From the most expensive bottle of wine most people will ever buy, Champagne, to the humblest domestic fizz, sparkling wine is an immensely popular category for Australian drinkers. And its popularity is growing across the board. The variety of styles is also expanding, from the more recent prosecco obsession to the growth in the often-quirky pét-nats, which typically bounce onto the market in the same year as the harvest, the choice has never been so great. The 2021 Top 50 features Gabe O’Brien (Cavedon), Etienne Mangier (North Wine), Daniel Payne (Dirt Candy) and Jean-Paul Trijsburg (Wines by Jean-Paul) who are all pushing the boundaries of sparkling wine in this country. (Tasting notes appear at the end of the article.)
There are several ways to arrive at an effervescent wine, from methods built for large-scale production to those decidedly artisanal. The most famous process, méthode traditionnelle, is used to produce Champagne and its ilk, where a base wine – from one vintage or a blend of years – is refermented in bottle, with the by-products of that fermentation making the magic. Carbon dioxide is produced, which is captured in the wine, providing the fizz, while all the spent yeast cells (or lees) settle in the bottle, building flavour while they interact with the wine as it matures, adding texture and those trademark yeast and bakery notes. And the longer the wine rests on those yeast cells, the more flavour it gains. It’s a long and labour-intensive process and it often attaches a premium to the price tag.
“Drinkers who love pét-nats are happy to push the boundaries a little more, and so I see this as an opportunity to test out different varieties and blends to make the best and most interesting wines that I can.”
The Charmat/Martinotti method uses the same principle, but that secondary fermentation happens in large pressurised and refrigerated tanks, or autoclaves. That wine can then be left on lees for a little, but the impact is minimal, with the chilled wine (which keeps the bubbles dissolved in the liquid) bottled and sent to market. It’s what is used to make many everyday sparklings, and most prosecco.
The third approach is méthode ancestrale or petillant naturel, where wine is fermented, but not completely, with it bottled with a carefully calculated percentage of sugar left to convert to alcohol, which creates the fizz in bottle – get that calculation wrong and anything from a sluggish fizzy wine to one that causes bottles to explode is possible. Get it right, and you’ve got a vibrant sparkling wine that can hit the shelves not too long after harvest.
“I love pét-nat for its lightness and flavours – it’s a really natural fun drink,” says Jean-Paul Trijsburg of Wines by Jean-Paul. “I have made pét-nat with cool climate riesling, which was super zingy, light, almost cidery; pinot rosé that tasted like any good rosé Champagne; one, though not strictly pét-nat, made from ten-year-old chardonnay and pinot base wine blended with 15 per cent fermenting riesling, which was nutty, zingy and yeasty deliciousness; and in 2020 a red pinot noir pét-nat.”
That last wine was perhaps and even bigger departure from the norm for sparkling wine, but that kind of foray is part of the DNA for a pét-nat. Trijsburg hand-picked fruit from the vineyard he manages in Ballarat, then left it on skins for a couple of days to leach out a decent amount of colour, then pressed it to barrel. The wine was then bottled with residual grape sugar that kicked through to create a vibrant bead.
“I love the result,” he says. “It’s so pinot-esque – light, with violets and brambles on the palate. I love trying new things. This year, I tried my hand with a skin-contact pinot gris and chardonnay blend, which is looking super promising so far. Making pét-nat allows me to experiment and try new things every year. It allows me to be a crazy scientist and use trial and error to come up with something different and cool.”
“I always feel like some bubbles can give more dimensions to wines, and I wanted to make an Australian sparkling. Champagne is in Champagne, and I didn’t want to copy some French style. I wanted to make an Aussie sparkling with some inspiration from my background.”
In the Hunter Valley, Daniel Payne makes it a point to buck the conventions of that most traditional of regions across his Dirt Candy range, so making a pét-nat was almost a given. “They are the ultimate in freedom of expression,” he says. “Drinkers who love pét-nats are happy to push the boundaries a little more, and so I see this as an opportunity to test out different varieties and blends to make the best and most interesting wines that I can.”
‘The White Knight’ employs premium Hunter Valley chardonnay, while his just-released 2021 wines have taken an even greater stride away from the familiar. “This year, I have created two new pét-nats,” Payne says. “‘The Falcon’ is a blend of Hunter Valley semillon and muscat and ‘The Summit’ is a combination of shiraz and grüner veltliner to make a rosè version.”
In the King Valley, Gabe O’Brien and Pia Cavedon started making wines from her family vineyard, which they had taken over the management of in 2017. Prosecco in Australia is synonymous with the King Valley, and so prosecco became a focus. But the run-of-the-mill Charmat approach was never going to be the path for the pair, determined to make wine of character and depth, rather than the innocuous beverage that prosecco often unashamedly is.
“I think because we personally care for the fruit ourselves, it was important for us philosophically to do prosecco justice in the bottle,” says O’Brien. They currently make two wines from the grape, with both bottle fermented according to the traditional Champagne method, but rather than disgorging one of them (removing the yeast then topping up with a little wine and sometimes some sugar, or ‘dosage’), they leave all the yeast lees in bottle in the traditional col fondo style, which is the original method of the Veneto, Italy, the homeland of the grape.
