Beyond Champagne: Tasmania’s Remarkable Sparkling

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In an alcohol market teeming with trendy winemaking techniques like organic and natural wine production, a pocket of Australia has established a global reputation producing some of the world’s best traditionally-made bubbly.

Winning numerous global awards for wine produced in the region, Tasmania’s wonderful premium sparkling’s characteristics can only be described as elegant, graceful, sophisticated and downright tasty. Made from grapes grown

in climates similar to famous European wine regions such as those from the Burgundy and Champagne, Tasmania’s mild seasonal weather ripens the grapes in just the right way to produce these incredible cool climate wines.

Tasmania’s sparkling wine seems to be sending global wine enthusiasts’ hearts a flutter. In 2015, legendary wine writer and speaker Tyson Stelzer declared Tasmania “arguably the greatest region for sparkling wine anywhere in the world outside of Champagne itself”.

Here in Victoria, bigger Tasmanian producers such as Clover Hill and Jansz are easily recognisable on the shelf at Dan’s. But there are some delicious and now, iconic sparkling wines from Tasmania not in distribution here that are huge success stories, making waves around the world from London to New York.

One of these producers is Andrew Pirie. Australia’s first PhD in viticulture and a well-known pioneer of Tasmanian sparkling wine, Pirie is one of the pivotal figures that helped propel Tasmanian sparkling into the world-class category it enjoys today.

It all began when Pirie’s master’s degree in agricultural science led him to conduct research into cool climate sites in Australia that had potential to produce wines to match the superior French sparkling wines of the time. “I was trying to find a region that might compare with northern France in climate soil,” Pirie says.

This lead Pirie and his brother David to move to Tasmania to establish Piper’s Brook vineyard and the Ninth Island label in 1974. “[Piper’s Brook Vineyard] was one of the early new developments in Tasmania in the sort of ‘modern era’ of vineyards, at a time when Tasmania was thought to be too cool for grape growing,” Pirie says.

Pirie says that, at the time of Piper’s Brook’s inception, even the Tasmanian Government was unconvinced of the region’s capacity to produce quality wines.

“I wrote a piece in the Financial Review in 1976 sort of saying that the Tassie government ought to get cracking because it was overlooking this opportunity, and at that point, the Government weren’t in favour,” Pirie says. “Now, [around] 40 years later, the government is right behind the industry. So we’ve seen that turn around.”

It wasn’t until the early 90s that Piper’s Brook started producing sparkling wines, after initially leasing out their vineyards to other companies for sparkling wine production. “The sites attracted a lot of attention and we decided we’re better odd doing it ourselves, which is how the Pirie brand was really started,” Pirie says.

First made in 1995, Pirie’s namesake and most famous wine, Pirie Sparkling, became the most awarded of Piper’s Brook’s entire offering. Its reputation reached such great heights that Pirie Sparkling even made its way to British royalty. As stated on Pirie’s website, the wine has been drunk by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II “on at least two occasions.”

When Pirie moved on to become chief winemaker at Tamar Ridge, he brought the label with him. Tamar Ridge is now owned by the Brown Brothers juggernaut – but there are still some bottles of Andrew Pirie-made Pirie sparkling floating around that are now rare and highly sought after.

“It’s a bit of a long story,” Pirie says, “but we started making Pirie again from 2005 onwards and it’s the Pirie wines from 2009 in particular that have again attracted recognition.”

Pirie continued his research in cold climate wine sites, refining his knowledge in predicting the terroir – the set of environmental factors that affect the grapes, and consequently, the wine – of potential vineyard sites. After finding what he told tasmanialife.com.au was “the perfect site” for producing sparkling in 2007, Pirie left his position as Chief Winemaker and Chief Executive of the Tamar Ridge winery, along with his namesake sparkling label, to establish his current vineyard and single vineyard origin label, Apogee.

With his unprecedented knowledge of Tasmanian terroir combined with his specialist knowledge in producing sparkling wine using traditional French methods, it’s no surprise that Apogee sparkling has put Pirie on the international sparkling wine map all over again.

“I’m a traditionalist in my approach in the way I do my winemaking, which goes down to a fairly technical level,” Pirie says. “It’s got to do with where I source my grapes from… and I’ve got very specific requirements for sparkling wine fruit.”

Pirie says the grapes have to come from very cool vineyard sites, be subject to certain picking dates, and the chemistry of the grapes themselves have to be at a certain balance.

Once the perfect grapes are sourced, Pirie then uses traditional champagne methods to make the wine. This includes a certain way of handling the grape juice, ensuring a particular ratio of chardonnay to pinot noir juice is used. “That package comes together in the final bottle, and it’s a combination of the site the juice comes from, the way the juice was handled, and the subsequent steps [after that],” he says.

“Bubbly is so complicated because there are many steps on the way through, which are critical,” Pirie says. He’s referring to just how much man-made interference is required during the process of the wine making, from the grapes being picked through to the wine being ready for sale.

This includes the initial tirage process, where the wine is placed in the bottle with the addition of yeast for fermentation, and the disgorging process, when the yeast is taken out of the bottle. “This method we use, which we call the traditional method, does those two steps in a particular way; other cheaper methods either miss those steps or they shortcut the.” He says.

As is the traditional way, after the tirage process Pirie’s sparkling wine then stays in the original bottle until it’s drunk. “That’s the hallmark of the traditional method; that’s the method I use and the method that’s used in Champagne,” Pirie says.

