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Sparkling Arras, Sparkling Red

It turned out a lot more interesting than I’d planned. The original thought was simple: run a sparkling night as the last tasting function of the year, with a heavy emphasis on sparkling reds – to help work out the best bet to go with the Christmas turkey. As with all sparkling red events though, the emphasis had to be on fun – look, it’s a word I hate but throw a whole heap of sparkling wines at any crowd and just try to stop from using it. It rolls off your tongue as quickly as you fall off your chair after you’ve had a few.

But this whole damn evening got out of hand for a simple reason – because just before the night got underway a call came through. From a Winefront Monthly subscriber. “Make it a blind tasting,” he said. “Make it interesting,” he insisted. “Come on, let’s sort these wines out. Let’s see who wins.”

And so it was. So we sorted. So we lined up eight of Australia’s best and pitted them against one another, and voted. Seeing that this was a few days before the Victorian State election – it seemed doubly appropriate. The wines were:

• Peter Lehmann Black Queen Sparkling Shiraz 1996
• Buller Reginald Langdon Buller Sparkling  Shiraz Cabernet Durif (blend of ‘68, ‘72 and ‘96 vintages)
• Alkoomi Sparkling Shiraz 1999
• Leasingham Classic Clare Sparkling Shiraz 1994
• Rockford Black Shiraz (disg. 2002)
• Cofield Sparkling Shiraz 1999
• Joseph Sp. Red (disg 2001)
• Seppelt Show Sp Shiraz 1991

When I tallied the votes at the end of the night – and I was more than a little under the weather – I was surprised. Not by the winner perhaps but by those who took the minor placings – edging out some seriously fancied rivals.

But that’s getting ahead of things – because it wasn’t all sparkling red. The night started with a vertical of BRL Hardy’s top-level sparkling, the Arras. The 1995 (two versions, a pinot-chardonnay and a chardonnay-pinot) and 1997 are all that’s been released, though at this tasting we also had the ‘98, ‘99, ‘00, and ‘01 to take a look at. These of course weren’t served blind but we did vote – and here again the results were interesting.

Basically, voters were asked to score each wine out of ten. All I then did was make sure that each wine had the same number of people voting for it – and aggregated the scores. There were two sets of scores for the two versions of the ‘95, but not enough people had tasted and scored them both so I’ve simply aggregated them into a single score (call the Australian Electoral Commission if you have a problem with this). For what it’s worth, the tallied votes fell like this:

Hardy’s Arras 1995: 83 aggregate points.
Hardy’s Arras 1997: 86.5 aggregate points.
Hardy’s Arras 1998: 89.5 aggregate points.
Hardy’s Arras 1999: 75.5 aggregate points.
Hardy’s Arras 2000: 86.5 aggregate points.
Hardy’s Arras 2001: 74.5 aggregate points.

It’s fair to say that this was all hopelessly unfair on the 2000 and 2001 releases in particular – this is a wine that’s designed to be released at four years of age, and has plans to move towards an 8-year release date, so tasting it now is not to taste it in the way the maker intended (the scores for the 2000 and 2001 then are remarkably high when you think about it).

What was interesting though was the number of people who ranked the ‘98 release at 9/10 or higher (four people out of 12), where the 1997 had a far steadier run of scores, and attained a very similar aggregate – though only one person ranked it at 9 or higher.

For my part, on the night I thought both the ‘95s, which I’ve enjoyed in the past and especially enjoyed only a few weeks ago, look disjoiinted and clumsy – while the ‘97 and ‘98 look finer, softer, and more sophisticated – stylistically the ‘97 is the most accomplished of the lot, but as a great mouthfull of delicious flavour the ‘98 takes some beating (it was easily my most preferred).

As a group of wines though there’s no doubt that they are improving steadily as they settle into a style, something they’re still in the process of doing. The ‘98, as the first to be made of 100% Tasmanian grapes, is a cracker.

As an interesting aside – at breakfast with Arras’ master winemaker Ed Carr, a few weeks ago, he commented that a batch of ‘95 Arras had been returned to the winerry by retailer Vintage Cellars. As it happens, Carr’s reserves of the ‘95 are sealed under metal cap, so this return gave him the chance to take a squiz at a version that’s been under cork for a few years – it gave him a chance to see if there’s a difference.

The interesting thing is that there was – and in Carr’s mind, the difference was a positive one. The wine that had been sealed under cork tasted better. This has lead him to rethink his future strategy re: time the wine stays on lees versus time the wine stays under cork prior to release – with time under cork likely to get a more serious weighting than it had previously.

My tasting notes on the ‘97 and ‘98 were:

Hardy’s Arras Chardonnay Pinot 1997 ($50): Super-creamy mouthfeel and a richer, yeastier, breadier palate than both the the 1995 Arras. This 1997 is distinguished by rounds of lemon-sorbet characters that race around the mouth and shoot out through the finish. Creamy, apple-like finesse adds to the show. Fine and elegant. Drink: Now-2005. 91 points.

