Ondenc and ugni blanc – most wine lovers will have no idea of just what they are, but a few might recognise these as the names of rather obscure French varieties. There was a time when they, and other lesser grapes, played a major role in the Australian wine industry, as key to sparkling wine.
Words by drinks writer, Ken Gargett
Ondenc was brought here from the southwest of France by Hans Irvine, owner of Seppelt Great Western back in the late 1800s/early 1900s, in the apparently mistaken belief that it was one of the varieties from the Champagne region. Ugni blanc, also known as trebbiano, is a rather undistinguished variety that reaches its zenith in Cognac and Armagnac – seemingly a strange component for sparklers.
It should be known that it was not a glorious era for Aussie fizz at the time that Irvine brought ugni blanc back home. Champagne ruled and anything local was simply a cheap alternative to make up the numbers. To put it plainly, it was easy drinking, bulk wedding stuff.
The corner was turned by a small boutique operation designed to make high-class sparkling wines in a similar manner to the Champenois – Yellowglen. Yes, times were different. Yellowglen was swallowed up by the megaliths and ‘repositioned’ in the market. This opened the door to those with an eye for quality. There was even a flourish of interest and investment, back in the 80s, from the Champenois that provided enormous benefits.
Today, the traditional grape varieties used to make Champagne – chardonnay, pinot noir and meunier (especially the first two) are de rigueur. They are sourced from the cooler and most appropriate regions, notably Tasmania, and treated with as much respect as offered to any red wines. Personally, the sparkling wines from Tasmania rank only second in quality (Editor’s note: and even some would dispute that) to those from Champagne, though no doubt there would be plenty of other regions keen to make that claim. The best are world class.
Top of the tree is House of Arras, where chief winemaker Ed Carr has established a reputation of sustained excellence with nearly thirty years of experience making fizz. For those who are impressed by awards, Ed has picked up over 120 trophies, 2,300 other awards and medals, and has the extraordinary record of 21 consecutive wins for the Best Sparkling Wine at the crucial capital city shows.
Ed has developed the full range of classic sparklers for Arras and even has wines that have spent well over a decade on lees (leftover yeast that adds texture and flavour), something that most Champagnes cannot claim.
These are five of the best from Ed and his team at Arras.
HOUSE OF ARRAS BRUT ELITE NV
Non-vintage Champagne is required to spend at least 15 months on lees, though the better examples usually see three to four years. The Arras NV spends four years on lees. It is a blend of around 55% pinot noir, 35% chardonnay and 10% pinot meunier. It opens with a lovely biscuity note, followed by good concentration and richness. Even at this level, the hallmark complexity of Arras is emerging. I give it 92 points. Approx. $40
HOUSE OF ARRAS ROSÉ 2006
70% pinot noir, seven years on lees and seven grams/litre dosage (added sugar/sweetness). Rose petal and frangipani notes which move into fresh strawberries. Clean fruit, mid-length and some early complexity. This will age well for some time, but it is delightfully fresh and appealing at the moment. A really lovely rosé. 92 points. $80
HOUSE OF ARRAS BLANC DE BLANCS 2008
Eight years on lees and just three grams/litre dosage have contributed to this being a blanc de blancs that is utterly exquisite. Crisp acidity with a piercing finish. Minerals and oyster shell notes. Hints of toast, florals and honey on the finish. Bone dry, great length, complexity and a great future. 94 points. $80
HOUSE OF ARRAS GRAND VINTAGE 2008
2008 is one of the great vintages enjoyed by the Champagne region in the last couple of decades (those wines are now either on the market or will be in the coming year or two, and are a must for any cellar). It seems that 2008 was also pretty special in Tasmania. An appealing blend of 65% chardonnay and 35% pinot noir with six years on lees. Six grams/litre dosage. Good intensity here and plenty of complexity. Crisp apple notes merge with fig and crème brûlée characters. Still delightfully fresh. 93 points. $70
HOUSE OF ARRAS EJ CARR LATE DISGORGED 2003
An amazing wine. 12 years on lees. 6.5 grams/litre dosage. Wonderfully complex. Citrus, stone fruit, a hint of matchstick and gravel driveway – in the nicest way. Good intensity. A mature sparkler, but be in no rush. Plenty of length on a palate that maintains its intensity. Fabulous stuff. Sparkling does not get much better. 96 points. $150
Feature image: House of Arras Chief Winemaker Ed Carr