Tis the season to drink bubbly

Ten years ago it was hard to pick the quality difference between many of the $10 bubblies appearing on the market and the mass-selling $5 brands. However, quality arrived in the $10 bottle during the 1990s and consumers are moving away from the mass brands to slightly more expensive, more flavoursome products.

While total sales of domestic sparkling wines are in decline (down 3.7 per cent January-July 1995 versus the same period in 1994) wine makers report healthy growth in the around $10 segment.

That trend reflects the continuing decline in per capita consumption of alcohol across Australia and a move, amongst wine drinkers at least, to better quality. Sales of cask wine are in decline, while bottled reds and whites are enjoying increases of 11.8 per cent and 10.7 per cent (1995 versus 1994) respectively.

In the sparkling wine category, the lift in quality this decade reflects an abundance of suitable grape material coming on stream and follows tremendous leaps in wine-making technology achieved during the 1980s — all of which demonstrates the tremendously long lead times between concept and achievement in the wine industry.

In the case of sparkling wine, serious efforts at improving techniques and sourcing the right grapes began in the late 1970s. Pioneers like Norm Walker at Seaview and Ian Holme (founder of Yellowglen) were employing the classic French Champagne varieties, pinot noir and chardonnay, in sparkling wine by the early 1980s.

But the arrival of large scale production using those grape varieties was a decade away and, as consumers, we can thank those prescient wine makers who planted broad acres in Coonawarra and Padthaway in the 60s, 70s and 80s for much of the improved quality we enjoy today.

At the cutting edge of quality, where invariably wines are modelled on those of the France’s Champagne region, fruit sourcing has moved solidly to growing areas notably cooler than in Coonawarra and Padthaway.

Yarra-Valley based Domain Chandon sources grapes from southern Victoria and Tasmania; Seppelt looks to both southern latitudes and alpine areas of New South Wales and Victoria; Petaluma’s Brian Croser sticks to the Mount Lofty Ranges overlooking Adelaide; Cloudy Bay and Deutz make strikingly contrasting styles from Marlborough at the northern tip of New Zealand’s South Island; and Jansz employs only Tasmanian grapes.

What these and other premium makers seek is the richness with delicacy achieved only from grapes ripened slowly in mild conditions, and the overlays of flavour that come from following French techniques: gentle extraction of the best juice from the best grapes; secondary fermentation in the bottle (producing the bubbles) and a comparatively long maturation of the wine in cool cellars with the sediment of fermentation still in the bottle.

There are two major inputs to wine aroma and flavour from this maturation period. Firstly, prolonged maturation at a low temperature in the absence of oxygen produces subtle, pleasing changes; and secondly there is a further overlay caused by contact of the wine with the expired yeast cells as they undergo an enzymatic breakdown (autolysis).

Ask a wine maker from the Champagne region about the input to aroma and flavour of yeast autolysis and you will hear that it’s completely misunderstood and grapes are what the flavour is all about. Most of the so-called ‘yeastiness’ attributed to Champagne has more to do, they say with the grape pinot meunier (the third permissible variety) or bottle aging after removal of the yeast cells. The role of autolysis, they say is subtle and part of a larger comlex.

According to Ian McKenzie, Chairman of Judges at the Canberra Wine Show and overseer of the phenomenal changes at Seppelts Great Western Cellars for two decades, our understanding of French technique and its adaptation to Australia was largely complete by the middle of the 1980s. The biggest contributor to sparkling wine quality since then has been growing availability of good grapes — and the improvement is far from over yet, he says.

Development of those top shelf bubblies has a trickle-down effect. What’s learned in developing the best wines, improves the quality of everything underneath it. And, in the case of Seppelt, a flood of new grapes has even meant that what’s now going into mid-priced wines was Salinger material five years ago.

But, of course, sparkling wine does not begin and end with Champagne look alikes. The world makes numerous tasty bubblies from grapes other than the French classics. And the long and costly traditional bottle fermentation process is not necessarily the best way to make sparkling wine in all circumstances. More on this next week.