 

Another successful Launceston winery championing traditional European methods is Josef Chromy Wines. Where Pirie approached the wine industry from his background in agricultural science, Chromy saw the potential of Tasmania’s wine industry through his business nouse.

After World War II, Chromy fled Soviet-occupied Czechoslovakia to realise his dream to become a self-employed butcher. He eventually settled in Tasmania, penniless and lucky to have escaped with his life, a determined Chromy saved every cent he earned to open a butcher, and then ultimately, establish Blue Ribbon Meats. Not one to shy away from reinventing himself, Chromy floated Blue Ribbon Meats on the ASX in 1993, using the money to invest in Tasmania’s then-fledgling wine industry.

After owning and developing some of Tasmania’s leading wineries including Rochecombe (now Bay of Fires), Jansz, Heemskerk and Tamar Ridge, Chromy established Josef Chromy Wines in 2006, at the ripe age of 76. It was one of the most successful launches in Tasmanian history and is now an established premium wine producer, which, other than sparkling, includes the production of pinot noir, chardonnay and riesling.

Early on in the piece, Josef Chromy enlisted the expertise of Chief Winemaker Jeremy Dineen, who has been with the winery since its inception.

With intimate knowledge of Tasmanian viticulture, Dineen says that the cool climate acidity of Tasmanian wine is its real point of difference in the sparkling wine market. “In the higher latitudes, we have longer, cooler days that usually lead to longer, slower ripening of fruit.” Dineen says. “This allows for the gradual development of delicate flavour and aroma compounds, while retaining the natural acidity that is so critical for high quality, bottle-fermented sparkling wines.”

 

The close proximity of the vineyard to the winery is an advantage, because the fruit can be processed quickly, which ensures that the delicate nature of the juice, its flavour and aromas, can be better preserved in the process.

Dineen says that Josef Chromy sparkling wine is, like Pirie’s sparkling, produced using traditional methods; but the amount of wine they produce is larger in comparison to Pirie’s smaller production winery.

“We grow, press, ferment, bottle, store and disgorge our sparkling wines on site, so we control every step of the process, ensuring every bottle is fresh, crisp, and full of flavour,” Dineen says.

Dineen tells me the winery has been designed specifically for premium sparkling wine production and, when you wander through, you can see the production set up at Joseph Chromy is indeed impressive. Free-run juice from the estate’s fruit is gently pressed and first fermented in the tank before being inoculated with yeast a second time, and bottled during this fermentation. “This second ferment inside the bottle traps the gas produced by the yeast inside the wine, which adds the fizz,” Dineen says.

The wine is aged with the yeast sediment in the bottle for a minimum of 18 months for their non-vintage styles, a minimum of 3.5 years for their vintage-style wines, and a minimum 10 years for the ultra premium Zdar sparkling.

After the ageing process, the wine is disgorged by slowly turning the bottles upside down so that the lees – the yeast sediment – settles in the neck of the bottle. The neck portion of the bottle is then placed in a neck freezer so that the portion of wine containing the sediment is frozen. The yeast is then removed – the pressure formed during the fermentation process forces the frozen sediment and ice from the bottle, and all that’s left is clear, sparkling wine. A small dosage is added to complete the palate, which is a sugar component, before the cork closure is inserted and the wine is labelled and ready for sale.

While the method of making the wine is important, both Dineen and Pirie say the Tasmanian environment is key in the region’s ability to produce such remarkable sparkling wine.

“Tasmanian wine grapes are famous for their naturally high levels of cool climate acid,” Dineen says. “This is a feature of all of the grapes in our vineyard, and one that we look to showcase in all of our wines, including our sparkling.”

Pirie highlights the importance of where the vineyard is situated, which has shaped the way he makes wine. “My [agricultural] background has shaped my vineyard-centric outlook… For me, that’s where the emphasis is,” he says.

“If you go to France, you’ll find a very similar balance in the traditional areas of the country like Champagne of Burgundy. In terms of quality, the greatest emphasis is where the vineyard is, and the winemaking is considered somewhat secondary… still very important but, once the best method is worked out, it then tends to all go back to the vineyard.”

Pirie says that the chemistry of Tasmania’s sparkling wine, and how it all comes together to form a beautiful union in the bottle, is why it is such a formidable force in the local and international sparkling wine industry.

“What we’re all striving for is the chemistry of the wine,” he says. “The alcohol content, the certain amount of acidity, the ph level or the strength of the acidity… those things are the building blocks.”

Pirie says once you do what you can as a winemaker to get that chemistry right, the flavour then comes from the vineyard and the environment.

“What we’re looking for is a sparkling wine that’s very complex in flavour, ages really well, and has natural balance in the mouth; so it’s got sufficient acidity to make the wine interesting and balanced,” Pirie says. “These are all the bits that are important, and so much of it comes from the climate of the region originally. If you get that right, then the chemistry of the wine follows almost naturally.”

You can buy both Apogee and Joseph Chromy wines online at apogeetasmania.com and josefchromy.com.

Lauren Bruce

Lauren started her writing career as a communications adviser before she realised she couldn’t ignore her passion for food and the arts any longer. So now she does both! Now editor of Gram Magazine, she has also contributed to Quest Magazine, Spook, the Herald Sun, Paper Sea and Junkee.