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State of Play: Australian Sparkling

Will your next Sparkling purchase be Australian or Champagne? Australians drink more Champagne than any other nationality outside Europe and we now clock the fastest-growing Champagne consumption on the planet. Yet domestic sales of Australian Sparkling have actually declined over the past five years. This is all about to change.

We are privileged to have entered a new age of Australian Sparkling. The calibre and recognition of our home-grown fizz are in their heyday – though the world of Sparkling lovers is yet to catch on.

Australian Sparkling has traditionally never been regarded in the same league as our top still and fortified wine styles, but all that changed in 2015 and 2016 when Tasmania’s legendary House of Arras was awarded Best Wines of Show in not one but three major capital city wine shows. It then backed this up in 2017 to be named Best Australian Producer at The International Wine and Spirit Competition in London. This is the first time Australian Sparkling has ever trumped our still wines.

Such results are echoed in the endorsement of key influencers across the Sparkling world. I recently showcased Tasmania’s top Sparkling wines alongside Champagne at benchmark tastings around the globe, and the response from leading palates was monumental. A famous Champagne grower in Le Mesnil-sur-Oger recently declared to me, “Tasmania now makes the best Sparkling wines on earth outside Champagne.” As the world begins to take notice, our little island state is bursting at its seams to keep up with demand. A recently announced record volume and record value crop in 2018 is good news for upholding supply!

Aussie fizz

For the first time in history, Australia now stands tall among the greatest Sparkling producers on earth. Aussie fizz has truly come of age, and there’s never been a better time to discover the exciting diversity of this remarkable category.

Australia is one of the world’s most price sensitive Sparkling markets, and while the quality and diversity on our shelves have never been more impressive, the price in real terms has actually dropped over the past decade. Such affordability cannot continue, because rapidly increasing cost of production and rising global demand are about to set Sparkling wine prices on an upward spiral. Champagne will inflate first, the glass ceiling will lift, and all others will follow the same trajectory. Now is the time to buy.

Sub-$10 is by far the biggest category in Australian Sparkling retail, but it’s refreshing to see it in decline. Sparkling is the most complex, costly and time-consuming of all wine styles to make well, and, to be perfectly frank, there are no wines worth drinking at this price. Very little Australian Sparkling is sold over $50, but it’s in the $15-$50 category that the real growth is occurring in white Sparkling, and in the $20-$30 category for Rosé.

This is where the magic happens for Australian Sparkling. Yes, you can buy Champagne under $50, but there are only a handful of French houses worthy of your attention at these prices. It’s impossible to make great cheap Champagne, because Champagne grapes now cost more than $10 a kilogram, more than three times the price of Tasmanian grapes and more than 20 times the price of Australian mainland grapes! Consequently, it’s encouraging to see Australia’s sub-$50 Champagne sales in decline. Three out of every four Champagne bottles popped in Australia are now between $50 and $100.

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Pirie Sparkling Chardonnay Pinot Noir 2011
Tasmania, RRP $40

This Gold medal winner from the cool slopes of the Tamar Valley region was described by Tyson Stelzer in his 2018 Sparkling Report as, “No subtle vintage, this is a main course-ready cuvée of heightened proportions.” Dave Mavor agreed, noting that it is, “quite rich, creamy, deep and flavoursome with some honeyed complexity, but also fresh with citrussy acidity.”

Lambrook emerson Sparkling Pinot Noir 2013
Adelaide Hills, RRP $50

Lambrook’s Emerson is only released in exceptional vintages and it’s crafted using the traditional Sparkling method where the juice is whole-bunch cold pressed and the wine is bottle fermented for four and half years on the lees. The result, says Willy Lunn, is a wine with “richness and complexity, and big toasty characters.” Will Figueira enjoyed it for its “apple, lemon and grapefruit, and incredible balance.”

Jackson’s Hill Sparkling Pinot Noir Chardonnay 2006
Tasmania, RRP $35

This is a great example of how cool climate Sparkling wine can develop intense layers of complexity and richness after time in the bottle. It was a highlight for Trent Mannell, who admired its “amazing mouth-feel, savoury complexity and fine, creamy mousse.” 

Ninth Island Sparkling Rosé NV
Tasmania, RRP $25

The vines used for this Rosé were specifically planted to produce Sparkling wine grapes. The care shines through in this gorgeous non-vintage drop, which Tyson admired for its “fresh, fruity and crunchy style of elegant tension and bright fruit persistence.” Matt White also loved its elegance, along with its “lovely weight and length.” 

