Australia would not be the first place to think of to make world-class cool climate champagne style wines. But, providing cool sites can be found, by virtue of altitude, latitude, or both, then fundamentally this is possible. Other factors are low fertility, soil drainage and water holding capacity – or the possibility to irrigate, and the general climatic conditions. Suitable areas, with latitude similar to Sicily and North Africa, have been found in South Australia, Victoria and Tasmania – the last covered in a separate post. There are a little over 1000 sparkling wine producers, figures on the split between shiraz and the champagne grape trio, are elusive.
The style is fruit forward, with an effort towards emulating Champagne using cool sites, with chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier, and longer hang times giving ripeness at lower sugar levels, whilst retaining high acidity, and then protracted lees ageing. There are the more frivolous offerings like moscato, which has become very popular recently, with its sweet, light alcohol, fruity character; and tank method sparkling shiraz – of which there are also serious traditional method versions.
Sparkling red wine is the signature Australian sparkling wine style, having been made since the 1880s, mainly from shiraz – then called Sparkling Burgundy. See a history of sparkling red wines in Australia.
For the 3 Champagne varieties – higher altitude areas in parts of the Adelaide Hills, in South Australia; in Yarra Valley and several similar regions, Victoria; in Tamar Valley and Piper River, north Tasmania; and in the East Coast region and Coal Valley, east Tasmania. Within these areas, especially on the mainland, it is the selection of meso-climate with the optimum altitude, aspect, soils, drainage and water retention, which is crucial to the desired viticulture.
For quality sparkling shiraz, and the cool climate still wine style – in contrast to those for full-bodied blockbuster still wines, cool sites are still required, for long hang times to develop flavour precursors and more importantly to maintain acidity for freshness, such as the relatively high altitude Clare Valley and coastal breezy Coonawarra, South Australia. Inexpensive high volume tank method sparkling shiraz is made anywhere that shiraz is grown.
On the mainland climate is moderated by altitude, up to 860m, or coastal southerly situations; Tasmania benefits from a higher latitude and cooling from air circulation emanating in the cold Southern Ocean. The climate is regionally specific, related comments are included under soils, along with other terroir factors.
A wide range of soils, optimum sites have a well-drained nature, the best are water retentive too, otherwise irrigation is needed, but not always available, so drought effects are a risk in places.
It is worth noting soils and related situational factors, in the main cool growing regions; GSR = growing season rainfall:
- Adelaide Hills – altitude 400-500m; loamy sands and clay loam; GSR 310mm; good acidity; risks – poor fruit set; chardonnay and pinot noir.
- Clare Valley – altitude 400-500m; quartz and ironstone based with significant limestone content, red clay loam over slate to the north; GSR 200mm; risks – drought as late season water stress as there is no ground water for irrigation, spring frost; shiraz, does not suit chardonnay.
- Coonawarra – altitude 60m; well-drained iron rich terra rossa over soft limestone; GSR 220mm; risks – spring frost, wind and rain during flowering – so poor fruit set; low night-time temperatures and cooling Southern Ocean breezes slow maturation and help retain acidity; chardonnay and shiraz.
- McLaren Vale – altitude 50-100m, borders Adelaide Hills to the north; red-brown loamy sand; GSR 180mm – irrigation required; Mediterranean climate with a cooling influence of the Southern Ocean; shiraz, chambourcin (d’Arenberg).
- Alpine Valleys – altitude 150-320m; well-drained sandy loam and red-brown layered soils, with above average fertility needing active control; GSR 425mm; risks – spring frosts; chardonnay and pinot noir.
- Grampians – altitude 240-440m; loamy sand and clay loam – acid soils that need liming – but do control vigour naturally; GSR 240mm; risks – spring frost and drought – low rainfall; chardonnay.
- King Valley – altitude 155-860m; deep red loans with good drainage, promoting high vigour that needs control; GSR 1000m; noted high acidity – a popular source for sparkling wine makers; risks – mildew; chardonnay and pinot noir.
- Macedon Ranges – altitude 300-700m, the coolest mainland wine region; poor mountain soils of granitic sandy loam; GSR 330mm; noted high acidity; risks – spring frost; chardonnay, pinot noir and cool climate shiraz.
- Pyrenees – altitude 220-375m; sandy and sandy loam soils – acid soils that need liming – but do control vigour naturally; GSR 220mm; risks – birds, drought – low rainfall and no underground sources; chardonnay.
- Yarra Valley – altitude 50-400m; sandy clay loam and red volcanic soils; GSR 400mm; risks – birds and mildew; chardonnay, pinot noir and cool climate shiraz. Yarra Valley rivals Northern Tasmania as the premier quality producer.
The home market dominates consumption of home produced sparkling wine. Sparkling shiraz is popular in Japan and is present in at least the UK market. Separate sparkling market information is scarce, as it is usually combined with still wine, however Wine Australia provides an annual summary break down.
In 2013 there are 1004 sparkling wine producers.
Traditional method, using Champagne varieties, important producers include:
- House of Arras (owned by Champ Equity) – the first traditional method sparkling wine house, making high price point, world-class wine. The aim is to develop a local following. Based on cool climate Tasmanian grapes; tirage aged wines; 10 years lees ageing; retailing at $AUS100-200; Vintage – chardonnay blanc de blanc, historic and late disgorged pinot noir + chardonnay blend.
