In partnership with House of Arras.
Tasmania is fast becoming the home of Australia’s growing obsession with premium sparkling wine, and when it comes to industry legends, anybody in local winemaking circles will proffer the name “Ed Carr” as the man who turned us into serious producers of top-quality fizz.
When things were heating up on the Aussie vin rouge front, and people the world over were starting to pay attention to our abilities as Shiraz doyens, Ed decided it was time we took our bubbles seriously. Thirty years on and the fruits of his labour are palpable. And seriously tasty.
“Our intention in 1995 was really to see what we could do with sparkling wine. I really felt that (Australian) still wine, particularly red wine, had a lot of position globally and was very strong, but sparkling still had a long, long way to go. I sort of got on the sparkling revolution wave, which started probably in the eighties with [other producers] moving into colder climates.
“There was already plenty of writing on the wall that Tassie would be the place to grow grapes for premium sparkling wine. So, we started making wine to see how it would work and instantly thought, “Wow, this is pretty good.” So, it’s just been about getting Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and in the later stages Pinot Meunier grown here to support the styles that we now have.
“The biggest thing that really sets it apart is the age of the wine. There’s plenty of cold climate sparkling Chardonnays, Pinot Noirs and Pinot Meuniers, but to take it to world parity, it had to be the same age as Champagne vintages. If you look at the market at the moment, Moet’s on ’08, I think Veuve’s on ’08 or ’09, and we’re on ’08. And that’s really been what’s taken the time. To build wines of that age.”
Age may be a deciding factor in what has helped Ed’s wine smash awards and win fans in every corner, but his careful consideration for every detail along the way has been instrumental in forging the path that has led to the huge success of these wines today.
Originally from England, Ed moved to Adelaide when he was a kid, his parents keen to live in the sunshine. After finishing high school, he completed an Applied Diploma in Chemistry and Microbiology. This led to a gig in a dairy testing laboratory at Southern Farmers at Mile End in Adelaide. After about a year, a local winery offered more dosh for Ed to join them as a microbiologist and chemist. It was 1979 – Ed took the job, as hasn’t looked back since.
It’s typical of great Australian winemakers to be third or fourth generation vintners, or to have at least grown up in and around the industry, but that wasn’t the case for Ed. Perhaps it’s this unconventional start to the industry that helped him eschew the shackles of tradition and shake things up enough to try new things.
We’re sitting in the gardens of the Bay of Fires winery in Piper’s River, Tasmania, overlooking rows and rows of old vines that are showing the first flowers of the season. Ed tells me that these are all Pinot Noir, planted by a Swiss family, some fifty years earlier, but that some of the sections up the hill had been replanted with Chardonnay. Talking over a bottle of his Blanc de Blancs, probably the easiest thing to quaff from the House of Arras range (and maybe one of the easiest things to drink in general – ever), Ed is quick to share what has now become a legendary tale of Australian winemaking.
“The name Arras came out of a sort of think tank of, “What’s a nice name?” We didn’t want to be totally regionally based, and did a bit of a word search. Arras came up as “rich tapestry”. It just sort of gelled with what we thought the whole thing was about – trying to make a tapestry and weave all our wines together from all the different aspects we could put into one wine. Simple as that, really.
“We started in Tasmania in ’95, the name Arras we locked in in ’99 with our first release. Our first all-Tasmanian wine was 1998 and we’ve never used just a single sub-region in Tasmania; we use grapes from here in Pipers River, we’ve got the East Coast, we’ve got the Derwent and the Huon and the Coal River Valley.”
Ed is referring to all of the different parts of Tasmania that Arras’ vintners occupy, allowing for a greater control of certain grapes, something that has developed as a deeper understanding of the sub-regions has been nurtured over time. Just like in France, where some regions grow better Chardonnay, others are better suited to Pinot – sometimes it’s as simple as which side of the hill you’re on, though Ed still thinks it’s the age that’s put his label on the world stage.
“It’s been a learning curve, really, to see how the wines from those individual areas took form in the styles the way we make it and then to work out where they fit in our total picture of wines. But I think the biggest single thing is the age of the wine, that seemed to me to be the missing link. There are so many good sparkling wines within Australia, but none of them were aged for that length of time to bring them up to what is classed as “world parity” sort of age.
“If you want cold climate, within Australia you can hit altitude, or you can have latitude, or you can have both. And the wines from those different regions have very different characters – if you think about the high-altitude ones like Orange or Tumbarumba, they’re very different in style from what you get here, which is a higher latitude.
