Tag: Tasmania

Notes from Tasmania: Sparkling Wine Update

Notes from Tasmania: Sparkling Wine Update

The island of Tasmania has long held a sense of fascination among wine enthusiasts. Part of the mystique that captivates consumers and the trade is tied up with the region’s unique flora and fauna; a Tasmanian devil goes a long way in that regard. But another part of the appeal lies in the island’s location south of the Australian mainland that should theoretically provide the perfect conditions for the production of cool climate wines.

Today, there can be no doubt that Tasmania has ascended to a place of prestige among Australia’s 65 or so growing regions. Despite the fact that the island’s 160 wineries produce less than 1% of Australia’s total wine production, Tasmania is now seen as one of the country’s best regions for pinot noir, aromatic whites and sparkling wine.

But the problem from an American perspective is that so few wines from the island make it to our shores that it is difficult to gain a fuller understanding of the Tasmanian wine industry. Over the last two decades, there have only been about 15 wineries from Tasmania that have ended up on the shelves and wine lists in the States. Getting a more complete reading on the current state of play in Tassie requires travelling there and immersing yourself in the local industry. Not a bad way to see what is happening but it does take time and money.

An array of Tasmanian bubblies

That’s why I was particularly excited to hear that Aussie wine writer Tyson Steltzer had organized an overview of Tasmanian sparkling wines that would be required attendance for Australian wine enthusiasts like myself. Tyson’s tasting in New York assembled a smorgasbord of Tassie fizz that included a few mainstays, some small batch releases that I had never encountered and a few of the icon cuvees that one only tastes when lucky enough to judge the sparkling category at an Australian wine show.

While still wine, particularly pinot noir, captures the imagination of Yanks, the sparkling wine category is actually driving much of the Tasmanian wine industry these days. About 40% percent of all grapes grown are destined for the heavy bottle which has helped to keep grapes prices up, an important factor in keeping the expensive farming aspect of winemaking financially sustainable.

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Andrew Pirie, a legend in Tasmania’s wine history

While the ability of Tasmania to make fizz got its foundation when the house of Louis Roederer arrived in 1986, lured by a climate they saw as ideal, records indicate that the first bubblies were produced in 1826. Roederer pulled out of the project a decade later allowing Yalumba’s Hill-Smith family to swoop in and acquire the property and Jansz was born. Not long afterwards, neighbor Andrew Pirie, widely credited for being Tasmania’s first grower and winemaker in the modern era, started fiddling around with bubblies as well.

As Australian wines began to gain traction in the American market, sparkling labels like Jansz were joined by Clover Hill (an estate owned by Clos du Val’s parent company), 42 Degrees South, and Ninth Island, the first cuvees made by Pirie. But many of the smaller wineries that dabbled with fizz never made it across the Pacific. This New York tasting would provide a unique chance to see how far the category had progressed since those first efforts.

Delamere Brut Rose

In the early days, what Tasmanian sparklers that were encountered had mostly possessed subtle and understated palates with an emphasis on delicacy over power. The fruit was youthful and primary with subtle acids contributing to soft finishes. For the most part, toasty/yeasty autolytic characters were rarely encountered.

At this tasting, many of the brands and cuvees that now have 10+ years of production experience under their belt exhibited marked increases in quality. Ninth Island, and some of the Pirie cuvees showed more depth and length with a level of complexity rarely encountered early on. At the same time, there were more than a few bottlings which continued on with the more simplistic, primary fruit style that initially defined the category.

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Andrew Pirie’s Apogee Vineyard located in the southern Pipers River subregion

The big excitement, however, laid with the wines that were appearing in the US for the first time. Apogee, the latest sparkling wine endeavor from Andrew Pirie, was on point as one would expect from a winemaker who has spent decades honing his craft. Apogee’s first release came in 2010 and the latest bottling has seen a refinement in style as the new vineyard, located a short walk from his home and winery, gains more maturity. Sourced from the Pipers River subregion which has been the focus of Andrew’s efforts over the years, the palate is intense with loads of citrus placed on the classically tight and focused framework, the vibrant acids acting to add length and line to the finish.

