A Short History of Sparkling Wine for Pinotphiles

Australian Sparkling Wine – masonry image

Winston Churchill claimed he drank 42,000 bottles of Pol Roger Champagne in his lifetime – a small exaggeration given that he would have had to put away 470 bottles a year from the cradle to the grave.

But while he was prone – like many blokes – to overstate his capacity (possibly to bolster his bullet-proof status) there is no doubt he loved bubbles.

“In success you deserve it and in defeat, you need it,” he famously quipped during the dark days of World War II.

Nowadays bubbles – Champagne, sparkling Australian white, rosé and red, as well as the increasingly popular prosecco – is an ubiquitous after-work reward, a pre-dinner palate cleanser or the international beverage of choice for trend-setting weight and fitness conscious millennials.

Putting aside the many excuses there are to open a bottle of bubbles, the one night of the year that absolutely demands it is New Year’s Eve.

And for the Pinot Noir aficionado, there is no reason why you should trade up your obsession with the most noble of grapes just because your New Year’s Eve’s comrades are swishing and swirling fizz.

After all, Pinot Noir (and its bedfellows Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay) are the three essential components of any premium sparkling wine in the world.

Like many French wine styles the evolution of Champagne happened by circumstance rather than planning. The Champenois winemakers, historically monks producing sacramental wines, found they couldn’t compete with their Burgundian cousins to the south in terms of flavour and richness. Champagne’s early Pinot Noir red wines were acidic and low in sugar due to the high altitude. But in the 1500s, when a few enterprising brothers bottled the wine before fermentation ended, they discovered a new fizzy beverage that tickled their palates – that is, if the bottles didn’t explode.

The invention of stronger bottles in the 1600s (no more blinding surprises in the cellar) and a new technique of secondary fermentation known as Méthode Champenoise in the 1800s, led to the high-quality wine we know today. Houses such as Pol Roger, Dom Perignon and Veuve Clicquot tightened up the varietal rules and voilà, the mystery of Champagne was created.

Just to make sure no interlopers could steal their intellectual property, the strictly-controlled appellation of Champagne was legislated, ensuring that only wines from the region made from the three classic grapes Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay can use the name.

Even though use of the term Champagne for Australian sparkling was outlawed, it didn’t stop our canny winemakers using the same grapes and the same secondary fermentation process. In fact, Jansz Tasmania Vintage Cuvée from Australia’s most famous sparking region, Tasmania, coined the term Methodé Tasmanoise to benchmark their own version of the winemaking process: described as “the essence of a partnership between the environment and our winemaker.”

So why isn’t sparkling Pinot Noir such as the Jansz Tasmania Vintage Cuvée a red wine – or for that matter any other Pinot based sparkling? After all, the Pinot we know and love is far from see-through.

The fact is that very few grapes have red juice – Alicante Bouschet is the best-known teinturier variety that has pigmented red juice.

Just about every red table wine in the world achieves its distinctive crimson colour by soaking the juice in the red skins. The more pumping and plunging and pressing, the darker the red and the greater tannin structure. With red Pinot Noir table wine there is a balance between structure and flavour, so this skin contact is managed very carefully.

A sparkling Pinot Noir on the other hand is white or pink because the clear juice is run off the skins straight after fermentation to avoid discolouration. But it is still every inch a Pinot Noir with honeysuckle and citrus scents and that tell-tale sniff of strawberry.

Of course, there are also sparkling white wines made without Pinot Noir such as the Jansz Tasmania Single Vineyard Chardonnay a pale gold, complex wine that smells like Amaretti biscuits and white chocolate.

Naturally all of this detail will be forgotten by 11.30pm on New Year’s Eve when you will be mesmerised by the bubbles rising from the bottom of your glass.

But for the true Pinot lover there is never too much information to share when you need to impress your friends.