Ed Carr is the only non-champagne winemaker to have won the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Champagne and Sparkling Wine World Championships.
Arras wines have won more than 100 trophies in Australian wine shows since the 1990s, when Ed saw the potential in Tasmanian grapes to produce world class sparkling wine.
In this episode, Ed Carr shares some fascinating insights to share about his own career over the last four decades.
But he also has a unique perspective on the Australian wine industry’s drive towards more elegant, colder climate wine styles.
House of Arras winemaker Ed Carr: Full Transcript
JAMES ATKINSON: Well Ed Carr, thanks so much for joining me on the Drinks Adventures podcast.
ED CARR: Yes, always a pleasure.
JAMES ATKINSON: Now like many of the best winemakers and brewers, you have a background in micro-biology. But you started out in the dairy industry I understand. Now, how did you make your entry into wine?
ED CARR: That was a very quick foray into the dairy industry, in my first professional sort of job straight out of University. So, it was a little dull, didn’t see much opportunity. But relatively close to where I lived in Adelaide there was a microbiologist chemist position offered at a winery down there, which was then called Seaview, with a very heavy influence in sparkling wines. So as a microbiologist, they had some issues with secondary fermentation and they, they assumed that straight out of University I could just walk in and fix these things. So I was given that job of trying to get secondary fermentation happening, which we did after a while. And then I just got more involved in the sparkling wine sector, progressively. Like this was from ’78 onwards.
JAMES ATKINSON: Right.
ED CARR: And by ’86 I was fully into sparkling wine by that point.
JAMES ATKINSON: And when you talk about Seaview being quite a significant premium sparkling brand. What did those wines look like stylistically at the time?
ED CARR: They were making big steps. Seaview at that point was an $8-$10 bottle of wine, very large volumes. And it was all traditional method. So we worked on changing the varietal mix which had you know, been noble varieties like Colombard and [inaudible] and Muscadelle and a bit of Grenache and a bit of Shiraz and try to work more pinot noir and chardonnay into it. Particularly pinot noir as that became more available. And then the Seaview premium range came out, which was you know, pushing more and more into cooler climates. So it was a very strong premium led brand at that point.
JAMES ATKINSON: But it was pretty early days for cool climate wine regions in Australia wasn’t it?
ED CARR: Oh, extremely early days for cool climate wine regions. I mean with Seaview we were thinking Padthaway was pretty cool, which it was. I mean this was 20 years ago, so you know, everything was harvested three weeks later than what it is now. But it wasn’t really pushing the boundaries of cool climate fruit. Which is just, people were looking at the Yarra Valley and Tumbarumba and early pioneers in Tasmania, you know. You could see the rise of Chandon. Warren Randall had done some exceptional work with the Seppelt brand. Andrew Pirie in Tasmania. You know, the early Jansz wines. They were quite inspirational really. We were a little bit behind in terms of that sort of fruit, fruit sourcing and that’s where I saw you know, the ultimate challenge and reward should be.
JAMES ATKINSON: Had sparkling made in the traditional method been a thing in Australia for very long at that stage?
ED CARR: Smaller volumes were made that way. I don’t think it was very big. The transfer method was huge. I mean, your major brands were Seppelt and Great Western. Transfer method is bottle fermentation, as per traditional method. But the wine doesn’t spend its whole life in the single bottle. Transfer method is, it’s exactly what it says. It’s fermented in one bottle, the total wine is moved to a pressure tank, clarified, additions made and then it’s filled under pressure into a new, new bottle. With a bit of German technology that’s been around a long, long time. It was very flexible, it was very cost, cost effective. It was actually a very good, very good method. You get all the advantages of traditional method bottle fermentation and you get some of the economics of a lot of automated bottle handling. Traditional method sort of started to fire up again to me, with some of the smaller brands but particularly Seppelt. And in Tasmania it was pretty strong. You saw Jansz coming in with the Roederer connections early on. And then Chandon came on board and I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned that. But Chandon were one of the big leaders in high volume traditional method and they still are. Which can become very efficient in itself.
JAMES ATKINSON: You’ve mentioned some of the Australian brands that you were looking at and getting kind of inspired by at that time. Were you also looking abroad and familiarising with the wines of champagne as well?
