Beyond Champagne

Posted by David on 25th Oct 2016

Central Otago is a region that enjoys a worldwide reputation for the quality of its wines. And vineyards here have some of the most idyllic backdrops imaginable. Given this, it’s hard to believe its success as a wine region dates back a mere 20 years. While a lone Frenchman made wine here back in the 1860s, it wasn’t until the 1970s and 80s that tentative experimental plantings happened, and not until the late 1990s that commercial success and growth ensued.

Located about three quarters of the way down the South Island of New Zealand, just east of Queenstown, Central Otago is a lot further south than most people realise. In fact it’s the most southerly wine region in the world, at approximately the same latitude south of the equator as Burgundy sits north. There are several sub-regions within Central Otago, but with no official appellation rules, they seem to be confusingly named and grouped. You’ll find; The Cromwell / Cromwell Basin, Alexandra / Alexandra Basin, Bannockburn, Lowburn, Pisa, Bendigo, Gibbston, Clyde and Wanaka.

Due to its latitude Central Otago is cool, but unlike any other New Zealand wine region, it sits a good distance from the ocean, protected from the wild maritime conditions that come in from the west by a high range of mountains. The result is a continental climate, unusual for New Zealand, and it means high temperature variations. Summer can see temps up to the high 30s and winter down to minus 10, with average day/night variations throughout the year of between 10 to 15 degrees. Its ability to be cool and warm makes the ripening of grapes in Central Otago possible.

Much of Central Otago’s success is thanks to Pinot Noir. As of this year there are 1,943ha (5.4% of NZ total) of vines in Central Otago, with Pinot Noir accounting for 70%. The balance is made up of Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Riesling.

Notable is the recent emergence of sparkling wine in Central Otago, a cool climate speciality using Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. There’s one name in particular I want to tell you about - Akarua.

Akarua means ‘two vines’ in Maori and refers to the most significant varieties used here: Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The estate was established in the mid-90s by Sir Clifford Skeggs, a real character and man of the sea, who made his fortune in the fishing industry. The Skeggs family had been visiting the Central Otago area since the 70s, and in 1995 as part of a “retirement idea” Sir Cliff, as he’s known, acquired a large holding of prime north-facing sites in Bannockburn, the finest of Central Otago’s sub-regions. Vines were planted in 1996, making Akarua one of the earlier players in the area.

Now in his mid-80s, Sir Cliff is still blessed with plenty of energy, but his son David Skeggs runs Akarua these days, as well as the wider Skeggs Group. In 2014 a further 50ha were purchased, taking total holdings to 135ha, making Akarua the largest family owned estate in Central Otago. While they specialise in Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, they also have plantings of Pinot Gris and Riesling.

The Skeggs family has spared no expense in their pursuit of excellence, the result being that Akarua is now recognised as a top tier Central Otago producer. The winery is also highly awarded. In October 2016 their flagship wine, the Akarua Pinot, was awarded the New Zealand Champion Pinot Noir Trophy for the 3rd consecutive year at the NZ International Wine Show. And the quality has been consistent - this wine (various vintages) has been awarded a trophy every year since 2009.

Akarua’s success is not limited to Pinot Noir though, with their award winning sparking wines receiving significant praise.

“Based on recent performance, Akarua is arguably the country's best method traditionelle producer at present.” Paul Tudor MW, Metro Magazine, June 2013.

Akarua is fast-becoming a benchmark New World fizz, whether it’s the blanc or rosé.” The Drinks Business, leading UK online magazine for the drinks trade.

But what really caught my attention here is the involvement of DrTony Jordan. For many, including me, Tony’s association alone is enough to draw attention to these wines.

Intelligent, motivated and an industry visionary who’s had a real influence on Australian wine, Tony has had an extraordinary career. He completed a PhD in physical chemistry (Electronic Spectroscopy) in 1970. A shift to wine then saw him set up the winemaking course with Brian Croser at what is now Charles Sturt University. In the late 1970s, the two formed Oenotec, the first wine industry consulting business of its kind in Australia, which became greatly successful. In the mid-1980s, Tony was one of the first ‘flying winemakers’ as well as president of the Small Winemakers Forum. In 1985 he was headhunted by Champagne’s largest producer, Moët & Chandon, to create a world class Australian sparking wine, the result of which was Domaine Chandon in the Yarra Valley. He chose the site for the vineyard, oversaw all aspects of winery construction and went on to become winemaker and CEO. Tony became involved in other Chandon ventures in Argentina, Brazil, California and Spain, eventually becoming CEO of all LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy) Aust/NZ ventures, including Cape Mentelle, Mountadam, Cloudy Bay and Pelorus. In 2008, aged 64, Tony had no sooner retired from full-time work, than he was tasked by LVMH with finding the best place in China to make world-class red wine. He chose the far west of Yunnan, near Tibet. At the same time he was consulting to sparkling producers in England, Australia, Asia and New Zealand. Tony has judged and/or chaired at every top wine show both Australian and international, and served on the board of the Australian Wine and Brandy Corporation (now known as Wine Australia) and several other peak wine industry bodies.