October 29th, 1995

Perhaps we were glimpsing the future direction of Australian top-shelf sparkling wine when Dominique Portet’s Clover Hill 1992 won the Trophy for best sparkling wine at the Adelaide wine show last week.

Clover Hill (the name of both the wine and Taltarni’s 20 hectare Tasmanian Vineyard from which it comes) has that rare combination of delicacy and deep, sweet fruit flavour — that elusive, special flavour sought by our sparkling wine producers and which stems from the vineyard, not wine making techniques.

If the search for the very best takes our wine makers to cool growing areas to the south or in the alps, the fact remains that most of Australia’s grapes come from comparatively warm areas. And these areas are the source of most of our sparkling wines.

Table wines from these areas reflect our warm climate: grapes ripen to high sugar levels and these in turn make very rich, comparatively high-alcohol wines (fermentation converts grape sugars to alcohol). It was the rich, tasty, heady nature of our wines that led British commentators to dub them “bottled sunshine”.

If nature allows us to make such well-loved rich wines so readily, why then are sparkling wines sourced from the same areas so much lighter and more acidic? The answer is that our wine makers are so mesmerised by the French model that they may be overlooking a great opportunity to make sparkling wines that truly reflect our beautifully sunny climate.

There are parallels here with wine maker attempts to emulate the ‘elegant’ wines of France in the 1970s and 80s. At the time Max Schubert, maker of Grange, quipped that if they wanted elegance, they should grow grapes in cooler areas. Instead, some makers produced reds using early-picked grapes from warmer areas. The experiment failed. Instead of elegance, they produced thin, tart wines that were rejected by consumers.

I see an element of this in many current-release sparkling wines: they’re fresh, lively, and have an overlay of the autolysis character described in last week’s column. But where’s the grape flavour? Too often it’s missing. What you get, once your palate is past the froth and bubbles, is the taste of green, unripe fruit, with its coarse edge. Free of faults and flavour.

But sparkling wine doesn’t have to be a feeble French look alike. There is life beyond French method and the traditional French grape varieties.

It was a bulk-fermented Eden Valley Rhine Riesling, labelled as Barossa Pearl and released in 1956 , that gave post-war Australia its first popular taste of the grape; more recently, Brian Croser used Clare Valley Rhine Riesling in the now defunct Farmer Bros Cuvee Clare. Canberrans loved the stuff because it not only bubbled, but tasted of grapes.

And there is the example of wine maker Mike de Garis of Cellarmaster Wines. Rather than follow his colleagues down the thin and tart path, he took ripe Riverland Chardonnay, bulk fermented it and released it as Pelican Point Chardonnay Cuvee. Delicious fruity stuff, it was — a sparkling table wine.

McWilliams have done something similar with its new Kanandah brand — a blend of Riverina Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, bulk fermented, then bottled fresh and fruity.

Sparkling burgundy is perhaps the greatest example of letting rip with our wonderful fruit flavours. Numerous wine makers now take ripe Aussie shiraz, make a rich, full-bodied table wine from it, mature it in barrels for a year, then bottle it for a secondary fermentation. Why can’t we do the same with other red and white grape varieties.

This could open up tremendous marketing opportunities for the makers as well as giving our tired palates new thrills. The original sparkling wine, Champagne, is not just a general wine style, but very much a strong expression of distinct regional aromas and flavours.

Our own wine makers rely increasingly on table-wine district of origin in appealing to the consumer. Sparkling wine could be part of this regional appeal, just as the better sparkling burgundies are already doing. The key, though, is in letting the grapes ripen, instead of picking them green and trying to make them into something the can never be.

The original and distinct flavours of German Riesling Sekt, France’s Sparkling Vouvray or Italy’s Asti Spumante are three contrasting examples of non-Champagne sparkling wines — a hint of what we might achieve.

With the international successful of our table wines, it seems timely to break away from our narrow, French orientated focus when it comes to sparkling wines. Let’s embrace the diversity of our wine making regions and multitude of grape varieties spread across our sunny land and start making bubblies that say “Australia”.