Cofield Reserve Release sparkling Pinot Noir Chardonnay 2006
Tumbarumba, RRP $45

Cofield’s Reserve Release made Tyson Stelzer’s top 150 Australian and New Zealand wines for 2017 and on tasting it again, he’s still impressed, saying, “Long lees age brings creamy texture, which unites seamlessly with lingering acid drive.” Dave Mavor picked out “almond meal and brioche”, while for Matt White, “toast and butter” were the standout characters.

Arras Brut Elite sparkling Pinot Noir Chardonnay NV
Tasmania, RRP $49

This wine was crafted by Australia’s most highly awarded Sparkling winemaker, and it certainly surpassed expectations. Dave found it “rich, mouth-filling and creamy with ripe stonefruit characters.” For Jeremy Dineen it was “powerful with a rich toasty entry, and alluring texture and complexity.”

Bang for your buck

Under $50, it’s the great expanse of Australia’s Sparkling offering that is most exciting right now. Australian fizz has never been a more accurate reflection of the diversity of our regions. Australia is a world away from Champagne in every way, and while our makers borrow the method and fanatically follow quality cues of their northern French counterparts, no self-respecting Australian Sparkling maker is pretending to make Champagne.

Champagne has chalk. Australia’s Sparkling regions do not. Australia has more sunshine and in most regions a more maritime climate. Australia has been making Sparkling wine for 195 years, and only seriously for 30 years. Champagne has been making wines for more than 2000. Not to mention scale. Champagne produces almost four times more Sparkling wine than all of Australia put together, and the entire production of Tasmanian Sparkling could fit inside Champagne more than 80 times.

The bountiful plethora of Australia’s Sparkling offering is as diverse as the far-flung regions from which it hails. This vast, sunburnt continent boasts an immense variety of terroirs that give birth to its extensive Sparkling personalities, from the cool elegance of Tasmania, to the characterful expression of the Adelaide Hills, the heights of Victoria’s Yarra Valley, Henty, Pyrenees and Macedon Ranges, the Prosecco capital of the King Valley and the reverberating depth of Sparkling Shiraz from the Grampians, Great Western, McLaren Vale, Barossa Valley and Clare Valley. In recent times, Western Australia’s Margaret River, Pemberton and Great Southern and New South Wales’ Tumbarumba and Orange have increasingly proven their credentials in the premium fizz stakes.

Meanwhile, production of Australian Prosecco has trebled in the past three years, growing by 50% in 2017 alone. Australia is gaining a notable footing in the rapidly expanding international Prosecco market, and even the Italians are beginning to take notice. So much so that they are fighting to prohibit the use of the name of the grape on Australian wines. Australian producers deserve all of our support in defending their right to continue their almost 20 year tradition of fine Prosecco production.

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Devil’s Corner Sparkling Chardonnay Pinot Noir NV
Tasmania, RRP $22

Showing beautiful Tamar Valley quality, this wine impressed Willy Lunn with its complexity and balance, while Dave Mavor found it clean, tight and fresh with fragrant yellow fruits, citrussy acidity and nutty layers finishing with minerally persistence.

Seppelt Salinger Vintage Cuvee 2013
Henty, RRP $30

Seppelt is one of Australia’s Sparkling wine pioneers with a history of over 125 years. This is clear in this impressive wine, which Tyson described as “wonderfully harmonious at the magic crossroads where primary lemon and apple fruit meld seamlessly with the roast almond and brioche allure of lees age. The result is, it’s creamy, seamlessly crafted and strikes the perfect balance between silky texture and acid line.”

Taltarni Cuvee Rosé 2013
Victoria, South Australia, Tasmania, RRP $26

Taltarni hang their hat on the quality of their Sparkling wine and this Rosé delivers. Sourced from multiple regions, it maintains Taltarni’s philosophy of producing wines with elegance and balance. Matt White was taken with its “lovely vibrant strawberry fruit flavours”, while Paul Diamond found it “creamy and soft” and Trent Mannell commented on its “slight savouriness.”

Gapsted Limited Release Sparkling Shiraz Rosé 2017
King Valley, RRP $25

Gapsted describes their Rosé as being perfect with paella and Thai dishes, and Trent Mannell can’t wait to get stuck in. He described it as a “clean, crisp and fruit driven style that’s off-dry, but balanced and smooth.” Will Figueira was also a fan, picking up “a touch of white pepper adding spice.”

Swings and Roundabouts backyard stories Sparkling Pinot Noir Chardonnay NV
Margaret River, RRP $39

‘Backyard Stories’ is Swings & Roundabouts’ top tier range, which they describe as “wines that tip their hat to the great Australian backyard and the simple life.” Jeremy Dineen admired the fact it was “a lighter style, slightly sweet with citrus and light floral.” For Willy Lunn, the appeal lay in the “lemon meringue pie” characters.

