Few categories of Aussie wine have seen the extraordinary advances which have been enjoyed by our sparklings. From sickly sweet, bog average wedding guzzlers, made from second rate grapes in third rate methods, we now boast some of the finest fizz on the planet. No one is suggesting that we have topped the great wines of Champagne, or that we will do so in the foreseeable future, but there is ample evidence to suggest that the best from Australia, especially Tasmania, are a comfortable second. And given the price differential we often enjoy, hard to beat our best for value.
No question that there are some very fine bubbles from other regions in France, Cava, Prosecco and other Italians, the new wave of English wines, the top Californian fizz, Kiwis and more, but if it isn’t to be Champagne, I’ll take Tassie sparkling.
The sparkling wine industry in Tasmania is in its infancy, perhaps a little more established than that of England but not much. The area of vineyards in production is a fraction of that in Champagne. While that region has history and experience on its side, Tasmania is a long way from having even identified its finest sparkling vineyards – as one winemaker has said, the best sites are still to be planted. At the moment, there is nothing to stop a winemaker from making still wines – Chardonnay and/or Pinot Noir – from his vineyards one year and sparkling the next.
Such a small vineyard area means that production figures are tiny. There is something like 2,000 hectares plus, planted for all varieties in Tasmania. Given that a significant percentage of these will go into the Island’s impressive table wines, you can see how small the Tasmanian sparkling wine industry is. In comparison, the region of Champagne has around 35,000 hectares.
Tasmanian wine has spluttered along since convict days, and occasionally the candle has gone out. It really only kicked off several decades ago, with pioneers like Julian Alcorso and Andrew Pirie. Then, in the ultimate irony, came the Champagne Houses, looking to expand their horizons – most famously, the man who would become Louis Roederer’s superstar chef de cave, Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon. Jean-Baptiste arrived at Heemskerk Estate in 1990, before later taking the reins of the House itself.
In the early days, fruit would be harvested and transported to wineries on the Mainland, though before long, operations devoted solely to sparkling wines popped up on the Island.
The better Tasmanian sparklers show a balance and a persistence of flavour that is impressive. Vibrant acidity and finely crafted structure with a laser-sharp focus. They age well and exhibit a degree of finesse and class rarely encountered anywhere. Flavours vary but can include a delightful seaspray note. This pristine Island with its cool, often cold, climate is providing sparkling wines of a different dimension. They are not trying to make Champagne – only Champagne can do that – but rather the best that this region is able to offer. And the results are seriously exciting.
Arras, the Tassie offerings from Domaine Chandon, Jansz, Kreglinger, Josef Chromy, Pirie, Bream Creek, Bay of Fires, Stefano Lubiana, Henskens and many more, are all exciting.
One which may sneak under the radar, partly because it is made in such tiny quantities and then only on an irregular basis, and partly because the winery is better known for its brilliant table wines – Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and even some long-lived Riesling – is the sparkler from Freycinet.
Known as ‘Radenti’, after winemaker Claudio Radenti, it was first made back in 1993, but Claudio is never in any hurry with this wine and some releases have spent a decade or more on lees. The current release is called ‘R3’ and it follows the very successful 2011, only this time, it is a non-vintage blend. Three previous vintage wines were combined – 40% of
Spices, almonds, brioche, lemon butter on fresh toast. Imagine that you have just picked up a bunch of fresh flowers and a bag of lemons and apricots at the markets and you walk straight into a newly opened bakery. The structure is immaculate and the length, seriously good. The seductively creamy texture is a real highlight and there is a flick of bitter almonds right at the finish. This is a sparkler of the highest quality. 97