Those who know wine well recognise that the hero winemaker, who can turn ordinary grapes into a masterpiece, doesn’t exist. (Neither does the heroine.) Great wines start with great fruit and where the winemaker’s skill comes in first is in fruit selection, be that from region, vineyard or even parts of a single vineyard block. What’s more, those grapes must be perfectly suited to the wine in question, showing characteristics typical of variety, region and also the wine’s brand and price-point.

This is true of any wine, but with sparkling wines it is absolutely critical. Firstly, if the final wine needs to be poured into your glass at around 12.5% alcohol, this will include the one per cent or so added by the second fermentation. So, the winemaker needs to select grapes that have ripe flavours at lower sugar levels than for table wines. Grapes in Champagne are often harvested at 9 to 10 Baumé – roughly equivalent to the same numbers in alcohol – and are then chaptalised to increase the alcohol. This is rarely needed in Australia.

Next he or she will combine taut, tooth-enamel stripping wines of varying batches, varieties and perhaps years to make an agreeable, complex whole. But through that blend the creator needs to project to two, five, even 10 years or more to the wine that, after disgorgement, will be offered for sale.

Not a hero, perhaps, but certainly a master. It’s a skill that few winemakers have.

The cycle of tasting for past Christmas issues – grower Champagnes, Australian non-vintage, blanc de blancs from Australia and Champagne, European sparkling wines and vintage Champagne – brings us to top Australian fizz. Here we taste bottle-fermented wines, both NV and vintage, including a few late-disgorged wines. All were made from the main Champagne grapes, chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier. To the best of my knowledge, all were made by traditional method – with the second fermentation in the very bottle you hold in your hand.

The 2009 Sitella  “impressed us all”, Bulleid reports – and the others were very strong entries, too.
The 2009 Sitella “impressed us all”, Bulleid reports – and the others were very strong entries, too.

Our regular panel members, educator and writer Peter Bourne, fine wine consultant Andrew Caillard MW, writer and judge Toni Paterson MW and me, winemaking consultant Nick Bulleid MW were joined by Annette Lacey. Lacey is the wine and beverage director for the Lotus Dining group in Sydney. She won the professional section of the Vin de Champagne Award in 2014.

We tasted the wines, as always, masked in groups of about 10, the non-vintage wines first, followed by the vintage wines – blanc de blancs, rosés then standard blends, each in increasing order of age. A small group of recently disgorged wines completed the tasting. Intriguingly, we found a higher strike rate of reviews from the NVs (60%) than we did from the vintage blends (36%). The high performance of the non-vintage wines is good news, as you don’t necessarily need to drink vintage, and at vintage prices, to get an excellent wine. The blanc de blancs came in between them. The reason for the lower performance of vintage was that some of the older wines had not retained freshness and had broadened out. This raises the issue of age on cork, as well as how well the wines may have been stored.

The time spent after disgorgement and before sale is important for all traditional method wines. It allows integration of the wine in bottle with the liqueur added in the topping wine. The period is typically about six months. Further ageing under cork can add more toasty complexity and softness, but there is a limit. So, it is useful to be able to distinguish between a wine of, say 10 years age which has been recently disgorged and one that may have had four years under cork.

My impression – not tested against earlier tastings – is that cool regions are now even more the source of the wines that come through our tastings. Orange, the NSW Southern Highlands and Pemberton, among others, have added to the Adelaide Hills, the cooler parts of the Yarra Valley and of course Tasmania

A few words on words. Brioche, pastry and bready appear frequently below. These are related to the synergy between fruit flavours developing in contact with yeast lees and the close to zero oxygen environment. Texture is more widely used on other wines, particularly whites, to describe the light phenolics – mostly tannins – that give more weight, body, savoury flavours and help to dry the finish. These were widely avoided in Australian whites when purity was de rigeur, but the further rise of chardonnay and pinot gris has seen texture become more widespread and even required. It’s becoming important in high quality sparkling wines, too, assisted by using unclarified juice from high quality grapes and whole-bunch pressing in modern presses. Toast, of course, is widely used for bottle-aged whites.

