We’re going out with a pop in this final episode of Season One of the Drinks Adventures podcast.
Yes, this week we’re delving into all things champagne in Australia, where it’s fair to say we absolutely love our champagne.
Despite our small population we are the world’s sixth largest champagne market, with the biggest consumption per head of population outside Europe, and our imports of champagne have grown tenfold since 2001.
First up this episode, I take a look at the Vin de Champagne Awards, a uniquely Australian award organised on behalf of the Comité Champagne, which represents champagne houses, growers and co-operatives of the Champagne region in France.
This year was the 43rd edition of these awards and in a short documentary, I speak to several personalities involved in these awards, which seek to discover Australians who are truly passionate about champagne, so much so that they are prepared to put their knowledge about champagne to the test.
Next up is a short stand alone interview with renowned wine writer and champagne expert Huon Hooke of The Real Review, who’s been somewhat outspoken about what is, in his words, Australia’s boring taste in champagne.
He talks about how you can spend just a little bit more to get your hands on some champagne that is a bit more complex and interesting.
And we also discuss the rise of Australian sparkling wine, which continues to win global recognition for its quality.
Last up is an interview with Hervé Dantan, who is chef de cave at Champagne Lanson, one of the largest champagne houses.
We talk about what makes champagne unique, what makes Lanson unique and the upcoming launch in Australia of Clos Lanson, a single vineyard champagne.
Thanks for your support during Season One of the podcast. I hope you’ll join me again in the new year when I embark on Season Two.
I’d also like to thank Dave Robertson and Matt Brown, who have each assisted with mixing some of the episodes in this season.
And thanks to Asad Rizvi AKA Silverlining for the use of some of his awesome music in the documentary section of this champagne episode, as listed below.
Doodlebug – Loose in your mind (Silverlining Remix)
Silverlining – Devotion
Silverlining – Ni-Cd Deluxe
You can listen and purchase Asad’s tunes on the Silverlining Dubs bandcamp page.
Theme music ‘Sandbox’ by Cameo Culture. You can listen to more from Cameo Culture at https://soundcloud.com/cameoculture.
Inside the Vin de Champagne Awards, plus Huon Hooke and Champagne Lanson chef de cave Hervé Dantan – full transcript
HUON HOOKE: I always say that if someone gives me a glass of Champagne at the end of the day, I feel different. Immediately I feel different. It changes your mood.
JAMES ATKINSON: That’s wine writer Huon Hooke, who is chair of the Vin de Champagne Awards, a bi-annual competition that recognises Australians who are truly passionate about Champagne. What do you think it is about Champagne that has earned it that status to have an awards like that in Australia?
HUON HOOKE: What makes Champagne itself special? It’s the same thing. It’s a drink of celebration; it’s a wine that gets people’s emotions stirred up. It puts a smile on your face and just makes you relax more. That’s just one aspect of Champagne. But I think all winners of the Vin de Champagne Awards can acknowledge that in the 40-odd years that it’s been going, it’s not just a fizzy drink for parties. It’s a great wine in its own right, or it can be. At one level, you do have the cheap party-style Champagnes, which are quite simple and quite young. But at the top end, you’ve got very, very complex wines that have real structure and real longevity; depths of flavour, complexity, and wonderful character. And they’re amongst the greatest wines of the world.
JAMES ATKINSON: Huon is one of three judges of the Vin de Champagne awards, alongside Champagne enthusiast and educator Bernadette O’Shea.
BERNADETTE O’SHEA: We’re number six importer in the world of bringing Champagne into a country that’s gotten great for its sparkling wines, and yet we’re the sixth biggest importer of Champagne in the world. So, isn’t that amazing? I always say it’s because we’ve got very good palates and we recognise a quality product when we find it. And when you find Champagne, you can never go back. There’s only one Champagne, and it comes from Champagne in France, nowhere else. And it’s such a unique part grown in chalk caves, created by an inland sea millions of years ago. So you’ve got this special region that’s unique, that’s quite extraordinary, and produces these amazing wines that we can’t duplicate anywhere else in the world.
HUON HOOKE: It’s my great pleasure to announce that the winner of the professional section of the Vin de Champagne Award is Leanne Altman.
JAMES ATKINSON: The Vin de Champagne Awards has two categories; one for professionals who work in the wine or hospitality industries, and for amateurs; those who don’t work in the industry but have a passion for Champagne.
LEANNE ALTMAN: My name’s Leanne Altman, and I’m the wine buyer for Andrew McConnell Restaurants in Melbourne. Champagne was actually one of my seminal moments of discovering that I loved wine and when I was 21 or 22 I was lucky enough to travel to France and to visit a number of producers. And it was really an eye-opening moment for me; the passion, the excitement, and the deliciousness of Champagne.