While it’s not uncommon for Tony to consult on projects, in the case of Akarua, he’s taken a stake in the business. That spoke loudest to me and so given the chance to meet with Tony recently and taste the wines of Akarua, I didn’t hesitate.

Akarua is well resourced and aiming high. Their sparkling wines are made using the traditional Méthode Champenoise. They're world class wines that punch well above their price range.

Akarua Brut NV

The most recent blend of this wine is 44% Pinot Noir and 56% Chardonnay. The handpicked fruit comes from 15 year old vines, with about 85% coming from the 2013 vintage. The remaining 15% is a blend of older wines that have been aged for several years in old French oak. This ‘reserve wine’ adds a level of depth and complexity to the finished blend.

A secondary ferment in bottle was followed by a minimum of 18 months ageing on lees. This contact with the dead yeast cells (autolysis) is designed to add attractive yeasty, biscuity flavours, as well as weight and complexity.

“The delicate nose is very attractive with notes of white flowers, fresh cream, brioche, white peach, white spice and background red berry fruits - raspberry. 18 months on lees has added just the right amount of complexity for an aperitif style. The palate opposes the nose a little with its effusive bead and dominant acid and phenolic structure. Still the structure is the reason for the excellent length the wine possesses. Satisfying citrus and peach pith flavours with faint floral and spice notes. Will certainly wake the palate up if served as an aperitif but has the backbone for food. A good all-rounder.” Vinous

“… this brilliant fizz delivers vibrant freshness and creamy mousse along with complex yeasty, nutty notes from 18 months’ lees contact in bottle. Fine texture, strawberry scent and delicate citrus notes, nicely balanced.” 90 points Decanter Magazine, Jan 2016 (a great score for a wine of this price).

This wine has won a swag of medals and awards, including:
Gold Medal 2016 New York World Wine & Spirits Competition 2016
(formally known as the San Francisco International Wine Competition)
Gold medal 2015 China Wine & Spirit Awards
Gold Medal 2014 China Wine & Spirit Awards
Gold medal 2013 Air New Zealand Wine Awards
Gold medal 2013 Decanter Asia Wine Awards
I can offer it for $35 a bottle. Click here to order

Akarua Rosé Brut NV

Unfortunately a lot of people associate pink bubbles with cheap and nasty, no doubt due to the plethora of sub-$5 pink fizzes at your local liquor giant. But it’s important to realise that for many Champagne houses eg. Krug, Dom Perignon and Louis Roederer (Cristal), rosé is their best quality offering.

This release of Akarua Rosé is a blend of 48% Pinot Noir and 52% Chardonnay. The fruit is handpicked from 15 year old vines and primary fermentation is carried out in a mixture of tank and old oak barrique. About 85% of the wine is from the 2013 vintage, the remaining 15% a blend from older reserve wines that have been aged in old oak. The process is similar to the NV, except that about 10% of the blend is Pinot Noir, fermented like normal red wine (with skins) to give it colour. The wine undergoes secondary fermentation in bottle and spends a minimum of 18 months on lees.

If you’re looking for a great introduction to sparkling rosé, this is a beauty. Since its release in 2012, it’s received numerous awards and extensive praise (more than I’m used to seeing for a rosé), including 2 trophies and 7 gold medals.

Gold medal at the Champagne & Sparkling Wine World Championships (Aug 2016)
Gold medal 2015 Global Rosé Masters
Gold medal & Trophy for Best Sparkling Wine - Spiegelau International Wine Competition 2014
Gold medal 2014 China Wine & Spirit Awards
Gold medal 2013 Air New Zealand Wine Awards

It was listed as No. 5 in the Top 10 Sparkling Rosés in the world by The Drinks Business, a leading UK online drinks trade magazine, Sept 2016.

Awarded five stars in Cuisine Magazine December Christmas edition 2016. Akarua Rosé Brut NV was listed in their Top 5 category for the second year in a row.

A beautiful pink/red hue in the glass. Its aroma hints at strawberries with complex nutty, yeasty notes. The palate shows a strong Pinot Noir influence, a lovely creamy mid-palate carrying to a long, savoury and deliciously dry finish.