The best news of all is that we have more masters at work and that Australian sparkling wines have never been better. Salut!

These non-vintage sparklers pleased our panel on the nose and the palate.
These non-vintage sparklers pleased our panel on the nose and the palate.

Non-vintage

NV Brown Brothers Pinot Noir Chardonnay Meunier, King Valley (A$25) appealed to Paterson. “Fresh and inviting with aromatic lemon characters and subtle nuttiness," she wrote. “The palate has great mid-palate intensity. An elegant style and well-judged dosage. A little short on the close.” I thought the nose quite full in fruit and the palate fine and soft, balanced by the dosage. There’s excellent line through the mouth.

NV Centennial Vineyards Limited Blanc de Blancs, Southern Highlands (A$40) has a very fine nose, with complex brioche character. Bourne went further. “Buoyant perfumes of white nectarine, pink grapefruit and wild honey with a touch of oatcake complexity. A clear, bright palate with good drive, depth and complexity. The overall tone is savoury, the finish fine and long,” he wrote. The crisp acidity maintains a taut line and the wine finishes dry.

NV Courabyra 1 of 11 Rosé, Tumbarumba (A$36) also gained strong support from Bourne, who noted, “deep partridge eye pink. Intense raspberry and redcurrant with a touch of white truffle and warm spices. The flavours reflect the nose with cherries and boysenberries and a touch of Arnott’s Iced Vovo. There’s lots of textural interest but the finish is fresh and bright.” This is a full flavoured expression of rosé that would be excellent with food.

NV Henschke Johanne Ida Selma Blanc de Noir MD, Adelaide Hills (A$62) has a complex nose suggesting barrel- fermentation and overtones of brioche. It’s taut and dry in the mouth with low dosage. Lacey loved the wine. “Developed, savoury and textured, with a cheesy solids note and fresh acidity,” she wrote. “Grilled almonds,” Caillard added.

NV Stefano Lubiana Brut Reserve, Tasmania (A$39) gained top marks from Caillard. “Very attractive and classical with grapefruit, white melon and toasty, yeasty aromas. Lemon curd flavours, attractive yeasty complexity, tonic water notes. Finishes creamy and long with minerally textures. A crowd-pleasing style,” he wrote. I liked its combination of freshness and brioche complexity. For all its flavour, it’s quite delicate and tight, finishing crisp and dry.

NV Swift Cuvée Brut NV 5, Orange (A$43) is based on the 2015 vintage, with various reserve wines. It starts with a fine nose, showing ripe apple and nice complexity, plus a hint of aldehyde. Lacey thought the flavours were “rich, honeyed and mouth-filling, with a pithy texture”. That texture adds to the dry finish but there’s deft use of dosage to match it and the length is good. I loved its depth of flavour and balance. It was the best wine of show at the recent Orange Wine Show.

Three excellent vintage blanc de blancs from South Australia, Victoria and Tasmania.
Three excellent vintage blanc de blancs from South Australia, Victoria and Tasmania.

Vintage

2008 Arras Blanc de Blancs Vintage, Tasmania (A$92) was one of my top wines. It beautifully combines fresh lemon, white peach and cashew aromas with hints of toasty development and lemon curd. Caillard loved it too. “Attractive grapefruit, nectarine, flinty, toasty and grilled nut notes with a hint of tobacco,” he wrote. “Evolved and creamy with density. Fine chalky textures and long mineral cut.” The intensity and length are excellent.

2014 Blue Pyrenees Midnight Cuvée, Pyrenees (A$32) seemed to me to have the character of a blanc de blancs, not surprising given its chardonnay predominance. Lacey found “a floral lift with green notes, a creamy mid palate and some candied fruits. Has a balanced dosage and finishes long and fine.” It’s fresh and tight, with lemon and white nectarine flavours.