JAMES ATKINSON: Candidates for the Vin de Champagne Awards submit written entries to six questions in the written component. The 10 best national finalists are then flown to Sydney in September to undertake a blind tasting of three mystery Champagnes, which they then discuss with the judges; all of whom are previous winners themselves.
BERNADETTE O’SHEA: What they need to do is firstly have a passion for Champagne. That’s the most important thing. We’re not looking for someone — it’s not a guessing game, it’s not, “Guess which one it is?” It’s not like that. It’s how they came to that conclusion.
HUON HOOKE: If you’re in the amateur section, you probably don’t have to know as much as if you’re in the professional section, because the standard should be higher, and it always is higher. The amateur section, people put an enormous amount of work in anyway, especially on the things like practice tastings, for example. They really rehearse and try to understand how styles vary and how they can be recognised, what the hallmarks of each company are, whether they are a big Chardonnay house or a big Pinot Noir house, whether they use barrels or not, which part of the Champagne region they tend to source or lean on for sourcing their grapes from. All of those things influence the style of the wine. If you’ve got some knowledge of a style, you can talk quite convincingly and persuasively and authoritatively about — “This style reminds me of Bollinger because it’s Pinot driven; it’s full-bodied, it’s very dry, it’s got a hint of oak in it, this and this and this.”
JAMES ATKINSON: There’s plenty riding on the Award apart from just bragging rights. The two winners — amateur and professional — receive a two-week educational trip to Champagne as their prize.
HUON HOOKE: Just getting here is a great achievement. And if you didn’t get it this year, we always say, “Try again next year,” and it took me several times, and I think it took a couple of the other people in the room more than one go to get it.
JAMES ATKINSON: You didn’t win it on your first crack?
HUON HOOKE: No, I didn’t. I think I must have had three cracks at it. The first one or two would have been as an amateur, because I wasn’t actually working in wine then. But then I went to Roseworthy, studied wine, and all of a sudden I had to ask, “Am I actually now a professional or an amateur?” And they had to make a ruling on that. And the last couple of times I entered I was as a professional. And by then, I was working in a retailing business in Sydney, so I was obviously a professional. But yes, you don’t necessarily need to enter repeat times to win. There are plenty of first-time winners.
JAMES ATKINSON: This year’s professional winner, Leanne Altman, was a first-time entrant.
LEANNE ALTMAN: I’ve been doing a lot of study generally, and it was a great way to focus my Champagne study. It just came at the right time and gave me the opportunity to focus a little bit on the geology and history and the market presence of wine. My study regime probably looks a little bit maniacal. So, lots of reading, lots of paraphrasing, drawing of maps, drawing of flashcards; lots of study.
JAMES ATKINSON: This year’s amateur winner was Nicole Smith, a Champagne obsessive from Queensland’s Sunshine Coast.
NICOLE SMITH: To everybody, I know how tough this is; I’ve been doing it for a while. And I’m just so proud that I’ve made it. My day-to-day work is working as a practice manager in a medical clinic. It’s actually the fourth time that I’ve entered, the third time I’ve made the finals. So, it is a difficult job just to be one of those last five finalists that are chosen. You know, like any final, when you’re up against five people who are obviously passionate, you want to learn something that maybe they don’t know to get you across the line and make you appear different to everybody else. So it becomes more challenging, I think, the more that you keep coming back. It doesn’t get simpler; it probably gets more difficult.
JAMES ATKINSON: You’ve obviously got a real love affair with Champagne.
NICOLE SMITH: I think once — yes — you start to understand it, it’s such a fascinating beverage from how it starts in the vineyards to how it actually gets to your table.
HUON HOOKE: A lot of us who have been fortunate to go through the experience of being a laureate to Champagne — it’s a life-changing experience. And I’m looking at Bernadette O’Shea over there, and Jim Smith over there, and we all started in the same year, and that was 1984.
JAMES ATKINSON: What advice would you give someone who wanted to do what you’ve done?
NICOLE SMITH: I think if you’re passionate about Champagne, it’s the thing to do. If you think about what the award’s about, it’s just saying that you want to embrace that passion and share it with other people. You want to educate people about Champagne and make them understand it. Somewhere from where I started — I knew very little — and once someone helped me to understand more about it, that’s where, as I mentioned, my journey started.
JAMES ATKINSON: And is there any possibility now that you’re going to throw in the old career and turn this into a professional thing somehow?