“For us, col fondo is all about texture and savoury dimensions,” says O’Brien. “It’s a style that offers so much more than the average prosecco. There’s just something that happens to the texture of the bubble, which makes it a super enjoyable sparkling to drink. The dry, savoury complexity also makes it a standout for food pairing. In our mind it is still a very humble and unpretentious wine, enjoyed just as much out of a coffee mug on a picnic rug as it is out of a flute at a wine bar.”
The exploration of fizz isn’t stopping there, either, with a pét-nat prosecco made in 2021, and a quirky rosé. “With our confidence growing in our sparkling wines, we’re excited about the future,” says O’Brien. “Always thinking about different varietals and styles. We’ve made a pink sparkling gewürztraminer using whole berry carbonic maceration to capture the beautiful ruby colour from the grapes without extracting too many tannins.”
“For us, col fondo is all about texture and savoury dimensions. It’s a style that offers so much more than the average prosecco. There’s just something that happens to the texture of the bubble, which makes it a super enjoyable sparkling to drink. The dry, savoury complexity also makes it a standout for food pairing.”
A native of France’s Jura, Etienne Mangier says that he was “baptised with Crémant du Jura and Cérdon”, the two key sparkling styles of the region, but his North wines are very much rooted in his adopted home territory of the Macedon Ranges. “I always feel like some bubbles can give more dimensions to wines, and I wanted to make an Australian sparkling. Champagne is in Champagne, and I didn’t want to copy some French style. I wanted to make an Aussie sparkling with some inspiration from my background.”
Mangier works with the classic Champagne varieties – chardonnay, pinot noir, pinot meunier – with him stressing that it’s very much a vineyard focus and a lo-fi approach that makes his wine individual. “The vineyard is dry grown, in order to get the most of the minerality present in the Mount Macedon soil,” he says. “I try to pick the grapes at their best potential, when the flavours just start to develop but are still really fresh, just past the unripe stage. I do not add anything to my wines from the vineyard to the bottle, and I like sparkling without dosage to showcase the minerality of the Macedon grapes.”
While many makers turning out traditional method sparkling believe longer on lees is better, Mangier prefers to get his wines to market earlier, favouring a younger, fresher style. That sees his wines spend a year on lees before disgorging and release. “My wines are easy drinking sparklings with no fuss,” he says. “They look simple at the first taste, but if you wait a bit, they reveal themselves and show more depth. The Contrefort Crémant is a vin de soif petillant [thirst-quenching sparkling], fresh and vibrant but with complexity and elegance. The North Crémant is more complex, more elaborate, more mature. It’s richer, longer, with lots going on.”
Australia’s sparkling wine market has traditionally been centred around producing wines that echo those of Champagne, but much has changed. Those wines are still the market leaders, and the best examples rival the French for both quality and price, but at the more democratic end of the market, there is an exciting growth in alternative styles, whether retooled classics or experimental flights of fancy. Those wines are unbound by tradition or a need to reference a benchmark, and they are making the drinking landscape a far richer place.
Being ‘col fondo’, this is classically cloudy, with that lees residue adding so much to the finished wine. It ups the yeasty, bready aromas and adds a textural, chalky feel to the palate. The flavours play down a classic pear and apple line, with flashes of lemon but with a really big dose of yeasty Champagne-like flavour, which is something you don’t get in regular prosecco. This has a fine but effusively foamy bead, with a distinctly dry palate, but the texture takes it well away from being austere.
Made from chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier, this spends a year on lees in bottle. The nose is gently yeasty, with a hint of pastry notes, but cool fruits take the stage, with lean red berries, apples and citrus notes. This is fresh and super dry, with a distinct mineral note, a granitic feeling, gentle texture billowing through the finish, minerality leaving the lasting impression.
Pinot meunier takes the lead here, accompanied by chardonnay and pinot noir, with the colour coming from skin contact in the press before fermentation. This has a vibrant strawberry juice colour, with lifted yeasty notes and aromas of red berries and macerated strawberries. This is properly dry, with an engaging chew of grape tannin to partner the bright acidity, gentle leesy texture fleshing things out.
Pinot noir from Ballarat put to bottle before fully fermented to create the fizz, which lifts this with a pleasing foamy prickle. At 12% alcohol, you’d expect this to sit at the leaner side, but there’s ample flavour, with raspberry and plump cherry notes and a good raft of richness that’s carried by that fizz. But it’s effortless with it, with a rocky minerality adding complexity to the freewheeling fun times.
The Sunshine State is probably not high on the list when one thinks of cool climate wine regions, but Queensland’s Granite Belt is just that. In fact, it is Queensland’s coldest place, and by some margin. As the Wine & Tourism body says, “It’s part of Queensland, but it’s a different country.” La Petite Mort’s Andrew Scott is a two-time Young Gun finalist and the sole Granite Belt maker in this year’s Top 50.
With six of the brightest wine minds in attendance, and 36 wines carefully selected and decanted for this blind tasting, we set out to get a better image of where the grape currently stands in an Australian context.