"I've been making sparkling wine for many years, and if I had to make bubbles in just one place, I would make them in New Zealand," says Dr Tony Jordan. This is praise indeed of the country's potential given Jordan's pedigree as one of the world's leading fashioners of fizz and onetime CEO of Domaine Chandon.
I caught up with Jordan when he was in New Zealand last month to launch his latest sparkling wines, a non-vintage and a rosé made as a joint venture with Central Otago's Akarua winery.
"New Zealand has the marginal areas that can make high quality bubbles, such as Waipara, Marlborough and Martinborough," says Jordan. "But the region that's got me newly excited is Central Otago."
Given its requirement for refreshing acidity, the finest sparkling wines tend to hail from some of the chilliest winegrowing spots in the world, such as the style's classic home in France's most northerly wine region of Champagne. With its slightly continental climate, Jordan makes a comparison between Central and Champagne, which gives Otago bubbly base an acidity different from that in other New Zealand regions. This makes them appropriate for the application of certain techniques for extra complexity.
Jordan is no stranger to New Zealand wine and has already been behind some of our greatest fizz. He started consulting for Hunters in the late 80s and helped develop Pelorus as CEO of Cloudy Bay.
Given the potential that the country has for top quality sparkling wine, which is already being realised in examples made by the likes of Cloudy Bay, Quartz Reef, No 1 Family Estate, Nautilus, Hunters and now Akarua, it might seem surprising that relatively few wineries have made it a serious focus. That's until you look at the working capital involved.
"If you want to do bubbly seriously it's a long-term commitment, and very few wineries have the finances and resources to do it," explains Matt Connell, winemaker at Akarua, who's excited about his winery's new project which he says is being given "150 per cent effort" to make something really special.
The bottling lines required for the complex process of making the classic Methode Traditionnelle style are thin on the ground in New Zealand and expensive if wineries want to invest in their own. Then there are the years that quality sparkling wine needs to spend on its yeast lees to gain complexity before it can be sold - in complete contrast to sauvignon blanc which is harvested in April and in the shops by September.
Jordan consults on sparkling wine across the world, from a new project in the bubbly terra incognita of India to his homeland of Australia. So, apart from Champagne and here in New Zealand, where else does he consider could bring forth beauteous bubbles?
Look past the sea of cheap fizz that hits our shores from Australia, and Jordan is ebullient about examples from Alpine Victoria, Southern New South Wales and Tasmania. He also rates some of the sparkling wines coming out of high-country Argentina.
Jordan is even providing his expertise in Britain which, after struggling with its still wine production, has found success with its sparklings, which has prompted champagne houses starting to invest in vineyards there. "It's colder than Champagne, so you get higher acid. It's on the edge," says Jordan. "But, from being sceptical a few years ago, I think English sparkling wine is really going to be something."
I couldn't resist quizzing him on his thoughts on sparkling sauvignon blanc, a style that's been a runaway success on our shores, but which has caused some purists to shudder. "I've only tasted a few, but in the best, the bubbles added a degree of refreshment," he says. "I didn't see the complexity or structure you get when you make sparkling wine with chardonnay. It's more akin to moscato which is big in Australia."
Simple sparklers have their place, but it was encouraging to see Jordan back on our soil and behind another serious and very promising bubbly venture, which I hope will inspire other wineries to exploit further our country's considerable sparkling potential.
BEAUTIFUL BUBBLES ...
As well as the new Akarua sparkling wines recommended in the February 8 issue of Viva (available through Glengarry), here are some stellar sparklers to suit all budgets.
GREAT VALUE FROM FRANCE
Bouvet Saumur Brut NV $19.99-$25 (750ml), $49 (1500ml)
Crisp green apple, lemon and almond notes combine in this fresh, dry and classy Loire sparkler that I recently road-tested at a wedding, where it went down a storm. Also available in a magnum, that's great for larger gatherings. (From Wine Direct, Blackmarket.co.nz.)
Man O' War Tulia Waiheke Island 2009 $49.99-$52
Waiheke Island is not known for its sparkling wines, but this impressive debut release from Man O' War proves that there's potential even in its warmer climes. This is complex sparkling wine made in a weightier style, in which tropical-edged stonefruit and rich toasty and hazelnut notes are cut with a powerful line of mouth-watering limey acid. (From Caro's.)
Champagne Mumm Cordon Rouge NV $91.99
There's still nothing quite like bubbly from Champagne, the home of some of the world's finest fizz. Recent years have seem Mumm reinvent itself, with its wines scaling new heights, as illustrated by this elegant non-vintage champagne with its notes of crisp apple, subtle yeasty undertone and fresh core of citrus and mineral. (Widely available from leading liquor retailers.)