Helen’s Hill En Vie Blanc de Noir Sparkling Pinot Noir NV
Yarra Valley, RRP $25

Whether you go with the French en vie, as in ‘in life’ or read it as ‘envy’, this is a Sparkling you’ll want in your life! Matt White wanted it for its “delicate red currant and cherries on the elegant palate.” For Dave Mavor, it presented “watermelon and citrus with some depth and persistence.” 

The tasting

To find the best of the exciting sub-$50 Australian Sparkling sector, I joined the Selector team for a grand tasting, to a spectacular backdrop of sea and surfers at The Beach Hotel in Newcastle. We were joined by special guest judges Jeremy Dineen, creator of elegant Sparkling wines for Josef Chromy and an impressive arsenal of contract brands in northern Tasmania, and Willy Lunn, who crafts the great Yarrabank Sparklings of the Yarra Valley in collaboration with the Champagne house of Devaux.

We kicked off with a flight of 20 non-vintage Sparklings from across the country. By far Australia’s most important category, since white Sparkling currently outsells Rosé, Prosecco and Champagne more than six-fold!

The theme here was largely fresh, apéritif styles that celebrate the fruity appeal of youth rather than the texture and complexity of bottle age. For this reason, the group favourite of Tasmania’s House of Arras Brut Elite Cuvée 1301 NV stood out all the more radiantly, thanks to a monumental rest of almost four years on yeast lees. Dave Mavor praised the honeyed, creamy richness and long finish of great intensity that this age infused in the wine.

Ten Rosés proved to be the most diverse flight. “We’ve reached more consistency with our non-vintage white and vintage Sparklings, but Rosé is still finding its way in style,” concluded Jeremy. That said, Trent Mannel was impressed that almost all of the wines in our flight were pale and dry. The resounding standout, and my first Gold medal of the day, was Natalie Fryar’s delightfully affordable Ninth Island Rosé NV. Another win to Tasmania! I loved its purity and freshness and Willy Lunn admired its elegance and creamy texture.
“A bloody ripper!” he exclaimed.

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Redbank Emily Sparkling Chardonnay Pinot NOir NV
King Valley, RRP $14.95

Benefitting from the King Valley’s rich volcanic soils, cool temperature and high altitude, Redbank has the ingredients for great Sparkling and the Emily is pretty in name and nature. Tyson Stelzer commended how its “lemon and preserved lemon proclaimed a fruity style of clean focus and fragrance.” For Will Figueira, the characters of note were “zesty citrus, peach and green apple.”

Wicks Estate Pamela Sparkling Chardonnay Pinot Noir 2013
Adelaide Hills, RRP $30

Named after Pam Wicks, this is an Adelaide Hills beauty from a proudly family-owned and operated winery. Dave Mavor rated it for being a “fine, dry, citrus-driven style that’s quite minerally and intense.” His fellow Panellist Trent Mannell was also impressed, describing it as being “forward and ripe with layers of peach, mealy yeast lees autolysis and a lovely creamy mousse.”

Howard Park Petit Jeté Sparkling Chardonnay NV
Great Southern, RRP $34

In ballet, the petit jeté is a small jump, but this wine took a huge leap in winning Gold at the 2018 Champagne & Sparkling Wine World Championships in London! And like the finest dancer, Willy Lunn found it “balanced” with “lovely fresh fruit.”

Mountadam vineyards high eden Sparkling Pinot Chardonnay NV
Eden Valley, RRP $27

Made from fruit grown on a single Eden Valley site, this was another high scorer in Tyson’s 2017 Australian Sparkling Report. He’s still impressed, saying, “Pinot Noir takes a lead in notes of anise and mixed spice. The finish is structured as much by phenolics as acidity, lending a firm dryness that contracts the close.”

Moores Hill Estate blanc de blanc Sparkling Chardonnay NV
Tasmania, RRP $45

One for the Chardonnay lovers, this Sparkling brings together the 2012, 2013 and 2014 Tasmanian vintages. Trent Mannell praised it for being “smooth with a creamy mousse and long persistence” and Matt White agreed, adding it has “good complexity.”