NICOLE SMITH: “Never say never,” is what I would say to that. I mean, it’s not going to happen tomorrow but who knows what’s around the corner. If I can do something to promote Champagne and stay in the industry — it’s like anything. If you can make your passion your day job, how great would that be?
JAMES ATKINSON: That was Nicole Smith, winner of the amateur category of the Vin de Champagne Awards in 2018.
JAMES ATKINSON: Huon, Thanks very much for joining me for a chat. You’ve been pretty outspoken about Champagne consumption in Australia and the fact that Australians are drinking pretty average-quality Champagne. Do you think any of that message is starting to get through to consumers?
HUON HOOKE: Well, you might know more recent statistics than I do, but the last time I looked there was a disappointing massive proportion of cheap non-vintage Champagne being drank. And that’s fine; people are enjoying it and they’re getting great value for money, there’s no doubt about that. In fact, a lot of the big houses that supply these discount Champagnes in the big supermarkets are complaining that they’re not really getting the return that they need for their wine.
So, occasionally I’ll hear people say, “We’ve got to try and out our price up a little bit this year.” It doesn’t seem to happen. But there’s no doubt that the great sales of Champagne in Australia are driven by the discount of supermarket brands. That’s all wonderful; that’s fine. But I’m trying to tell people, “Look, if you spend a few more dollars — not every time you buy a bottle of Champagne, but every few times you buy — and get the vintage version of the same product, just for an example. You can get a much better Champagne that way.
And I think there’s certainly a perception out there that anything with Champagne on the label is great. The Champagne writers are being very skilled at marketing their product, and they’ve created a lot of excitement around the word “Champagne.” They’ve done that with a great deal of skill and by being very guarded in protecting the name of Champagne, so it’s not being abused.
JAMES ATKINSON: What advice would you have for people other than just to look for the vintage version of the same Champagne when trying to get something that’s good value for money and affordable. Is it about knowing your vintages?
HUON HOOKE: It is partly about knowing your vintages. And, at the moment, we’re starting to see the tail-end of the 2008 vintage, which I think is an exceptional vintage, if you like that very fine type, crisp, refreshing style of Champagne. High acidities, low pH, beautiful finesse in these wines. There’s still some of them out there now. I would choose that over ‘06’s, for example, which are a warmer year; not as fine as the ‘05’s and the ‘08’s and the ‘02’s, which are also beautiful. But when the ‘12’s come out, that will be exciting because that’s a great vintage. And there are probably a few ‘12’s out there already.
But I went to Vintage Cellars the other day though and picked up half a dozen of the Cattier, ‘08 vintage. Cartier have been selling their non-vintage in large licks through Vintage Cellars for many years now. But if you dig around there, you’ll find the vintage and you’ll find other wines under that brand. And it’s worth looking for this ‘08. I think I paid $46, something or other, for a bottle. That’s an absurdly low price for a wine of that age, from that great vintage — I mean, it’s 10 years old now — and that quality. So, when you dig around you can find great bargains.
The last one that I made a lot of song and dance about was the ‘05 Lanson Gold Label. Lanson is perennially a good value wine, anyway. The Black Label or the vintage, but the ‘05 was a ripper. The ‘02 was a ripper as well. And when the great vintages of those wines come out, they’re even better value than they normally are.
JAMES ATKINSON: I suppose in parallel with the last however long the Vin de Champagne Awards has been going on, we’ve probably seen the quality of Australian sparkling wine rising as well. As there a compelling case for people — when they’ve got a limited amount of money to spend — to be looking at Australian sparkling as a genuine alternative?
HUON HOOKE: No doubt about it. I’m not going to tell you that you should always buy Champagne. The Champenoise would love me to say that, but I’m not beholding to them any more than I’m beholding to the Australian wine producers. So, I’m just as excited about the quality of Australian sparkling wine. And it’s been 34 years since I won the Vin de Champagne Award, and there’s been an awful lot of changes happening in both areas in that time.
Tasmania has become our focal point in Australia for premium sparkling wine. And you can find some amazing value down there; it’s not all high-end stuff. It’s not all Arras E.J. Carr Late Disgorged at $130 a bottle or whatever it is. The Pirie Non-vintage has been perennial favourite. This is a $25, $30 wine I think. It’s discountable, but that wine wins gold medals occasionally, and it’s a beautiful wine. That’s 100 percent Tassie. There’s a few others down there also that are outstanding value for money. There’s a Brown Brothers product, a cheap-y they produce at Milawa which is just the regular Brown Brothers Pinot Noir, Chardonnay non-vintage, which is under $25; under $20 in some places. It’s always a really good wine with character.