2013 Chandon Vintage Brut, Victoria (A$41) combines freshness, crisp acidity and hints of nutty development that are appearing. Bourne concurred. “A touch of ginger snap biscuits and lots of lemongrass aromas,” he added. “Light, bright and energetic with an acid-etched finale. A wonderful aperitif style.” Made from pinot noir and chardonnay with a splash of meunier, this is a skilfully made wine given the warm vintage.

2012 Circe Blanc de Blancs Vintage, Mornington Peninsula (A$60) appealed strongly to Paterson. “A sophisticated aroma with attractive bread crust, baked apple and sweet spices,” she found. “The palate is generous and savoury, long and complete. A fine and complex sparkling wine with great flavour and character.” Development is adding toast and honey characters. The result? A complex, full-flavoured wine that retains its dry finish.

2013 Clover Hill Classic Vintage Brut, Tasmania (A$45) found Bourne giving strong support. “Complex bouquet of toffee apple, marzipan and almond biscotti,” he wrote. “The palate reflects the nose with apple strudel, candied fruits and a core of lemony acidity. A fresh, lively finish.” The mid-yellow colour and toast, honey and lemon curd development speak of the warm 2013 vintage. It would suit canapés and light entrées well.

2011 Clover Hill Cuvée Exceptionnelle Blanc de Blancs, Tasmania (A$65) comes from a very cool year in Tassie, a contrast to the previous wine. I loved the way the wine’s nose combined honey, barley sugar and toast with some delicacy and restraint. Lacey thought the fruit “slightly green”, perhaps a mark of the vintage. The palate is still remarkably fresh and very fine, yet showing intensity and length. Bourne again approved. “Initially a bit funky/earthy, opening up to reveal some glacé fruit and Duchy lemon oatcake,” he wrote. “The palate is quite savoury with layers of yeasty complexity.” A delicious aperitif.

2014 Coldstream Hills Chardonnay Pinot Noir, Yarra Valley (A$35) had strong support from Paterson. “A heady nose with strong toast, nougat and meringue aromas,” she noted. “The palate is lemony with a core of fine acidity. The flavours fan out on the finish. Impressive length.” It's still quite fresh, despite complex flavours; age should add balance to a crisp acidity.

2013 Courabyra 805 Pinot Noir Chardonnay Pinot Meunier, Tumbarumba (A$45) has savoury characters, with a hint of reduction, some cashew, lemon curd from development and white nectarine. The palate is lively, with depth of flavour and good length. “Intense bouquet of baked apple mingling with lemon sorbet and ginger. Savoury notes to finish,” Bourne noted. “Flinty, reductive aroma. Fruit sweetness and acidity,” Caillard added.

2012 Daosa Blanc de Blancs, Adelaide Hills (A$55) combines hints of green apple with honey and other subtle developed characters on the nose. Bourne found “refreshing aromas of lemongrass, ginger root and lemon sorbet. The hi-toned palate is tight and singular, the finish driven by a citrus fresh acidity.” Lacey noted “crème brûlée”. Paterson was less keen, finding a “bruised fruit” character. I nevertheless found the palate fresh and complex, the brisk acidity balanced by a deft use of dosage.

2016 Deviation Road Loftia Vintage Brut, Adelaide Hills (A$45) combines delicate lemon and cashew on the nose, with toasty elements. “Nutty aldehyde, white peach melon aromas with toasty elements,” Caillard noted. “Well-concentrated minerally wine with white peach, apple flavours, fine chalky textures and long fresh acidity. A touch on the lean side but will have its appeal.” I’d no trouble with leanness, finding it balanced, with good line through the mouth and excellent length.

2011 Deviation Road Beltana Blanc de Blancs, Adelaide Hills (A$100) shows its age through a deepening yellow colour and subtle toasty and lemon curd development, yet the palate is delightfully fresh, crisp and lively. “Attractive nougat and meringue aromatics,” Paterson said. “A tight palate with a defined core of citrusy acidity. Delicious sweet-lemon flavours on the close.” It’s a beautiful reminder that excellent sparkling wines came from this cold, often difficult vintage in the eastern states.