Chandon Brut Rosé NV
Yarra Valley, Strathbogie ranges, King & Buffalo Valleys, Coonawarra, RRP $25

Given they’re Sparkling specialists, it’s no wonder Chandon’s Rosé turned heads. Dave Mavor enjoyed the fact it was “ripe, soft and creamy with raspberry and blackcurrant fruit and great persistence.” Will Figueira loved the “loads of red fruit, peach and nectarine” and Trent Mannell applauded it for having “smooth, creamy mousse and lovely silken texture.”   

impressive vintages

Twenty vintage cuvées offered the most exciting flight and the top wine of the day: Pirie Vintage Sparkling 2011. This was my favourite wine of the tasting, as it was for Willy, Will Figueira and Jeremy, who pointed out that it’s been cleaning up across the wine shows this year, too. Our descriptions waxed lyrical and Willy affectionately described it as elegant, fine-boned and graceful. “If it had a dress on I’d be taking it out tonight!” he said, winking. “I think the technical term is bloody delicious!” responded Jeremy.

My other standout and my third Gold medal for the day was Seppelt Salinger Pinot Noir Chardonnay 2013 from Henty, an astonishingly affordable cuvée selling for under $30, boasting a beautiful five years of age, crafted using the full rigour of the méthode traditionnelle process.

There were three key themes to be gleaned from our top three wines of the day: All three hailed from Tasmania, all three were crafted using the méthode traditionnelle process and all three were refreshingly affordable (under $40).

As always, Tasmania topped the charts, putting forth not only our top wine in every category, but more than one-third of our top 24 wines of the day, with eight mainland regions each scoring one, two or three hits.

“You try to pick any region outside of Champagne that makes Sparkling as consistently as Australia,” Jeremy challenged at the end of the day. “Five areas stand out as our premium regions: Tasmania, Yarra, Tumbarumba, Adelaide Hills and Macedon.

“Buying premium Australian Sparkling is like buying a supercar,” he concluded. “There was once a time when you could only trust the grand marques from Europe, but today the Japanese and others are confidently playing in this territory, too.”

Willy echoed his praise.

“The quality of Australian Sparkling is outstanding, as high now as it’s been for a long time. Sparkling competition is a little more fierce, from cheaper French Cremant and Prosecco, which are commanding a fair bit of shelf space. But Australia has always been competitive, and I don’t think we’ve lost our competitive edge by any stretch.”
Champagne, look out.

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Printhie Wines Swift Cuveé NV
Orange, RRP $40

Flying the flag for the cool climate region of Orange, Printhie’s Swift Cuveé was awarded a Trophy at the prestigious 2016 Royal Melbourne Wine Awards. Tyson Stelzer could see why, admiring it for its “crunchy apple and lemon fruit meeting the toast and honey of bottle age, with lees lending texture and structure. It holds with good length and character.”

MadFish Wines Vera’s Cuveé NV
South western Australia, RRP $25

MadFish is part of the portfolio of the renowned Burch family and the wines are designed to be “pure, fresh and clean.” Jermey Dineen rated it for being “simple but intense”, while Willy Lunn found it had “crunchy acid and nice line with medium weight.” Matt White agreed on the liveliness of its acidity, adding it was “lemony and had excellent persistence.”

YarraVale Wines Reserve Sparkling 2005
Yarra Valley, RRP $50

This wine was made to celebrate the births of winemaker Domenic Bucci’s three grandchildren and like them, it’s designed to bring “great joy.” Tyson Stelzer described it as “a toasty and spicy style of secondary development.”

Chain of Ponds Diva Sparkling Chardonnay Pinot Noir NV
Adelaide Hills, RRP $20

Chain of Ponds’ Diva has been a favourite of the Wine Selectors Tasting Panel for many years and Dave Mavor still loves it. He enjoys that it’s “light, dry and fresh with citrus and oyster shell, good intensity and persistence, and some creamy yeasty notes to finish.” While Will Figueira praised its “zip, zest and vibrant bubble.”

Josef Chromy Vintage Sparkling Pinot Noir Chardonnay 2013
Tasmania, RRP $42

Josef Chromy is a pioneer of the Tasmanian wine industry and this wine is testament to the talents of his team. Matt White commended it for being “fresh and vibrant with lively acidity”, while Trent Mannell enjoyed its “intense savoury layers of stonefruit and citrus zest and toasty complexity.” Jeremy Dineen added that it has great power.

Dominique Portet LD Sparkling Brut Rosé NV
Yarra Valley, RRP $32

This Sparkling has been crafted by ninth generation winemaker Dominique Portet, whose family’s winemaking history dates back to 18th century France. His prowess presents itself in this impressive Rosé, which Tyson Stelzer noted for having “a pretty, pale salmon hue heralding an elegant and refined Rosé of crunchy strawberry hull and pink pepper, with bright acid tension and fine tannin poise. A young and tense style.”  

Two Blues Sauvignon Blanc 2014
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