When you think of premium sparkling wines, Champagne is often the first place that springs to mind. The history and traditions surrounding this famed region are undisputedly well regarded globally, and include some of the most exclusive houses, such as Krug, Dom Pérignon, Bollinger, Veuve Clicquot and Ruinart.
But over recent years, our island home of Tasmania has been quietly making a statement, and wine lovers are sitting up and taking notice. Wine critic Tyson Stelzer noted:
“No region anywhere on the planet outside of Champagne itself makes sparkling as exceptionally as Tasmania. And I am more convinced of this now than ever before.”
Wine writer Max Allen reinforced this view recently in the Australian Financial Review, when writing about the House of Arras acknowledging,
“Yes, it’s the same price as many top-shelf, big-name Champagnes, but it’s easily their equal, if not superior.”
So what is it about Tasmanian sparkling that makes it so special? And why, when the House of Arras is compared to the world’s best, does it often come out on top? Despite accounting for less than one per cent of Australia’s total grape harvest, many of the sparkling wines from this small island state show such elegance and finesse that they can stand alongside Champagne’s finest. In fact, the two regions share much in common.
Climate control: similarities between Tasmania and Champagne
The French have a term, ‘terroir’, which refers to the unique set of environmental factors that influence the flavour and structure of a wine. Those factors include soil, aspect, topography and the climate that a vineyard is exposed to. Combined, they give a wine its unique sense of place.
Despite being at almost opposite ends of the Earth, the climate in Tasmania is very similar to that of the Champagne region in northern France. They both experience cold winters – usually with snow – and mild summers. The average temperature during the growing season in Champagne is 18°C, while in Tasmania it is 21°C, which allows for a long ripening period for the grapes to develop acidity and clean flavours. This is essential for sparkling, as the aim is to achieve crisp, refreshing flavour in the younger wines that will mellow into toasty brioche and mushroom characters. Arras wines develop further with cork age, although most of the ageing is achieved over the wine-making (that is, time on lees). Arras holds its wines for a minimum of six months prior to release, in order for them to reach a point of harmony with the dosage. However, the wines will continue to evolve for three to five years; how the wine ages under cork comes back to individual style preferences.
Also, the wines from both regions are made predominantly with the same three grape varietals: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, unless you are drinking Blanc de Blancs, which is 100 per cent chardonnay, or a Blanc de Noirs, which is generally 100 per cent Pinot Noir (but also can be 100 per cent Pinot Meunier, or a blend of the two). When grown in a cool climate, all three grapes produce the flavours essential to creating fine sparkling wines with structure and elegance. Chardonnay provides the green-apple crispness, Pinot Noir adds subtle berry flavours, and Pinot Meunier the body and richness. The three grapes are used in proportions decided by the winemaker to create a perfect combination of these flavours, all working in harmony to create a beautifully balanced sparkling wine.
Of course, growing grapes in a cool climate, such as Tasmania or Champagne, is not without its challenges. It is far from easy, especially when it comes to Pinot Noir, the most fickle grape varietal to cultivate. If it does get extremely cold, there is a concern that the grapes will ripen at all – a stressful time for the winemaker. Then there is the risk of frost, which could wipe out the entire crop, as well as the possibility of fungal disease. As with all cool-climate regions, yields are low in both Tasmania and Champagne, but the quality is exceptional, which is why grapes grown there fetch higher prices than similar regions in other countries.
Dishing the dirt
Another aspect of terroir is, of course, the soil in which the vines grow. It plays an important part in determining the flavour, structure and quality of a wine. Talk to anyone who works in a vineyard and they will tell you that without healthy soil, vines can’t flourish and produce first-class grapes.
One of the defining characteristics of the soil in both Tasmania and Champagne is the quartz and clay structure, which provides the minerality and natural acid structure in the resulting wines. Another essential feature each region’s soil shares is good drainage, as both can experience high rainfall. In fact, it was the clay soil structures of east-coast Tasmania that most excited our Chief Winemaker, Ed Carr, back in 1990s, when he wanted to plant chardonnay vines. He politely convinced the owners of the land – sheep graziers – to sell their properties, and the rest is history…
How sparkling wine is made
There are several ways to produce sparkling wines; however, most premium producers adopt a process called Méthode Champenoise or Méthode Traditionelle. In Australia, the term used is ‘traditional method’, although we use the French term term Méthode Traditionelle on our bottles. The only wine in our portfolio that is not produced using this process is our A by Arras Premier Cuvee, which is bottle fermented.
Méthode Traditionelle involves a two-step fermentation process. During the first fermentation, the base wine is created, which is then bottled. A small amount of yeast and sugar are then added to start secondary fermentation – which is when the bubbles are produced. The wine is then left on the lees to build complexity, a process called ‘tirage’. The lees make up the sediment that forms during the fermentation process. This is usually removed once fermentation is complete. To do this, the bottle is slowly turned upside-down so the lees collect in the neck of the bottle. The neck of the bottle is then placed in freezing liquid, which causes the yeast lees to freeze. The process of removing the lees is called ‘disgorging. Here, the crown seal is popped from the top of the bottle and the frozen lees forced out due to the pressure inside the bottle. Each bottle is then topped up with an additional wine solution (called ‘dosage’) before being corked, wired and labelled. It’s a time-consuming process that requires great attention to detail and patience, but it produces a more complex, high-quality sparkling wine.
While the minimum amount of time on lees is 12 months for NV Champagne, there is actually no regulated requirement for lees age in Australia. However, most House of Arras wines spend a minimum of three years on lees (A by Arras spends the least, at 30 months), which is a testament to their quality. Some House of Arras wines, such as the E.J. Carr Late Disgorged, spend a remarkable 10 years on lees. This unusually long time in tirage combined with the immense skill required to achieve a correct dosage, are what set our premium sparkling wines apart.
The winemaker’s influence
Making exceptional sparkling wines like those of the House of Arras takes patience and experience. Our Chief Winemaker, Ed Carr, has been making wine for almost 35 years and could be described as a master in the art of crafting fine sparkling wine. The fact that he was the only winemaker outside of Champagne to be awarded Lifetime Achievement Award at the Champagne & Sparkling Wine World Championships in London in late 2018 is a testament to his skills.
Many of chief winemakers (known as chefs de cave in Champagne) have put their mark on their respective house style, while respecting the long traditions that preceded them. For example, Dom Pérignon’s Chef de Cave, Vincent Chaperon, was appointed in 2018, having worked with the brand since 2005 and taken part in 13 harvests. Cyril Brun became of Chef de Cave at Charles Heidsieck in 2015, having been born in Champagne and coming from a family of winemakers with many years’ experience in the industry. In fact, on a recent visit to Tasmania, Cyril noted in an interview with The Mercury, “Every time I taste the sparkling wine from Tasmania I feel like it is the one that could be potentially the closest to Champagne.” High praise indeed from one of the industry’s most revered producers!
Just like Vincent and Cyril, Ed has spent decades refining the Arras house style. For the past 31 years, he has pursued his goal – to craft an exceptional sparkling wine equal to the world’s best. And it seems he is reaching his goal.
So next time you’re contemplating buying a Champagne or sparkling wine, take time to consider the house styles and individual terroirs of both, and remember that those exclusive, small-parcel Tasmanian sparkling wines on the shelf may be just what you’re looking for. Ultimately, it comes down to a matter of taste, as much as the appreciation of the time, skill, commitment and patience it takes to make any great wine.
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