ED CARR: Yeah I was and I still do. I still think it’s important to understand your relevance and place in the world in, in terms of your own styles. Which I try to maintain that with our sparkling team and trying to maintain a lot of tastings of all price categories. So that we understand where the market is and where we sit in that market. I haven’t actually worked in champagne. I’ve had a few technical visits to champagne. You know, the production methods in champagne really don’t vary a lot from what a lot in the new world do. I guess you, you’ve got to choose all of the options between you know, what makes your wine making style and not. It always interests me to see you know, fruit and juice and you know, early wines in champagne and in some of the newer world operations. I think that’s a more effective comparison as to you know, where our quality sits and style sits compared to the other regions. Production methods are pretty well known I think, throughout the world. And you’ve got the choices. All that equipment is available. I really think as a winemaker, we try to get this across the group with sparkling and other styles as well. That you should be able to assess a wine and dissect it. You should be able to pull it apart, pick out the characters that you do and don’t like. And be able to sort of reassemble that wine in your head with you know, what you would do to achieve that sort of style. To really keep the characters that you want in or to remove the characters that you don’t want. So to me that’s, as a winemaker, it’s more important to be able to do that. Try and work out where those characters are coming from.
JAMES ATKINSON: I had Janice McDonald from Howard Park on this podcast previously and she said that she thinks sparkling wine is the most challenging category for wine makers, because people will always compare what you make to champagne. Is that something that you would agree with?
ED CARR: I mean people compare pinot noir to burgundy, quite, quite strongly.
JAMES ATKINSON: If they’re lucky enough to be able to taste it.
ED CARR: Yeah it they’re to, to afford it and be able to taste it. It is an instant comparison. It’s sort of, I think it’s starting to fade. And my hope is you know, that people recognise brands for quality and style. Rather than just country of origin. There’s some very good new producers coming you know, onto the scene within Australia, out of the US and out of the UK market. Some of the English wines, sparkling wines, are starting to get very, very strong. So yeah I don’t see it as a versus. I don’t think it’s a comparison and it’s up to the consumer to choose which style that they like. They could all be very good wines, but they’re all very different. I think if you, if you compare an English sparkling wine to a champagne, to a Tasmanian brand, there are fundamental differences in those wines based on the climate and the soils. And then you overlay the wine making on top of it. The house, the choice of house style. All very good, but all very different.
JAMES ATKINSON: At what sort of price point does traditional method start to kick in? And, and then how then how the more commercial wines made?
ED CARR: Yeah there’s no absolute price point for each method, I guess. You’re looking at the cumulative cost of grape cost and production method, and ultimately the sales price point. As a group, we make all wines from the budget sector, which might be direct carbonation for some of the more fruity styles. Charmat method, bulk fermentation in tanks for, for the next step up where you get a little bit of that yeast influence. A very large volume of our wine is made by transfer method. So you’ve got bottle fermentation, transfer which would be Grant Burge and the Yarra Burn brand. And the traditional method wines, oh there’s also a level of Arras wines, which is a transfer method wine. And then the step up to traditional method, which will be the Croser range and the Arras premium range. Croser is a traditional method wine, based on the Adelaide hills. You know, that will start to cut in at the high 20’s. So it’s that sort of price point but it’s not only the production cost, it’s the fruit costs and the maturation costs that ultimately drive the price point.
JAMES ATKINSON: You need to have fruit at the right quality level to make it worth your while using the traditional method?
ED CARR: Yeah I think so. Although you can do traditional method really quite cost effectively. The larger volume you have and the more automation you have with traditional method, you know. The comparative costs between that and bottle fermented transfer gets very similar. And a lot of it’s based on the history of that style. And how it was originally built as a brand.
JAMES ATKINSON: Now you as I understand it, sourced grapes from Tassie for the first time in ’95?
ED CARR: ’95.
JAMES ATKINSON: What did the wine industry look like in Tasmania at that stage?
ED CARR: Very much still in its infancy. My first trip to Tasmania was in ’88. And the records would show there was only like 46 hectares of producing vines. There’s now around the 3,000-hectare mark. It was just starting to lift in those sort of mid, mid ‘90’s. But volumes were still tiny. It was still going through that pioneering stage. There was a lot of good work done but you could see like, there was a lot of non-wine money. It’s classic for new regions that professionals cashed up, think it’ll be nice to make wine in that region. They tend to be some of the pioneering fellows. Some very different approaches to that. In those early days, Andrew Pirie still is very much a technocrat on the viticultural and on the winemaking side. He brought science into it, rather than a lifestyle choice. Stefano Lubiana, you know, moved out of the Riverland and you know, took a giant leap of faith in cold climate and is, after some initial very hard times, has produced you know, a great company and some lovely wines, and a lifestyle. So people approached it very differently. Its just been an evolution, its been really quite fast. The amount of planting has really escalated, particularly in the last ten years.
