It’s Melbourne Cup on Tuesday – the race that stops a nation and a day we reckon signals the start of Champagne and sparkling season in Australia.
Though, according to statistics, Australians aren’t really drinking Champagne seasonally. We’re now the biggest drinkers of Champagne per head of population outside of mainland Europe. We’ve even overtaken the UK in Champagne consumption per head of population.
And it seems we’re drinking bucketloads of Aussie fizz more than Champagne, with most of Tasmania’s production not yet being exported, and that’s only small compared with what’s been produced on the mainland.
It’s timely then that our most recent Sense of Taste tasting panel with acclaimed wine critic, judge and writer Tyson Stelzer was sparklings and Champagne, a category Tyson – author of six editions of The Champagne Guide - knows a thing or two about!
Tyson reckons it’s the most important wine style bar none, not just because he writes a lot about it, but because of the way in which, from a price and prestige point of view, the sparkling market distinguishes itself so distinctly.
“At the bottom end, you can get fantastic fizz at all sorts of price points,’’ Tyson says. “At the top end, I can walk into any one of your stores and buy one of the greatest sparkling wines in the world, any day of the week. It’s unique in that regard and it’s affordable and accessible.’’
Perhaps the biggest takeaway from the tasting afternoon was that at the bottom end of Champagne pricing, Tasmanian sparklings walk all over it. At the top end, however, Australian sparklings are not in the territory, price wise. The exception to this was Tasmania’s House of Arras Grand Vintage 2009 ($91) which got the most votes in the $80-$115 category. More on this later.
What makes Champagne more expensive than sparkling? Tyson says it comes down to two factors, wine grape price and the process of making Champagne in the traditional method.
The average price of wine grapes in Australia is 60-70 cents per kilo at the farm gate. In Tasmania, it’s about $3.12 - four to five times the price of mainland wine grapes.
In France, it’s around €8 or $A12 – four times the price of Tasmanian wine grapes. Champagne is arguably the most expensive wine region in the world.
Secondly, the traditional method of making Champagne means the wine is fermented in tanks or barrels, bottled, then fermented again before being disgorged – the process of removing the lees (residual yeast left over from the fermentation process).
Essentially, the wine is being fermented twice, which means the sparkling winemaker has twice the decisions, in terms of blending, and twice the work than a still winemaker.
Back to our tasting panel. We had six flights of sparkling and Champagne to try, grouped purely by price.
We didn’t spend a lot of time discussing the first bracket, $26 and under sparklings, but there certainly is a real difference if you have $25 to spend rather than $17.
The bigger wineries have the volume and resources so are generally reliable and consistent, so it’s probably not surprising the Brown Brothers Premium Cuvée NV ($25) was the most popular.
The Charles Pelletier Blanc de Blancs NV out of Burgundy ($19) also picked up a few votes and is often on special at our Sense of Taste stores for around $15. It’s a very popular buy.
Moving on to flight two, our $28-$36 category, which included Tasmania’s Lost Farm NV Brut Pinot Chardonnay NV ($28), Mumm Marlborough NV ($35), Mumm Tasmania NV ($35) and the Adelaide Hills Petaluma Croser Rosé NV ($30).
There was a strong diversity of styles around the same price point in this category. Voting was mixed, the Louis Bouillot Perle de Vigne Grande Reserve NV from Burgundy ($36) was fleshier and rounder than some of the other offerings and deemed good value.
But the real bargain is Tasmania’s 42 Degrees South Premier Cuvée at $33. It’s made the traditional way, 60% chardonnay and 40% pinot noir, and aged on lees for 18 months. It was Tyson’s pick of the category.
Flight three is up, the $37-$50 price bracket, and we’re starting to step up in style. The Tasmanian offerings were all very drinkable and consistent - the Pirie NV ($37), Jansz Premium Cuvée NV ($37) and Clover Hill Tasmanian Cuvée ($41.99).
Tyson made special mention of the Deviation Road Loftia Vintage Brut 2019 ($48) from Adelaide Hills. Traditional method, 65% chardonnay and 35% pinot noir, 50% malolactic fermentation. The 2019 vintage saw low rainfall during the growing season and a warm start to the summer before cooling down in Autumn. This led to the fruit produced having an intense but elegant flavour.