2006 Dominique Portet Cuvée, Tasmania (A$60) is remarkably fine and undeveloped for its age, with charcuterie and citrus on the nose and a fresh, subtly complex palate. “Lemon peel, almond and savoury characters, with notes of biscuits, finishing chalky and mineral,” Lacey wrote. I saw the chalkiness as a grapefruit pith-like texture that adds to the finish without interrupting the wine’s excellent length. A real treat!

2011 Freycinet Radenti Chardonnay Pinot Noir, Tasmania (A$55) has a deepening, mid-yellow colour, but still opened with freshness and finesse. The nose shows beautiful lemon and white nectarine aromas and a hint of lemon curd from development. Paterson found “fresh butter and lemons with roasted nut, toast and cracked wheat. Juicy fruit on the mid-palate.” Elegance is a feature of all Freycinet wines, including this.

2012 Gembrook Hill Blanc de Blancs, Yarra Valley (A$57) shows subtle cashew, lemon and apple aromas with attractive savouriness adding interest. The wine’s crisp and delicate, but has intense flavours and good balance. “This is a lovely aperitif style with classic grapefruit and lemon sorbet aromas and underlying nutty/smoked meat complexity,” Bourne reported. “The palate’s surprisingly rich and complex covering the fine frame, the finish extended by an intense core of lemony acidity.”

2007 Kreglinger Vintage Brut, Tasmania (A$55) pleased Caillard in particular, who noted “very attractive light marzipan, honey, grapefruit aromas with some flor-like aldehydic lift. Fresh, medium-bodied, with toasty, lime flavours and some tobacco notes. Fine, slightly grippy textures and pronounced, austere acidity. Quite restrained yet complex.” I liked its subtle, developed nutty and lemon curd flavours that sat well with the overall freshness.

2013 Oakridge LVS Blanc de Blancs, Yarra Valley (A$50) also gained Caillard’s approval. “Complex toasty, nougat, roasted almond aromas with lovely grapefruit, white peach notes,” he said. “Rich and voluminous with generous, fresh yet developed lemon curd, yeasty, flavours. Superb creamy palate and integrated mineral acid cut. Superb movement across the palate, finishing long. Lovely balance of elements.” He could've been reading my notes.

2011 Pirie Vintage Brut, Tasmania (A$40) shows its development in a mid-yellow colour and toasty characters. Nose has intense cashew and lemon aromas; palate follows suit. Excellent balance and length. “Aldehyde and lemon pie with a creamy mid-palate,” Lacey said. Caillard noted “nougat complexity. Plenty of fruit definition, stone fruits, chalky fine textures, mid- palate sweetness and long fresh acidity. Generous and flavourful.”

2013 Seppelt Salinger Vintage Cuvée, Henty (A$30) saw Caillard in strong support. “Fresh, with lovely grilled nut, yeasty aromas over nectarine and light strawberry fruits,” he reported. “Classically proportioned and creamy with ripe fruits, lovely amontillado-like complexity. Fresh, plentiful al dente textures and a pure, fresh, linear acidity. Persistent creamy mousse gives buoyancy and length.” I agreed, loving its intensity, range of flavours and crisp balance. It’s great to see Salinger on song.

2015 Seville Estate Blanc de Blancs, Yarra Valley (A$45) has delicate, floral aromas showing apple and a hint of barrel fermentation. More complex flavours develop on the palate with a light mouth texture. “Bottle development on the nose and a round mid-palate, with textural weight and a saline character – nice finesse,” said Lacey. Others were pleased to see Seville’s expertise with chardonnay extend to sparkling, too.

2009 Sittella Pinot Noir Chardonnay, Western Australia (A$30) impressed us all. “Fresh baked apple pastry, apricot aromas with roasted hazelnut yeasty, flor-like notes,” Caillard said. “Fresh, yet developed with integrated fruit and yeasty complexity, fine chalky dry textures. Lovely core of fruit sweetness. Some tonic water notes, fine but persistent acidity. Lovely expressive wine.” Excellent combination of development and freshness.