So, you suit your purchase to your taste but also to your occasion. If you’ve got overseas visitors, then don’t open Champagne for them; open a really good Australian example of whatever it is you’re drinking.
HERVÉ DANTAN: My name is Hervé Dantan and I am Lanson winemaker; chef de cave, as we say in Champagne.
JAMES ATKINSON: What do you think makes Champagne so unique?
HERVÉ DANTAN: I can’t say the method, because the method is well known everywhere in the world now, and you can have a method Champenoise in Australia, in California, in the U.K. now. So, the method is not unique. The knowhow can be unique, because in different houses of Champagne, the knowhow is very important of ageing reserve wine, of blending different plot from different villages, using very long-ageing only — that’s a culture we have in houses of Champagne. And there is something you can export; you can’t have it anywhere outside of Champagne. It is the soil and the climate. And in Champagne, we have something that is rare on this planet. We have a perfect combination between very chalky soil and the continental climate that will good guarantee good temperatures to keep a very good, fresh taste in the grapes. That’s what’s the particularity of grapes in Champagne; it is that we have Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Meunier that are ripe but with a higher level of acidity than everywhere in the world. That is something that gives a lot of delicacy and elegance with Champagne.
JAMES ATKINSON: When you talk about the Champagne Lanson house style, what do you see as being the defining characteristics there?
HERVÉ DANTAN: The characteristics are very special, since we can say that Lanson has a unique style that is due to the method of winemaking, which is the same that we had when the house was created in 1760. And this method is to continue to avoid, mainly, malolactic fermentation in wines. What will guarantee a lot of freshness, a lot of crispy taste in our wines, that’s what we used to do many, many years ago and that’s what we continue to have in all our range of Lanson, this fresh style — in fact, we keep it as a natural freshness of grapes during the vinification, and it gives a very natural level of freshness that is always very interesting to express a lot of purity and a lot of delicacy and elegance in our Champagnes.
JAMES ATKINSON: What are the challenges of that approach? Because it requires longer maturation, doesn’t it?
HERVÉ DANTAN: Yes, absolutely. For a non-vintage cuvée, we will wait at least four years in our cellar before selling it. And for vintage — for example, we sold today a vintage ‘05 — we wait more than 12 years at least before selling such a vintage. And we launched, today, a Nobel Cuvée Vintage 2002. We waited more than 15 years. We know that we need to have such an ageing, because we are looking for a balance between the flavours and the freshness; the natural freshness of our Champagne needs to be balanced by long maturity in our cellars.
JAMES ATKINSON: And what about the other defining characteristics? You said you’re a Pinot Noir dominant house?
HERVÉ DANTAN: Exactly. That is the story of Lanson. We have been very well implanted in Montagne de Reims where the Pinot Noir is king in Champagne. We have two separate houses in Montagne de Reims; one in the village of Verzenay, it is a grand cru area; one in Trois-Puits, it is a premier cru area. And we have always been involved with the Pinot Noir vine growing. So, in the Black Label, for example, we have at least 50 percent of Pinot Noir. In the Gold Label, we have at a minimum 52 percent of Pinot Noir that will give our Champagne a lot of fruitiness and very delicate vinosity.
JAMES ATKINSON: The Clos Lanson; can you tell us a bit about that particular wine? There seems to be a lot more emphasis on terroir and the role of growers in Champagne, certainly over the last few years we’re hearing more and more about the diversity of Champagnes that are coming out that really showcase individual vineyard. Do you think this is something that the houses — the larger players — will be looking to explore a bit more in the future?
HERVÉ DANTAN: So, Clos Lanson is a very special plot. It is a plot that is located in Reims in the winery, closed by walls. This plot is a plot of one hectare. We produce only between 6- and 7,000 bottles every year. So we began in 2006. 2007 will be on the market next year in Australia. And since 2007, every vintage has been elaborated with Clos Lanson.
We have always explored the different villages — the different terroir in Champagne — because, for example, when we elaborate a Black Label or a Gold Label, we took many different plots coming from many different villages, so we know the diversity of Champagne with the different qualities that we can have in Chardonnay from Côte des Blancs, in Pinot Noir from Montagne de Reims, or a Meunier from Vallée de la Marne. So, it is the story of Champagne to blend different plots coming from different villages coming from different grapes. So, it’s very interesting that growers now communicate a lot on different terroirs, because Champagne is like Burgundy — you don’t have only Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Meunier, you have many different Chardonnays that are coming from many different places. And each village has its own specificity.
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