Setting a bubbly standard

With more than a hundred thousand visitors a year, you’d have to say that Moet’s Yarra Valley winery knows what its customers wants.

That such a multitude of wine drinkers have opted for luxury and location consistently for almost twenty years is surely a lesson in the service standards premium wine drinkers expect and are attracted to – especially as Australia gears up for the next region-driven phase of our export drive.

It also says a lot about the best features of the French wine industry. At the top end you have the world’s greatest regional wines. They remain global benchmarks for cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, chardonnay and semillon-sauvignon-blanc dessert wine. And in the case of Champagne you have perhaps the world’s greatest regional wine marketers, selling about 300 million bottles a year of their luxury product.

French giant Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy owns a string of prestigious Champagne brands, Moet et Chandon, Dom Perignon, Veuve Clicquot, Mercier and Krug included, as well upmarket bubbly operations in Australian (Chandon Australia), America (Chandon California) and Argentina (Bodegas Chandon).

A close look at the Australian operation reveals a French sense of place being at the core of the brand. But in the Australian instance it’s not a single regional grape source as it is in Champagne.

For LVMH, the Chandon brand’s centrepiece is a magnificent cellar-door-wine-tourism complex in the Yarra Valley. If you’ve not visited Chandon, it’s worth the forty-minute drive next time you’re in Melbourne.

It’s a place to pause and admire the scenery, taste the wines, or, as the majority of visitors seem to, stay for a light and delicious lunch and a glass of one of Chandon’s many sparkling wines or elegant Green Point table wines.

A setting like this probably makes the wines taste even better. But that’s part of the experience. And the French know how important this is in building brand image.

Underneath the image at Chandon, though, lies about twenty years’ winemaking in the Valley and beyond and, of course, the perspective and expertise brought by the centuries old Champagne region connection.

Two decades after establishing in the Yarra, Chandon owns about eighty hectares of mostly mature vineyards sprinkled at altitudes varying from 90 metres to 450 metres in the valley and at 600 metres in the Strathbogie ranges. And the winemaking team also sources fruit from tens of contract growers from afar afield as Tasmania.

That highly varied fruit sourcing translates into a range of highly individual Chandon sparkling wines and several elegant table wines under the Green Point label (named for the Yarra Valley location).

There’s a parallel here with the Champagne region where multi-vineyard sourcing allows makers to produce large-scale blends (enough to serve the world) — of a surprising consistency for such a marginal grape-growing climate.

The difference in Australia, of course, is that we’re comparatively new to the top-end bubbly game and we don’t have a single, dedicated region for it. Chandon has of necessity, and inclination, looked high and low, quite literally, for suitable material

Not one of the Chandon sparklers we drink today could have been as good as they are now when Chandon arrived in 1986. It takes decades to establish vineyards, allow the vines to mature to develop grower relationships.

The Chandon range today is varied within a generally, generous-but-soft and very fine-textured style.
Soft, creamy and fresh Chandon NV (about $20 to $27, depending on retailer moods) expresses the style consistently. It’s backed up by the vintage version (about $10 more) – a tighter, more intense, complex style.

I’ve not tasted the 2004, due for release in October. But it’s a promising sounding blend from Yarra Valley, Strathbogie Ranges, King and Buffalo Valleys, Coonawarra and Coal River Valley Tasmania. Watch this space.

Two very appealing straight chardonnay blends from the 2004 vintage come from the Yarra Valley, Strathbogie and King Valley. Blanc de Blancs 2004 ($39) is a traditional soft, elegant aperitif style; ZD Blanc de Blancs 2004 is, I suspect, the same wine but without the usual ‘dosage’ of sugar (hence, zero dosage). It’s somewhat racier and, of course, bone dry.

The bronze/pink Vintage Brut Rosé 2004 might tempt the most vehement rosé sceptic. It’s an unforced style for bubbly as most of the grapes for white sparklers come from the red varieties pinot noir and pinot meunier. Chandon’s rosé gets its colour from a dash of pinot noir fermented on skins rather than drained off as the white versions are. It’s a lovely drop.

The favourite has to come last, of course. The bronze-tinted Chandon Tasmania Cuvée 2004 ($39), from the Coal River Valley, is stunning. It’s bold, rich and complex but dazzlingly fresh and fine at the same time.

Chandon’s latest releases offer great value within a distinctive house style. They’re beautifully packaged, setting the scene for any celebration. To my palate they’re more enjoyable than some of the cheaper, austere, immature real Champagnes being imported.

But if you’re used to the real thing and price doesn’t matter that’s where the greatest quality and drinking satisfaction still lies.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2007