2011 Yabby Lake Single Vineyard Cuvée Nina, Mornington Peninsula (A$45) has a delicacy that appealed to Paterson, who found “a beautifully fresh aroma of lemon juice and fresh cream. Fabulous intensity and line. A restrained, reserved style. A lovely aperitif.” It’s fine and fresh, with a little lemon curd although it’s relatively undeveloped.

Only two late-  disgorged wines made the cut.
Only two late-disgorged wines made the cut.

Late-disgorged

2004 Arras EJ Carr Late Disgorged, Tasmania (A$199) showed a hint of corkwood; not cork taint, but the slightly woody character reminding us that cork is an oak – Quercus suber. Even so, the wine shows remarkably fresh and intense flavours. Lacey said it was “chardonnay-esque and mouth-filling”. Bourne was also an enthusiast. “Pale lemon yellow colour belies its age,” he wrote. “Deep complex bouquet of baked apple, warm brioche and lemon meringue pie. The palate is tight and bright with lots of savoury flavours – white truffle and parmesan. A complete wine with gently persuasive acidity driving the long lingering finish.” In another recent tasting I found perfumed honeydew melon and white flower fragrance, with subtle hints of toast.

2010 Jansz Late Disgorged Vintage Cuvée, Tasmania (A$56) is also quite undeveloped, with taut, acid balance in the Jansz style. Fine flavours show lemon and red apple with subtle complexity from its long ageing on lees. “Floral, delicate and toasty, with solids characters and mineral notes. Drying on the finish,” Lacey said. It will gain further complexity with a year or so under cork.

Top Australian Sparkling Wines

★★★★★
96 2009 Sittella Pinot Noir Chardonnay, Western Australia, A$30
96 2008 Arras Blanc de Blancs Vintage, Tasmania, A$92
95
2013 Oakridge LVS Blanc de Blancs, Yarra Valley, A$50
95
2011 Deviation Road Beltana Blanc de Blancs, Adelaide Hills, A$100

★★★★
94 2013 Seppelt Salinger Vintage Cuvée, Henty, A$30
94 2011 Pirie Vintage Brut, Tasmania, A$40
94 2007 Kreglinger Vintage Brut, Tasmania, A$55
93 NV Stefano Lubiana Brut Reserve, Tasmania, A$39
93 2014 Coldstream Hills Chardonnay Pinot Noir, Yarra Valley, A$35
93 2012 Circe Blanc de Blancs Vintage, Mornington Peninsula, A$60
92 2006 Dominique Portet Cuvée, Tasmania, A$60
92 NV Centennial Vineyards Limited Blanc de Blancs, Southern Highlands, A$40
91 2016 Deviation Road Loftia Vintage Brut, Adelaide Hills, A$45
91 2011 Freycinet Radenti Chardonnay Pinot Noir, Tasmania, A$55
91 NV Swift Cuvée Brut NV 5, Orange, A$43
91 NV Henschke Johanne Ida Selma Blanc de Noir MD, Adelaide Hills, A$62
91 2013 Chandon Vintage Brut, Victoria, A$41
91 2011 Yabby Lake Single Vineyard Cuvée Nina, Mornington Peninsula, A$45
91 2004 Arras EJ Carr Late Disgorged, Tasmania, A$199
90 NV Brown Brothers Pinot Noir Chardonnay Meunier, King Valley, A$22
90 NV Courabyra 1 of 11 Rosé, Tumbarumba, A$36
90 2015 Seville Estate Blanc de Blancs, Yarra Valley, A$45
90 2011 Clover Hill Cuvée Exceptionnelle Blanc de Blancs, Tasmania, A$65
90 2013 Clover Hill Classic Vintage Brut, Tasmania, A$45
90 2010 Jansz Late Disgorged Vintage Cuvée, Tasmania, A$56

★★★
89 2012 Gembrook Hill Blanc de Blancs, Yarra Valley, A$57
89
2012 Daosa Blanc de Blancs, Adelaide Hills, A$55
89
2014 Blue Pyrenees Midnight Cuvée, Pyrenees, A$32
89
2013 Courabyra 805, Tumbarumba, A$45