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June 19, 2011

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Cheerful Aussie sparklers

RECENTLY, I was seated on a flight next to a rather sad-looking young lady. I found the incongruity of her stylish looks and dour demeanor somewhat distressing. She took notice of my assorted materials on wines and frantic writing and queried if wine was my hobby or work. I answered "work, a lot of work." Her next question was "what wine can make me happy?" As a writer and public speaker I am seldom at a loss for words but with no answer at the ready I realized that this question necessitated some careful thought.

There's no one wine that will make everyone happy as people have different preferences. The occasion also helps dictate the right wine. Whenever I pick a wine for an occasion or person, I first get as much information as possible on the attendees, food and theme. With the right information I'm confident I can choose wines that will make people happy; however at 30,000 feet with a dearth of information on the young lady seated next to me as well as her predicament, my job wasn't so easy. My first thought was Champagne as it always seems to make me happy, but then I thought Champagne may be a little too serious for this somber young lady.

Suddenly, the unpretentiously pleasing thought of bubbles from Down Under came to mind. Yes, Australia makes some fine sparkling wines with an exuberance that's sure to put a smile on your face. The first Australian sparkling wine was reputably made by the now defunct Victorian Champagne company in 1881. As the name infers, the founder Louis L. Smith had a fondness for Champagne so he hired French winemaker Auguste d'Argent to make a wine in the Champagne style. The result was anything but Champagne in color as the Pinot Noir wine was quite red and soon became known as sparkling Burgundy. By the end of the century, several companies were producing sparkling Burgundies and the wines were being exported to Europe and the Americas. In the 20th century, sparkling Burgundy continued to be a popular if not always good wine. Over the past 30 years the quality of most Aussie wines including the sparkling wines has improved significantly. One way to get a good result is to pick the right region.

Antipodean regions

Australian regions, like other wine regions in the New World, have traditionally suffered from not having specified or designated areas that specialize in sparkling wines like Champagne in France, Cava in Spain and Prosecco in Italy. This lack of regional identity for sparkling wines means any Aussie winemaker who fancies making a sparkling wine can do so in any manner he or she likes. This leads to varied results. Excellent Aussie sparklers exist and so do some pretty awful ones.

The two regions that are now making Australia's best sparkling wines are the elevated areas of the Yarra Valley in Victoria and Northern Tasmania. Regular readers of this column will find it no surprise that these two regions feature cool climates with large day and night temperature differentials. The two most popular varieties for sparkling wines, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir thrive in cooler climates. Sparklers from these regions may not be as cheap as those from other Aussie regions, but they are more fresh, complex and stylish. Put simply, they are better.

What's the difference between Champagne and Aussie sparkers? There's little question that top Champagnes are the best sparkling wines in the world. However, the best Australian sparkling wines offer a lot more value for money. Aussie sparklers tend to be generously fruity wines often with fine yeasty notes like you'll find in the expensive sparklers of the Old World. While most white and rose sparklers from Australia are made of the noble French varieties Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, there's also a special style of red sparkling wines that are usually made of Syrah or Pinot Noir-Syrah blends. These are heavier wines with robust dark fruit flavors and solid tannins. Regardless of their color, all good Australian sparkling wines balance their fruitiness with good acidity. The white and rose wines are best with seafood and white meats while the reds do well with flavorful meat dishes.


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