Sparkling wines

With the long expected fall in the Australian dollar now on us, we can kiss many imported wines good bye. Real non-vintage Champagne, for example, can still be sniffed out, occasionally, on special for between $30 and $35 a bottle.

In that price range, though, we’re looking at someone’s distress sale and invariably at stock brought into the country a long time ago – quite often long enough for the Champagne to have lost one of its key ingredients – freshness.

By my calculation, the landed cost to an importer of non-vintage Champagne, after sales tax and licence fee, is now about $37 a bottle. Add to that two profit margins, the wholesaler’s and the retailer’s, and it’s hard to see the average price falling under $70 a bottle in normal circumstances. Even distress sales are likely to see prices move quickly from the present $30 -$35 to $40 -$45 a bottle range.

It’s easy to predict that Champagne sales, already flagging, will now collapse totally, wiping out all the peripheral brands and leaving what’s left of the market to the strong, well capitalised Houses with equally strong distributors.

That, of course, opens a large window of opportunity for producers of high quality Australian and New Zealand sparkling wine. The window has been ajar for a few years now, and our makers have been piling through it, but now it’s open wider than ever.

But, more than a weak dollar, Australian winemakers created their own opportunities. Large investments in dedicated vineyards and hard-won winemaking skills are behind the steady rise in quality of our best sparkling wines.

Over the last few years increasing numbers of consumers have come to view Australia’s better ‘methode champenoise’ wines on a par with non-vintage French Champagne. The French cause has not been helped, either, by the sometimes-variable quality of its non-vintage product. A year in Australia’s hot climate does nothing for a delicate wine like Champagne. And with the bigger Houses buying a good deal of Champagne ‘sur latte’ (already made and bottled) from Co-operatives, I feel Australia has sometimes got the short end of the stick anyway.

By early October, well ahead of the silly season, I plan to assess all of our top bubblies in a single comparative line-up and will report back immediately.

In the meantime, a tasting conducted by wholesalers Tucker and Company in Sydney this week offered a glimpse of very good Australian, New Zealand, American, and French bubblies widely distributed amongst the retail, hotel, and restaurant trade in Australia.

With Veuve Clicquot now controlling the Cape Mentelle (Margaret River, W.A.)-Cloudy Bay (Marlborough, N.Z.) group you’d expect a reasonable flavour from its widely publicised new ‘Pelorus’ 1988 methode champenoise from New Zealand. At $31 I believe it’s overpriced in relation to the best Australia makes, but the wine is distinctive with quite full, rounded pinot noir flavours. (David Hohnen tells me the blend is about 60 per cent pinot noir, the balance chardonnay).

For sheer intensity of fruit flavour Croser 1990 leaves Pelorus, and just about any other bubbly, in its wake. Where Pelorus bears a superficial resemblance to the French product, Croser is totally, utterly Australian despite its being, like Pelorus, a 60 per cent pinot-40 per cent chardonnay blend.

Croser’ 1990 shows yet again just how magnificent the 1990 vintage was in South Australia. And it bears Brian Croser’s winemaking hallmarks…cleanliness, finesse, and delicacy. You can enjoy Croser 1990 now for its pure fruit flavours. But later releases will, I believe, be even better as the wine takes on greater ‘champagne’ character from further maturation in contact with the yeast lees. (I tasted evidence of that in a 1987 vintage especially disgorged for the tasting). Croser, a-state-of-the- art bubbly is worth its $26 a bottle.

Croser’s Argyle Brut 1987, from his venture in the Willamette Valley (Oregon, U.S. A.) doesn’t pack the same punch as his Australian wine, but it’s a first vintage and bound to increase in flavour with later vintages. However, coming from such a cold climate, we should always expect the wines to be more delicate than those from the Adelaide Hills.

The French put in a good showing, too. Bollinger Cuvee Brut Champagne (non vintage) sits on the high side of the pre-devaluation price range at $59. But it is an extraordinary wine – absolutely classic non-vintage French with great freshness, finesse, and an amazing intensity of pinot noir flavour.

If your taste runs to Rose, then Bollinger’s Loire Valley connection, Langlois Chateau’s Cremant Rose Dry NV is terrific value at about $16.

The outlook for Christmas, I’d say, will be Australian bubbly all round unless we grab the best of pre-devaluation French stock now.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 1992 & 2007