But it was King Valley’s Brown Brothers again which scored the most votes in this category with the Patricia Pinot Noir & Chardonnay Brut 2016 ($49).
A traditional method sparkling, the Patricia is 78% pinot noir/22% chardonnay, from grapes grown on Whitlands Plateau, 800m above sea level. Extended aging on lees has allowed it to develop a fine bead and complex characteristics, delivering delicate creamy flavours with an incredibly clean finish.
On to flight four, $51-$75, and we change gears again. We’re seeing premium, vintage Australian sparklings in this price bracket and it’s an entry point for the big Champagne houses.
Voting was widespread with Pommer Brut Royal NV Champagne ($73) a narrow winner. The three Tasmanian offerings – Jansz Vintae Cuvée 2018 ($51), Clover Hill Vintage Brut 2017 ($54.99) and House of Arras Brut Elite Cuvée No 1601 NV ($55) held their own against the Champagnes put forward.
In this bracket, we also tried a Heidsieck Monopole Blue Top NV ($60), Mumm Grand Cordon NV ($65) and Ayala Brut Majeur NV ($75) – a sister house to Bollinger.
Flight five, $80-$115, is where the fun starts with Champagne. Tyson says you need to spend around $80 to get a good Champagne. If you only have $50 to spend, then look at an Aussie sparkling.
Only one Australian sparkling in this bracket, the House of Arras Grand Vintage 2009 ($91) – which as I mentioned earlier scored the most votes.
A very classy wine, it is also the most awarded sparkling wine in Australian wine show history. In Tyson’s words “an epic wine, the international benchmark for Australian sparkling’’.
It spends seven years on lees and is balanced, nuanced and complex. Lovely, crisp and fresh apple notes.
The Champagnes we tried included Moet & Chandon Brut Imperial NV ($80) and the Rosé Impérial NV ($92), Taittinger Brut Réserve NV ($89.99) and the Louis Roederer Collection 243 NV ($99.99).
Unfortunately, we got an unexpected tutorial in cork tainting as the much-anticipated Bollinger Special Cuvée NV ($93) was undrinkable. The mouldy, musty “wet dog’’ smell is caused by a chemical present in the cork material being transferred into the wine after bottling. On the palate, cork tainting can make a wine short, stringent, dry and lacking fruit.
Our disappointment was short lived as we moved on to our final flight – Champagnes over $120, and this was a delight with so much class on the table, including three Rosé NVs.
How do you choose a favourite when you’re sampling the very best of Veuve Clicquot – the 2012 La Grande Dame ($330), a superb Ruinart Rosé NV ($190), Veuve Clicquot Rosé NV ($130) and Ayala Blanc de Blanc 2012 ($120).
In the end, it was the Bollinger Rosé NV ($150) which took out the category. Bollinger Rosé NV has doubled in volume since its much-celebrated introduction in 2008, though it still represents just 250,000 bottles, merely one-tenth of Special Cuvée
Bollinger Rosé is an assembly of over 85% grand and premier cru. It is made up of 24% chardonnay, 62% pinot noir and 14% meunier. The red wine acts as an agent of style, with an addition of just 5-6% given its power.
Like Special Cuvée, it is matured three to four years on lees. A bright rosé with subtle golden hues, it has structure, length and flavours of wild berries. So versatile and flexible, enjoy it at an afternoon tea, a picnic on a summer afternoon, predinner drink or serve with a fruity and tart dessert.
When it comes to sparklings, the range at Sense of Taste is second to none. Whether you’re looking for a local variant or an international wine from one of the world’s best brands, we’ve got you covered.
Our staff are more than happy and now - thanks to Tyson – armed with a wealth of knowledge to help with your next purchase.
TYSON’S TOP FIVE FROM TASTING PANEL
1 Bollinger Rosé NV (Champagne)
2 House of Arras Grand Vintage 2009 (Tasmania)
3 Clover Hill Vintage Brut 2017 (Tasmania)
4 Brown Brothers Patricia Pinot Noir & Chardonnay Brut 2016 (King Valley)
5 42 Degrees South Premier Cuvée NV (Tasmania)
*Tyson didn’t have a favourite from $26 and under flight