“The higher latitude gives a softer sun due to different angles, a very long and generally dry autumn because the grape growing districts are a rain shadow, as in most of the rain comes from the west. The high country on the west coast, most of the rain falls there. The east coast is very dry. This is slightly wetter here because you get some altitude effects from the east but the east coast has got a lot less rainfall than, say, Adelaide – it’s dry air.
“It’s more about the climate than I think the soil because we’ve got such different types of soil, we’ve got deep lime here, the clay on the east coast, the almost sandy soil in the Derwent River Valley – the climate is what really drives it. The maritime climate where, even though it’s pretty cold here in the mornings, it’s not that desert climate like you might get at a high altitude where you get the really cold nights but really quite warm days.”
It might sound like it, but he’s not showing off; he is probably the foremost authority on the topic worldwide, but when pressed for lay terms, the quietly proud Carr is more than happy to oblige.
“The maritime climate of the island keeps the night time temperature up a bit and squeezes the daytime temperature down a bit so you’re working a narrower band, which make these vines very happy because they’re not so much in extremes. I just think that expresses itself in the fruit. That sort of humanises vines a bit rather than the science.”
While the climate in Tasmania was a no-brainer for producing grapes that could hold their own against European styles, Ed’s just as quick to point out the differences in terroir between his wine and that of Champagne as he is to detail the obvious similarities in production methods.
“There’s a lot of difference between Champagne and here. Champagne’s 49 degrees north, this is 43 degrees south. This is an island, Champagne is on a continent. Champagne has chalk (the foundations for the soil in which the vines flourish) – you can’t find chalk here. The wines are never going to be the same.
“And also, that European sun – it’s very different to this.” Ed points at sky to signify the 10/10 day we’re experiencing in this northern part of the island – perfect weather for the bubbles we’re too-easily drinking.
“This is very – look at this, it’s crystal clear, although this is one of the most humid places on the island. It’s still crystal clear, bright skies and high sun intensity. You go to Europe and it’s much more hazy, the sun is so much softer – so we get more fruit-driven styles here, so they’re never going to be the same as Champagne.
“It’s got a bit more fruit, but it can be elegant and fine and complex too.”
On the topic of production methods, things are a little more technical, although summarising a lifetime’s understanding of one of the most scientifically detailed processes in modern wine production is a big ask.
“When you make sparkling wine, you throw away the white wine guide and start again, it’s not just white wine varieties or red wine varieties picked earlier and just made the same way. In the primary stage we get much finer wines because they’ve got to age for so long. The secondary stage is the top lees – just having that yeast age, but the wine’s ageing as well.
“The wine doesn’t sit there for eight years and do nothing. It picks up a lot of character. “Traditional method”, in that bottle, on the yeast lees for whatever time, that fermentation is actually over within a month. So it’s actually sparkling wine after one month, but then it’s a matter of how far you want to push it in terms of the age of the wine, style and price point.”
“Traditional method” is Ed’s way of moving away from having anything French on the label. While we used to call it Champagne, just like the French, that term was eventually replaced with Champenoise, which was also outlawed by the Europeans, who didn’t like other people capitalising on their famed product. The new global standard moniker for wines that undergo a second fermentation in the bottle is Methode Traditionelle, a label that has stubbornly stuck, but in a small way to the pioneering winemaker’s chagrin.
Ed is as humble as they come, but I’m keen to further prod him on the changing perceptions in Australia, how our habits are changing, and palates are becoming more sophisticated. It’s no surprise that these wines are comparable to what’s coming out of the best estates in Champagne, but whether or not people realise that when they instinctively reach for one of the big French names is another story.
“You’ve got to be able to convince people they are getting quality and value. More quality than value, a lot of times. And they’ve got to like the style. If you’re going to spend over a certain amount, then people are conservative, they will buy what they’ve bought in the past which is probably French. And to be real, it’s probably only the last ten years that all these things in Australian sparkling have come to this level. The consumer’s been well trained to buy French in the past. We’re getting the message across that this is a great alternative style.
“Our approach has always been, “This is a world class wine, we’re happy to put that on the table with anything from over the globe, and you choose the one that you like.”
Simple yet wise words – there’s little room for profundity in Ed’s delivery: his steadfast vision has never been to reinvent the wheel, just to make it an appropriate tool to steer his vision in the right direction, and if he’s put Australia on the world stage and given some boffins in central France a run for the money in the meantime?
Well, that’s about as Australian as it gets.