JAMES ATKINSON: When was it that you realised the potential for Tasmanian fruit in sparkling wine?
ED CARR: In the early to mid-90’s you started to see some competitor wines on the market just starting to look very fine and elegant, but complex. And had great potential. So we’d had a lot of opportunity to test out many other cold climate regions. Either by higher altitude regions or higher latitude regions, heading further south. And when we initially had the Arras concept, we didn’t have an Arras name. We had the Arras concept in ’95, our first blends were Tasmanian Yarra Valley. Part of that was due to the fact we couldn’t find enough fruit to drive the sort of styles in ’95 from Tasmania. But we weren’t entirely convinced that Tasmania was the place to be. We felt that there’d be opportunities from other cold climate regions to do blending, cross-regional blending. From ’98 onwards we’d noticed there was enough sub-regional differences within Tasmania. From the Tamar to the Pipers River to the east coast, to the cold river, to the Derwent. They were all different in terms of soil and altitude and latitude and humidity and you know, everything that drives those different styles. And felt that it would be enough diversity within Tasmania itself, to be able to achieve the blending regime that we wanted to. So in ’95 our initial approach was lets see what fruit we can buy on the open market and we were fortunate enough to buy some very high quality fruit and its just evolved from there. We suddenly became very aware that all of these subregions had positive characters and we wouldn’t need to be blending outside of Tasmania to achieve what we wanted to do. So we’ve promoted that concept. And now we still don’t make single regions, single vineyard wines. Our approach is tailored to certain subregions for certain styles. But we still have a great opportunity for blending between those sub-regions. So the last 25 years has really been sort of building vineyards in the regions that we favour for now, what is the Arras brand in total. Which is like six, six or seven different labels. We initially went in there with the idea of one label and one product. But we then saw the diversity of being able to make like a vintage blend, a non-vintage blend, a blanc de blancs, a rose, a museum release and so the whole brand has expanded from that point. I guess what’s surprised us all and that’s been a progressive thing, is the longevity of these wines. These wines, with time on lees, are immensely slowly evolving and they have great complexity of character that builds up over time. But they keep this brightness and vibrancy. That I think if you look at the best sparkling wines around the globe, they have those things. They have complexity and richness, but they’re still very vibrant, refreshing wines. And so our first release of the Arras label was after four years on lees. And we thought four years is a long-time guys. Now we’re releasing, like our Lake Score vintage at 14 years on the lees. You know, we’ve set up a range of wines based on minimum release ages of four, seven, eight, nine, ten years on the lees. And they’re just improving. We have to release them at some point. So we think those standards for our maturation policy is one of the keys to the brand of Arras. If there’s a couple of things that really drives it is Tasmanian fruit and I think it makes the brand unique as part of our wine making policy is these long maturation times.
JAMES ATKINSON: And has it been challenging driving a brand forward with that sort of business model that’s based on holding wine back in a very commercially driven company, that would probably be putting more pressure on to releasing wine rather than holding it back?
ED CARR: Yeah, I guess it has. There’s been immense support for the brand with the company, through lots of stages. One of the biggest hurdles was to be able to get the wines to a price point where you could support that investment. That meant that you had to break out of the traditional glass ceiling sort of price points of what was seen for Australian sparkling.
JAMES ATKINSON: And what would that have been in the ‘90’s? Late ‘90’s?
ED CARR: That $30-$35 range, it probably hasn’t changed a lot since. You had to be able to take wines up to retails of $70, $80, $100 to be able to support the investment in that wine.
JAMES ATKINSON: What was the reaction when Arras introduced its first sparkling at a higher price point? So I think $50 in 2009 might have been one of the key milestones?
ED CARR: Yeah $50 was certainly the price point of the first releases. There was some support and some shock horror.
JAMES ATKINSON: When you say first releases?
ED CARR: Our first release was the ’95 vintage. Released in ’99. And we only had the one label and that did sort of sit, it was initially released at $50, it sort of moved a little bit around that price point at that time. You got such a mixed view on it, you know. Some people thought this is crazy, we can never sell an Australian sparkling wine for that price. Others were much more supportive. It’s been a long road in that sense, of convincing. We’ve had a multifaceted approach I guess of being able to speak to the trade, to do a lot of tastings. To be able to you know, put the wine to consumers. As the volumes got bigger, the market’s more aware of it because there’s physical presence of the wine. It’s hard to really say one particular thing. We’ve had a lot of success in media and wine shows, and I think that’s very positive. But that tends to go to the same group of the public all the time. So I think our approach to you know, work with sommeliers, to work with buyers from the trade and whatever, to taste the wines and present them to people, and let them make up their own opinions has been a key part of it as well.