- Brown Brothers – King Valley, Victoria, on a plateau at an altitude of 750m, so cool, free draining volcanic soils over basalt. High density planting, cane pruned VSP trained, chardonnay, pinot noir and meunier; 2nd fermentation 15 weeks in bottle, then 4 years lees ageing; vintage and NV blends; also fruity sparkling zibibbo.
- Domaine Chandon – if there’s good wine to be made Moet is there! Grapes sourced from cool Victorian areas – Alpine, King and Yarra Valleys, together with Macedon Ranges, Pyrenees and Tasmania. The full range of styles, 1st fermentation in steel then some wines are held in old oak for some months; 12-30 months lees ageing. They produced the first quality wine with a steel cap closure.
- Petaluma (owned by Lion Nathan, NZ; with the originator Brian Croser still in charge) – based in Adelaide Hills, South Australia, at an altitude of 500m, so cool, with free draining soils. High density planting, cane pruned VSP trained, chardonnay and pinot noir, high acidity with moderate sugar levels, manual harvesting, 70% 1st fermentation in old oak barriques, MLF, post disgorgement settling period. Price range AUS$20-30.
- Seppelt – started sparkling production in 1890, based in Victoria, grapes from Yarra Valley high altitude cool vineyards, Adelaide Hills and Tasmania; chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier, also riesling and pinot gris; vintage brut with 3 years lees ageing.
According to Rumball, there are about 60 sparkling red wines on the market; with production of 4.2m bottles. Many are small producers of about 3k bottles, made using the traditional method; with the majority, 80%, produced in large wineries by the charmat or transfer method, retailing at about £8 equivalent.
Important traditional method sparkling shiraz producers include:
- Peter Rumball Sparkling Wines – based in Coonawarra, South Australia. Produces traditional method sparkling merlot and shiraz NVs, and a vintage shiraz. 2nd fermentation in bottle, hand disgorged.
- Seppelt – offers 2 traditional method wines, grapes sourced variously; some French oak vat and tank maturation of base wines; with 18 months lees ageing.
- Jacobs Creek – offers a small range of white and rose NVs.
- Banrock Station has similar offerings.
Cane pruned – commonly single or double guyot, VSP trained, against disease and sunburn.
Risks – birds, drought, mildew and spring frost.
- Traditional method – for premium wines, with some degree of lees ageing, including a few late disgorged examples.
- Transfer – most Australian sparkling wine is made this way.
- Tank method – used for basic quality wine.
Sparkling shiraz is made to be deep coloured and intensely flavoured, usually as varietal shiraz, but occasionally blended with cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon, durif, chambourcin, merlot, pinot noir and others. In traditional method shiraz, the dosage typically contains relatively more sugar to moderate the tannic astringency of shiraz, which is accentuated by the CO2.
In the less cool regions growing shiraz for sparkling wine, it is likely that the wines will be balanced through the addition tartaric acid to the must.
The usual Champagne styles, but more experimental, unencumbered by European style regulation.
Sparkling shiraz and blends with other red varieties range from dry to sweet.
Lees ageing examples of 18 months to 8 years+ have been seen.
- Banrock Station Sparkling Shiraz Rose – first impression, as an aide-memoire, is cherryade with a kick; in any event the strident fruitiness and lightweight nature of this wine suggest tank method, the producer is shy about anything to do with methods. It’s a Wine of Australia, so the grape catchment area is wide. The tasting note – medium intensity pink (more pink than salmon), medium-sized bubbles, tears; on the nose a pronounced intensity, youthful with aromas of ripe strawberry, red cherry and a slight spiciness like raspberry; on the palate off-dry, medium (+) acidity, medium (-) body), medium alcohol, medium (+) intensity, flavours of spicy red cherry and red currant; a creamy mousse with a short persistence, with a crisp finish with a hint of bitterness, and a medium (+) length. (Mushroom cork closure, about £12).
- Mitchell Clare Valley Sparkling Shiraz – an interesting winemaker and wine.
- Petaluma Croser Vintage – Adelaide Hills, South Australia; chardonnay and pinot noir blend, 18 months lees ageing; also an LD.
- Yarrabank – Yarra Valley, Victoria; 3 offerings – a vintage blend of 50:50 pinot noir and chardonnay, no MLF; a similar blend as LD with up to 8 years lees ageing; and an NV rose. They have a joint venture with Champagne Devaux, of the Côte des Bar.
- Australian wine sector 2016 at a glance. Wine Australia. [online] accessed 31/10/17.
- Australian Wine. [online] accessed 31/10/17.
- Clarke, O. (2004). Australian Wine Companion. Websters International Publishers.
- Crackawines wine region information. [online] accessed 31/10/17.
- Halliday, J. (2008). Wine Atlas of Australia. Hardie Grant.
- Rumball, P. Australian history of sparkling red wines. [online] accessed 31/10/17.
- Vintage Sparkling Report, 2010. Wine Industry Journal, May/June 2010. [online] accessed 31/10/17.