Stefano Lubiana 2008 Grand Vintage Brut

Stefano Lubiana’s vineyards lie in the Derwent River Valley on the southern portion of the island. Over the past 25 years, he has carved out a niche as one of the top pinot producers as he slowly converted his vineyard to biodynamics. A non-vintage Brut blend was quite pleasant, fuller on the palate and hinting at some complexity but the 2008 Grand Vintage revealed another dimension of complexity and presence. Medium bodied, the palate reveled in an array of fruits and spices and stood its ground as a step up from the winery’s classic cuvee.

While it was great to taste some Tasmanian bubblies for the first time and to get re-acquainted with some old friends, it was the chance to actually drink, not taste, one of Australia’s best sparkling wines that got me excited about this event. The House of Arras can legitimately be declared Australia’s best producer of sparkling wine. Indeed, their best wines are world-class and easily rival what the French can do.

Ed Carr is the winemaker here and he has devoted decades to making fizz. He stumbled into sparkling wine production working under Penfolds winemakers John Duval and Kym Tolley making fizz for the value-priced Seaview label which had a small presence in the States back in the day. Lured from there to work for the Hardy family, he set up the Arras wine project in 1998 and the wines have seen nothing but success since then.

2008 Arras Grand Vintage Brut

The brand today consists of six different cuvees but it’s the various late disgorged bottlings that comprise the peak of the portfolio that shock and delight the palate. They show the classic toasty and autolytic qualities that champagne enthusiasts crave, placed upon a notable yet finely hewn palate. Those characteristics, expansive and coiled, persist on the slowly expanding backpalate and all these qualities came through in the 2003 Arras “E.J. Carr” Late Disgorged Brut, shown for the first time ever in the US.

En tirage for ten years, it seemed that the re-orienting of the shape and flavor of Tassie fizz could have come from wineries keeping their wines in bottle for a bit longer prior to disgorgement. Andrew Pirie was reluctant to see extended time on cork as the cause for increased complexity. Instead, those winemakers that are more comfortable with more oxidative juice handling are shedding these primary fruit flavors and revealing toast and yeast characteristics.

Overall, an exciting tasting and a great opportunity to see a snapshot of the category. It’s through these intensely focused array of wines that some needed knowledge is dispensed and some delicious fizz is consumed. Hopefully, the next one will be soon!


Wine Review: 2015 Eldridge Estate “Clonal Blend” Pinot Noir

Wine Review: 2015 Eldridge Estate “Clonal Blend” Pinot Noir

The trumpeting of wine journos across the globe regarding the renewed interest in Australian wines, the so-called Australia 2.0, has led many to dive deeper into the pinot noir producing regions Down Under. As pinot noirs from Victoria and Tasmania start to reappear on the tasting mats of Aussie wine seminars in the states, regions as varied as Gippsland and Macedon in Victoria or Pipers River and Bicheno from Tasmania are now entering the vocabulary of some folks in America’s wine trade.

Chief among these wine regions is the Mornington Peninsula, an area about an hour south-southeast of Melbourne and home to many weekend retreats from city-dwellers. Many of the 50 or so wineries there cater to strong wine tourism emanating from up north with eating establishments attached to cellar doors serving everything from simple deli spreads to fine dining restos with deep wine lists.

It seems as if we should have a deeper understanding of Mornington pinots as this category is not entirely new to America. Indeed, many of America’s first Aussie wine importers saw wineries like Dromana Estate and Kooyong make their presence known. Based on those efforts, other wineries like Turramurra Estate, Yabby Lake and Prancing Horse came to the US on their own.

So with two decades of Mornington Peninsula pinots under the country’s belt, that basic understanding of a “Mornington Style” pinot is probably as elusive today as back then. And it becomes even harder to discern that when living on this side of the Pacific. At a thoroughly engaging conclave of Mornington Peninsula pinot producers a few years ago, I tasted such a wide range of pinot styles that I left with more questions than answers.

