Champagne, nature’s accident, and its Aussie emulators

Real Champagne, from the region of that name in northern France, provides the model for Australia’s rapidly evolving premium sparkling wines. It’s a century since we first copied Champagne-making techniques. But it’s only in the last few decades that we got to the heart of the matter in seeking the right grapes.

In the first wave, starting in the late seventies, leading wine makers began to move away from second-string varieties like ondenc and chenin blanc and towards two of the three classic varieties, chardonnay and pinot noir. But resources were small and generally from warmer areas with grapes more suited to table wine than sparkling-wine production.

The second wave saw grapes planted specifically for sparkling wine production. These plantings, in the far south or at high altitude, produce the far better bubblies that emerged in the eighties and nineties. Wines like Croser, Seppelt Salinger, Chandon, Deutz Marlborough Cuvee, Jansz vintage, Hanging Rock, the Hardy range, notably its flagship, Arras, made by Ed Carr and Taltarni’s Tasmanian Clover Hill are products of a continuing southward and upward vineyard expansion. (In a third wave of evolution we may well see a day when most of our best bubblies come mainly from Tasmania –already the primary source of Hardy’s Arras — and New Zealand’s south island.)

What we’ve witness in Australasia is the reverse of what happened in Champagne. There a marginal climate forced the evolution of sparkling wine; here our search for flavour and delicacy in sparkling wines leads inexorably to cooler grape-growing conditions.

Champagne’s major city, Reims, lies at latitude 49°18’ north. That’s marginal grape-growing territory indeed. Nevertheless, it’s the centre of an industry with around 30,000 hectares of vines dedicated to sparkling wine production.

But for most of its winemaking history Champagne made still wines. The harsh climate, however, ensured great inconsistency of quality from year to year, especially in reds. These tended to be thin, pale, and insipid in off vintages. With too little heat and sunshine, grapes tended to be high in acid and low in colour and sugar.

As well, cold autumn days often knocked out the yeast cells before fermentation ended. With spring and warm weather, yeasts sprung back to life converting the remaining sugar in wine barrels to alcohol and carbon dioxide. This natural tendency for wines to effervesce in spring was nature’s accident just waiting for humans to harness. And when they did, Champagne was born.

Total control of the process took a few centuries, perfected only after Pasteur unlocked the mysterious relationship between yeast and sugar, and bottle manufacturers made glass strong enough to resist five atmospheres of pressure.

Rendering Champagne sparkling rid the region of its insipid red wines, too. Since all the colour in a red grape is in the skin, the area’s makers learned to make white wine by removing juice from contact with the skins of the red varieties, pinot noir and pinot meunier, as quickly as possible.

Today, two thirds of the grapes making clear Champagne are red. Had the evolution from still to sparkling wine meant nothing more than changing from one insipid wine to another, there’d be no vines left in the district today. Instead, the Champagne method unlocked exquisite flavours inherent to these cold-grown grapes.

Now, the chemistry of grape ripening is complex but, in brief, grapes struggling to ripen at this latitude achieve ripe flavours with high acid and low sugar levels. Grapes harvested at an alcohol potential of only 10 per cent make quite intensely flavoured (if a little tart) wine in the Champagne region.

In Australia, 1970’s bubbly makers, notably Seaview’s Norm Walker, pioneering with pinot noir and chardonnay tended to harvest grapes from comparatively warm areas — like Coonawarra and Padthaway — at similar sugar levels to those found in Champagne grapes. While high in acid, the grapes had little flavour and made harsh, green wines.

And when the grapes were allowed to ripen more, they tended to produce fat and flabby sparkling wines without the intensity or delicacy of Champagne. Some of these were terrific big wines, laden with rich fruit flavours. But makers seeking flavour with delicacy knew they had to find grapes more in the Champagne mould.

Today, the evolution is well advanced. Mid-priced bubblies like Hardys Sir James and Jacobs Creek Reserve Brut offer phenomenal value to consumers. And, of course, the our top shelf wines like Hardys Arras and Hanging Rock offer a serious alternative to some of the French originals.

But even the best of our bubblies, in my opinion, can’t yet match the delicacy, finesse and intensity of the best Champagnes, sourced from the finest vineyards. That we don’t yet have a Dom Perignon, or Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame, though, is hardly surprising.

The French had many centuries to develop sparkling Champagne and another two to perfect the winemaking art and identify the greatest vineyard sites – now formally classified. Science, plus intelligence of the French experience, allowed our vignerons to fast track much of the winemaking.

But even with the best science, finding the most suitable vineyard sites remains largely a matter of trial and error within well-defined climatic parameters. All else being equal, this is the key to quality and future improvement, albeit incrementally from now on.

From a competitive point of view that’s not a bad position to be in. The French have probably already made their best bubblies. But ours are yet to emerge.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2007