In partnership with House of Arras.
Pretty much any bloke who’s ever forked out for a half-decent date knows that good bubbles come at a premium, but probably isn’t sure why (other than the fact that a nice bottle looks fancy and will probably score you some brownie points, depending on how much you’re willing to splash.)
The story of sparkling wine in Australia is key to understanding how and why our industry is burgeoning both domestically and abroad, and why premium labels like Arras stand up against their French counterparts with such gusto. This is no accident, however – a few key players made a concerted decision decades ago to commit to producing their wines in a certain way – at a very different time for the Australian wine industry.
Great bubbles are pricey for a reason. Where still wine production follows one guidebook, sparkling wine is a completely different kettle of fish, and you may be surprised to learn just how much work goes into that 750Ml glass receptacle.
Traditionally produced sparkling goes through a process most commonly known as methode traditionelle, which refers to the traditional French practice of allowing a secondary fermentation process to occur in the bottle – something that takes time, patience, and finesse.
Where a still wine, or even mass-produced sparkling wine, is put into a bottle and sent to the shelves, wines that carry the label methode traditionelle (indicative that it is made exactly the same as wine in Champagne, but is not legally allowed to be called “Champagne”) are more a labour of love, with delicious consequences.
Once the initial fermentation has occurred and an alcoholic wine has been made, it is put into a bottle with several grams of yeast and sugar and sealed with a crown cap, similar to a beer bottle. Within the first month, bubbles have formed, and the wine is officially sparkling, but that’s not enough time to give the toasty, brioche flavours endemic to great sparkling – that comes from the wine resting on its lees.
Tirage refers to the bottled wine resting on its lees. Lees are the dead yeast cells that form a sediment in the wine, after they have eaten the sugars, made the alcohol and produced the carbon dioxide, which gives the wine its distinctive effervescence. When the maturation process is finished, the bottles are turned slightly (traditionally this was known as riddling, or remouage, but is now mostly mechanised). This maturation time could be anywhere from 18 months to many, many years.
During this time, the flavours of the wine are allowed to slowly develop and mature. Particularly fine wines, from either better vineyards or superior harvests are bottled as a single-vintage and left on lees for much longer than their non-vintage counterparts (NV). Estates that are known for their quality sparkling wines blend different vintages for their entry-level wines, to achieve consistency, something that is valued very highly as a skill in the industry in and of itself.
Once the winemaker decides it’s time to remove the lees (known as disgorgement), the bottle is held upside down, bringing the sediment to the neck, which is then placed in an alcohol solution at minus 28 degrees Celsius. The cap is snapped off and the now-frozen block of dead yeast shoots out under the pressure. A solution of sugar, alcohol and often previous vintages of the same wine are then introduced, to balance the acidity. This is known as the dosage, and the specifics of this solution are a tightly held secret by each winemaker. A cork is quickly placed in the neck to contain the precious carbon dioxide and the wine is then rested before being sent to market.
Many are surprised to learn that their bottle of bubbles has had so much human intervention at every stage of its production to ensure quality and consistency, but it’s this labour of love that makes methode traditionelle sparkling wine different. With wineries like Arras now boasting nearly 30 years of experience in this field, Australia, and specifically Tasmania is well and truly on the map as a luxury producer of some of the finest wines in this style you’ll find anywhere.
House of Arras Brut Elite Cuveé 1301
Winemaker Ed Carr’s foray into an “entry level” expression is far from what you’d think of an NV. This wine is refined, with a full mouthfeel and a big berry-driven front palate. Medium straw in colour with a fine and persistent bead, the aroma exhibits nuances of gunflint, white stone fruit, Jasmine flower, sea spray and nougat, preceding subtle flavours of lychee, truffle, brown lime and malt.
The salty, seaside nature of the region is prevalent in the Brut Elite, with a clean, saline quality endemic of Tasmania’s maritime terroir.
House of Arras Grand Vintage 2008
This wine has won more awards than Arras has shelves, and rightly so. Enriched by the great complexity of character that follows 7 years tirage, this vintage expression shows off the region better than most are capable of. The nose expresses grapefruit, Jasmine flowers, sea brine and lanolin with an elegant structure formed around a balance of natural acidity, sugars and tannin (the slightly lower dosage here leaves a lovely astringency that will make you want to keep sipping it long past one bottle).
House of Arras Blanc de Blancs 2008
Not just one of the best from Arras’ line-up, but also one of the best we’ve ever drunk, period. Medium straw in colour with bright gold lustre, and fine persistent bead. The aromas of sea spray, Jasmine flower, grapefruit and mushroom that are present throughout the rest of the range are there, but in this expression they are extremely balanced and refined. The palate is complex and enticing with hints of truffle, oyster, spice and honeycomb, but all in very restrained and delicate volumes.
This wine has exquisite poise and balance of dosage, acidity and natural tannin, and should be enjoyed before dinner as an aperitif, with entrees, mains, dessert and as a nightcap. Then maybe also with breakfast.
House of Arras Rosé 2006
Forget what you know about Sparkling Rosé; Ed’s rewritten the rule book here and it starts with the colour. Very subtly pink in colour with a hint of crimson and a lively and persistent fine bead, the 2006 Rosé displays enticing aromas of lifted fresh red berry fruits complemented by oyster, sautéed mushroom and lanolin.
Another low dosage style with structural elegance built around fine tannins and acid backbone which is seamless and persistent. Perfect with seafood or fatty white meats like pork or roast chicken.
House of Arras Late Disgorged 2003
A real treat; this wine is a big jump in price, but worth every penny. With over 10 years on tirage, the inherent traits of Arras’ winemaking are here, but in richer, bolder notes and with a refinement that takes anything vintage from France we’ve ever tasted to task. If wine were an Olympic sport, then Ed Carr’s late disgorged would be the bottle that carries the Australian flag into the opening ceremony.