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Sam Coverdale, winemaker for Polperro and Even Keel, with Jasper Morris (l), one of the UK’s top Burgundy experts, at the 2013 Mornington Peninsula International Pinot Noir Celebration

There were, of course, classically fuller styles that had come to define a Mornington pinot, particularly wines from Moorooduc Estate, Kooyong and Paringa Estate. At the same time, a wide range of pinots being poured were light bodied, almost whispery in the presence of fruit on the palate with pale colors and understated red fruit aromas. It was as if they were from two different worlds, not one region.

This showcase event raised a particular problem that frequently arises from our vantage point in the States, the difficulty that comes from a snapshot view of a wine region and its styles without any context or background. In this case, the more delicate pinots went against the grain of understanding that Mornington produced a richer, fuller style of pinot. What did these new, delicately constructed wines represent? A difficult vintage? Variability due to subregional differences? Winemakers responding to the “Pursuit of Balance” trend?

These questions are a window into the difficulty of coming to a better understanding of some of the Australian pinot noirs that are starting to make their way across the Pacific. Having an awareness of current styles and trends surrounding pinot noir production in Australia is as important as is a knowledge of subregional styles and vintage conditions. Without this info, it’s hard to place these new wines in some kind of context.

These are concerns that easily arise when getting the opportunity to taste a wine like the 2015 Eldridge Estate Pinot Noir “Clonal Blend”, a wine that clearly and confidentially showed its cards in the glass but also required a few insights to fully understand it. Eldridge Estate is one of the Mornington’s more popular wineries due to owner David Lloyd‘s ceaseless enthusiasm. He has done much to improve the region’s profile through his work with the Mornington Peninsula Pinot Noir Celebration. He also hosts many pinot and chardonnay tastings with wines from other countries as well as other Australian regions in his tireless pursuit of improving not only his own wines but those of his neighbors as well.

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David Lloyd of Eldridge Estate (l) chats up Burn Cottage’s Marquis Sauvage at the 2013 Mornington Peninsula International Pinot Noir Celebration

His 8 acre property is located in the Red Hills district of the Mornington, one of around eight or so loosely defined subregions that are quickly becoming apparent. Mostly planted to pinot noir with some chardonnay and gamay scattered about, David has spent much of the last three decades getting to know his vineyard on a more intimate scale which has seen him release some interesting cuvees. One wine is based from a single clone, one of the eight planted on the property. Another bottling sees two wines made from similar blends of clones and winemaking techniques but from parcels only 10 meters apart. He’s clearly on the more geeky end of the winemaking spectrum which makes a visit to taste with him a real blast.

David’s “Clonal Blend” bottling is his top blend where his favorite lots are fashioned together and usually comprise a selection of all clones on the estate. The soon-to-be released 2015 vintage showcased a translucent ruby color and an ethereal bouquet that slowly revealed mildly intense red fruits, sweet cinnamon and smoke. Light-medium bodied, the open attack quickly exposed a kernel of textured red fruits with some subtle dark spice notes on support. With crisp acids driving the finish, it seems appropriate that 2-4 years will see this fill out.

Yet what can be learned about this wine in relation to the questions asked earlier? This is obviously a more delicate expression of pinot noir from Red Hill that stands in stark contrast to their neighbor at Paringa Estate who are known for powerful wines. 2015 is acclaimed as an excellent vintage in Mornington and wine critics are driving the debate for more elegance in pinot. Is David’s wine in line with this or does it stand in contrast with these lines of thought?

It’s clear that this is where the context of what is happening with Aussie pinot overall and in Mornington particularly is so important as new examples arrive on our shores. Where this context and knowledge will come from is the question of the day. Otherwise, the opportunity that Australia 2.0 presents to show what the country can do with pinot will be a wasted one.