JAMES ATKINSON: How would you describe the Arras House style and how has that changed? You must have been pretty limited at the start with what sort of fruit you could access?
ED CARR: We were very limited. Basically we were buying what was available on the open market in ’95. Just spot, spot buy. Have you got any surplus grapes? We’d like to buy them. Since then we’ve really focused in on different vineyard sites. So you know, we’re really focused on the east coast and the south of Tasmania, for the traditional method wines. And a certain amount in Pipers River as well. So we’ve been evolving those sites to suit out styles. We really like the chardonnay styles from the east coast and the more pinot noir might be coming from the inland. So we’ve developed sites to support that kind of approach. Our winemaking hasn’t changed a lot. We introduced more oak fermentation for the base wines in 2006 onwards, which I think was a real milestone for the brand. But it’s always been based on Tasmanian fruit, handpicked, traditional method, 100% malolactic fermentation, oak becoming a significant part of it in 2006. And from probably 2012 onwards, the maturation policies became set. We start with a non-vintage Brut Elite at four years on lees. Our vintage wine, both Brut and Rose are seven years, the Blanc to Blanc is eight years and the Late Disgorged is ten years minimum. And to me that was one of the really significant milestones, that Australian sparkling had often been strong. But when you looked at it in a global sense, it was often very young. You know, wines were released after three to four years. Whereas to me if you looked at the better wines from around the globe, they’re not released from three or four years on. You look at current releases now, they range from ’08, ’09, through to 13’s probably. And that’s where I think, that’s made the Arras brand relatively unique within Australian sparkling. Is that we really had to move our maturation times much higher, if we wanted to be in that band of quality.
JAMES ATKINSON: What about the varietal make-up of the wines? How has that evolved over time and how important are both Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in that varietal make-up?
ED CARR: Initially with the one wine concept, which we started, it was always going to be a Chardonnay Pinot Noir. So Chardonnay was going to always going to be predominant. And that’s ultimately become the grand, grand vintage wine, released after seven years on lees. We wanted to have a multi-vintage blend of a larger volume, released at a younger age. So four years on lees, which became the Brut Elite label. And that we feel needed to be red fruit driven, at a younger time. You know, you want that plushness and overt characters I guess of the red fruit. So that’s always been red fruit predominant. And we were always strong believers that Pinot Meunier big part to play in that wine. So [22.38 unclear] never been a favourite of Australian sparkling wine making.
JAMES ATKINSON: There’s not much of it around is there?
ED CARR: No, no there’s very little. It doesn’t really appear on any you know, stats. It’s always listed under pinot noir. But we think it’s going to be a strong part to play in those young styles. So we’ve been planting Pinot Meunier. It really likes the very cold sites, so we’ve been planting it on our own vineyard at Bay of Fires in the Pipers River region. And that’s becoming a bigger part of the Brut Elite style as we move forward with that. It’s currently just short on 10%. We don’t know when it’s going to stop. We’ll, you know, keep having more coming into the mix. I don’t think it’ll be like that classic non-vintage champagne of 30/30/30. I think we’ll cut out Pinot Meunier at sub-20. But that’s just a feeling at the moment because we don’t have the Pinot Meunier to do it. But that’s part of the evolution for that Brut Elite label as well. So red fruit drive on the Brut Elites. Pinot noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier. The Rose, the vintage Rose is 70% pinot noir, the balance Chardonnay. Obviously driving that red fruited style. The grand vintage is always Chardonnay driven. The blanc to blancs is an interesting one. We’ve had great success with that. We feel Chardonnay takes longer to get to the point where we really like it, so that’s minimum eight years on lees. And the EJ Carr Late Disgorged vintage, it’s a re-release of the grand vintage wine but just held longer on lees, is a minimum ten years on lees. So we’ve tailored the varieties to suit the style, which is part of that release program for age.
JAMES ATKINSON: And what’s important about Pinot Meunier for your non-vintage wines?