Hardy’s Arras Chardonnay Pinot 1998 ($50): Fruity, seductive, integrated, slightly sweet, date-loaf, lees, hazelnuts and churn after churn of green apple flavour. This is my kind of sparkler. Elegant yet souped-up with flavour. Texturally it’s top-rank and as far as clear expression goes, this baby can be my lawyer anyday. The only question is whether it’s showing too much too soon. Not that it’s going to last that long in my house. Drink: Now-2005. 95 points.

But the sparkling reds beckoned. And the showdown began – masked. It has to be said that as a line-up of wines they all looked pretty good, with the Seppelt the only one to attract severe criticism – in fact, one taster remarked (before the wines were unveiled) that it should never have been released, that it was nothing short of a disgrace.

Looking at the scores there were two people who gave it a 9 out of 10, which puts the wine, and the aggregate score it reached, in perspective – voters tended to laud it, or punish it severely.
And so to the tallied results:

Peter Lehmann Black Queen: 95.5 aggregate pts
Buller Reginald Langdon: 90.5 aggregate pts
Alkoomi Sp Shiraz 1999: 101 aggregate pts
Leasingham Classic Clare 1994: 104 aggregate pts
Rockford Black Shiraz (disg. 2002): 92 aggregate pts
Cofield Sp Shiraz 1999: 92 aggregate pts
Joseph Sp. Red (disg 2001): 101 aggregate pts
Seppelt Show 1991: 67 aggregate pts

Whilst it may not have been predictable, the Leasingham Classic Clare has won other public votes – its quality, and qualifications, are undeniable. It’s drinking well now, and will get better. It’s a must for the cellar if you enjoy sparkling red.

But the big surprise has to be the performance of the Alkoomi, which most people hadn’t tasted before. It came in equal second – and proved how valuable blind tasting can be. My notes were:

Cofield Sparkling Shiraz 1999 ($28): Rich blackberry fruit. Vanillin oak’s left its trail here but it’s mostly swallowed by the intensity of the fruit, which sits bold and authoritive in the mouth. At the moment it looks impressive but one dimensional, but in a few years it should be a cracker. A wine Cofield can feel proud of. Drink: 2004-2008. 92 points.

Alkoomi Frankland River Sparkling Shiraz 1999 ($25):
Reserved nose that slowly, inexorably reveals oyster and leather and lovely black cherry perfumes. In the mouth, particularly through the mid palate, it’s gorgeously smooth and buoyant, with fruit and style and fleshiness, and a streak of well-cut acid. Accomplished, but the finish was a touch abbreviated. Drink: Now-2005. 90 points.

Seppelt Show Sparkling Shiraz 1991: There’s no doubt that this is a farmy, almost pooey wine, and in that context it’s always going to polarise opinion – there’s nothing sure-fire about this one. If the nose is farmy then the palate takes it further, though it’s mixed with more confident leather and mussel, mushroom and truffle flavour. For all this it’s a terrifically smooth, richly textured, layered wine with a delicious, sumptuous mouthfeel – needless to say, I’m a fan. Drink: Now-2006. 92 points.

Peter Lehmann Black Queen Sparkling Shiraz 1996:
The new release and at this stage of its life, looking better even than the delux ‘94 did. Sure, there’s a treat of sweet, syrupy oak, but there’s such a feast of blackberry and fruit cake flavour and an intriguing slur of almonds and apricots – it’s like a delicacy. With time in the glass the sweet oak seems like marshmallows, but then, with time, all sorts of complexities usher through. This is going to be a classic. Drink: 2004-2011. 96 points.

Reginald Langdon Buller Sparkling Shiraz Cabernet Durif ($42CD):
A blend of the 1968, 1972 and 1996 vintages (the average age of the wine is 21 years) and whilst it opens awkwardly (chemical, Ajax smells), these reduce to reveal excellent black, pruney fruit flavours/aromas with a lift of candy and banana esters. The palate strikes and persists, and whilst it carries its liqueuring on its sleeve the fingerprints it leaves are dry, almost grippy. Intriguing wine. Drink: Now-2005. 88 points.

Rockford Black Shiraz (disg 2002) ($53CD): Made with a good proporition of ‘98 vintage grapes, the overwhelming impression here is of black and red berry fruitiness, a feature that seemed to throw a lot of people on the night. The fact is that it seems exceptionally young, with juicy blackberry, raspberry confection, and a shift of vanilla-doused old-fashioned musk sticks. As a young drink it seems relatively simple, but if you’re prepared to wait five to ten years, it should be brilliant. Drink: 20006-2016. 93 points.

Joseph Sparkling Red (disg 2001) ($55): Stood out from the crowd – on the night it seemed so creamy and generous and chuffed up with leather and aniseed – it seemed classy, but difficult to judge in this company. Suffice to say, it treads its own path. And the truth is that it’s terrifically composed and confident, with an urge of loam and blackberry. Drink: Now-2007. 95 points.

Leasingham Classic Clare Shiraz 1994 ($45): The more I taste this the more I’m impressed – and the more I think it’s going to slay me in five years time. It’s rich in blackberry and ice-cream oak, with top class balance and cleanliness and a real sense of a welcome, frolicking foreplay between the fruit and the oak. Finesse, power, form. Drink: Now-2009. 96 points.

Closure : Cork

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