“Very pale strawberry pink with light peach hues, pale on rim, the bead very fine with moderate persistence. This has a full and voluminous nose with firmly packed aromas of yellow stone-fruits from the Pinot Noir, interwoven with subtle red berry and red floral nuances and positive, complexing bready, yeasty autolysis, detailed by brioche and toast. Dry to taste and medium-bodied, the palate is bright, lively and refreshing with attractively sweet flavours of yellow stone-fruits, red berries and red florals. The fruit forms a deep and harmonious core with bread yeast and brioche autolysis layers. The wine grows in richness and the soft, but significant textures enhanced by the gentle mousse provide body and vinosity. The wine carries to a full and softly concentrated finish of red fruits, florals and yeast. This is a bright, sweet-fruited rosé methode traditionnelle with autolytic complexity and vinous structure.” 18.5+/20 (5 Stars) Raymond Chan, Jan 2016 (Top NZ critic).

I love it.

I can offer it for $35 a bottle. Click here to order

Akarua Vintage Brut 2011

Akarua’s premier sparkling wine is a blend of 61% Pinot Noir and 39% Chardonnay. The fruit was handpicked from 16 year old vines and primary fermentation took place in a mixture of stainless steel tanks and older oak barrels. It was then blended with the best base wines from the 2011 vintage and underwent secondary ferment in the bottle. A minimum of 36 months was spent ageing on lees (which is a long time) to add attractive yeasty, toasty and nutty flavours, as well as giving weight and complexity.

“The nose displays depth and elegance with subtle hints of sea shell and citrus. A captivating long fine palate with flavours of citrus and brioche enhanced by toasty, nutty and yeasty notes, leading a long crisp brut finish. Akarua Vintage Brut 2011 is a wine of character and complexity.” Winemaker’s notes.

“A lovely, fresh bouquet of citrus then stone fruits & grapefruit, white peach and red apple, medium autolysis and complexity, light toasty quality. Very lively on the palate with a full mousse, flavours of white peach and red apple, light leesy autolysis, smooth almost creamy texture, fine bubble and lengthy finish. Seems to be only just beginning to integrate, lengthy finish and well made.” 90 points, Cameron Douglas - Master Sommelier, Jun 2016.

This comes hot on the heels of the 2010, which won many awards including: World Champion New Zealand Sparking Wine Trophy at the Champagne and Sparkling Wine World Championships. By all accounts the 2011 is considered even better and in time will be recognised for the wonderful wine that it is.

I can offer it for $53 a bottle. Click here to order

And because bubbles will be required frequently in the coming weeks…

96470087-6994-4d92-a4b6-2b8b10968a6b.gifSuperiore di Conegliano Valdobbiadene 2013 DOCG

Prosecco is an Italian sparkling wine made from the Prosecco grape in the region of Veneto, in the northeastern corner of Italy, the capital of which is Venice.

Prosecco’s schtick is to be a light and fresh anytime wine, not just for celebrations. It’s an aperitif, it’s served with dinner, after dinner as a digestive or mixed as part of a cocktail.

Top notch producer Canella was established in 1947 and is still run by the Canella family. The estate is in the Conegliano Valdobbiadene sub-region, considered the best in Prosecco and which was given DOCG status (highest appellation) in 2009. Prosecco from this area may be labelled as Superiore.

The wine is elegant, aromatic and light at just 11% alcohol. It has a little more weight and complexity than the average Prosecco though.

“The wine is a brilliant straw yellow with fine, persistent perlage and fruity aromas of peach, apple, pear and citrus fruit. The palate gracefully balances zingy acidity and a subtle hint of sweetness, richness and silky-smooth texture. It is ideal as an aperitif, but also perfect with seafood.”Michael Trembarth, Melbourne based Italian wine expert.

I can offer it for $28 a bottle. Click here to order new vintage

3b93dc89-d946-4598-908b-5f1b4584bf20.gifDaosa Blanc de Blanc 2010

The second release from Xavier Bizot and Lucy Croser. These two were born into winemaking; Xavier’s father was Bollinger patriarch and chairman Christian Bizot and Lucy’s is Brian Croser of Petaluma fame.

Xavier makes this wine using the traditional Méthode Champenoise and it’s Blanc de Blanc (100% Chardonnay), the fruit coming from the Adelaide Hills. The wine spent a total of 51 months on lees, 8 months in barrel and 43 months in bottle. It has a dosage of about 8g/L, making it dry.

