemount’s Adelaide Hills 1989 Brut ($17.99). There are no prizes for guessing who the contract maker is.

Of the middle-priced bubblies, winner by a country mile was a wine available under two labels: Bridgewater Mill Brut NV and Pine Ridge Brut Reserve NV. As I understand it, the current release is from the 1991 vintage. It’s made by Brian Croser at Bridgewater Mill from South Australian Rhine Riesling grapes. Which goes to show that the classic champagne mix of pinot and chardonnay is not the best combination in all circumstances. Anyone who’s tasted a good German Riesling Sekt will not be surprised by this choice.

Clustered in a tight pack after it were Andrew Garrett Classic Chardonnay Pinot Noir, Andrew Garrett NV Chardonnay, and Seaview Pinot Noir Chardonnay 1989 (recently reduced by the makers from around $15 to $10 retail), and Montana Lindauer Brut (New Zealand)

Sparkling Burgundies I find a peculiar lot and confess I cannot think of an occasion when I’d want to drink one. Still, the demand’s there. Of the nine tasted, Seppelt Show Sparkling Burgundy 1983 blew everything else away…as it ought at $30 a bottle. Peter Rumball’s Coonawarra Cuvee scrubbed up well and Yalumba’s Cuvee Prestige Cabernet Sauvignon gets a guernsey, too.

With cheaper bubblies, the key to good buying is in finding fresh stock. Of the dozens we tasted, I rated Seppelts Great Western Brut at the top, closely followed by De Bortoli’s Jean Pierre and Kaiser Stuhl Brut. These three showed a lovely freshness. I believe it was that rather than any innate superiority of fruit flavours putting them just slightly ahead of the pack. Just look for the specials amongst high-turnover brands.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 1992 & 2007

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