Marginal climates are what sparkling wine producers look for. You only have to look at Champagne where the still wines have such high acidity that it makes them undrinkable.
MAKING a traditional method sparkling wine is a complicated production process. Not only do the grapes need to be carefully grown in a particular cool climate and picked by hand, but the yeast chosen for the prise de mousse or second fermentation needs to be a certain type. It requires specialist equipment as well as a lengthy ageing process. Overall, it is time consuming and a costly process that pushes up the final selling price of the wine. As Patrick Forbes said, in his 1967 seminal book entitled Champagne: The wine, the land and the people the process shows the “exceptional extent to which it enables man to manipulate grape-juice”.
Australia has been making sparkling shiraz since the 1880’s and it has been Victoria leading the way at Great Western with Hans Irvine and then Seppelts winery, followed in the 1980’s with the establishment of specialist sparkling wine producers, most notably being Domaine Chandon and the inspiring work done by the late Tony Jordan. However, pre-dating Domaine Chandon, by a few years, were the vine plantings undertaken at Hanging Rock in the Macedon Ranges by John Ellis. Not having the backing of a famous Champagne house means you might not have heard of this pioneer. He planted at a 650m elevation on a cold south facing block in what is one of the coldest wine regions on mainland Australia, far colder than the Yarra Valley. You need a cool climate to produce fruit for a sparkling wine as the high acidity and low aromatics is key to take on the production challenge of methode traditionalle.
Cool climate had become the catch phrase of the 21st century, and there has been a rush towards planting in Tasmania. Credit must be given to the industry there. First coming to prominence with the establishment of Pipers Brook and the work done by the great Andrew Pirie, through to the more recent success of Accolade wines House of Arras and their award-winning winemaker Ed Carr. However, the Macedon Ranges should not be disregarded as a viable sparkling wine region given that some sites are as cool as Tasmania. Overlooked by the larger companies it does not receive the coverage or bottle-shop shelf exposure.
Macedon Ranges spans a large area and has an average altitude of just under 500m. It is inland resulting in a degree of continentality and characterised by extremes in cold and heat. Champagne also has a continental climate and Macedon has a heat summation similar to Reims (France). Continental climates tend to have a high diurnal range between day and night temperatures which retains acidity in the grapes.
In 1983 John Ellis planted D5V12 and MV6 clones of pinot noir and a Swiss clone called Mariafeldt as well as four clones of chardonnay with the sole intention of making a sparkling wine. However, what makes Hanging Rock Macedon different is their use of a solera system for its reserve wine. This is a fractional blending system carried out in used barrels that is normally associated with the production of sherry. Each year they make their base wine and a proportion of it is stored in a series of barrels which finally results in a multi-vintage aged reserve wine.
The winery is now run by John’s children. Daughter Ruth is General Manager Sales and Marketing whilst son Rob is the Winemaker. “Dad adopted the solera system in response to the challenges from the regions climate,” Ruth explains. “The first three vintages were all different; the first one was too hot, the second was perfect for sparkling wine grapes whilst the third vintage was cold and wet, we have a family joke and call this the ‘Marginal Ranges’ not Macedon Ranges,” Ruth adds. Marginal climates are what sparkling wine producers look for. You only have to look at Champagne where the still wines have such high acidity that it makes them undrinkable. The grapes need to start-off with plenty of freshness and that means acidity. If the grapes get too ripe and have bags of fruit aromas they tend to clash with the autolytic aromas and flavours that comes with the secondary fermentation. Blending different years up in a solera system provided Hanging Rock with consistency across vintages as well as complexity to blend back into the wine.
Complexity is what is driving several Champagne producers and Houses such as Bollinger and Krug that have been the standard bearers up until the recent rise of Growers Champagne such as Egly-Ouriet and Larmandier-Bernier.
For nearly 30 years Hanging Rock continued to make impressive sparkling wines using up to 50% of their solera wines in their assemblage. However, in 2015 they noticed that the solera was finally coming to the end of its life. “The oldest wine in our solera system was from 1987 and the barrels have never been emptied or washed out so there was an incredible build-up of tartrates and lees. Whilst this in a way acts as a preserving agent there was also a build-up of aldehydes and oxidation was taking over that eventually lead us to the conclusion that the solera system needed to be refreshed and renewed,” Ruth explains. So, the challenge was on to still deliver a consistent house style without relying on old reserve wines. It was always going to be a compromise. The current Macedon NV Cuvee XVII now has a solera component of just three vintages: 2015, 2016 and 2017.
However, you can still taste the old solera wines. Their current release Macedon NV Brut LD Cuvee X is a complex late disgorged style. It is drawn from the 1998 vintage with the remaining 50% from 1987-1997 old solera wine. The wine has lovely honey, toast and vegemite aromas producing a long flavoured well-balanced palate. Not surprising their benchmark is Krug. This wine spends 15 years on lees. There is still a number of late disgorged wines to come that have material from the old solera system in them. In this way the winery can continue to show their traditional style whilst giving the new solera a chance to develop. Sometime in the future, Cuvee XIV LD will be the last one that is using the old solera. So, there is another 4 years of LD ahead.