Xavier’s fastidious winemaking results in wonderfully balanced wines. In traditional Champagne, Chardonnay adds freshness and elegance and you'll find this wine lively with its crisp green apple characters and attractive toasty notes. But it’s also well-structured and delicate. A fine bead (bubbles) gives a silky smooth texture, while it’s precise and dry with a lovely minerally finish. Beautiful.

“Toasty with floral perfume, pie apple, citrus, mint and crackers. Fine. Full flavoured. Complex. Vinous. Almost silky. Then dry with lemon soda, brine and toast to close. Lovely wine. Super Australian sparkling.”93 Points, Gary Walsh, The Wine Front 2014.

“This is a step up from the 2009 vintage. There are more pronounced toasted aromas from longer ageing on yeast, with bright floral and apple nuances on the nose. The characteristic floral flavours come through on the palate and it finishes long with a great balance between acid and dosage. Typical floral and apple flavours linger on the palate.” Xavier’s notes.

Single vineyard Blanc de Blanc is a rarity in both Champagne and Australia (only 2,000 bottles of this are made), so this is something special.

I can offer it for $49 a bottle. Click here to order

0348d3ed-cfd6-4ca0-b907-35b172efc961.gifDomaine J.Laurens ‘Moulin’ Blanquette de Limoux Brut NV

Unique to this region, records show that Benedictine monks at the Saint Hilaire Abbey in the appellation of Limoux, southwest France, were producing this wine as far back as the 1530s. It’s regarded as the oldest sparkling wine in the world, appearing about 150 years before Champagne. It’s made in the same way as Champagne (ie. secondary fermentation in the bottle) and local folklore has it that famous monk, Dom Perignon, visited Limoux and took the technique back to Champagne where he popularised it.

Domaine J. Laurens is an esteemed Blanquette de Limoux producer featuring regularly with critics and was one of only 2 Blanquette producers recommended in an article on Limoux by international winehead Jancis Robinson MW.

As with previous releases, it’s a lively blend of 90% Mauzac, 5% Chardonnay and 5% Chenin Blanc. It’s light gold in colour and is a fresh, crisp mouthful of green apples and yeastiness. It has a fine bead and with 10 g/L of residual sugar, it’s at the dry end of the spectrum and a ‘Champagney’ toastiness and body to it. It’s a simple and delicious quaffer and at this price, I reckon it's great value fizz.

As yet undiscovered, you won’t find this wine around town, so it’s our little secret.

I can offer it for $29 a bottle. Click here to order

3lanbrutatmnv.gifLandron Brut Atmosphere NV

Jo Landron took the reins at Domain de la Louvetrie in 1990 and made big changes: slashing yields, adopting manual farming methods, organic certification by 1999 and biodynamic by 2008. His adherence to strict biodynamic methods sets him apart in the otherwise high-yielding and commercially oriented region of Muscadet, near the mouth of the Loire. In the winery he uses wild yeasts, runs cool ferments and ages his wines in glass lined, temperature controlled concrete vats. This sort of winemaking, combined with his obsessive desire to express the terroir, results in wines that are fresh and alive, but also minerally and textural.

“Jo Landron remains one of his region’s most conspicuous over-achievers and his name on the label a virtual guarantor of fine quality.”David Schildknecht for Robert Parker’s The Wine Advocate #190.

He uses a blend of Folle Blanche (around 80%), with Pinot Noir and a little Chardonnay. Vine ages vary between 18 and 30 years, and yields are far lower than in Champagne. The dosage is a low 5g/l, so it’s dry and the wine spends 24 months on lees. This regime sounds more like the big name Champagnes than a Muscadet producer - but Jo Landron is single minded.

Given the level of care, it’s no surprise this wine has impressive structure, clarity and depth. You'll love the racy citrus and fresh peachy fruit flavours that meld with complex earthy notes and delicious breadiness. The finish is fresh and super-crisp.

“The aromatics are just lovely, delicate, floral, with a white stone and white peach character. A very gentle palate follows, showing some lightly honeyed fruit cast against a minerally background and a fine pétillance too. A very attractive wine, a delicately poised style, but with plenty of acid and grip to give it form.”16.5/20 points, Chris Kissack, winedoctordotcom.

Low profile but sophisticated.

I can offer it for $35 a bottle. Click here to order

347859ae-9727-467c-9af1-3bffcb62ae56.gifThiénot Brut Non-Vintage

This exclusive, family owned house is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. Official supplier of Champagne to The Oscars in 2013 and 2014, it was chosen for its premium quality and very selective distribution.

Prior to establishing his own house, Alain Thiénot was the major grape broker in Champagne from 1968-1985. Buying and selling grapes is big business and so Alain intimately knew Champagne, its best sites, the best growers and had an unrivalled network of connections, all of which put him in the perfect position to start his own house.