ED CARR: To me it did classically what everybody tells you Pinot Meunier does. It’s a more open, juicer, softer wine that in the young release blend, adds that level of approachability at a younger age. I mean we’re still talking a four year old wine, with Brut Elite. But the Meunier’s given it a more open palate and say that approachability I guess is really what we see as part of that style. It’s the middle palate that it gives it.
JAMES ATKINSON: Now I know back in the early years of your career, you worked alongside a gentleman by the name of Peter Gago. And both sparkling winemakers at Penfolds at that time. Have you watched with interest his most recent venture into making, not Australian sparkling, but champagne?
ED CARR: Yeah I know Peter really well, we’re still quite close. Although he’s a very hard man to catch. So even though he only lives ten minutes down the road from me. But yeah, at that time, that was part of the Penfold’s Seppelt thing and was a very big point in both of our careers really. Sparkling wine was being ultimately moved out of the Nuriootpa site and going to Great Western. You know, we had to make some choices. I chose to leave and follow sparkling wine with what was then Hardy’s. Peter chose to stay and move into the red wine sector, which you could see coming a mile off. And yeah, Peter always likes to push the boundaries with things and I just think it’s brilliant. You know, I’ve tasted the wines with him. And it’s technically very sound wine, it’s a great style. It’s up to Treasury Wine Estates and Penfolds to choose to put it under their label, obviously. But as a global move it’s just supports their brand, it gets it into more you know, stylistically different things. And they, they’ve put an immense amount of effort into it. We chose to stay with the Australian track. We’re 25 years down that way with premium and sparkling. They chose to bring a French wine into the mix.
JAMES ATKINSON: I’ve heard Peter say that Ed’s too far ahead now, we’ve got to go abroad if we want to get into sparkling in a hurry.
ED CARR: I don’t know Pete, Pete’s entitled to his own opinion, isn’t he? But we have done a lot of work and we’ve still got more to go. We’ve released a museum blanc to blancs, with 15 years on lees. We will be releasing another one soon. If you wanted to leave a legacy as a company, you’d be able to want to look back further. We can go back to ’98 with all Tasmanian wine. We’ve still got magnums of some of our ’98 blends in our museum. You know, it’d be lovely to be able to go back further and the only way we could go relatively back further is to keep moving forward. So that you know, we have more of a sense of heritage. And they’re just, you know, lovely wines to look at as part of a brand evolution. To be able to go back in time, rather than talk about what you’re going to do, talk about what you have done.
JAMES ATKINSON: In 2018 you became the first non-champagne winemaker to win the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Champagne and Sparkling Wine World Championships. I mean, how did that feel, winning that award?
ED CARR: That has been one of the great highlights, I think. We’d been entering that wine competition for quite a few years. We’d done really well with medals and the occasional trophies. But you know, to me that was a real milestone to have that judging panel of, you know – Tom Stevenson, Essi Avellan MW and Dr Tony Jordan – to assess our wines and thought we were really up there. It was great personally; I mean that’s lovely to get that recognition. It’s great for Australian sparkling and it was particularly great for the brand. Arras brand has done a lot over the years and it’s great to get the recognition for the brand. But it’s a lovely warm, fuzzy feeling to you know, to be up there to collect that award. But on behalf of a lot of other people as well. This hasn’t always been a one man band and it’s becoming a bigger band as we move forward, as the volumes get bigger and the whole thing becomes more complex.
JAMES ATKINSON: What’s coming up for Arras, any new products or special vintage releases that we can expect in the pipeline?
ED CARR: A lot of what we’re doing is business as usual. Trying to consolidate where we are and particularly build volume. We started to rebuild volumes in 2013 onwards. And we’re progressively laying down more and more tirage each year. Which to me is critical. You know, the plan is to take this brand to the globe and so we need volume. We’ll have these museum releases occasionally, of particularly blanc to blanc. We really like the way Chardonnay ages out, so that’s always an excitement factor. We’ve moved into magnums. We’ve got the grand vintage and the Late Disgorged vintage in magnum as well. Which is pretty interesting and I can see the magnum volume expanding. We have a Rose version of the Brute Elite in the pipeline, which will be out in a couple of years. Depending on how that style sits, that’s an evolution there. So nothing you know, revolutionary to what we’ve done in the past. It’s just trying to build on the strength of the brands, which is the quality of the house style and particularly that age. And just trying to diversify the range a little bit more.
JAMES ATKINSON: Fantastic, well thanks very much for joining me on the show and best of luck for the future.
ED CARR: Thank you, James, it’s been brilliant. Thanks.