These days, the accepted wisdom among cork-sniffers is that Tasmania is the best place in Australia to make fizz. Just as the Clare Valley is undeniably a great riesling region; just as we all know that Heathcote shines with shiraz; just as we take it for granted that Coonawarra is the king of cabernet, the Apple Isle is firmly linked in our minds with delicious, crisp, sparkling wine.
But it hasn’t always been this way. Traditionally, grapes for Australian sparkling wine were sourced from warmer regions but picked earlier, when they had higher acid and lower sugar levels than grapes for table wines. It’s only in the last couple of decades that winemakers have planted vineyards for sparkling in cooler places like Tasmania - regions which compare climatically with Champagne. And what they’ve been able to produce from those new vineyards has been a revelation.
My Tasmanian epiphany came ten years ago, when sparkling winemaker for Hardys, Ed Carr, popped the corks on some special sneak-preview bubblies.
The wines - both blends of pinot noir and chardonnay - were from the 1995 vintage, and were the first Carr had made that included substantial portions of grapes grown in Tasmanian vineyards. I still remember tasting these wines and thinking wow, here was Australian sparkling that approached the best champagne in terms of finesse, complexity and depth of flavour.
Others had already recognised Tasmania’s potential. In the mid-1980s, French Champagne house Louis Roederer staked a claim for sparkling by establishing the Jansz vineyard in collaboration with Heemskerk (the vineyard and label are now owned by Yalumba), and Victorian winery Taltarni established the Clover Hill vineyard for top-quality bubbly. But these mid-90s wines from Ed Carr were the first to show me just how well-suited Tassie obviously is to this style of wine.
Since then a string of other superb sparkling wines has emerged from the island state, cementing Tasmania’s position as the top place in the country to make fizz: as well as Ed Carr’s experiments - which turned up a couple of years later as the first releases of Hardys top bubbly, Arras - other brilliant bubblies have included Andrew Pirie’s eponymous sparkling wine (now morphed into the Kreglinger label), and some excellent fizz from Stefano Lubiana.
While those Tasmanian wines from the 1990s were undoubtedly exciting, though, and while the current vintages of Hardys Arras and Jansz are better than ever, a recent tasting of some more Hardys sneak-preview bottles demonstrated unequivocally that the wines we will be drinking in the future will be even better.
A 2004 Rosé was quite stunning in its deep savoury, honeyed richness, and a 2001 Blanc de Blancs (100 per cent chardonnay sparkling), was scintillating in its purity and intensity. These wines take the quality up a notch or two - but incredibly they also have room to improve, as they won’t be released (under the Hardys-owned Bay of Fires label) until they’ve spent many more years maturing on lees: the Rosé is due to be disgorged in 2009, the Blanc de Blancs not until 2011.
Bay of Fires winemaker Fran Austin is convinced that the key to the quality in these wines is the fact that Tasmania is a truly cool climate.
‘You get a very different acid structure in the grapes down here,’ says Austin. ‘A lot of mainland cool-climate regions are cool because they’re high up, not because they’re down south. In high-altitude wines, the acidity can taste hard. But in cool-latitude wines, you get softer, mouth-watering juicy acidity. And incredible depth of flavour - which means you can work the wines more, let them spend more time on lees before releasing them, producing a more complex end result.’
Jansz winemaker Natalie Fryar - who is also sitting on some batches of exciting blanc de blancs bubbly that won’t be disgorged for many years - agrees that the latitude and maritime influence are the key to the unique quality of Tassie fruit.
‘Bass Strait really mitigates the climate here,’ she says. ‘We have a truly extended ripening period, meaning we can pick full-flavoured grapes for sparkling at just 11 baumé but with 12 to 14 grams per litre of natural acidity. And because the wines have such astounding flavour and structure, they can take the kind of techniques that are common in Champagne. So we’ve become a lot more confident with the fruit and are doing things like barrel fermenting rosé, and lees-stirring and extended ageing before disgorging - without the wines losing their finesse.’
Again, though, the best is yet to come. ‘I’ve been here for six years,’ says Fryar. ‘And I’ve seen single blocks in the vineyards begin to produce fruit with more defined personality. Some of the vineyards are over 20 years old now, of course, and it really does make a difference when a vine’s mature.’
Excitingly, Jansz are also involved in the long, slow process of propagating and planting new vineyards using vinestock that Roederer brought out from Champagne in the 1980s. These clones of pinot noir and chardonnay could well produce even more astounding wines in the future.
‘I’m already confident in my own mind that Tasmania is the best place to grow sparkling wine,’ says Fryar. ‘But we perhaps have an ability with these new clones to take it to another level again.’
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