This is a blend of 45% Chardonnay, 35% Pinot Noir and 20% Pinot Meunier and of this 20% is reserve (ie. older wines). The wine has a minimum of 3 years' ageing before release and with a dosage of around 10g/L it’s brut (dry).

“An exotic sparkler, displaying rich, caramelised smoke and brioche notes, balanced with citrussy acidity and flavours of ripe apple, candied pineapple, lemon meringue and crystalised honey. Mouthwatering finish.” 91 Points, Wine Spectator.

“Pale yellow. Lemon curd, quince, white flowers, honey and vanilla on the fragrant nose. Taut, refreshingly bitter citrus pith and toasty lees flavours give way to richer melon and peach with air, with honeysuckle and ginger notes adding complexity. A pungent, waxy note carries through the smoky expansive finish.”Josh Raynolds in Stephen Tanzer’s International Wine Cellar.

This has exactly what you’re looking for in an aperitif-style Champagne. It’s cleansing and zesty, offering hints of citrus and lemon blossom. I love the creaminess of the mousse and the toasty, brioche notes on the finish.

Very exclusive and very tasty.

I can offer it for $65 a bottle. Click here to order

447858e6-f427-4f3f-ae54-eb2c2660c6ea.gifBellavista Alma Cuvée Brut NV (Franciacorta DOCG)

It’s only a matter of time before Italy’s best sparkling wine, Franciacorta, starts getting the attention it deserves. In the meantime make the most of it!

Similar to Champagne, strict regulations are in place here to ensure quality. There are controls over vineyard location, vine density, yields and methods of production. Méthode traditionelle (Champagne), or metodo classico as it is known in Italy, is used. Non-vintage Franciacorta must not be released for 25 months after harvest, 18 of which must be on lees (Champagne must see 15 months). Vintage Franciacorta must not be released for at least 37 months after harvest, 30 of which must be on lees (similar to Champagne), and the amounts of sugar added immediately after disgorgement, but before corking) are also similar to those used in Champagne - Extra Brut, 0-6/gl, Brut 6-15g/l.

Bellavista was founded by Vittorio Moretti in 1977 and under daughter Francesca’s guidance, continues to be recognised as one of the world’s finest producers of sparking wine.

The winery is a dazzling affair - a cutting edge, computer controlled facility, with kilometres of underground ageing cellars. This remarkable operation is overseen by Mattia Vezzola, Italy’s 2008 Oenologist of the Year, who manages, despite the scale, to bring an artisanal-like attention to detail. Even with the abundance of technology, harvesting, pressing, tank fermentation, bottling, corking, remuage and dégorgement are all still carried out by hand.

Each year Gambero Rosso, the bible of Italian wine, awards its highest and most coveted award ‘Tre Bicchieri’ (3 Glasses). Bellavista has received an amazing 22 Tre Bicchieri, their range described as “wines of incredible elegance and finesse.”

The first time I tried this wine back in the 1990s I was stunned that such good fizz came out of Italy. I should have read this from Robert Parker: “I have been tasting wines since 1968, first as a serious amateur, and then, since 1978, as a professional critic. I can unequivocally state that this is one of the finest Italian sparkling wines I have ever had. It establishes a new reference point for this category in Italy. It would unquestionably hold its own in a blind tasting against the finest French Champagne... something I always thought to be impossible. In short, it blew me away. The non-vintage Brut is an amazing sparkling wine exhibiting gorgeously precise, persistent pinpoint bubbles, as well as a creamy, superbly concentrated texture, a terrific, complex bouquet of bread dough and ripe fruit, and a long, pure finish. Although it looks like French Champagne, smells like French Champagne, and tastes like French Champagne... it's Italian!”Robert Parker, The Wine Advocate #130, Aug 2000.

80% Chardonnay, 19% Pinot Nero and 1% Pinot Bianco, the key to the exceptional quality of this wine is the breadth of available blending stock. The blend is made from around 60 different micro crus selected from about 120. Aged, or reserve wine is also added. Finally, the wine was left to mature in bottle, in those amazing cellars, until at least 4 years from time of harvest - almost twice as long as required by DOCG laws.

“The sparkler just oozes freshness and vitality with pear, white flower and nectarine. The medium finish ends with toasted nut and honey. It is hard to beat this good value.” Dec 2013, Monica Larner, The Wine Advocate #210.

There's been an issue with supply of this wine, but I managed to get the last 2 doz in the country!

I can offer it for $70 a bottle. SOLD OUT